How to Manage Energy Levels in Mules Through Diet

Hybrids are very efficient in their food intake and nutrition; they can easily ingest 30% less of their dietary needs compared to a horse of the same size. What does this actually mean? Clinically, this means mules differ from horses from a metabolic standpoint. They can maintain their weight with fewer calories than horses in the same situation.  So, why are mules being fed a horse’s diet?

I think lack of knowledge and some people just feel better by giving ample amounts of feed and/or treats to their mule. Honestly, both donkeys and mules love broad-leaf weeds and roughage such as barley straw. This should form a large part of their diet however donkeys must not be fed large amounts of protein, bread, puffed rice, or processed food because they may develop laminitis and become lame. In addition, donkeys and mules can utilize more mature, less digestible, more fibrous plant material than a horse. They are able to metabolize their feed very efficiently and can be overfed very easily. The donkeys’ efficient utilization of food makes them “easy keepers.” However, don’t let the term misguide you. It is important to take care in determining when and how much to feed a donkey. Obesity is a major concern in modern domesticated donkeys and mules, yet mule owners tend to feed their mules as though they were horses.

Studies have shown that donkeys voluntarily consume much less forage compared to horses; 1.5% of body weight (BW) for donkeys compared to 3.1% of BW for horses. The donkey’s heightened ability to digest low-quality forage has been likened to that of a goat. It is important not to provide pasture that is lush and nutrient-dense. Low-quality pasture grasses are adequate. Mules are not quite as efficient as donkeys but are much more efficient than horses. 

There is limited information about protein requirements for donkeys, but researchers have suggested that they are very efficient in the utilization of dietary protein. It has also been suggested that donkeys have a 20% lower digestible energy requirement than horses. 

Good grass hay is adequate for donkeys. Legume hay such as alfalfa is not recommended for the same reason that lush pasture is not good for donkeys or mules. The digestibility is very high as is the energy and nutrient content. 

Supplements – While grass and hay are often sufficient to supply the maintenance requirements for most donkeys and mules, additional supplementation in the form of concentrate feeds might be needed when donkeys cannot eat sufficient forage to meet nutrient requirements. Classes of donkeys and mules that need concentrated feeding include those that are working heavily, pregnant, lactating, growing, or senior. 

The amount of concentrate that should be provided is determined by the BW and the physiological state of the animal.

Water – The donkey has the ability to continue eating for several days when deprived of drinking water. It has been suggested that donkeys are able to conserve internal water stores and avoid thirst by reducing sweating for temperature control and reducing the amount of water lost in manure. 

Donkeys have the lowest water requirements of all domestic animals, with the exception of camels. Under hot conditions (85°F to 100°F), donkeys consumed water at a rate of 9% of BW per day. Under cooler conditions, donkeys consumed water at a rate of 4-5% of their BW per day.

Obesity is the biggest challenge facing most non-working donkeys and mules that are kept in areas of the world where food sources are abundant and of good quality. Emaciation is very common in most areas where donkeys are used heavily for work, and food is scarce and of poor quality. 

Body condition scoring donkeys is very similar to condition scoring horses using a 1 to 9 scoring system where 1 is emaciated and 9 is obese. Donkeys tend to accumulate fat on the neck, on either side of the chest wall giving a saddlebag appearance and around the buttocks. 

Several studies in horses and ponies have clearly shown that regional fat deposited on the neck of the animal indicated a higher risk for developing metabolic challenges such as insulin resistance and laminitis. Donkeys frequently accumulate fat on their necks and, therefore, are at high risk of insulin resistance and laminitis.

Donkeys and mules that are not doing any work should be able to meet all their nutrient requirements from good grass hay such as timothy or orchard grass. Working, lactating, or growing animals might need additional concentration. 

Due to the donkey’s increased ability to metabolize energy and protein, it is important that we do not feed concentrates that are high in these nutrients.

Overfed and underworked mules retain high energy levels that will encourage bad behavior; bad behavior that will usually show up while riding or working with their handler. The overfed mule will tend to spook at objects they have been introduced to many times, and mules like to make a game of this. An overly-fed mule that has excess energy can get a rider in trouble. In all fairness to the mule, he has the energy to burn; the very energy that you graciously put in his feed tub.

Look at it this way. Grandparents are often warned about what not to feed when to their grandchildren. The parents don’t want to be subjected to hyperactive children who had so many sodas, twinkies, and candy that were given to them when visiting their grandparents. Parents and educators often contend that sugar and other carbohydrate ingestion can dramatically impact children’s behavior, particularly their activity levels. The same holds true for your mule or donkey.

Consult with your vet if you have dietary concerns for your mule or donkey…that is what they are there for. When asking for advice concerning your mule or donkey, please discuss it with a professional. I will be blunt: Facebook is not the go-to for obtaining vital information to help your mule or donkey. So-called experts with no credibility are offering their opinions on social media. Feed smart, check on your mules and I will see you next time right here.

Author: Cindy K Roberts

Cindy K. Roberts has a lifetime experience with training horses and mules; riding the family pony at age 2 was the beginning. Her grandfather, Lieutenant Wilton Willmann a sharpshooter and muleskinner of the U.S. Army Cavalry (stationed in Fort Riley, Camp Perry, Fort Leavenworth circa 1924) gifted her with the insight on mules; and the desire to study and work with them. Shooting firearms and working with horses and mules was desired and expected in the family. Cindy is host of Mule Talk! The podcast about mules. She enjoys the western way of life, educating new mule owners in working with their own mules, hosting mule events, and documenting her own adventures in keeping the cowgirl spirit alive.


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