Do you know what to look for in a mule?
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.