A mule is one of those animals that you might not consider at first for your farm. They don’t produce eggs, and nobody seems to be clamoring for mule meat. However, mules have many uses around a farm, and their temperament and personality even make them charming pets and hobby animals.
In fact, founding father George Washington famously loved mules. Many farmers who have experience with mules feel the same.
A mule is a cross between a male donkey, known as a jack, and a female horse, or mare. Crossing the other way — with a stallion and a female donkey, or jenny — results in a hinney as opposed to a mule.
“The offspring take on more characteristics of their sire, so a mule will have longer ears and a more angular build,” said Jacki Perkins, organic dairy and livestock specialist at the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “Hinnies are also reputed to be more compliant, but lacking in endurance due to their muscle structure.”
Colt Knight, state livestock specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that you don’t see hinnies as often as you do mules because donkeys are much smaller than horses and it is easier for a jack to mount a mare than the other way around.
Regardless, mules and hinnies are generally sterile because of the mix of the two species.
“Donkeys and horses don’t have the same number of chromosomes, so when they breed, the sex chromosomes don’t line up,” Knight said. “You can find some instances [where] there is a fertile mule hanging around, but 99.9 percent of the time, they’re infertile.”
However, because of the crossbreeding, mules exhibit what is known as “hybrid vigor.”
“They seem to be hardier than horses, [which is] that hybrid vigor kicking in,” said Donna Coffin, extension professor at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension. “People that have them love them.”
What can mules do
Mules can be used much in the same way that horses can around the farm when it comes to daily farm chores, including for draft, packing and riding.
However, Knight noted that the ride on a mule is not that comfortable because they have a “much rougher gait.” He also said that most farmers aren’t going to use mules as draft animals in modern times because of the mechanized options for pulling heavy loads around the farm, but they are still used in some industries or instances where it is difficult to get heavy machinery.
“They’re still used in the United States and worldwide in areas where people don’t want heavy equipment to tear up their lawns or property or it’s too muddy,” Knight said.
The best use for mules in modern times, Knight said, is as a guard animal. When compared to other potential guard animals like llamas or dogs, mules generally have a better temperament.
“The big advantage of the mule is that they’re more personable than a llama,” Knight said. “You don’t have to shear a mule like you would an alpaca or a llama. In my opinion, they’re a much hardier animal. A well-trained dog is an excellent guard animal as well, [but] a dog has trouble fending off animals like bears and mountain lions.”
A mule can be vicious to unwanted predators.
“They can not only stomp them into the ground, but you’ll see them grab them with their teeth,” Knight said. “They are very effective guard animals, as long as the mule is trained to be a guard animal.”
However, mules come with their challenges as well. Their brays can be loud and irritating to neighbors, and that same instinct that drives them to kill coyotes can also cause conflict between them and, say, a family dog.
“Mules don’t like dogs,” Knight said. “That natural instinct is really good especially if you have sheep or something [because] sometimes the worst predator is the domestic dog.”
Despite their defensive instincts, Knight said that mules are so agreeable that some people will even keep mules as pets.
“Some people keep mules as hobbies,” Knight said. “They like hitching them up to a wagon or hitching up old plow equipment. As far as pets, mules have way more personality than horses.”
Care of mules
The advantage to mules are that they cost less to feed because they are smaller than horses, and the hoof care is cheaper because they do not need shoes.
“Most people don’t even have to trim mules’ feet,” Knight said. “It depends what kind of ground they’re on, but if it’s rocky enough ground [to naturally wear down mules’ hooves], they take care of their own feet.”
Mules do require specialized equipment, though.
“Mules are the same shape as horses, and saddles and collars do not fit the same,” Perkins said. “There are online outfitters that specialize in mule equipment.”
Other than that, Perkins said that care for mules is essentially the same as what you would expect for a farm horse.
“They don’t necessarily need grain, but should be provided minerals,” Perkins said. “Feed them small amounts, often. Make sure all feed sources are free of contaminants and mold. Fermented feeds are a poor choice. Don’t neglect their feet or teeth.”
Because of their temperament, though, mules require slightly different training than horses.
“Mules have a much stronger sense of self preservation than a horse does,” Knight said. “If a mule senses danger or thinks something wrong, it simply won’t go. When you train mules, you have to make the mule think it was his idea, whereas with horses, you tell them what your idea is. You have to use mule psychology.”
Getting a mule
If you think mules might be right for you and your farm, Perkins said to first consider what role they will play on your farm, as well as how much time you have to dedicate to your mule.
“Do you want a livestock guardian, or are you looking to have draught [or draft] animals?” Perkins said. “If a farmer is hoping to use mules for draught work, buy them as a pair. They are creatures of habit.”
Perkins said that there are various online groups dedicated to donkeys and mules. Coffin added that when buying any animal, if you are not familiar with the species, getting a veterinarian to do a health exam prior to purchase is a good idea.
You also want to make sure you are purchasing a mule from a reputable breeder or source them from a responsible previous owner.
“You want to go examine the stock [and] see what the parents look like,” Knight said. “Does the person selling the mule really know what they’re doing, or did they just decide to breed a donkey and a horse? Mules aren’t very common in today’s world, so when you do see real mule breeder, they’re usually pretty good.”
For the most part, though, mules are charming livestock with winning personalities that would make a great addition for any farm or homestead looking for a guardian, or even just a friendly, long face around the farm.