What is a mule? 13 things you didn’t know

18 July 2016
A cart mule and his owner at a mobile clinic.

Mules are one of the most commonly used working animals in the world, highly prized for their hardiness and docile nature. In countries from North Africa to Southeast Asia, mules pull carts to market, carry people across rough terrain, and help their owners to till the soil. SPANA treats thousands of mules each year through our centres and mobile clinics and works with their owners to provide better care and understanding of these misunderstood animals.

If you’re not sure what a mule is, read on to learn more about these hardworking creatures and the contributions that they make to people’s lives all over the world:

1) Mules are the offspring of a male donkey and female horse

Mules combine characteristics of both horse and donkey parents to create a tougher, more resilient working animal. A hinny, the offspring of a male horse and female donkey is much rarer and more closely resembles its mother with the long ears of a donkey.

2) Mules are 99.9% sterile

This is due to an uneven chromosome count although in rare cases, female mules have been known to give birth to foals.  

A mule is treated for a harness wound in Jordan.

3) Mules are hardier, eat less, and live longer than horses of an equivalent size

Mules require less food and have more stamina than horses of the same weight and height, making them resilient working animals in some of the harshest environments.

4) Mules are less stubborn and more intelligent than donkeys

Don’t let the old saying “as stubborn as a mule” fool you: mules are thought to be more docile than their donkey fathers. But a mule’s intelligence also means that they are more cautious and aware of danger, making them safer to ride when crossing dangerous terrain.

A man stands with his brown mule in Tunisia.

5) Mules generally weigh between 800 and 1,000 lbs but “mini mules” can weigh under 50 lbs

Mules can inherit a range of features from their parents and there’s no promise of what a mule foal might grow in to. Over the centuries, owners have experimented with crossbreeding different sizes and breeds of horses – from miniature horses to draft horses – to create different sizes and strengths of mule.

6) The skin of a mule is less sensitive than that of a horses and more resistant to sun and rain

This makes mules a dependable option for owners who work outside in harsh weather and strong sunlight. Although SPANA vets still see a lot of injuries as a result of poorly fitting equipment, mules are slightly less sensitive to the elements.  

7) Mules can live up to 50 years

Although the average lifespan for mules is between 35 and 40 years, some mules have been known to live until 50, especially if well looked after.

A mule and his owner at a mobile clinic.

8) Mules have harder hooves than horses which makes them great for rocky terrain

Mules’ hooves are less likely to split or crack and can withstand mountainous trails and rocky farm soil. For many owners around the world who may not be able to regularly replace horseshoes, this means that mules are cheaper to keep.

9) Some mules have been known to make whimpering noises

In addition to whinnying like a horse and braying like a donkey, mules make sounds that combine both calls and have even been known to whimper when excited or worried.

10) In 2015, SPANA treated more than 11,000 mules

SPANA treats thousands of mules in countries like Morocco, TunisiaJordan and Ethiopia. Many of the injuries that our vets see are due to poorly fitting equipment and harsh bits but happily, owners’ attitudes are changing through our ongoing education and treatment.

A SPANA tech walks a mule out of our stables in Marrakech, Morocco.

11) Militaries have depended on mules for millennia

Mules have been used throughout history as reliable pack animals in combat, able to take on the tough terrain that other forms of transport can’t reach. For example, in the 1980s the US military used more than 10,000 mules to carry weapons and supplies through Afghanistan’s rugged hills to Afghan mujahedeen camps.

12) China breeds the largest numbers of mules in the world, followed by Mexico

China breeds more than seven million mules each year where they are commonly used on small farms and for transport.

13) Mules can kick sideways

Although mules are usually docile, an angry mule can kick both backwards and to the side. Avoid a mule’s hind legs as these animals can pack quite a punch!

Donate today to help SPANA provide the care and education needed to give mules across the world a better quality of life. 

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