They plow, they pack, they pull, they carry riders, and yes, they race. They can jump higher than horses, are more sure-footed, are stronger, have more stamina, and can work longer without water. We're talkin' mules.
|Heart B Roy Bean|
Heart B Ranch, Emmett, Idaho
Mules have been valued since ancient times and in fact, were at one time known as the "riding animal of princes." They're smarter, often smoother-gaited, and live longer than either horses or donkeys, and were preferred by the ancient Egyptians over camels. The Mule Museum has a nice overview on mule history.
The offspring of a horse and donkey, the preferred breeding is a jack donkey and a mare. A hinny is the product of a stallion and a jenny. Because donkeys are generally smaller than horses, the former is most common for easier birthing. Horse have 64 chromosomes and donkeys have 62. Mules end up with 63 and are sterile. Even though jack mules shoot blanks, they still need gelded to have a safer and more accommodating demeanor. Mules look more like horses but they have the intelligence and strength of a donkey so get the best of both.
|George Washington, Father of American Mules|
Um, so to speak
The first mule breeder in the US was George Washington. (Yes, I'm omitting a whole bunch of history--the conquistadors bred mules from the 15th Century on.) George knew that mules could work harder in more extreme conditions and wanted to replace oxen (too slow) and horses (less stamina) in the fields. The best donkeys in the world for breeding mules were tightly controlled by Spain, but in 1785, King Charles of Spain sent Washington some breeding stock, including an Andalusian donkey stud named Royal Gift. Royal Gift did his royal duty and soon Washington had dozens of high-quality mules working his plantation, and then enough to sell.
Were the new mules popular? "By 1808, the U.S. had an estimated 855,000 mules worth an estimated $66 million." (Mule Museum) They were hugely popular in the South and used for field work, packing, and freighting, but not so much in the North, where they were used primarily for freighting.
|Iowa farmer driving mule-drawn wagon (circa 1926)|
Westward expansion called for an even larger role. Those who could afford them bought mules to pull their covered wagons over the Oregon Trail. Once the mule pulled the wagon to the destination, the pioneers used the mules to plow the ground, drag logs to build their buildings, and whatever else needed done. A good mule could make an emigrant's life a whole lot easier.
|Fort Bayard, New Mexico 1886-1891, |
U.S. 10th CavalryTrooper with pack mule
Mules blazed trails, were instrumental in some of the tougher, rockier, hotter trails, and a good share of California goods got there over the Santa Fe trail in freight wagons pulled by mules. Wars, too. Mules are great pack animals so besides pulling artillery and supplies, the sure-footed animals could go where horses couldn't, and accompanied ground forces into hostile territory. (They're still used for that purpose in Afghanistan.)
Baby boomers--have you ever seen a show on television called Death Valley Days? It was hosted by future president Ronald Reagan and sponsored by 20 Mule Team Borax. I loved watching the 20-mule team in the commercials!
Before the railroad serviced the area, 20-mule teams hauled all that borax out of Death Valley. The long, hot, arduous trip afforded very little water and other beasts couldn't do the job.
Mules fascinate me. I've never owned one, but somehow they sneak into my books. The first was a contemporary western romance narrated by Socrates, a miniature mule, in Down Home Ever Lovin' Mule Blues. The second was a racing mule named Katie in Much Ado About Marshals, and the third major role for a mule came in a short story, Willow, Wish For Me.
In Willow, the mule is actually Merlin (yes, of King Arthur fame) and is a sorcerer. The next story mule is in my work in progress, Much Ado About Miners, and is Verges, the riding mule for an old prospector .
While mules are seen as stubborn and are often the butt of jokes, those in the know say that these animals got that reputation because they refuse to place themselves in harm's way. A rider can run a horse to death but a mule will stop when he gets to the point of exhaustion, and no amount of prodding can get him to go. Is that stubborn?
Or smart? I call it intriguing, and these animals will continue to provide some fun moments in stories yet to be written.
No article about mules is complete without Frankie Laine
Have you ever had or ridden a mule?