This article was originally written for issue 107 of Horsemanship Magazine (Facebook). Casey Hufstader (CH Packstring) is an experienced fifth generation packer from Oregon, USA, who I met along with Wade Mauhl (Outfitters Pack Station) on 2017’s International Pack Animal Meeting in Austria.
Pack Mule 101
by Casey Hufstader
What is the definition of a mule? Wikipedia says, “A mule is the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare).” I say it’s the original hybrid. You would know this if you’ve ever owned a mule. So why would you choose a mule over a horse as a pack animal? A mule is stronger, more intelligent, and eats less than a horse.
They are stronger than a horse because of their conformation – a mule’s body structure is built in a square. The front and rear legs are positioned more squarely under the body, which creates a larger mass of muscle over the topline and back. Their feet are solid, stout, and straight like stove pipes, whereas horse’s hooves are bell shaped and plated. A mule’s feet drive the structure of the animal straight toward the ground, which is also what makes them more sure-footed than a horse. Being sure-footed in the back country makes for faster, more efficient travel, as well as a safer experience for both animal and human. The back country wilderness is no place for an accident.
A horse is only capable of carrying 15% of its body weight in dead weight, whereas a mule is capable of carrying as much as 20% in dead weight and 30% in live weight. All of these attributes combined cause the mule to be a much more efficient selection as a pack animal.
The mule garners its intelligence from its father, the donkey side of the family. Mules and donkeys are thinkers. They are problem solvers. They know what they are going to do twenty minutes before they do it. In the case of a horse, when the fight or flight mode takes over, the horse will usually choose flight. A mule on the other hand will think through the issue, solve the problem, and face it head on. Mules also have a much deeper sense of self-preservation, which means their instinct to protect themselves, as well as those on or around them, is much stronger than a horse. A mule will never willingly hurt itself or put itself in harms way. The horse being a flight animal will flee first and think about it later; often putting themselves and those around them in jeopardy during their panic.
Mules are much more efficient to feed than a horse. They eat less, even under strenuous working conditions, and require much less nutrient-dense feed. This means that when packing with mules you don’t have to pack in as much feed into the back country. They are more adaptable to their environments, which comes from the donkey side of the family. This is an important attribute in the case of pack animals, because they are frequently changing terrain, feed, and elevation depending on what area they are packing in on a given day. Being that a horse’s digestive system is a lot more sensitive, mules are less likely to get sick or colic due to a feed change. Because mules eat less than horses, they have a higher feed conversion ratio, which comes in handy when having to pack in feed or rely on sparse pasture for grazing.
So how do you select a pack mule that is RIGHT for you? First, you need to determine what you will want to pack with this mule. If you are packing tall loads, you want to choose a tall mule. If you are packing long loads, you also want to choose a taller mule in order to keep your load off the ground … or whatever your bank account allows you to. I prefer free mules (although a word of warning: those usually come with the disadvantage of needing serious training tune-ups)!
All kidding aside, I actually prefer a smaller built, stout mule for packing, one that is in the 14-15hh range. They are easier to pack loads onto (don’t have to reach up as high), and narrower to get into tight spots on trails in the rough back country. When I look for a pack mule, I look for a square build with tall withers and strong, stout feet. The square build allows their load weight to be transferred more equally, straight toward their feet. A mule with a good set of prominent withers allows the pack saddle to rest properly without sliding or shifting under a load in steep country. Stout feet are important because it’s easier for the animals to travel through rough terrain without being prone to feet cracking, stone bruises, hoof abscesses or getting sore. These are issues you definitely want to avoid while up in the high country. I also look for an intelligent mindset, and a “no quit” work ethic. I prefer a mule whose character is more curious, and interested in what you are doing and what is going on around them; a mule that is brave, not afraid; a mule that will choose to fight versus flee if a precarious situation presents itself while out in the wilderness. Of course, being out in the back country, it’s important to choose a mule that is reliable and dependable to do its job, whatever task is set before them.
This is what I personally look for when choosing a mule for my pack string, and why I make those selections. Truly, I have nothing against horses – in fact, I prefer riding horses as my lead animals, and I will discuss the reasons behind that choice in a future article. I have had great success with composing my pack string using these simple guidelines, and I look forward to sharing with you the more technical aspects and experiences from my pack string in future articles. In the mean time, if you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.