Mule Mat­ters

Do you know what to look for in a mule?

Modern Pioneer - - Contents - By Clay Newcomb

I’ve of­fi­cially put both feet in the stir­rups of the equine world. In the last year, I’ve pur­chased two mules. Both an­i­mals are very dif­fer­ent and at dif­fer­ent lev­els of train­ing. The first is what is known as green broke, and the other is to­tally un­started.

I weeded through many op­tions dur­ing the buy­ing process. I had some prior ex­pe­ri­ence rid­ing horses, but I’ve never owned an equine, much less a mule. I didn’t know what to look for in a good mule, and I didn’t even know what made a mule “good” in the first place. There are no de­fin­i­tive mule-buy­ing guides. This is knowl­edge that’s been re­placed with in­for­ma­tion about buy­ing used cars from Craigslist and lap­tops from Ama­zon. The learn­ing curve is steep when buy­ing a mule. It can be a ma­jor headache if you buy an an­i­mal that isn’t right for you. How­ever, I nav­i­gated the process, and I’m now reap­ing the con­se­quences of my ac­qui­si­tions—good and bad.

What Makes a Mule

The main idea to con­sider is why you would want a mule rather than a horse. A mule is a hy­brid cross be­tween a fe­male horse and a male don­key. They are ster­ile, mean­ing a mule can’t pro­duce off­spring. The term “het­ero­sis,” or “hy­brid vigor,” de­scribes ex­actly what hap­pens in the mak­ing of a mule. In a mule, you get the best traits of two very dif­fer­ent an­i­mals: horse and don­key.

Charles Dar­win summed up the ben­e­fits of a mule best, “The mule al­ways ap­pears to me a most sur­pris­ing an­i­mal. That a hy­brid should pos­sess more rea­son, mem­ory, ob­sti­nacy, so­cial af­fec­tion, pow­ers of mus­cu­lar en­durance, and length of life, than ei­ther of its par­ents, seems to in­di­cate that art has here out­done na­ture.”

Ba­sic Mule Ter­mi­nol­ogy

You’ll need to know ba­sic ter­mi­nol­ogy when buy­ing a mule. First, a fe­male mule is called a “molly,” and a male mule is called a “john.” Even though a john mule can’t suc­cess­fully breed, he still has the de­sire to do so. Most

“A mule is a hy­brid cross be­tween a fe­male horse and a male don­key.”

john mules are gelded (cas­trated). Molly mules are usu­ally slightly smaller and typ­i­cally more af­fec­tion­ate and per­son­able. John mules are usu­ally big­ger and stronger.

Peo­ple of­ten use a mule’s color as a de­scrip­tor be­fore the an­i­mal’s sex. For ex­am­ple, you might hear some­one say, “I have a dun molly mule for sale.” “Dun” de­scribes its tan­nish/brown col­oration with a don­key-like stripe on the shoul­der. Much like horses, mule color va­ri­eties can be di­verse. Mule colors are sor­rel (red), bay (red­dish or brown), black, gray, white and dun (light brown or tan). There are also mules with mul­ti­ple color vari­a­tions, es­pe­cially if the mare was a paint, Ap­paloosa or pinto.

Train­ing ter­mi­nol­ogy is best un­der­stood be­fore buy­ing a mule. An “un­started mule” is just that, it hasn’t been trained at all. A “hal­ter broke” mule has had a hal­ter on it and will lead. Some mules have been hal­ter broke and can be sad­dled but have never been rid­den. A “green-broke” mule has been hal­ter broke, had a sad­dle on it, and had a rider on it. It’s in the be­gin­ning stages of be­ing safe to ride. A mule that can be safely rid­den is of­ten de­scribed as “sad­dle broke.”

You’ll want to get an idea of how much the an­i­mal has been rid­den. Has it been on trail

rides? Has it ever car­ried a pack? Is it skit­tish around cer­tain things? You’ll also have to de­cide if you can trust the seller. Any good sales­man knows that some­times the truth doesn’t sell, but you’ve got to find a way to nav­i­gate through the fluff to get ac­cu­rate in­for­ma­tion. I sug­gest not buy­ing an an­i­mal, no mat­ter how good it looks, if you don’t have a good feel­ing about the seller. I like to buy from peo­ple who aren’t afraid to tell me the an­i­mal’s faults, be­cause ev­ery an­i­mal has them. Ask the seller out­right, “What are the an­i­mal’s faults?” If they say it doesn’t have any, then I’d be sus­pi­cious.

The height of equine an­i­mals is de­scribed in “hands,” where 1 hand equals 4 inches. Some­times “hand(s)” is ab­bre­vi­ated as “hh” for “hand high.” Most mules are be­tween 13 and 15 hands tall. A 13-hand mule is a smaller an­i­mal, and one over 15 is tall. My mule is roughly 13.5 hands. I don’t like a tall mule be­cause I’m typ­i­cally rid­ing in tim­ber and don’t want to duck limbs con­stantly. It’s also eas­ier to get on and off a shorter mule.

“Molly mules are usu­ally slightly smaller and typ­i­cally more af­fec­tion­ate and per­son­able.”

What to Look For

I’ve learned that you can’t al­ways take the owner’s word at face value when buy­ing a mule, be­cause ev­ery owner has dif­fer­ent stan­dards. Some peo­ple aren’t great com­mu­ni­ca­tors. Some own­ers don’t know their mules as well as they think they do, and

“Mules are ex­tremely in­tel­li­gent and known for their abil­ity to pre­serve their own safety.”

un­for­tu­nately, some peo­ple are dis­hon­est. For each mule that I bought, I ini­tially asked the seller why they were sell­ing the an­i­mal. Were they try­ing to get rid of a “prob­lem mule”? Peo­ple of­ten de­velop a bad habit in an an­i­mal and then want to get rid of it, so it’s a pos­si­bil­ity to con­sider.

The mule’s dis­po­si­tion is the most crit­i­cal com­po­nent to dis­cern. Is the mule easy to catch, or does it run away when it knows you want to catch it? Does it let you touch it, or is it afraid of you? How does the an­i­mal re­act when you put a hal­ter on it? Does it pull its head away or put up a fight? Mules are typ­i­cally skit­tish around strangers, but you can get a gen­eral idea of how spooky it is by watch­ing the owner in­ter­act with the an­i­mal. When buy­ing a broke or green-broke mule, ask the seller not to sad­dle the an­i­mal un­til you ar­rive. That way, you can watch the an­i­mal as it’s sad­dled. Is it spooky, or does it stand still? Look for nu­ances in the way the seller acts around the an­i­mal. You’ll learn some­thing.

What about looks? A mule’s beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Look at pic­tures on­line of mules to un­der­stand what a good one looks like. Tall ears; mus­cu­lar build; good, tight feet; beau­ti­ful col­oration and a hand­some face are no­table at­tributes. You’ll pay more for a flashy mule.

What about age? Mules reach phys­i­cal ma­tu­rity af­ter they’re 5 or 6 years old. Typ­i­cally, a sea­soned mule is over 10 years old. It’s not un­com­mon to see 15- to 20-year-old mules for sale. If the price is right, that’s not nec­es­sar­ily a bad pur­chase; how­ever, that’s also a lot of years to po­ten­tially de­velop bad habits. When you buy an older mule, be sure you get the full story. You might even talk with the seller about buy­ing it af­ter a trial pe­riod.

Get a Good One

Mules are amaz­ing an­i­mals that are very dif­fer­ent from horses and don­keys. Hu­mans have used them for thou­sands of years. If you train one cor­rectly, or buy a good one, you won’t re­gret it; you’ll have safe back­coun­try trans­porta­tion for decades.

The author’s son, Bear, stands next to his 4-yearold mule, El­lie. Mules make great back­coun­try trans­porta­tion when they’re fully trained.

Author Clay Newcomb holds the lead of his un­started mule, Izzy, pur­chased early in 2016. A sor­rell molly paint mule, she’s only 18 months old. Mules can live more than 50 years.

(above) A good mule will stand still while you mount. (op­po­site) Hy­brid vigor makes the mule a unique an­i­mal. They are stronger, live longer and are more sure­footed in rugged ter­rain than a horse.

(above) Tall ears are of­ten the eas­i­est way to dis­tin­guish a mule from a horse. (be­low) If you’ve got safe and proven an­i­mals, mules are great way to get chil­dren in­volved in outdoor ac­tiv­i­ties. How­ever, most mules won’t be kid-friendly un­til they are more than 10 years old.

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