As mules become increasingly popular, people like myself are beginning to wonder if there might not be some advantages to owning and riding mules instead of horses.
What are the pros and cons of owning a mule? Mules have the best qualities of both the horse and the donkey combined. They’re larger than the donkey, making them more suited to riding. They’re hardier than a horse and less demanding to keep. On the other hand, they may be harder to train than horses and aren’t always welcome at equestrian events.
An objective analysis of the pros and cons of owning a mule over owning a horse must assess the costs and requirements of both animals. In this article, we’ll also look at the mule’s abilities, health, and training requirements.
The Pros and Cons Of Owning Mules Instead of Horses
Mules have several advantages over horses, primarily due to their so-called “hybrid vigor.” Many of these benefits also come with their own set of challenges. Here, we’re going to look at the pros and cons of caring for, feeding, accommodating, training, and riding mules compared to horses.
Feed Advantages and Disadvantages of Mules
When it comes to nutrition, mules are more like donkeys than horses. A mule requires less feed than a horse of the same size while performing the same level of work.
While horses are primarily grazers, donkeys have evolved as mixed-feeders, consuming highly fibrous shrubs and plants, as well as grass. As a result, both the donkey and the mule have lower nutritional requirements than horses.
Supplementary feeding is unnecessary unless your mule is still growing, working heavily, pregnant, or lactating. Senior mules may also need a little extra nutrition, such as a specially formulated horse feed.
Mules consume less forage than horses, although very little research has been done into their exact grazing requirements. Instead, we have to rely on the data from studies done on donkeys.
Donkeys voluntarily consume only 1.5% of their body weight in forage. Horses, on the other hand, consume 3.1% of theirs.
Given the similarities between the donkey and mule’s nutrition needs, it stands to reason that the mule will consume less forage than a horse, making it cheaper to keep.
A mule will also thrive on lower-quality pasture grasses than a horse, again reducing the owner’s costs.
- Thrive on less forage and food than horses
- Cheaper to feed
- Still works as hard as a horse
- Lower nutritional needs than a horse
Cons and Dangers of Feeding Mules Like a Horse
Although less likely to overeat than horses, both mules and donkeys are prone to obesity. As the mule’s nutritional requirements are lower than a horse’s, it’s easier for them to consume too much rich spring grass.
Obesity in mules comes with many of the problems that overweight horses face, including laminitis, Equine Metabolic Syndrome, and pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction (PPID).
A grazing muzzle may be required to restrict your mule’s access to pasture and prevent the occurrence of obesity-related disorders.
Mules have simple diets but are less tolerant of high protein and high energy feeds than horses. Too much alfalfa or grain can make them hard to catch and skittish under saddle.
If your mule is working hard enough to require supplementary feeding, look for a feed that’s low in sugar and starch. Even mules that are exercising every day rarely eat more than 3lb of grain and, unlike horses, will leave whatever they don’t need.
You can also add a vitamin/mineral supplement to ensure he’s getting all the nutrients he needs without becoming too excitable.
- Prone to obesity (especially if owners are used to feeding horses)
- Less tolerant of high energy and protein hays
Space and Infrastructure Advantages of Mules
Mules have very similar space requirements to horses, and a one-acre paddock is sufficient for either. You can also go a little smaller if you follow this advice. Although mules are hardy, they’ll benefit from having an indoor shelter just as much as horses do.
Like donkeys, mules originated in hot desert-like environments and need shelter in cold or wet weather.
Many mules, taking after their donkey parents, also lack the protective undercoat that horses develop in winter. Although they grow long, coarse coats for winter, these aren’t as effective at keeping out the cold.
But, in terms of space, the mule has no real pros or cons when compared to the horse. They are smart, however.
Michelle Mazurkiewicz of Wine Valley Adventures in Cape Town has owned horses and mules for over 15 years. She has a yard of 180 horses and mules and sometimes struggles to keep the mules where she wants them.
A few years ago, Michelle took on all the horses and mules that were no longer needed for logging in the Knysna Forest. A passionate believer in using traditional agricultural practices, she hoped to find the mules new jobs on organic farms in the Western Cape. Sadly, her enthusiasm wasn’t matched by those investing in that sector.
Chatting to her on the phone the other day, she told me, “One of my mules has learned to jump fences, but they are scared of electric fencing so, that’s a good way to keep them contained.”
- Mules can be held in the same space and housing as horses
- Mules tend to escape more frequently than horses (May require better fencing)
Health Benefits of Mules
Mules are generally considered to be healthier than horses. They can tolerate heat better than horses and appear to have more stamina than many horse breeds.
Over long distances, mules have proved to cope better with emotional and physical stress than horses, maintaining lower heart rates and recovering more quickly.
Mules practice a level of self-preservation that horse owners can only dream of.
According to the secretary of the American Donkey and Mule Society, Betsy Hutchins, mules assess the situation before acting. Horses, on the other hand, tend to just react – or overreact if they’re Thoroughbreds!
Lameness is rarely a concern for mule owners. Not only do mules have strong legs, but they also have narrower bodies than horses. These factors make him more agile and surefooted than the horse and, therefore, less accident-prone.
According to Michelle, “Mules are easier to keep, tougher, and don’t have the unsoundness and back issues that horses do.”
Even when exposed to rigorous activities, like racing, mules’ legs remain clean and sound. In his research paper, Robert Miller, DVM, notes that after a day of racing and showing events, amongst the mules that competed, there wasn’t a “bucked shin, or an enlarged” to be seen.
The small upright hooves of the mule are strong and rarely require shoeing, although they do need regular trimming to keep them balanced and healthy.
- Greater endurance than horses
- Handle higher stress than horses
- Fewer back and leg issues
- More agile and surefooted
- Less accident-prone
Health Disadvantages of Mules
Despite their reputation for being generally healthy animals, a study conducted by Amy McLean, an equine specialist at US Davis, showed that mules have fewer white blood cells than horses and lower lymphocyte and monocyte counts.
As these cells fight infection and promote health, this study would suggest that mules might be less resistant to disease than originally thought. Mules are also prone to many of the same diseases as horses. In many respects, they are more like horses than donkeys when it comes to health.
Common problems such as laminitis, encephalomyelitis, West Nile virus, strangles, and Potomac horse fever all affect mules just as regularly as they do horses.
Treating these problems in a mule could be more challenging than it is with a horse, especially if anesthesia is required.
Studies show that donkeys have a greater capacity to metabolize certain drugs. They, therefore, need higher doses at shorter intervals than horses do.
- Mules are harder to put under anesthesia than horses
- Might be less resistant to disease than previously thought
- Fewer white blood cells than horses
Training Advantages of Mules
Most experts seem to agree that mules are less forgiving than horses. You might get away with skipping a step or rushing an exercise with a horse, but a mule will hold you accountable and never forget.
Michelle says working with mules is a test for any horse trainer. “If you can work a mule, you can work any horse,” she says, “But once they know what they’re doing, they’re very reliable.”
While many horses have been successfully trained using a pressure and release approach, this doesn’t work as effectively with the mule. A mule doesn’t want a release from pressure as much as he wants to understand why he’s being asked to perform a specific task.
Building a solid foundation when training a mule is even more important than it is with a horse. The key to your success is proving that you’re a responsible and worthy leader.
Mules have a reputation for being stubborn. This is something of a misnomer, says Betsy. All too often mules are trained carelessly, treated roughly, and generally misunderstood.
However, mules aren’t like horses because they won’t work themselves to death. If a mule feels a particular task will be detrimental to his well-being, he’ll simply refuse to do it. In some cases, he may even fight back.
Training mules is very similar to training horses most of the time. It may require a little more patience, but the fundamentals are the same. Despite that, only someone who has experience training horses should attempt to train an unhandled mule and, even then, be prepared for a few new challenges along the way.
- Mules train more permanently than horses
- But, are less forgiving if you miss training sessions
- Mules require stronger relationship foundation for training
Riding Benefits of Mules
Mules have been used as pack animals for thousands of years. They were also the unsung heroes of many a war, carrying supplies to soldiers on the battlefield.
Often seen as little more than a beast of burden, mules are extremely versatile animals that can compete with horses at the highest levels of competition. They hold their own in endurance rides, excel in dressage, hunt, and work alongside cutting horses.
Mules are also excellent jumpers. In 1989, a mule called Sonny cleared a 1.83m high fence. That’s just 64 cm lower than the horse high-jump record set by Huaso ex-Faithful in 1949!
Intelligent and responsive, mules are great fun to ride. Their strong sense of self-preservation also makes them a lot safer than horses. Michelle says they’re a lot less spooky than horses. She’s even had mules pull a cart over a swinging bridge – something few horses would even contemplate.
They also have such comfortable gaits that some refer to them as “the Cadillac of the equine.”
Over the years, Michelle has trained mules for trail rides and taken them hunting. She also specializes in supplying trained mules, as well horses and donkeys, for the film industry.
Despite their size, she says, they can carry a lot more weight, pound for pound, than a horse. “A 6ft man might feel a bit silly on one, but they’re more than capable of carrying a person of that size,” she says.
- Smoother, more comfortable ride than a horse
- Less spooky or high strung
- Safer riding in uncertain conditions
- Carry more weight than a horse
Riding Disadvantages of Mules
Although passionate about mules, Michelle admits that “they’re slower than a horse at a walk and trot,” and tend to get left behind when out on the trail with a group of horses.
Another problem is that, as Michelle puts it, “There’s nothing in front of you so you need to ride with a crupper or britchin.”
While riding your mule should be easy enough, competing on it may not be. Mules are often refused entry to local horse shows and low-level competitions. Rules governing mules competing at national, and even international events also change frequently.
The U.S. Hunter Jumper Association recently announced that it would allow mules to compete in jumper classes as of 1st December 2021, but the International Federation for Equestrian Sports (FEI) doesn’t seem so certain and appears to be doubting the eligibility of any animal that is not born “from the union of a mare and a horse stallion, and classified as Equus caballus.”
- Mules travel slower than horses (both walking and trotting)
- Maybe barred from local horse shows
Breeding Disadvantages of Mules
Unlike horses or donkeys, mules are 99.9% sterile. This is because they have an odd number of chromosomes. In rare cases, mules can reproduce and the results are a variety of hybrids. Mules inherit 32 chromosomes from their mothers and 31 from their fathers, leaving them with one extra chromosome. This causes problems when creating the cells necessary for reproduction.
Despite that, there have been a few mule mares that have managed to reproduce. In 2018, a miniature mule in Perryville, Kentucky gave birth after being impregnated by a donkey stallion. Her owners were so surprised that they named the foal, Miracle.
Mules are tough and both easier and cheaper to keep than horses. They’re bigger than donkeys so more suited to ridden work. If trained correctly, they can excel at almost any discipline, from jumping to draft work.
Many thanks to Michelle Mazurkiewicz from Wine Valley Adventures for sharing her passion for mules with us.
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