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What is a Mule?

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Frances, Uncle Cory's Mule

When I was a little girl I wanted a horse more than anything. But we lived in town and horses were not allowed. I loved horses so much I pretended I had one and I galloped all over my grandfather’s huge front yard on my imaginary horse. I wonder how much that wish was reinforced by my Uncle Cory’s big brown mule. We visited Aunt Fanny and Uncle Cory on Sunday afternoons and I’d stand at the fence and watch the mule munch hay as he took his day off from plowing cornfields. One day Daddy and Uncle Cory let me go into the barnyard and ride the mule. It’s name was Frances, after the talking mule in the movies.

But once Daddy picked me up and put me on that mule’s back I realized I was high up off the ground and that was scary. So the ride was short and that was the last time I asked to ride Frances. It was years later before I learned Frances was not a horse.

Sadie Mae

Sadie Mae

So, what’s the difference between a mule and a horse?

So, what’s the difference between a mule and a horse? Well, a mule is only half a horse, a cross between a male donkey and a female horse. Reverse the formula, female donkey and male horse and the product is called a hinny. A male mule is called a John, the female a Molly. But, breeding those two will get you nowhere. The mule is sterile because of its genetic makeup; the donkey has 62 chromosomes and the horse has 64 resulting in the mule having 63. With an odd number of chromosomes scientists say it’s a one in a million chance of a female mule being fertile. There have been no known fertile male mules.

Mules come in as many sizes and types as there are horses and donkeys to produce them. There are draft mules, saddle mules and miniature mules.

George Washington was the first person in the United States to own mules. He learned that mules made good farm animals and he contacted the U.S. ambassador in Spain to ask about them. In 1785, King Charles III of Spain sent Washington a male donkey as a gift. But that jackass didn’t like Washington’s mares. So Washington had to get another, less picky, donkey to start his mule-raising project.

Mules have starred in movies and been the main character in books and songs. There is something about a mule that captures the hearts and imaginations of the human being. They have a long and colorful history.

Today mules are making a comeback. Their hardiness and surefootedness make them ideal for packing trips and trail rides. They have also been successful in the show ring. Some people even are using them to farm, reminiscent of the days when farms were small and mules were the only tractors used. Another surprising use for mules today is in the military. They can go where motorized vehicles can’t, whether in a jungle or desert, to pack in supplies.

You can read all about mules in The Book of Mules: Selecting, Breeding and Caring For Equine Hybrids.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Donna Campbell Smith


justmesuzanne from Texas on March 22, 2013:

Very nice mule information! :) Voted up and useful!

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on April 06, 2011:

Great Hub. God Bless You Precious Heart.

mega1 on April 09, 2010:

Frances the Talking Mule - those movies were absolutely great! I would like to see them again, especially the one where Frances joins the Army! I loved to ride but never had my own horse, wanted one badly. I love the smell of horse flesh and their intelligent eyes! I've heard some great things about North Carolina too. You are a marvelouse writer showing the kind of restraint I wish I had!

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Nature Girl 101 from Where the Wild things are. on March 23, 2010:

As a child growing up in farming country, we had mules to help with the farm work. They are wonderful animals. I enjoyed this hub about them. It took me back to my childhood. thank you!

grannygoodearth from Midwest on February 22, 2010:

What a great article! I am a mule lover from way back. You can be sure that I will be visiting the mule/donkey stalls at the Illinois Horse Show in Springfield in March. They are such wonderful animals! Thanks for reminding me!

Art 4 Life from in the middle of nowhere.... on February 22, 2010:

wonderful story...your words speak of a gentle time, a time of innocence, and it brought back memories of my own childhood...thank you for writing it...

Art 4 Life

Eddy Browning on February 22, 2010:


I am always amazed at how well you write. This is a wonderful and educational story. It held my interest and made me want to know more. A good article.

pacwriter from North Carolina on February 21, 2010:

great info and as always great writing

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on February 21, 2010:

Great overview of mules, Donna. With all that you know about them, it must have been hard to boil it down to a short article.

dineane from North Carolina on February 21, 2010:

I didn't get to meet Cheryl, but I did see your books in her shop :-)

Proudgrandpa on February 21, 2010:

Thanks for the fond memories. When I was about 12 the year after we lost our Dad, the neighbor couple would invite me to their farm just west of Ft. Lauderdale Florida where I learned to ride. I can still remember the feeding, watering and doctoring of these wonderful, graceful and powerful animals. I also kept my neighbors horses in our pasture when my kids were growing up. Good times.

I should know about mules since my wife says I sometimes act like one. Oh, back to my point. I always learn a lot from your hubs. I had no idea that mules had to be half horses. Great hub as usual. Thanks, NEIL

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