Give Me a Mule!

I’ve long been an admirer of mules.  What they lack in glamour they make up in strength, endurance, brains and personality.  Maybe that’s why I like using them in my stories and often do.

A mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey (the offspring of a stallion and a female donkey is called a hinny, but we won’t go there today).  And yes, it’s true that mules can’t reproduce – something to do with having an uneven number of chromosomes.  You can only get a baby mule by crossbreeding the two different parents. 

A quality mule combines the size, strength and speed of a horse with a donkey’s patience, sure-footedness, endurance and survival skills.  In the old West, if you needed a heavy load hauled long distance over murderous terrain, you wouldn’t want horses.  You’d want mules, and you’d have to pay top dollar for them.  (Anybody remember the old Frankie Laine song about “Mule Train”?  If you do you’ll probably want to kill me for putting it back in your head.)

My main source for this post was a wonderful old children’s book, ALBUM OF HORSES by Marguerite Henry.  Here are some fun facts I learned about mules.

Mules are known for their stubbornness.  But muleteers call this quality wisdom.  If a mule’s load is too heavy, he’ll wait for you to lighten it.  If he’s put in enough hours he stages a strike.  If the water in a creek’s unfit to drink he won’t touch a drop.  If the weather’s hot he slows his pace.  If his pasture is hilly, he eats uphill so he won’t have to bend.  Unlike a horse, a mule never overeats or drinks icy water when he’s too hot.  If he doesn’t like the way things are going he simply takes a nap and refuses to budge.

Here’s something I didn’t know, and I’ll bet you didn’t either.  The person responsible for making the mule popular in America was none other than George Washington.  After the Revolution he put his mind to scientific farming.  He was especially interested in a breed of huge Catalonian donkeys in Spain.  Hearing of his interest, the king of Spain sent him two superb jacks (male donkeys) as a gift.  One died on the ship, but the other (Washington named him Royal Gift) survived to breed with many mares and sire a vast family of strapping mules.  Even today (this according to my father) the finest mules are bred by crossing these big Spanish jacks with Percheron mares.

Do you have any personal experience with mules?  Know any good mule stories?  Have a favorite movie mule?  I’d love to hear from you.

P.S.  Maybe I need to write a book called THE MULESKINNER’S BRIDE. 🙂

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38 thoughts on “Give Me a Mule!”

  1. Hi Elizabeth, I’m voting for a Muleskinner title. I just love these critters, and donkeys, too. Like you say, they’re accused of being stubborn but truth is…they won’t do stupid things.

    I have “adopted” three donkeys at the Safe Haven for Donkeys in The Holy Land, which rescues donkeys, horses, and mules in Israel.

    A mule with a Percheron mom would be a spectacular sight to see. Percherons drove our wagon train trip around the Tetons and they are totally magnificent.

    And um, gorgeous cover there. oxox

  2. I’m from Missouri and I love mules. The ones in your photos are beautiful! I sure hope you write that book!
    Mules have become popular around here again due to mule jumping. It started with hunting, because mules could keep up with the dogs, wade creeks, jump fences and obstacles, etc. Now there are mule jumping competitions. The mules jump from a standstill, amd some can jump as high as six feet. They are truly amazing animals.

  3. Hi Eizabeth! I loved that book by Marguerite Henry. Wonderful pictures and lots of info! You’ve got to love the mules. Stubborn or not, they’re smarter than some people I know!

  4. What a wonderful idea, Tanya, adopting a donkey or mule in another country. If you get back to us, there may be readers out there who’d like to contact them. Do you have the URL?
    They’re such wonderful, patient animals and some of them get such hard use. Love this.

  5. My daughter worked the Wagon Train unit of a Boy Scout High Adventure camp. They used mules at the unit. The older couple who worked the unit and supplied the mules and horses for them also supplied mules, wagons and horses for the filming of SOMMERSBY. We often got into discussions of how reliable they were. Their mules were a Belgian mix. They participated in a Virginia State Centennial Wagon Train. There were several matched teams of mules.
    Columbia, TN considers itself the Mule Capitol of the World. It has celebrated Mule Day since 1840. It is a week long celebration. We have friends who have gone for several years. If you want more info, their site is A well matched team of mules really looks good and can do an incredible amount of work.

  6. Wow, Judy, I had no idea mules could jump. They are so strong, it makes sense. And I didn’t know they were used for hunting with hounds. I’ve heard the expression “stubborn as a Missouri mule.” Thanks for letting us know where it comes from.

  7. FWIW, I don’t know anything about the second photo of the beautiful matched team, but I lifted the top photo off a site called “Mules for Sale.” Her name is Dolly and by the time I’d read the description she’d stolen my heart. If I had a pasture and $3,500 she’d be mine.

  8. I was hoping someone else would know and love that book, Vicki. My copy, printed in 1951, is old and battered and the spine is held together with duct tape. Practically memorized it as a kid and it’s still a great source.

  9. Thanks for all the great mule info Patricia. I would love to see a Belgian cross mule, they’d be massive animals. The book I mentioned by Marguerite Henry has a description of the Mule Day celebration. Great to know it’s still going on.

  10. I have only known one mule in my life. My neighbor had a mule. I can’t remember why he thought that was a good idea. It almost seems like someone gave it to him.
    He had a lot of horses.
    I really can’t go anywhere charming with this. The mule was a load of trouble from the minute they got him and he ended up fighting with my neighbor’s really expensive stallion and killing him.

    My neighbor was NOT happy. The mule did NOT get to stay.
    The end.

  11. Which brings up a slightly delicate question. Maybe somebody out there knows the answer. There are male and female mules, and as I understand it, they don’t reproduce because they don’t make viable egg and sperm cells.
    My question is this. Do male mules need to be gelded to make them more docile? Maybe the one in Mary’s experience wasn’t. Info anybody?

  12. Just googled to find an answer to above question. Here it is:
    “Male mules should also be castrated, since they are sterile. They can become dangerous with too many hormones, so should always be castrated. You can’t show an intact male mule, anyway, and it is useless to keep them a stallion).”

    I’m betting your neighbor’s mule was a stallion, Mary.

  13. If you are in California over Memorial Day Weekend, we have our own Mule Days in Bishop, CA. Coming from a long line of Mule Packers our theme song is Dolly Parton’s version of Mule Skinner. My son has around 80 mules that he packs and another son only rides a mule. They pack into the Sierra Nevada of Calif. and require sure-footed animals. However the mule is a whole lot smarter than a horse. My heart sings when I see a string of red mules with blue pack covers coming down the trail. I guess you can castratee a male mule, but in 50+ years of the packing business, I never recall us doing this. They are Hybrid. Some mules are just mean, but in a string of 5, you put those up first in line and it takes a lot of that out of them. I just totally love mules. And we have a million stories.

  14. Loved your post, Mary J. I can just see those red mules with blue packs coming down the trail. You must have some amazing stories.
    Interesting that you’ve never castrated your mules, especially in view of what I read earlier. Hmmmm…
    Thanks for the great info.

  15. Elizabeth, I know mules or oxen pulled the covered wagons to California so they must be really hardy. I’m not familiar with mules but we did have a donkey once. That thing was ornery. And smart. He’d stand and let us brush one side of him and then turn so we could do the other side. He was a mess. Kept the weeds down in the pasture though.

    Interesting post. And as usual, I learned something.

  16. I remembered a Nebraska mule giving birth and googled that.

    There were very unexpected – and still unexplained – findings when a molly mule gave birth to two foals in Nebraska in the mid-1980s. The event prompted notice from the local pulpit and a flurry of scientific investigation, including the first genetic testing of a mule’s offspring.

    Ryder said that tests in the Nebraska case showed there was no evidence the mother passed along any genetic markers from her father – a donkey that was also the father of the foals. The phenomenon is called “hemiclonal transmission,” which in simple terms means that the mare’s genes canceled out the male’s genes as if they didn’t even exist.

    That phenomenon has been observed in amphibians but not in mammals.

    “No recombinations took place. There was no reassortment. We looked at markers on every chromosome,” Ryder said. “This was an extremely unexpected finding.”

    Another famous but scientifically undocumented case occurred at Texas A&M in the 1920s. A mule gave birth to a mule when the sire was a donkey and then to a horse when the sire was a stallion.

  17. Love your donkey story, Linda. From what I remember reading, when it came to the great wagon treks, oxen were far cheaper and could pull heavier loads, but they were slow. Mules were faster and hardier, but more expensive, which is why so many pioneers used oxen.

  18. Fascinating stuff, Mary. I’m learning a lot today, too. Love your “cum mula preperit”. Gonna remember that one.

    From what I understand, no male mule has ever sired offspring. If you’ve found evidence to the contrary, let us know.

  19. We have Mule Days in Benson, NC not too far from us. I just checked out the events and they have several for miniature mules! Never knew there was such a thing. The festival has roots in Benson’s history as a mule-trading center since the town was chartered in 1887.

    I just saw a few mules while I was in Maui in the Upcountry. Just had to add that for braggin’ rights.

    Peace, Julie

  20. I never knew very much about mules but I loved the movie, Two Mules for Sister Sara with Shirley McClaine and Clint Eastwood.

  21. Thanks for stopping by, Estella. Bet you could tell some interesting horse stories.

    And miniature mules? I’ve never heard of them either, Julie, but I bet they’re really cute.
    Maui, huh? Turning slowly green here.

  22. awww, now i want a mule…and to save some donkey’s from the holy land
    they are so cute!! thanks for sharing that website!

    i loved your post
    i don’t have any mule experience…but maybe i should get some

    where do burros fall in all this?
    i know the blm adopts out mustangs and burros…are they related?

  23. As I understand it, Tabitha (and somebody please correct me if I’m wrong), burro is the Spanish word for donkey. So the wild burros are wild donkeys.
    It makes sense that you could get a small mule by breeding, but it would have to be a pony mare and a burro stud (otherwise it would be a mini hinny, what fun!). Don’t know for sure but maybe that’s how they got those mini mules.

  24. hi Elizabeth, I’m late, but wanted to tell you I loved the post. Every time I think of mules I think of that Clint Eastwood spaghetti western where the outlaws scare his mule and he grabs a pole or something to get off of it, then he says, “It ain’t nice…you laughin’ at my mule. Now if you was to apologize, like I know you’re going to…” LOL That’s one of the greatest scenes in westerns, I think. Loved the post!
    Cheryl P.

  25. Hello Elizabeth, the mules are sweet. I live in countryside and near my house there is a farm that has twelve mules including three puppies. I see them there and I brought often my grandchildren.

  26. Hi, Veronica,
    So nice to hear from you! Right now I wish I was with you in the beautiful Italian countryside, looking the mules with your grandchildren. It sounds lovely. Hugs.

  27. Hi Elizabeth would be a dream to have you here with me. I have so much to ask of you:).
    The countryside at this time of year is very beautiful. There the grape harvest, and the fields are teeming with men in harvest intentions. From my house you can hear the laughter and songs of workers and this creates an old atmosphere.
    Hugs from Italy

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