A Tribute to Mules

Missouri has been famous as a producer of quality mules for many decades. The mule has been designated as the official state animal of Missouri. Having been born and raised as a Missourian, I have always been fond of mules.  The sight of a splendid, matched team of mules all decked out in their parade regalia  moving out at a fast trot is as inspiring to me as the Anheuser-Busch  Clydesdale’s.

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Surveys both here and in the UK indicate that most people, even those in  equestrian circles, do not know very much about mules.  Here are some nuggets of information about these unusual and fascinating creatures. 

  • A mule is the  offspring of a male donkey or jack,  and a female horse. Horses have 64 chromosomes, donkeys have 62, and mules and hinnies have 63.  Because of this odd number of chromosomes, mules are 99.9 percent sterile. 
  • The size of a mule depends largely on the breeding of the mule's female parent.
  • Mules can live up to 50 years, with an average lifespan of 30-40 years. 
  • A male mule is called a john or horse mule. A female mule is called a molly or mare.  
  • A group of mules is called a ‘barren’, probably because of their reproductive sterility.
  • A female donkey is called a jennet and can be bred with a male horse to create a hinny.  
  • Throughout history mules have played major roles as beasts of burden during wars. Mules were used to carry artillery, food, supplies and even wounded soldiers on the battlefield in WWL , and subsequent conflicts up to and including Afghanistan,
  • There are just under 10 million mules in the world, and the majority of these are working in agriculture or as pack animals in isolate areas. 
  • Legend has it that George Washington is “The Father of the American Mule.” In 1785, King Charles III of Spain  presented Washington with a large Spanish jack. Another gift of a Maltese jack and two jennets from French General Lafayette was received in 1786. These animals provided the genetic base for the American mule. 
  • Mules are prized for their hybrid vigor, strength, endurance, and resilience.  Mules are reputed to be more intelligent, patient, hardy and long-lived than horses. Mules have a reputation of being stubborn.  I believe this is unwarranted and stems from the fact a mule is too smart to work itself beyond the bounds of healthy behavior. 
  • The expression ‘kick like a mule’ stems from the fact that, unlike horses, mules have no accessory ligament that limits lateral movement in the hip joint.  This allows them to kick sideways or as some say ‘cow-kick.’  Horses can only kick backwards. 
  • Famous Americans —including Mark Twain, Buffalo Bill Cody, Harry Truman, Ronald Reagan — have ridden mules.  Ken Curtis in his  “Gunsmoke” role as Festus rode a male mule named Ruth. 
  • Finally, for those concerned about climate change,  mule farts contain less methane than horse farts.

It has been said that the mule is an animal with no pride of ancestry and no hope for posterity — Nevertheless, these noble animals seem to go through life with a regal equanimity that belies their humble beginnings.

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