What's the Difference Between and Horse and a Mule?

Understanding the difference between a horse and a mule can help you understand some of the basics of life on the frontier.

Images via Pixabay: Mule ( https://pixabay.com/photos/mule-head-farm-nature-agriculture-893336/) ; Horse (https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-mare-bridle-animal-ride-3390256/)

Images via Pixabay: Mule (https://pixabay.com/photos/mule-head-farm-nature-agriculture-893336/); Horse (https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-mare-bridle-animal-ride-3390256/)

It goes without saying that people of the past lived very different lives than you and I. The things they knew, the skills they developed, the beliefs they held; they were all subject to their place and time in history. For the most part, people on the frontier had a much better sense of utilitarian skills and skills of self-reliance then we do. it doesn’t mean that they were smarter than us, it just means we know about different things. For example; Pa Ingalls from the Little House series knew how to build a house without using nails. On the other hand, he and his family didn’t know anything about the disease malaria, and they about paid the ultimate price for it. Part of what studying history, particularly living history, can do, is bridge the gap between our modern knowledge of the world, to their more traditional knowledge. One thing that every pioneer would have been familiar with, was the difference between a horse and a mule.

If you’ve been reading along in my book, History of the West with Jemmey Fletcher; A Ride to Rendezvous; you probably just met Laramie; the grizzled mountain man. If not, perhaps you are just interested in the question “what is the difference between a horse and a mule”. Either way, understanding the difference between a horse and a mule is important to understand the history of the frontier. Let’s take a quick look at two important species to understand this question.

Horses 101

Historically speaking, horses are an old animal. According to one article, the species goes back about 55 million years. During that 55 million years, horses and people have developed a long, and sometimes complicated, relationship. In fact, there is archeological evidence to support that 130,000 years ago, hunters were targeting horses for consumption. You can imagine, given a horse’s speed and size, they would have been very difficult animals to hunt. Oddly enough, the hunter/prey relationship, seems to have been the dominant human-horse relationship throughout history. In a world where humans and horses are so connected, it’s strange to think about it this way.

Eventually people began to domesticate horses. Like many topics in prehistory, the facts of how that was accomplished are murky at best. One study suggests the first domesticated horses came from Russia about 6,000 years ago. Whether or not this is true is debatable. One thing, however, is certain; once domesticated, the horse transformed the societies it touched. Horses are strong, allowing them to do more work when harnessed for farming. Horses are fast, allowing them to move information over a large area quicker than a foot messenger could. Perhaps most of all, the horse used in warfare could be absolutely devastating. Horses were used by Egyptians, Asians, and Europeans equally as effectively. Once Native American tribes acquired the horse after European introduction, their societies transformed in a very short period of time. Horses are a big deal.

In terms of specifics, horses are fairly large. Although there are many different breeds, each with their own characteristics, the average height of a horse is around 62 inches at the withers (where the shoulder blades meet the backbone). They also generally weight in the 1,000 pound range, again with huge fluctuations based on the specific breed. As mentioned, horses are also fast. While in a gallop, they can run around 30 mph. This would allow them to outrun the fastest humans. The fastest horses can also run around 55 mph for short bursts. Although these specifics might seem unimportant, they are important to understanding the question, how are horses and mules different.

Donkeys 101

The second part of learning the difference between a horse and a mule actually starts with another animal; the donkey. Why would we learn about the donkey? Well, that’s because a donkey is generally the father (could be the mother) of the mule. When you breed a donkey to a horse, you get a mule. To understand that cross, it helps to understand the donkey a bit more.

To understand the difference between horses and mules, you need to also understand a little about donkeys. Image via Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-mare-bridle-animal-ride-3390256/

To understand the difference between horses and mules, you need to also understand a little about donkeys. Image via Pixabay; https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-mare-bridle-animal-ride-3390256/

One source suggests that donkeys and horses once shared a common ancestor, but at some point in time their species broke into separate directions. Like the horse, once the donkey became its own species, there were multiple variations that gave rise to different species within donkey's themselves.

Humans apparently domesticated donkeys about the same time horses were domesticated; about 6,000 years ago. Donkeys were also used widely by the Egyptians, Romans, and in North Africa as beasts of burden. In fact, that has been the primary purpose of donkeys throughout their history. Donkeys don’t share the same traits as horses. They are not extremely big, nor fast. Pound for pound though, donkeys are some of the toughest animals out there. Pound for pound they can carry, and pull, more weight than a horse. They also have different tendencies than horses. One desirable trait they have, is they tend to startle less than a horse, making them easier to handle in that regard. Being smaller, and generally more hardy, they also eat a lot less than a horse.

In terms of size, there are obvious differences between horses and donkeys. Donkeys are smaller, generally growing only to around 45 inches at the withers, and only weigh around 500 pounds. In terms of speed, although the fastest donkey every clocked ran 43 mph, the average speed is much closer to 30 mph for a donkey. This is much slower than the average horse, making them less ideal in that department.

Understanding Mules

So, where do mules come into play? Mules are the attempt to breed horses and donkeys together, in order to gain desirable traits of both animals. Generally speaking, mules are born after a Jack (male donkey) has bred a mare (female horse). The resulting animal is either a John mule (male mule) or a molly mule (female mule). You can also have what folks call a hinny mule. This is the result of having a stallion (horse) father, and a jennet (donkey female) mother. A hinny is not as popular as a mule, since they tend to share more characteristics of the donkey mother.

In terms of performance, mules are a combination of horses and donkeys. Mules are not as fast as horses, but they are faster than donkeys. Mules are larger than donkeys, but are smaller than most horses. Mules are also stronger than donkeys, but can’t carry as much pound for pound. They also have the intelligence of the donkey (tended to be considered more intelligent), but also the streak of self-preservation making them more apt to be “stubborn.” Basically, a horse may hurt itself for the rider, or go into an uncomfortable place, and a donkey, or mule, will not.

One of the big proponents of bringing mules to America was George Washington. He believed that mules were simply more economical than horses. They eat less, and worked harder, thus being a greater good to the public.

One interesting aspect to consider, is the genetics of the crossbreeding. Horses have 64 chromosomes, while donkeys have only 62 chromosomes. This produces a mule that has 63. As a result, mules are sterile, and only a few documented cases exist where mules successfully gave birth to a mule colt.

Mules in History

Historically speaking, both horses and mules were widely used on the American frontier. Among mountain men, like Laramie, mules were often used as pack animals, but could just as commonly be ridden. Men like Old Bill Williams, Kit Carson, and Jim Bridger, commonly rode mules in the mountains. Miners tended towards mules, or even donkeys, for their toughness and smaller nutrition needs. On the homestead, horses were widely used, but mules were also commonly hitched to the plow. Basically, it came down to each pioneer’s situation. Over time, the horse did come to dominate most of the American West. As the cattle industry picked up as the major economic activity, horses replaced mules due to their superior athleticism. Mules were also replaced by tractors as that technology became more and more common.

Mule doing the task it is well known for; working. Image via wikicommons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pack_Mule_in_the_Forest_(16373923491).jpg

Mule doing the task it is well known for; working. Image via wikicommons; https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Pack_Mule_in_the_Forest_(16373923491).jpg

Today, both horses and mules have mostly been replaced by technology. That being said, there are still cowboys riding horses to gather cattle every day. Packers still saddle up their mules to haul loads up steep mountainsides day after day. Both animals are still hitched to wagons to pull heavy loads or passengers . Although neither animal is used to the extent they once were, they both played an important role in the American frontier.

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