1. Mules are intelligent, not stubborn.
Ah yes, the big one! Mules have unfairly earned the description of “stubborn” due to their high intelligence and strong sense of self-preservation. If a mule does not think that what you are asking them to do is safe, then they will not do it. This creates some interesting challenges for the mule owner, who has to get creative and learn how to work with the mule in order to attain the desired goals. Because of this, mules are something of a specialist subject and – although the rewards are great – they are not suited to everyone; just because someone has years of experience with horses does not necessarily mean they will get along with mules.
2. Mules smell different.
A mule’s scent is not like a horse’s or donkey’s; it is like a mule’s. This can be quite baffling to some horses who can’t quite figure out what this creature is, and I believe it plays a large part in why some horses are frightened of mules. Smell is so important to horses that a foal whose nostrils have been coated with something pungent may be so confused that they actually go to the wrong mare – so I can imagine how bewildering it must be to be confronted with something that looks horse-shape, but doesn’t smell like how they expect a horse to smell!
3. Ear and tail language in mules isn’t the same as it is in horses.
With horses, we’re all taught that a swishing tail means the horse is getting irritable, that ears back mean you’re probably going to get kicked, and if they reverse towards you then watch out! However, mules are slightly different. As with anything, this all depends on context – be aware of what the rest of the mule is doing before making any conclusions and, if you’re not sure, err on the side of caution – but things that might seem negative in a horse are not always so in a mule. For example, a mule may approach someone they like with their ears turned slightly backwards; this isn’t annoyance, but rather a form of “begging”. Mules are extremely affectionate animals and this often means they just want some love! A mobile tail usually means that the mule is thinking, and reversing towards you is generally their way of asking for butt scratchies … mules love butt scratchies. They are also not shy about using their tail to deliver a good smack against their handler when displeased; this can be a warning that means “I will kick you next time”, but it can also mean “You stopped doing that thing I liked, this is what I think of you”. The best way to tell what your mule is thinking is to just spend time with them and learn how they express themselves.
4. Mules were once the choice mount for the nobility, the clergy, and even royalty.
Mules – particularly white mules – were often reserved for VIPs in medieval Europe. Queen Elizabeth I travelled to her coronation in a mule-drawn carriage, Cosimo de’ Medici rode a brown mule, Cardinal Wolsey rode a mule decorated with gold trappings, and the Pope himself used to ride a white mule (nowadays he has a slightly more modern kind of mule). Three and a half thousand years ago, the Hittites considered a good mule to be three times more valuable than a chariot horse, and in ancient Ethiopia the mule was held as the most high status of all the animals. King David rode a mule, as at that time they were strictly reserved for royalty; and the Prophet Mohammad had a beloved white molly named Duldul.
5. Mules have a longer lifespan than horses.
Mules are slow to mature, both physically and mentally. However, they can easily live until their forties and a working mule in its thirties is not uncommon. Whereas we might be wary of buying a 20-year-old horse, a mule of the same age will – providing it is healthy and has been well-treated in its life – give you many more years of enjoyment under saddle or in harness. Due to this slow maturity and extensive lifespan I get pretty damn irritated when I see trainers and mule owners backing 2-year-olds, but that’s a rant for another day.