Miniature and Hunting Mules of Missouri
Department of Animal Sciences
The miniature and hunting mule, tack, harness and wagon business is booming in Missouri and has spread to surrounding states. Miniature mules are 50 inches tall or less. Hunting mules can be any height, but those carrying adult riders are about 50 inches or taller. Size is the only visible difference, as both groups are bred alike and perform in about the same activities. Height is used mainly for show classification. Larger mules are used to carry adult and youth riders.
What is a mule?
A mule is a hybrid — a cross between a mare and an ass. Shetland pony mares usually are crossed with a small jack to produce miniature and hunting mules. Crossing Jennets with small stallions produces a "hinny," which cannot be distinguished from a mule. Some people believe "hinnies" are harder to handle than mules, but this contention is hard to confirm.
These crosses are sterile when bred back to the original cross or to each other. Mare mules have regular heat cycles, but do not settle. Uncastrated mules are aggressive breeders, but are also sterile. Choice colors are sorrel, blond sorrel and gray. Blacks are discounted in price.
"Stubborn as a mule," "mule-headed" and other less printable terms are household words in describing mules. The proverbial "getting his attention with a 2-by-4 between the ears" is an unfair comment on the average mule's disposition. The nature of a mule is different from that of a horse. Mules are wiser, when it comes to their own welfare, than horses. When they are frustrated or uncertain, they stop and think it over. We call them stubborn for this. Unlike horses, they will almost never overeat or founder and will seldom run into obstacles if running away. Mules are seldom, if ever, seen in pulling contests, although they are good pullers in regular work. They learn in the first contest that punishment is not allowed, so why pull themselves to death?
Mules are sure-footed in rough terrain. Their judgment on what is unsafe footing is quite good, and they only negotiate slick spots and quagmires after careful appraisal.
Most people not familiar with mules worry about getting kicked by them, but "mulemen" handle them with little concern. Mule colts communicate with each other in play and competition with body, teeth and heels. It's natural for them to do so with humans, although many never kick. Discipline for kicking at this age quickly eliminates the problem because mules respond well to discipline and seldom forget.
The disposition of mare mules is considered more desirable than that of horse mules. Horse mules play with great vigor and sometimes get injured in the process. If you are showing them, it may be necessary to keep them separated because some of them will play and wrestle with such enthusiasm that they keep spots of hide and hair knocked off. Mules will sometimes chase calves when cattle are kept with them. However, not all horse mules are this active.
Mules are hardier than horses. They withstand more heat and stress, carry and pull heavier loads and live longer than horses. They take care of themselves better under conditions of hardship and probably do so with less feed.
This difference is not great, however, and overwork and stress should not be imposed upon them just because they can survive it.
Handling and training mules
Mules respond to kindness and patience just as horses do. They should be handled early in life — by 2 weeks of age. Teach them to lead, tie, have their feet handled and be groomed.
At about 18 months to 2 years of age (they should be completely gentle from prior handling), a mule can be harnessed and hooked to a sled with a gentle, broke mule. Have a tongue in the sled and a helper with you. It may help to hitch while the mules are tied to the stable or a post. If the young mule is kept from running, it will break out more gentle than if let run the first time it is hooked up.
Many pairs are broken together. They are simply hitched to a weighted sled, and when they start it, the driver steps on. The weight of the outfit discourages running away. Some owners allow young mules to run in a large open field when first hitched up. They feel it gives them more spirit, and it probably does — maybe too much.
Young mules learn the commands to start and stop very quickly. Since they are natural pullers, they are easy to break and train.
After a few days on the sled, they are ready to hitch to a wagon. You may need an assistant to help hitch and keep the young team under control. Do not trot and invite runaways until they respond well to stopping and standing. When they are under good control, get them tired, then trot in a circle reversing directions frequently. Like horses, hard work at a variety of tasks teaches the young team a lot.
Once mules are acquainted with their handler, their performance is quite predictable. For example, if you have a good-driving four-mule hitch, they will drive well almost every time they are taken on the road or into a show ring. They seldom get nervous enough to prance or refuse to walk in the show ring. Indeed, almost any mule team will make a good show with no warm-up, if necessary. Because of this fact, it is important to break them out well, without serious problems, since early training is remembered a lifetime.
Breaking to ride
Gentle mules seldom buck, especially those broke to work. Many are tied with head up in a barn while saddled, "sacked out" and mounted. After a few mounts, they are ridden out around the stable.
The first trips away from the stable are best made with another person on a broke mule or horse, as they may refuse to go alone. Work them as you would a horse and teach them to neck rein.
Some mules are ear shy and reluctant to be bridled. You may need to snub them for a while when bridling.
Equipment, harness, tack
Most wagons have rubber tires and good braking systems. Miniature mules will pull regular-size farm wagons when the tongue is shortened, but most wagons are custom-made using small automobile wheels and braking systems.
Show and parade wagons that are driven around crowds of people have foot brakes so both hands can be on the lines. Some show wagons are imaginative and attractive in design and build.
The work harness is often cut down by a harness maker from a regular-size harness. Be sure it has not dried out too much or it will not be strong. A satisfactory cut-down harness at a semi-annual tack sale ranges from $100 to $300.
A show harness is custom-made and much more expensive. It is adorned with extensive decorations and may range in price per set from $500 to $1,000.
Mules tend to have low, wide, round withers and do not hold a saddle well. A medium-wide gullet in the tree helps, but extra-wide "Quarter Horse" trees may be too wide for these small mules. Fourteen-inch seats are more appropriate than standard 15-inch seats, and medium-weight saddles are adequate in size. Saddles should be secured by breast collars and cruppers to keep them from turning.
Riding bridles with various kinds of bits are used. Most are curb bits with enough severity to control the animal. Mules are harder-mouthed than horses and require more control. Some riders use "hackamore" bits.
In competitions, pair mules are judged 50 percent on performance at walk, trot and maneuvering the vehicle forward and backward and 25 percent each on equipment and how well-matched they are.
There are more than 50 paid members in the Missouri Miniature Mule Association. The Association meets quarterly for business planning and promotional sessions. It sponsors two mule and tack sales annually, formulates policy, develops show rules and promotes shows and show classes in established horse shows. Members also promote mules through parades and participate in trail rides and other mixed horse activities. The main activities that association members enjoy are showing hitches, jumping, driving for fun and just talking about and trading mules.
Miniature mule show classes
Miniature mule conformation and driving show classes are much like adult mule show classes. In addition, there are often bareback classes and classes under saddle. They are judged on performance much like horses are.
Following are the classes offered at the Missouri State Fair. Note that this schedule is weak in riding events.
Miniature mules 50 inches and under — In hand
Mare 50 inches and under and Horse
Mare 50 inches and under Mare Colt
Horse Mule, 1 year
Horse Mule, 2 year
Horse Mule, 3 years and over
Mare Mule, 1 year
Mare Mule, 2 years
Mare Mule, 3 years
Mare Mule, 4 years and over
Horse Mule, 3 years and older, 46 inches and under
Mare Mule, 3 years and older, 46 inches and under
Pair Mules, 3 years and older, 46 inches and under
Pair Mules, any age
5 Mules, any age, owned by exhibitor
Reserve Grand Champion
Two Mule Hitch, 50 inches and under
Lady Driver, Must have co-driver
Two Mule Hitch, 46 inches and under
Mule 50 inches and under, Cart Class
Two Mule Hitch, 50 inches and under
Four Mule Hitch, 50 inches and under
Unicorn Hitch, 50 inches and under
The hitches are "shown as a heavy harness hitch to a suitable 4-wheel wagon at a flat walk and jog trot. Must back straight, swing right and left without moving rear wheels of wagon. Judged 50 percent on the performance, 25 percent on equipment and 25 percent on matched mules."
The "jog trot" is faster than most horsemen think of a jog, and some judges may want an extended trot. The Missouri Miniature Mule Association has developed a judging score card as follows. Note that beauty or "eye appeal" in General Appearance and Head and Neck total 50 percent.
Miniature mule score card
(Missouri Miniature Mule Association)
General appearance (eye appeal) — 20 percent
Symmetrical form, stylish carriage, smoothly made, blending of all parts into a balanced animal.
Temperament alert and energetic but not wild, spoiled or unbroken.
No serious conformation faults, such as crooked legs, low backs, plain heads, rough build, coarse bones and joints.
Head and neck — 30 percent
Head — refined features, smartly carried.
Ears — long, pointed, alertly carried.
Eyes — large, full, clear.
Lower jaw — strong, clean, angle wide.
Muzzle — tapered, nostrils large, lips firm.
Neck — reasonably long, crested but not thick.
Plain heads, thick throatlatches, rolled crested necks, short ears discriminated against.
Body — 30 percent
Back — short, strong, full coupling.
Shoulders — sloping, long, smoothly laid in.
Croup or rump — long, reasonably level. Not short, steep or tapered to the rear.
Thighs — full, wide from side view. Not tapered top to bottom.
Chest — wide, legs spaced apart. Narrow chests and bodies discriminated against.
Appropriate size — 50 inches maximum height.
Leg set and action — 20 percent
Legs — straight, on the corners of the body. Knock knees, crooked ankles, sickle and cow hocks discriminated against.
Action — prompt, straight, true and long.
Mules should walk fast and willingly.
In the beginning, "coon" hunting mules were developed to follow hounds by the rider dismounting and placing a blanket or coat over wire fences so they could see them for jumping.
Recently, the Missouri Hunting Mule Association has concerned itself mostly with show jumping. Audiences are intrigued and amazed that some mules can stand flat-footed and jump a wall 12 to 16 inches higher than their withers. The association prepares and revises rules, promotes mule jumps far and near, and has its own special gymkana classes. Following is a typical show schedule:
Model class. (Inches refer to height of mule.)
Jump I — 48 inches and under.
Pleasure class (more than 14 years of age).
Jump II — 50 inches and under.
Walk trot (14 and under).
Jump III — 52 inches and under.
Jump IV — over 52 inches.
Pick up race.
Relay race — 2 man.
Egg and spoon.
Bat 'n' barrel.
How jumping mules are scored
The jump consists of a solid wall of 2-inch lumber with a "box" or 10-foot wings. Mules take their turns as the jump is raised, 2, 4 or 6 inches each time, starting low enough for all to jump it easily, usually 40 or 44 inches.
When led into the box, the mule has one minute to clear the jump. If he refuses in that time limit or backs out of the box with one hind foot (this keeps him from running at it) he is disqualified and is immediately given one more chance.
He can jump willingly and be disqualified by touching a back leg below the hock or "climbing" over the jump. Contact with the belly is allowed if he does not bear weight and balance over on it.
A good jumping mule is positioned by the handler back from the jump about the distance of its height before being permitted to jump. When his front end clears, a sharp pull downward on the halter shank helps raise the back end and clear the top board.
Many hunting mules never show jump but can jump over a tailgate into a pickup truck or over a farm fence with ease. Some coon hunters use them consistently, and some people simply pleasure ride them in rough country because they can go almost anywhere. In recent years, some have been trained and used for bird hunting.
Teaching a mule to jump
Mules are natural jumpers, some more so than others. It's easy to find the talented ones by setting up a low jump and having an assistant behind them with a whip. If talented, they pick up jumping amazingly quickly. Practice can soon have them jumping 4 feet high.
Training is often started with long yearlings, although older mules will learn to jump.