by Hope Holland

Mules, once having almost disappeared from the agricultural scene, have become the subject of a great deal of speculation. In the past six years, the price of a good team of mules has soared to formerly unbelievable prices at auction – $20,000 to $40,000 for a team is no longer unheard of. Even young mules are becoming costly animals.

To achieve a mule, a mare horse must be crossed with a donkey. In these days, with the “bigger is better” mindset, a Mammoth Jack is the preferred cross.

There are still places where people work mules. Tennessee is ground zero for mule enthusiasts. Paul V. White is a fourth-generation mule trainer in Crossville, TN.

Mules find new life in the age of the electric car

Judy Smith and her mule Sweet Sue competing in the Trail Class at Mule Days at Leatherwood Mountain Resort, Ferguson, NC. Photo courtesy of Suzette Joyner

According to White, “My father would never believe the prices that mules are going for these days! Of course, the mules today are fancier than they used to be. In the old days a mule was the product of a mare that was not anything special, a grade mare that was bred to a neighbor’s donkey. Now we are seeing some fancy draft bred mares, Clydesdale or Belgian mares bred to the Mammoth Jacks to get a lot of height and fancy looks. If you want red mules, you breed Clydesdale mares; if you want a dark team, you breed the Belgians.”

White would know about mule height. He was the owner of the largest mule on record, a gray gelding mule that topped out at 19.2 hands (78 inches). White said, “Me and my father found him as a plain little yearling in a shed. We bought him and took him home and threw the groceries to him. He started growing and didn’t stop until he broke that world record!”

One of the things that White thinks is driving the prices in mules is the chance for people to show them at state fairs. Many state fairs, driven by the public’s interest in animals and in a return to rural lifestyles, are reintroducing mule shows to their venues.

“Some of those men who are taking an interest in the mules don’t intend to drive them or work them. They are people who don’t have the time to do that but they like the chance to lead in a class winner or show champion that they have bought and raised. It’s good for the mules and it’s good for the men who have the property to keep them,” White said.

There is another place where the mule is the mount of choice: the sport of raccoon hunting. Travel at night across rough terrain of all sorts, following hounds that are tracking raccoons is not the place of horses but of mules. This sport has engendered another popular equine splinter sport, mule jumping, where the mule is asked to jump over a single pole from a standing start. The record to date is six feet, two inches.

The mule also found a niche in the American West. It’s not built for speed in herding cattle but its surefootedness is needed in the rough country of the Rockies and for transport into the depths of the Grand Canyon. Mule trains into the Grand Canyon are not merely for the delight of tourists but continue year-round down the nine-mile switchback trail to deliver the mail and supplies to the Havasupai Indians at the bottom of the canyon.

Until recently, the mule had been phased out of the Army, but the wars in Afghanistan created a necessity for pack mules which are now an integral part of the U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, CA.

Those who ride mules for pleasure – and the numbers are increasing as the riding population ages – say that mules tend to be healthier, sounder and live longer than horses. A good riding mule is a more level-headed mount and doesn’t seem to suffer from the flights of imagination that horses are prey to.

Mules are less prone to injury because they have a good sense of self-preservation. This might result from hybrid vigor – the genetic superiority of crossbred animals. Mules also have good, strong feet that usually don’t require shoeing, which is a plus in these days of regularly increasing equine costs.

There is another mule driven avocation: the wagon train. There are regular wagon trains across much of the continental U.S. Retirees are driving draft horses and mules with comfortable modernized wagons in large groups on frequent trips with cookouts, gatherings, church services and sleepovers at equine-friendly stops. For example, the Forney Trail Blazers Saddle Club of Alabama is gathering its members together for their 49th Annual Wagon Train, from Forney, AL, to Montgomery, AL, covering 185 miles in 11 days, starting in mid-March. They usually have four of these gatherings a year, weather permitting. Riders are welcome but the main mode of transportation will be by wagon. They are expecting to move along at 15 to 20 miles a day. Pictures of past rides show long lines of happy campers with mules and horses hitched to modernized (but by no means luxurious) wagons.

There are also commercial wagon trains that advertise that they give non-equine owners the joys of roughing it in the company of horses, mules, cookouts and primitive camping experiences, all of which are – in moderation – good for those who participate.