"The Marvelous Mule"

by Celia Hixon

Stubborn as a mule! You've heard that said. But maybe the mule isn't stubborn, just single-minded. The term mule is generally applied to an ass/horse hybrid offspring. Technically, the mule is a jackass/mare by-product. Where the sire is a stallion and the dam a jennet, the proper term is hinny. Being a hybrid, most mules cannot reproduce. In July 1984, Krause, a female mule, made the AP news-wire. Krause gave birth to a foal sired by a donkey named Chester. This being a million to one event, the owners named the foal Blue Moon. In 1987 Krause gave birth to White Lightning.

Jackasses are not native to North America. The first shipment arrived in 1785 to George Washington. He began mule production in the United States. From the late 1700's to the early 1900's mules worked as the U.S. Army's mainstay. When the combustion engine replaced cavalry horses, the mule also went.

In the early 1940's this changed. World War Two saw mules drafted into the U.S. Army because many asian and italian battle zones lay in muddy, mountainous places a tank couldn't go. Enemy guerrillas carried rocket launchers on mules and decimated our troops. This led to a change in tactics.

"Shave-tail", a derogatory term for new Second Lieutenants, comes from shaving mules' tails when they first arrived. This non-verbal warning told everyone, "This is an unbroken mule who will kick, bite, stomp, and spit with deadly aim." The mules often retaliated against handlers who yelled at them, hit them, and forced them into battle zones. Their favorite trick consisted in taking accurate aim at shoes, with urine and defecation.

A mule has a larger head than a horse, like its jackass sire. Their long ears measure as much as thrity-three inches from tip to tip and are the single most recognizable trait inherited from their sires. Some mules are extremely sensitive about their ears being touched. This brought about a special bridle called mule-bonnets. After undoing the buckle, you persuade the mule to take the bit, then slip the strap over the mule's neck without touching the ears, and rebuckle the bridle.

Mules, like horses, communicate with their bodies. When a mule perks both ears forward, his attention is keenly focused on something before him. Both ears pinned back, means a violent reaction can be expected, most likely a bite or kick. Ears out to the side, like airplane wings, means the mule is seriously thinking about something. Unlike a horse, a mule's tail is a small, skimpy fly swatter. They never carry their tails high and proud, as a horse does. When angry, a mule will "ring" his tail -- swing the tail in a circle many times.

Mules vary greatly in size depending on their breed. Today there are five mule breeds. The smallest is the pack or mining mule. Pack, aka mining mules, stand at about twelve hands, and weighs about six hundred pounds. (A hand measure four inches.) Many a miner swears by their mule's loyalty, trustworthiness, and affection.

Cotton mules are the next size up. Sired by a burro on a pony, their original use in the U.S. was to carry big cotton sacks while walking down furrows while slaves picked cotton. Plantation owners bred these mules to stand low to the ground as a time-saving device. The slaves didn't have to stand to put the cotton into the sacks. Today, cotton mules are used by deer hunters to pack out their kills. Cotton mules are preferred to horses due to their strength, sure-footed gait, strong nerves, and they don't make as much noise walking through the woods as do horses.

The farm mule left the farms at the same time as draft mules left the army and for the same reason, the combustion engine. During World War Two civilians faced gas rationing, so farmers reintroduced the farm mule to their rightful place for the duration. It takes two mules to break soil the first time. Later, one mule could till the soil alone. A V-shaped cultivator, or spike harrow, pulled by mules will clean out the weeds between two rows in a single pass.

When the sudden need came for mules in World War Two the Mitchel Ranch in Colusa County, California had no difficulties. They always used mules in their orchards in preferance to combustion vehicles. The area's soil is sandy river-loam. Heavy equipment gets stuck. Even mule pulled wagons sometimes get their wheels dug-in. When this happens the entire load has to be unloaded and the wagon moved to solid ground. The mules learn to work by whistled commands so that the farm worker doesn't have to lead them.

If a mule doesn't like you, or feels like exhibiting his twisted sense of humor, working with him is a hassle. Mitchel Ranch mules have been known to deliberately go to a tree's opposite sides. This forces the handler to unload the prune boxes so as to back up the mules, reload the boxes, and start again. Sometimes they stop on command by the prune box pile, wait until the mule-skinner picks up the first box, then move ahead one pace. The man is forced to take an extra step with each box before swinging the box onto the wagon. A favorite mule trick against newcomers is to pull the new man's bandanna from his pocket, and drop it. When the man bends over, a mule nose sends him sprawling.

Sugar and draft mules are the same height, about eighteen hands. But, the sugar mule is lighter in weight, about 1,150 pounds. The draft mule weighs-in at about 1,300 pounds - they are the largest and heaviest mule breed. A prime draft mule example is the famous Death Valley Twenty Mule Train from the nineteenth century, and 1950's television.

Mule leg bones are thick, like a jackass, so they carry more weight longer than can a horse. As a general rule that slows them down, and the horse is usually faster. Note the qualifier. I've heard tales about three exceptions to this "given".

The first is Jenny, owned by a Redding, California man. Once a year they went on an annual trail ride. There he bet with "tenderfeet" that his mule will beat their horses to trail's end. Jenny won large sums each year when she arrived at the finish line hours before any horse.

Another exception, from the description probably a cotton mule, was owned by a blacksmith named Oakie. Oakie took the mule and a cart to all the big horse shows. He bet the horse owners that his mule could out race their horses. The horsemen looked at the dinky mule and laughed. Oakie needled them until they agreed to race. With the money safely in a third party's hands, Oakie hitched up his mule. He drove slowly to the starting line so that the odds wouldn't change at the last minute. When the starting flag dropped, there was a blur where mule legs should have been. It's said that mule earned Oakie more money than he ever earned shoeing horses.

Sugar, an endurance race champion, is the third example. Sugar, an untrainned five-year-old-pet, was inherited by his owner's grand-daughter. She asked a Tacoma, Washington horse trainer to train Sugar. The trainer, promising nothing as five is late to break an equine, agreed to try. When Sugar arrived, the trainer put a Comanche Warbonnet on him. A Comanche Warbonnet is a rope tied in a noose and placed around an equine's neck. When you pull on the rope it blocks the animal's breathing. By stepping forward, the animal releases the pressure. Some horses will fall down and turn blue before they figure out how to breathe again. Many will pull backward. Mules tend to learn quickly. The trainer pulled on the rope. Without hesitation, Sugar stepped forward. With-in minutes, Sugar was lead-broken. The following year, Sugar entered the big Levi ride. He trotted up mountainsides, swam like a duck, and grazed on saw grass so he didn't have to carry grain. Unshod, Sugar never stopped for a thrown shoe. He cantered for miles without breaking sweat. At the vet checks along the way, his pulse being low, he never got pulled from the race. Sugar trotted across the finish line hours before the closest horse.

Mules understand some human language. Either that or they read minds. I've heard both theories, and am willing to believe both. Mules are certainly smarter than most horses. A story showing mule intelligence comes from an event in World War Two.

A Dutch underground survivor told about a night when, after blowing up a Nazi ammo dump, he rode through the mountains on a mule. He faced a moonless, Stygian night, but dared not light a lantern. Suddenly the mule refused to move. No matter what the man did, the mule stood rock-still. Cold and hungry, the man became infuriated. Finally, with the mule tied to a tree, and the saddle for a pillow, the man laid down thinking how good mule stew would taste. In the morning the man stood up and nearly fainted. Twenty feet ahead, a shell blasted trail had a three-hundred-foot drop. He found another way home, but he never again rode in the mountains at night except on a mule. He never again argued with a mule that didn't want to go somewhere in the dark.

A horse, like a dog, is usually forgiving. Whereas a mule will never forget a slight. He may have to wait years, but sooner or later he WILL kick your teeth in. Contrary-wise, once a mule is your friend there is no more loyal companion. But, mule friendship isn't easily won. If well-treated mules can be affectionate, especially with women, and will come when called. A mule's long memory for slights is demonstrated in a story told me about a blacksmith with a mule client.

When the blacksmith first started to shoe the mule, the animal kept pulling his feet away. The smith, knowing the mule couldn't get at him, lost his temper and smacked the mule in the side with his hammer. The mule turned his head and looked at the man long and hard. The mule gave taht blacksmith the same look every time he saw him. The smith, being a careful man, didn't let his guard down until five years later. Feeling unwell, the man was careless while shoeing the mule. The mule nailed him with both hind hooves, knocking the man head-first into a water trough. The smith said that when he staggered from the trough, the mule sneered at him as if to say, "Got Ya!"

I heard a prime mule/human friendship story a muleteer acquaintance saw during a "The Most Beautiful Mule In The World Show". About fifteen mules entered the Best In Show Class Division. The mules and their owners stood in the ring waiting for the judges' decision. Most showed their nervousness. A little old man with a big red mule called Molly stood calmly near the gate. The old man pulled a chewing tobacco plug from his bib-overalls. He broke the plug in half, stuffed one half into his cheek and gave the other half to Molly. They chawed their tobacco, and couldn't care less what the judges said. They both knew who was the best mule. The judges agreed. Molly won first place.

These stories, and more, demonstate what a remarkable animal the mule is.

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