Humans have misread the common sense and strong self-preservation instinct of a mule as being stubborn for centuries. They even turned their error into a self-perpetuating myth.

Stubborn as a Mule.  Myth Explosion.
Captain H. H. Gilbert of the Indian Army Service Corps with one of the army’s mules.
Photo Courtesy of Sue Gilbert

I once knew a mule called Gideon who for the first time ever walked into a ‘stable’ (more like a shed). The owner quickly shut the door behind him. Seconds later the stable fell apart from his kicking and he duly walked out unscathed from under the roof.

They are not stupid, that is for sure.

Michele Garrod in conversation with the author

On hearing this cartoon-esque anecdote, I knew I had chosen a fabulous research topic and immediately wanted to learn more. Here is what I discovered.

What is a Mule?

Strictly, we use the word mule for any equine hybrid. Pick two of these: donkey, horse, zebra to make a baby and the result is a mule. However, in general terms, the word mule is used where the mother is a horse and the father is a donkey.

Some other names include a hinney, where the mother is a donkey and the father is a horse. Then the names get crazy when you involve a zebra!

  1. Zedonk, zebrass, zebronkey, zonkey, zebonkey, zebadonk, or zebryde where the daddy is a zebra, and the mamma is a donkey.
  2. Zorse, zebra mule, or zebrule where father is a zebra but mum is a horse. Zony is a zebra father and, guess? Yey! A pony mom. Zetland where mum is a Shetland pony.
  3. Zebret or donkra when a donkey father makes a baby with a zebra.
  4. And finally, hebra, horbra, or zebrinny when girl horse falls in love with boy zebra.

Who came up with these names? This is definitely a 3 o’clock in the morning, out of your mind naming session. This article shall concentrate on the mule created by a mare (female horse) and a jack (male donkey). When I find someone with a zebra hybrid, I will revisit this topic. Because there’re loads of them in France, I am sure.

Wallace works as a dressage mule who made history in doing so. Wallace is not stubborn. Watch this amazing video!

Christie McLean and Wallace the mule making history when, as BBC Spotlight’s Janine Janson says “… British Dressage found itself being accused of equine racism”.

Mule Appearance

Mules look a lot like horses. But with bigger ears and slightly different muscle composition. This makes mules stronger than a horse of the same size and build. Mules also have more endurance than their horsey counterparts. Possibly due to “hybrid vigor”.

Mule tails are more horse-like than donkey-like. Mule hooves are closer to those of a horse’s too. Though they must be trimmed slightly differently – more upright and with longer heels.

Mule Inheritance

In typical fashion of a hybrid, the mule inherits the best traits from each parent. From the mare, the mule inherits beauty, athleticism, and speed. From the jack, the mule inherits intelligence, strength, perseverance, sure-footedness, and patience.

The mule is more resistant to disease and parasites which is another bonus of being a hybrid.

Mule Mentality

The mule has a powerful sense of self-preservation. This is where the myth of “stubborn as a mule” comes from. When something startles a horse, their default response is to run. They have a heightened flight reflex. Donkeys are more inclined to freeze. Mules do both. Not at the same time, obviously.

I believe mules to not be so stubborn, just different to [sic] the horses we are familiar with, mules can be very willing work partners. 

The difference between donkeys and horses is huge, horses are flight animals, they run from danger. Donkeys don’t run as well so they are not flight animals, they are good fighters tho [sic]! So if a donkey is scared/unsure or just not trusting you, he ain’t moving anywhere 😆 hence stubborn as a mule…. 

Mules are also very interesting as I see some [mules] that are 75% horse and other that are 75% donkey, and the feet can be more horse or donkey too, the differences in the hooves is a subject for a different day tho [sic], again not similar at all.

Alun Davis-Adams, Barefoot Benefits
Stubborn as a mule.  myth exploded
Christine Doucet galloping her mule Apéro des Granges
Photo courtesy of Sarah Pugh of Les Ecuries du Saumort

Training a Mule

“Everything that you OUGHT to do when training a horse (excellent timing, patience, consistency, clarity, etc), you HAVE to do when training a mule.”

Old mule training saying

Mules are far too intelligent to accept shoddy “horse”man-ship. You cannot force mules into behaving a certain way. They have to see the logic behind your request. If a mule perceives it as nonsense they will refuse to comply. But if you use a logical, sequential, and consistent way to teach the mule that is respectful, kind, and makes sense, you are far less likely to meet resistance. Slow things down. I have always said with training horses that the slower you go the quicker you will get there. It would appear to be the same with mules.

I was chatting with horse trainer Marian Schubert Vermeulen of Stable Foundation Horsemanship in Michigan. She said she had recently started learning about mules because she might have a new client with a mule.

Below are some answers to her questions about horses versus mules, which Marian was kind enough to share.

1. Mules seem to bury their emotions more than a horse. If you see any hesitation or worry on the outside, know that the emotions of the mule are greatly magnified on the inside. They NEED Thinking Time. SLOW DOWN!

2. Mules seem to be born with Plan B cemented in their minds as BOLT! If you aren’t observant to those little indications of worry (fluttering nostrils, large eyes, hesitant steps, etc), everything will seem like it is going just fine one moment and then your mule will be GONE the next. To make things worse, you probably won’t be able to stop your mule. They are So Much STRONGER than a horse. It is best never to push them into that response. Bolting is EXTREMELY DIFFICULT to break. Why?

3. Mules Love Routine. Don’t let Bolting become a routine. I bet that you have heard that they are Stubborn. I do not believe this is the case. Instead, I believe they just Love Routine. Consequently, it can take a lot of time to convince them to step out of a habit that they’ve been taught or have established on their own. Be very aware of Training Principle #11 Change One Thing At A Time when working with a mule.

4. Mules have Strong Extremes. Their unconfidence or misunderstanding can make them feel heavy, unresponsive, and stubborn. But when they have bonded with you, trust, and understand the routine you are presenting, mules can be fully committed, extremely light, and responsive. They seem to find value in a job/partnership.”

Anon Mule Trainer – Compassionate Longear Training

When you have taken the time to do it right, mules are a joy to ride.

The Mule at Work

I went to visit the mules who take tourists down the Grand Canyon in Arizona, USA. There were dozens of them, all of the larger variety, they lived in big paddocks with all amenities. Their working life is to walk the zig-zag Bright Angel Trail down to Phantom Ranch on the floor of the canyon, and up again! The mule wranglers were happy to chat and told me that in places the trail is only 18ins/46cm wide and the mules tend to walk on the outer edge for reasons known only to themselves! There was another herd at the bottom and they swopped them over regularly. I would have loved to do the ride but it was booked up a year in advance!

Sue Reeve on Mules- From a Facebook group conversation
I would love to do this mule ride. But I think it would scare the beep out of me.

Mule Testimonials

Anne Dickens: “Avoriaz in France – my favourite ski resort. All snow – no cars, only equine driven sleighs. Lovely willing and happy mule part of the team every year.”

Stubborn as a Mule? Myth Exploded
Mule pulling sleigh in ski resort, Avoriaz, in France Photo courtesy of Anne Dickens

Kathy Stanton: “I have 2 mules! And no, they are not stubborn. What earned them that reputation is they really THINK! If they think something isn’t right or in their best interest, they will refuse. You cannot force a mule to do something that it perceives as wrong. You can convince them it’s the best plan.”

Claire Elsom: “One of ours is a fantastic jumper. In fact yesterday he neatly cleared a large ditch (compared to one of the horses who crashed through it). He has twice jumped out of a block walled stable (1.2m). He also chases hunting dogs which is great, they never come up here now lol [sic].”

Do you have any funny mule anecdotes you would like to share? Are there any questions you would like to ask about mules? Please share or ask away in the comments section below.