Due to the hypersensitivity of the mule, their mental state can easily escalate into an anxiety level that would encourage bad behavior. You see, mules can feel energy from other equines and from a person. Their intuition is far keener than ours and mules will often mirror the feelings of their rider and respond accordingly. Our world is different from the mule, as humans we view emotions differently than mules do. We may mask our feelings. But in the presence of a mule, these animals can sense the way we really are. When a person interacts with a mule, they become part of the mule’s environment, and that person ultimately becomes a herd member.
One reason some people prefer mules to horses is that the former are generally easier keepers. A mule approximately the same size as a horse, at a similar level of work, consumes less feed. A mule can eat anything a horse eats, but he uses it more efficiently. For the sake of not overfeeding your mule, consult your veterinarian for the best diet for your mule or donkey.
Always remember, you can never force a mule to obey you. If you forget this rule, your mule will remind you when the appropriate time comes. If you try to force the mule, any compliance will be short-lived. The best methods are based on explaining to the mule what you want. If you use a method of restraint, like a twitch or a Scotch hobble, it must be approached with the idea that you are explaining to the mule that you want him to stand still, not that you are forcing him to submit. This is where a good degree of handlers often fail in their mule training.
Handlers often try to “drive” a mule to compel it to do what they wish. Horses may be driven or pushed into an impulsive state of energy. When a whip is applied to the horse, he will instinctively spring into motion (although sometimes not in the desired direction). When a whip is applied to a donkey, his instinct is to remain where he is until he is sure of the situation. If an abusive handler were to continue to whip the donkey, he would become more resolute and may drop to the ground in a heap of defiance.
It is not the donkey’s nature to panic and flee, as may be observed when a donkey is spooked. He will walk or trot (or, in an extremely frightening situation, canter) a short distance, stop, and evaluate conditions before going farther. A spooked horse may bolt uncontrollably over a great distance, causing harm to himself and/or the rider in the process. What puzzles many mule handlers is that in any given situation the mule may act like either the donkey or the horse. The muleteer must recognize and appeal to both the horse and the donkey temperament resident within the mule. Most of all successful mule trainers recognize that the mule is a unique individual.
A mule’s or donkey’s attitude to his work is one of partnership with his handler. While well-trained horses obey without question, mules and donkeys are more task-oriented. They seem to be concerned with the overall job, rather than with isolated cues. Once you have taught a job to a mule, he will continue to perform the task almost unaided and in clockwork fashion. If you interfere with his task by continually giving cues, he will be offended and may resist.
Mules are renowned worldwide for their outstanding muscular endurance, but what gives them this ability to outshine their horse and donkey parents? Hybrid vigor has long been recognized and widely exploited in animal and plant breeding programs to enhance the productive traits of hybrid progeny from two breeds or species. However, its underlying genetic mechanisms remain enigmatic.
Researchers from Northwest A&F University in Yangling, China, set out to understand more about the molecular mechanisms at work in mules that provide this superior muscular endurance.
They said their work, in which muscle, brain, and skin samples from mules, hinnies, and their parents were tested, revealed significant differences between mules and hinnies, as well as differences between mules and both of their parents.
Apart from skeletal muscle tissue, which is the main difference that separates mules from hinnies and their parents, there are also clear differences between these animals in both the brain and skin. The findings, they say, provide new insights into the genetic mechanism underlying hybrid vigor in mules. The work could provide the basis for future studies of the genetic and molecular mechanism of hybrid vigor in donkeys and horses.
Interestingly, the mule has a different odor altogether. He doesn’t smell like a horse and he doesn’t smell like a donkey. This could very well be a factor in sensitive horses decide not to accept a mule as a herd member, simply because of his physiological traits provided by Mother Nature.
As prey animals, horses prefer to stay in herds, and communication is accomplished by body language rather than vocalization and sound. They rely on body position and subtle body and head cues, even the twitch of an ear or the widening of an eye, to communicate within the herd.
Overall, mules tend to be healthier, sounder, and live longer than horses. This might result from hybrid vigor, and the genetic superiority of crossbred animals. Mules are less prone to injuries because again, it is due to their heightened sense of self-preservation.
So why are mules known for being kickers? If you think about it, the horse is the nervous nellie in the mule equation. It is the horse that is prone to kicking and horses are nervous creatures. The horse mare handed down the kicking trait to her offspring the mule. The mule being naturally suspicious and cautious should be worked with or trained not to kick. This is simple enough by tying the mule in a rope halter to a tree or hitching post; using a lunge whip or broomstick merely to touch his legs up and down while assuring him this is ok. If the mule has been owned by a heavy handler, he may be fearful of the whip/broomstick; simply caressing his sides and topline while rewarding him will help him through this process. After several days of introducing the touching of the legs with a lunge whip or long stick (along with moving your hands in closer to the mule’s leg), the handler will be able to ask the mule for his foot. By doing this, a soft cotton rope placed around the ankle and then pulling up while asking for the foot is foolproof. Holding the foot for a second or two is best in the beginning.
When working with young mules (6 and under) keep in mind their mental state is different than compared to a horse. For one, the horse will go along with you and submit to you, whereas the mule will carefully think things through first. Handlers tend to rush a mule’s schooling, not realizing the damage that can be done by doing so. Anytime a mule is lacking an introduction to a new task or lacks foundation training will undoubtedly show up in a mule’s confidence level; and at some time, somewhere it will surface. That is why the working partnership you have with your mule is critical to your training program.
A recent interview with Brock Milam of Milam Mules (Missouri) gave sound advice about working with mules. He said, “To be successful and to really get along with that mule, you have got to take the time and learn that mule. And let that mule learn you. If you let him get by with things, then it is a matter of time before an unskilled rider will decide to trade off for a different mule.”
I think we tend to have so much going on at work and at home that we spend time with our horses and mules as recreation/therapy time for us. We release our nervous energy at the barn, check our cell phones for updates and we tend to lose the connection. Remember when you are with your equine partner, he has a heart and soul…an emotional side to him that is looking for leadership and comfort. Stay safe, ride your ponies, and don’t forget the oats.