Let’s talk about mules! Every mule I have trained or worked with, I have learned from. My life lessons with mules has been fascinating, sometimes heartbreaking and mostly comical. I use to be so serious and didn’t have the confidence to speak to people. Mules have changed all that!
I have several books that I wrote about mules and now I have a podcast about mules and the ranch lifestyle, called Mule Talk! I am always searching for guests to come onto the show, so if you know of anyone, corral them my way! ~Cindy K. Roberts
You remember Ruth the mule; the big boned, sixteen hand sorrel horse mule that hitched a ride from Oklahoma to live in Missouri. Ruth…big, ugly and friendly. Ruth was a big part of the family at the Missouri mule farm, or so he thought. Yes, Ruth is a male mule, and the gender thing was troubling for Ruth. Having a girl’s name was confusing and at times, Ruth felt left out when he was “home alone” in the big pasture; I could feel his pain. Ruth galloped frantically down the fence line braying, bucking and rearing for attention. I understood how Ruth felt, so I rode Ruth several times under English saddle whenever I visited the mule farm. After climbing on top of a tractor tire, I was in the saddle; Ruth and I hit the trails.
Later, Ruth’s owner had health issues and Ruth was not getting the attention he deserved. Now, Ruth was becoming reckless and ruthless (pardon the pun) by charging into the gate while the other mules were present. It was becoming dangerous for the other riders to halter their own mules at the gate and Ruth was just miserable. Quite simply, Ruth will have to go.
Sadly, Ruth was offered for sale under a different name, Chewy. It was decided that Chewy was a more salable name and since Chewy was so ugly his sale price was lowered, and the sale ad was quite blunt about Chewy being so homely looking. Sadly, Chewy was being treated like the red-headed stepchild, the family was hoping and praying there would be a home for this mule…somewhere.
As fate would have it, a family from Kansas came to look at Chewy. A young fifteen-year-old named Thomas test drove “Chewy” in the large round pen while a thunderstorm approached. This was all new to the big mule because “Chewy” thought he was going for a ride, not a boring lesson. The wind has picked up and fingers were crossed that “Chewy” would pass this job interview. “Chewy” was not a bad mule by any means but sometimes, mule karma can hit hard during the most critical situations. It’s those moments when the planets shift for no reason and then mystifying energy will cause a mule to act up for no apparent reason. I’ve witnessed it many times…I was literally holding my breath. Occasionally I offered my opinion to help build this connection because “Chewy” was desperate and needed someone in his life.
In a matter of minutes, Thomas and “Chewy” were working together and “Chewy” was listening, waiting for the next request. Three lightning strikes later, Thomas dismounted and announced he would be “Chewy’s” new owner…but he was naming his mule, Ruth! It was though the heavens had parted; I knew then this was meant to be! I was almost in tears, then we confessed, that we felt sorry for the mule that was really named Ruth because we didn’t think he would be an easy sell, being that ugly.
Thomas proudly loaded his new mule into the trailer and promised he would keep us updated on Ruth Chewy. We waved goodbye with happy tears in our eyes. I was so happy for Ruth Chewy; it was like a mule dream come true; I always believed there is a mule for every person with a job to do and a person for every mule that is looking for a new beginning. Ruth has a new start in life and went home to Kansas…living the life of Riley as they say. Ruth Chewy watches over his new owner, standing over him as young Thomas does his homework in the barn, sitting next to Ruth. Ruth Chewy looks for Thomas every day and greets him with a bray, they are now inseparable. Thomas has ridden Ruth to his summer job, taken him to mule events and is now teaching him how to hobble, ground tie…well, for Ruth Chewy the sky’s the limit.
One day Ruth along with the entire herd, went through a section of fence that had been pushed out on the north side of the pasture. Ruth is not a troublemaker by any means, and he would have never left his new owner but knowing Ruth, his anxiety issues about being home alone got the best of him that day. I am sure that he didn’t want to be left behind. During this upset, Ruth had injured his fetlock and now Ruth is receiving veterinary care while being confined.
Ruth didn’t understand why he was being kept in a stall; this is the longest “timeout” session he has had in his entire life! Young Thomas took care of Ruth and spent many hours in keeping his mule company. Over several weeks of visits to the vet and the shoer, Ruth is back!
The fences were repaired and now “Ruth shouldn’t get into trouble again,” says his new owner. “We let him back out with the rest of the herd again 2 weeks ago. I hated having him in smaller pens. He does so much better in bigger pastures. He lost so much weight being stalled with his cast. I’ve tried everything to get it back up. Depression hits equine the same as humans. He is now gaining weight because he’s happier. (He was getting weight gain, vitamins, rice bran and 1 full can of grain. 1/2 can of grain in the evening. I tried alfalfa pellets and beet pulp plus a protein tub at any time he wanted and a round bale of prairie hay. He doesn’t like being confined. Tom loves his mule. Even when we don’t ride he’s always going out and talking with him in the pasture. He just lost weight in his top line. He just walked the fences constantly. Full of energy.”
One November afternoon, Ruth’s owner was sitting in the kitchen talking on the phone; she was in front of the sliding glass doors watching the mules eat. Ruth/Chewy is standing up behind a tree sleeping in the sun. When all of a sudden, he looks like he’s trying to do a somersault. Desperately trying to get his feet under him and falling on his face! Ruth fell while sleeping! Goofy mule! No worries, Ruth is fine. Funny though, Ruth was looking around to see if anyone saw him fall. Make a note, mules do not like feeling embarrassed. please
Now, Ruth Chewy is healed up and his young owner trained Ruth to rear up while he was on his back! Ha! Trigger has nothing over this mule! Tom and Ruth are inseparable. Ruth’s new life is very enriched and has moved up the social ladder. Yes, it’s amazing…bring a mule into your life and they insist on being included with all the social affairs. That was when Tom decided that Ruth needed to go caroling with him at Christmas time, in their local town. Hearing this, made me feel warm and fuzzy for Ruth Chewy. They say Ruth was amazingly cordial according to the manual written on mule standards for social graces. Kids running everywhere, cameras flashing, Christmas lights on the equines and houses and some were flashing. Vehicles between ours and the ranger and local traffic. Tom was in heaven riding his own mule to show off to the towns people. Needless to say,…Ruth was beaming too.
So, there is something to be learned here…every mule has a purpose…ugly mules need love too…never leave a family member home alone…and Ruth Chewy lived happily ever after.
The mule being a different animal, should be recognized as individuals and trained accordingly; those 63 chromosomes produce a unique and hardy animal that has an emotional side to him as well as a calculating mind that enables him to think things through when approached with a new task from his handler. If you take into consideration the physiological components in a mule, and understand their meaning and what they provide, then working with your mule will now be rewarding and far more productive. The physiological components of the mule are listed below.
Vision – The mule’s eyes are among the largest of any land mammal and are positioned on the sides of the head. The range of vision is 350°, with approximately 65° of this being binocular vision and the remaining 285°is monocular vision. This enables him to spot predators or potential predators. The mule’s wide range of monocular vision has two “blind spots,” or areas where the animal cannot see: in front of the face, making a cone that comes to a point at about 3–4 ft in front of the mule, and right behind its head, which extends over the back and behind the tail when standing with the head facing straight forward.
The placement of the mule’s eyes decreases the possible range of binocular vision to around 65° on a horizontal plane, occurring in a triangular shape primarily in front of the mule’s face. Therefore, the mule has a smaller field of depth perception than a human. The mule uses its binocular vision by looking straight at an object, raising its head when it looks at a distant predator or focuses on an obstacle to leap over. To use binocular vision on a closer object near the ground, such as a snake or threat to its feet, the mule drops its nose and looks downward with its neck somewhat arched.
Hearing – Mules hear sounds over a wider range of frequencies than we do, although the decibel levels they respond to are about the same. Humans with good hearing perceive sound in the frequency range of 20 Hertz to as high as 20,000 Hertz, while the range of frequencies for mules is reported as 55 to 33,500 Hertz with their best sensitivity between 1,000 and 16,000 Hertz. The mule’s ears are shaped to locate, funnel and amplify sounds. Mules have the ability to rotate each ear independently as much as 180 degrees to pay attention to a sound without turning the head. The ears are also used to express and communicate.
Smell – The mule has an acute sense of smell that they regularly employ to provide them with information on what is going on around them. Mules use their sense of smell in many different and important ways. Mother Nature equipped the mule with a strong olfactory sense that can tell the animal whether a predator is near. All it takes is a strong upwind breeze to bring a dangerous scent to the attention of a wild herd of donkeys, mules and horses. After getting a whiff of the predator, the herd literally high-tails it (their tails stick way up in the air as they flee) out of there in a flash. Although domestic equines are kept in an environment where they are protected from predators, the instinctive behavior of being highly aware of his surroundings is self-ingrained. The mule has developed a high sense of self-preservation and will not approach danger.
Skin – The skin of a mule is less sensitive than that of a horse and more resistant to sun and rain. This makes mules a dependable option for owners who work outside in harsh weather and strong sunlight. Mules are slightly less sensitive to the elements because Mother Nature intended him to be hardy. But remember a mule uses their skin, lips, hair, nose, and their muzzle to their physiological advantage. Their sense of touch is their most acute sense. The mule can sense a fly anywhere it lands on them, and twitch that specific muscle to get the fly off.
The skin also provides a protective barrier, regulating temperature, and provides a sense of touch. Mules from draft horse mares and mammoth jackstock breeding will have a different thickness of skin; their skin will be thicker. Mules from Thoroughbred mares tend to have skin sensitivity issues due to their skin being thinner.
How sensitive a mule is, depends on the age, the training and the breeding. A mule that is overly sensitive to touch will usually stay that way during his lifetime; it is simply physiological and nothing more. Older mules tend to be less sensitive to touch and appear to be more settled. In addition to being responsive to pressure and pain, mules can also sense vibration, heat and cold. Mules are capable in bracing the muscles in their body to protect himself from intense pain (from abuse or a heavy handler) such as a whip or spur.
Researchers from Northwest A&F University in Yangling, China, are doing research about the molecular mechanisms at work in mules that provide this superior muscular endurance. Their genetic testing of samples from crosses between donkeys and horses mapped a total of 68 genes in the “muscle contraction” pathway, eight of which were found to be significantly enriched in mules. In the hybrid individuals and their parents, one of these enriched genes, TNNC2, was mainly expressed in the fast-skeletal (facial) muscle. Its expression level was found to be two times higher in the mule than in the horse. So, if you think that mule is making faces at you, he probably is.
Taste – mules prefer sweet and salty tastes, so they will usually meet their requirement of salt if it is provided in a block form. You can “doctor” a mule’s grain with molasses or honey to eat crushed medicine, however 90% of the time, the mule is onto you. They use their keen sense of smell to aid them in identifying what is in his bucket. Mules being individuals will be up front with you whether they like or dislike what is on the menu. Some mules refuse treats all together; others may develop a strong desire for apples, corn or carrots.
The mule I am working with now, insisted we have a trusting relationship before she would accept anything from me in the form of treats or grain. I could halter her, start working with her, but her heart just wasn’t in it. She needed to know that she could trust me; in other words, her give a damn was busted. That’s just who she is. Due to her history, I can understand that; and I don’t blame her for this quirk. Today, we make great riding partners and…she loves margaritas.
In this report, I am happy to conclude that mules are not autistic horses.
This concludes my report; I can confirm that mules are not autistic mules.
Teeth floating is necessary for mules. The process is to “file” down points that develop over time in the mule’s mouth. Equine teeth are open-rooted, which means that they grow continuously and rely on chewing to keep them ground down to the correct length. The top set of molars is wider than the lower set; equines chew in a circular motion, which means that over time, if the mule has an uneven bite, sharp spurs can develop. Floating is the process whereby the spurs or spikes are “floated” or rasped down with a dental file designed for use in equines. Age is not always a factor; have your mule’s teeth checked during regular vet visits. Floating your mule’s teeth is very important in order to prevent oral pain and to assure your mule is healthy overall.
Mother Nature made them this way. Decisive on their likes and dislikes, they are judgmental animals. You might say they view things in black and white. Either they like it or they absolutely don’t. It’s not that the mule has ESP or can read your mind, but he is very good at reading the situation. And a mule isn’t going to work at something that he doesn’t like.
Mules are sensitive; they have a keen sense of smell, acute hearing and they are athletic like his horse mother. The thinking side of the mule comes from his father the jack. This is what makes this hybrid a unique animal to work with. Their high sense of self-preservation is what makes the mule an excellent trail partner. They certainly won’t allow them to be in a situation that could cause them harm.
Comfort is everything to the mule. They will not tolerate ill treatment or endure incorrectly fitted tack, saddles or a saddle pad that does not allow for good wear or comfort. Behavior issues will quickly develop if the mule is in discomfort or suffering from pain. A mule that is experiencing discomfort may toss his head, try to rush downhill, buck, kick out, move sideways, gape at the mouth or even rear.
If the mule’s negative behavior escalates, a vet or massage therapist may be the answer.
In the rodeo world, an established point system that scores a rider’s
performance is used. For example, a
judge awards points primarily for spurring action in bareback and saddle bronc
riding. The rider loses points if his toes are not turned out with his spurs in
contact with the horse; if spurring is not continuous throughout the ride; and
if he is not balanced and in control. Points are gained or lost according to
the rider’s rhythm and timing with the horse’s bucking. Now, in bull riding,
points are scored by the rider maintaining body control and position regardless
of what the bull is doing. Spurring is not required in bull riding, but
definitely adds points to the score. When it comes to scoring the stock, high
kicking action with hind legs fully extended makes for a better score. This all
adds up to a better show and yes rodeo is a sport, it takes balls and one must
be an athlete.
The established point system in the cowgirl world is similar. Points are gathered from the first pony ride to the very last barn dance, these special moments build up the very ego of a special woman that is connected with her horse or mule. The greater the experience the higher the points and the more accomplished the rider feels. Unforeseen events or screw-ups work against the point system and are hard on the ego. Screw-ups such as getting dumped; you could get dumped by your horse or you could very well get dumped by your boyfriend; we know that neither is good…very stressful to the cowgirl’s ego. Pride is weighed in heavily on this point system; a gal has bragging rights on the very event that is recorded as an accomplishment or milestone in her western world. Life is competitive around the barn and ranches; scoring high is essential.
An example on how the cowgirl goes about to collect her points: to score
points one must be subjected to a series of events that involves moving hay,
catching loose stock, training mules and horses, fixing fence, gatherin’ strays
and doctoring livestock. . . just to name a few. Of course, while performing
these necessary barn or ranch assignments the cowgirl will be subjected to a
certain amount of sweat, pain, blisters, possible burns, bruises, swelling,
sprains, fractures, breaks, tears and at times . . . blood. As one may have
guessed, blood will help you score higher as well as the sprains, fractures and
breaks; throwing in a mule into this mix is clearly a bonus. Being subjected to
mud puddles or taking in some dust rates lower on the score sheet. Cleaning
tack as necessary as it is, also rates lower on the score sheet as well along
with feeding the barn cats.
It seems that the more mileage one can get out of telling a story regarding
one’s own scrape with nature or their last heroic triumph in breaking their
last mule, adds a little spark to the tale itself. Including heightened details
to your discussion on concussions, memory loss, staggering to find your way
back after being thrown on the trail is what sets fire to the cowgirl soul. You
see, there’s something about a war story, in this case a cowgirl’s adventure
tale, that brings a flame to the listener’s ear. The more drama ensued into the story higher
points are earned. No one wants to hear a lame story on how the cat food was
bought on sale for the barn cats, pouring the remainder in airtight containers
and taking inventory of the felines lined up for dinner. Shoveling manure is not rated high for story
telling either. Even though shoveling manure is necessary, it is listed in the
average B rating in the points category, simply because it does not require a
higher skillset to do the task. But . . . to hear the story on how mule
cowgirl, Prairie Rose got caught up in the high and mighty Missouri River from
her mule slipping into the treacherous waters with sinking sludge underneath
him, she clinging to the saddle horn, then to ride out the muddy rapids to the
other side; that true tale itself will take one’s breath away! Yes, that is one
worth talking about! You can easily imagine the snakes and snapping turtles
lurking through the waters, not to mention the turkey vultures hovering above!
The time you rode the northern slope one sunny February afternoon, your
mule slipped on a patch of frozen ground; all of a sudden, went down, crashed
on his side, pinned your leg to the ground, then to end up with a sprained
ankle. Crawling on hands and knees to find a strong limb to support you, this
all adds special affects to the story. Never mind that your mule stood there at
the bottom of the hill waiting for your return, licking and chewing the whole
time. You are going for the round of bonus points. This is your opportunity to
add the part, you called your mule that promptly walked up and waited patiently
as you struggled to get back on. The bigger the injury, the more sloped over in
the saddle one should be when returning to camp or the barn. All these
treacherous details are not spared in a good cowgirl adventure story. By the
way, this is important stuff here: everyone leaves out the part about tetanus
shots, antibiotics and ointment. There’s something about tetanus shots,
ointment and gauze bandaging that doesn’t really appeal to the readers or
listeners of a cowgirl up story; if you want to remain popular, you just don’t
Getting lost on the trail is not considered a heroic experience for earning
points, because you are supposed to have enough sense not to get lost in the
first place. However, if one had to use their knife or pistol in order to
survive while trying to find their way, then that places the event into a whole
new category. Anytime you add bears, struggling with a big cat or your mule was
standing guard for coyotes, the points are higher and that is something worth
writing home about.
The everyday actual tasks that rank high on the cowgirl Richter scale:
roping wild mini-donks to corral them for the farrier visit, herding up young
mules for their vaccinations, sorting mules for the pack string and moving cows
to the other pasture; these are factual accounts of a cowgirl’s day that is
worth some salt in talking about. Giving yourself stitches, cauterizing a wound
or drinking out of a hoof print certainly ranks high up there for gaining
cowgirl points and will entertain your listeners for a long while.
There are special and cherished moments that will never be forgotten; giving birth has a special meaning and raising children are all time extra points for the living cowgirl. Helping to deliver a newborn foal into the world, bottle feeding an orphan calf, doctoring a sick horse . . . these challenges cowgirls embrace in their own lives. Cowgirls take responsibility in their everyday chores at home and work; they take pride in their work and they wear it well. They live, eat, drink and sleep the cowgirl lifestyle. They contribute to everyone around them, they share and help others. They breathe in the cowgirl essence into their very soul. Live life well and score high amigos. ~Cindy K. Roberts
The Buying Process Just how do you buy a mule, horse or donkey without getting screwed? It’s certainly not like going to the local dealership to buy a truck, where you select the gear package, pick out a color, test drive it and take it home. Buying a mule can be so involved and shopping alone for a good one is like searching for the Holy Grail. Buying a truck is so much easier! Trucks don’t get parking lot sour and they don’t form strong attachments to other trucks. I have learned that most new buyers are not comfortable with dealing with a seller when buying a mule, horse or donkey. High pressure sales people can be obnoxious to deal with and this makes the buying experience unpleasant. The smooth talking salesmen can be so slick that an uneducated buyer can walk away with a mule that is not exactly what they had in mind to begin with. Buying a mule is a skill set and yes, you can learn it; especially since I wrote the book on it! I will take you through each step on making a smart purchase; you will have the knowledge on how to close a deal and walk away a winner because you bought your mule with better judgment. You will be more confident during the buying process and you won’t be second guessing yourself on your recent mule purchase. You feel better already, don’t you? I know I do, because I see many mistakes being made by both the buyer and the seller; this can be critical to the new mule owner and the mule where neither come out ahead. It doesn’t do the mule any justice to be placed in the hands of an unqualified owner. The outcome for a mule handler that is lacking confidence and a higher skill set makes it into a risky situation. I have seen new mule owners get hurt while attempting to work with their new mule; including the barn help that offered their expertise or services during the handling process. In addition, I have seen mules get hurt due to a new mule owner or trainer that used their own methods in their attempt to manage the new mule. I would like to see changes in the mule industry. I would like to see more educated trainers and handlers in the business. I am hopeful that in time there will be more qualified mule buyers and professional sellers qualifying their buyer before taking their check. That is where this book comes in; it will help to educate the buyer and improve the business transaction between buyer and seller. Let’s learn about seller techniques so you the buyer at least have a sporting chance at mule buying.
The private seller
Reasons individual parties may sell a mule:
1. The mule is more than they can handle.
2. The mule developed bad habits while on their watch. Meaning – the mule owner allowed the habit to develop, which means the owner contributed to the problem
3. The mule was not worked with; was allowed to “settle” in with the herd. This created herd sour, not bonding with the new owner.
4. The mule jumped fences, new owner did not have appropriate setup for this type of mule that liked to wander.
5. The mule did something wrong due to discomfort – the owner did not catch on to the mule communicating this until the mule had enough. (ex. bucking, kicking out, running through the bridle.)
6. Heat cycles were an issue with riding/handling.
7. The seller is unable to show leadership to the mule (leadership, i.e. not control) and cannot develop a partnership.
8. Mule does not trailer well.
9. The mule spooks from various situations which requires an experienced handler to work with the mule in developing his confidence.