EQUUS ‘Farm Calls’ episode 21: Donkeys and mules

EQUUS “Farm Calls” is brought to you in 2022 by Farnam—Your Partner in Horse Care.

Amy McLean, PhD, grew up on a farm in Georgia with horses, mules and donkeys. She said owning a mule or donkey is not like owning a horse. Mclean is an assistant professor at the University of California, Davis. She said when she moved to California, she was surprised when she had to tell boarding stables that she had a mule, and they had to consider that before they agreed to boarding.

Mclean shows her mule in a variety of classes against mules and horses, including trail, English and Western classes, cutting and driving. “I really enjoy having a mule!” she said.

But, she added, donkeys and especially mules are not for everyone!

Maggie the mule is dressed up for Halloween as a Zombie and is being ridden in an antique side-saddle.
Maggie the mule dressed up for Halloween as a zombie.


“A lot of people think poorly of mules and donkeys, but they are smart,” said Mclean. “They stop and think. And once you teach one to do something, they continue to do it. The idea that they are stubborn is confused.”

“There is a unique bond with owners if a mule ‘approves’ of the owner,” said Mclean.

She argues that horse owners might think mules are difficult because they think things over more than horses do.

“Mules are not for everyone,” she stated. “And they can really bond to a horse because most of them had a horse for a dam.”

She also said that mules like having a job, and like to spend time with their humans. “My mule will leave the two mares he lives with to come to me because he likes spending time with me,” she said. “I think they associate some people with being ‘happy,’” she said.

“There is nothing like a mule on the trail,” Mclean stated. “They are safe and trusty trail animals, and have grown in popularity because of recreational riding.”

Mclean also reminded horse owners that mules and donkeys are much more stoic than horses. Therefore, they need to learn behavioral signs to recognize when a mule or donkey is in pain.

Getting to Know Them

Most horse owner will walk up to the shoulder of a horse to start getting acquainted. That is considered a safe spot with a horse. Mclean said that’s not the best approach for a mule.

“Stand in front of them, face-to-face, and put your hand out. Then let the mule approach you,” advised Mclean. “Start by rubbing your hand up the mule’s face and forehead until it accepts you, then you can move to the side.”

If you have never watch mules in the field, you might not understand how agile they are. A mule can pick up a hind foot and scratch its shoulder on the same side just like a dog. The shoulder isn’t a safe spot.

She reminded horse folks that some mules—like some horses—don’t like their ears handled. Mclean said for those horses or mules, there are bridles that come apart easily, so you don’t have to slide the bridle over the ears.

Dogs and Asses

Mules and donkeys have a reputation as not liking dogs, but “they can be pretty accepting,” said Mclean.

Mules and donkeys are more territorial than horses. Therefore, they tend to chase predators and some other animals out of their pastures and fields. They can paw and bite at dogs or other animals and look pretty ferocious.

But, they also can bond to other species. Donkeys and mules are often used as “guard animals” for sheep, goats and cattle.

“Your mule might be fine with your dog, but you have to watch them, especially on a trail,” said Mclean. Some dog owners are not good about keeping dogs away from equids on the trail, and the loose dog might get kicked or stomped if it approached the mule before the rider can do anything about it.


Mules often can associate vets and farriers with pain. Therefore, they might be averse to letting those folks be around them. She advises owners and veterinarians to introduce new people as described above.

“Keep an eye on their body language,” said Mclean. “And treats work really well with mules to let them quickly get to know you!”

While many veterinarians like to have their assistants handle horses during farm calls, sometimes it is best to let an owner that is bonded to a mule handle the animal. “Even taking a rectal temperature is something the owner might have to do until the mule accepts the vet,” she noted.


She said owners of mules and donkeys need to try and find a farrier who is familiar with their feet.

Mules and donkeys have a more upright hoof and longer heel. And there is a different angle to the coffin joint,” said Mclean.

She advised that farriers not “pull the heels together” on a mule and don’t cut off too much hoof.

“There are some research papers on weight-bearing of donkeys versus horses,” said Mclean. “Horses have a three-point system and a donkey has a five-point loading system.”


Learn more about donkeys and mules in this podcast with Mclean. Other aspects covered include herd and pecking order, feet, skin, weight, ears, tack and equipment, fly control and summer sores.




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