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The Epic Battle: Mule vs. Horse. Which Is Best For You?

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In our group trail rides, there are always one or two riders on a mule, which inevitably sparks us to debate, which is better, a horse or a mule. When I got home after our last trail ride, I researched to prepare for the next trail ride and the mule v. horse discussion.

Mules and horses each have advantages over the other. Which is best depends on what characteristics you value in an animal. Mules are more surefooted, but horses are faster, mules are infertile, and horses can reproduce.

The equestrian event or how you intend to use your animal will determine if a mule or horse is best for you. There are a lot of significant differences between mules and horses.

picture of a horse and mule looking at the camera,

Contents

Comparing horses and mules

Even though mules and horses have a lot of similarities, they have basic differences in genetics and athletic ability. I researched both in a few categories to find which excels over the other in different competitions.

Which is faster, a horse or a mule?

Generally, horses are the faster of the two animals. The horse has an average speed of around 30 miles per hour, while the mule maxes out at around 15 miles per hour. There are a few factors that contribute to this difference in speed.

For one, horses are simply built for speed. Their long legs and lightweight bodies are designed for running, and their hooves have evolved to minimize resistance against the ground. In contrast, mules are stockier and heavier, which makes them less adept at sprinting.

Additionally, mules tend to be less motivated than horses when it comes to running, so they don’t tend to put forth the same effort when racing. As a result, the horse is typically the faster of the two animals.

On the other hand, mules are known for their strength, endurance, and sure-footedness. They can carry heavy loads for long distances over tough terrain. So if the competition involves traveling a long distance while carrying a heavy load, then a mule may win.

And there are fast mules; many have a quarter horse or thoroughbred dam, which provides some speed; however, they won’t outrun a similarly bred horse.

Check out this article about Black Ruby, the most famous racing mule. She enters races up to a half-mile long and has won 57 races. She is a fast mule but still not fast compared to thoroughbreds or quarter horses. Black Ruby, the racing mule.

Which is better at dressage, a mule or a horse?

Horses are better in dressage, but mules are competitive.

Mules compete in dressage against horses, and some excel in the sport. The USET started accepting mules in dressage n 2004. Originally, members objected to the inclusion of mules in dressage because of the fear of mules kicking riders and other horses.

However, this fear did not stop mules from gaining approval to join USET dressage.

Dressage displays a participant’s natural athletic ability and willingness to perform for their rider. The pair must complete a series of movements from memory during a competition. Mules noted for the nimbleness of foot and having long memories seem ideal for the sport.

A mule made it to the USET dressage finals.

In 2014 a mule named Heart B Dyna made it to the USET dressage finals in Kentucky. Dyna is the first mule to qualify for the finals. In 2018 the United Dressage champion was a mule.

His name is Wallace, and he was a rescue mule. His owner had to fight hard against mule bias to get into competitive dressage in the U.K. You can read more about Wallace, the mule here.

Mules have made a lot of progress in dressage in the short time they have been allowed to compete. Some are very good, and more are expected to push horses for spots at the top of the ranks. But for now, horses still dominate the dressage world.

Which are better, show jumpers, horses, or mules?

Horses are better show jumpers than mules. The world jumping record for a horse is 8 ft 1.25 (2.47 m), set in 1949 by Huaso ex-Faithful. By contrast, the mule jumping record is 6 ft.

Mules jump differently than horses. Mules have their own unique jumping competition called “coon jumping.” In coon jumping competitions, mules walk up to a bar and leap over it from a standstill position without a rider.

It’s believed this competition was started by hunters who rode their mules to a fence, dismounted, climbed the fence, and then asked their mule to leap the fence.

Mules have a different style of jumping than horses.

Mules rock back and forth, and without taking a step, they jump the fence. Fence jumping led to competitive mule jumping. Owners often bragged about the heights their mule could jump, and the next thing we knew, competitions started.

They have gained popularity, and champions jump over 60 inches. The world record is 72 inches. Click this link to learn more about mule jumping competitions.

Mules can jump in the style of competitive horse jumping; however, they haven’t shown they can compete with horses at the highest levels of jumping.

Which has better overall footing, a horse or a mule?

Mules are more surefooted than a horse.

For trail riding in rugged terrain, a mule is more surefooted than a horse. They inherit this trait from the donkey side of the family. As we discussed earlier, mules have smaller upright feet. Their bodies are narrower and leg spindly but strong.

This combination allows a mule to maintain stability even on unlevel ground. Mules have a natural self-preservation instinct. This instinct creates caution in dangerous situations.

A mule will scope out the safest trails when descending mountains and slopes. Having an extra set of eyes looking for the most reliable path provides an extra level of comfort for his rider, which you don’t get while riding a horse.

Which is more responsive to their rider, a horse or a mule?

Horses respond to commands better than mules.

Horses are quicker to react to a rider’s command and have a smoother gait. During a trail ride, it’s possible to coax a horse along the way, even when he may not want to go in a particular direction. With a mule, you might as well turn around if he refuses going forward.

Mules have long memories, and if they refuse you on a trail, you often don’t have many options. A couple of final things about riding mules, they don’t spook easily and can endure heat better than horses.

Which is smarter, a mule or a horse?

Mules are typically smarter than horses.

Horses and mules are smart animals. Which is more intelligent? The answer depends on who you ask. Mules can learn extremely fast on their own. Often if they experience an adverse event, they remember it and will take action to prevent it from happening again.

Mules are smart when it comes to their health. If a mule feels overheated or thinks it is overworked or overused, they take time to recover either by slowing the pace or stopping altogether.

Horses can be taught very quickly but may not take the initiative to learn things independently, as a mule will. Mules can be harder to train, but it is not a lack of intelligence but a different way of learning and teaching. They are distinct and smart in varying ways.

Mules instinctively protect themselves and their rider.

Mules’ self-preservation instinct originates from his donkey genes. Donkeys are often used in pastures with cattle and sheep to ward off predators. They are known as active kickers.

Mules also act as a guard and are quick to protect themselves and others by biting and kicking something or someone it feels is threatening. A mule kicks hard and from different angles, you won’t see from a horse.

Which is stronger, a horse or a mule?

Mules can carry more weight than a horse.

Mules can pack a lot of weight for a substantial distance. Throughout history, mules have been used to transport goods in areas not accessible by other means. They are still used in the military in regions such as Afghanistan.

A mule can safely carry thirty percent of its body weight, compared to a horse that should not carry over twenty percent of its weight.

Factors must be considered in determining the amount to pack on a mule, but generally, mules can pack a higher percentage of their weight than a horse can carry.

Horses and mules are genetically different.

Genetically, all horses have 64 chromosomes, and all donkeys have 63 chromosomes. The mating of a horse with 64 chromosomes to a donkey with 62 chromosomes equates to a mule with 63 chromosomes.

A mule is sterile, and horses can reproduce. The number of chromosomes in mules makes them infertile. In interspecific hybrids, such as mules, being unable to reproduce is common.

Failure to reproduce prevents the movement of genes from one species to the other, thus keeping species distinct. There have been reported cases of female mules becoming pregnant by donkeys, but this is an infrequent occurrence.

Picture of my friend on his mule.
Trail riding mule

Mules and horses have different conformation.

Mules take on the body composition of their parents to a degree. Typically mules inherit small feet, big ears, coarse hair, and thin limbs from the donkey sire.

They tend to inherit more of the overall body structure of a horse. Let’s look at the differences between horse and mule conformation and characteristics.

Mules have longer heads.

Mules have longer heads than horses, similar to their sire in this regard. A donkey has a large head proportionately compared to its small body.

Mules have extremely long ears.

This is the most apparent difference between a horse and a mule; a mule has long ears that can be as long as 33 inches. Mules also are prone to have sensitive ears, and they don’t like them fooled with.

Mule owners will often ride their mule with a unique harness that fits its head without touching its ears. This specialized harness is called a “mule bonnet.”

Picture of the underside of a mules foot
The underside of a mule’s foot

Horses have larger feet than a mule.

Mules have smaller feet relative to the same-sized horse. It is common to use pony shoes on a full-sized mule. Also, mule hooves are tougher than horses, concave, and more upright.

A standard mule hoof will have low heels, big frogs, and a short toe. When a mule walks, the frog hits the ground first. Mules have fewer problems with their feet than horses.

Mules have deeper chests than a horse.

A mule typically takes the characteristics of its dam in height, neck length, and hindquarters. However, the muscling of a mule is smoother than a horse.

Also, a mule has higher withers and carries more of its weight on its front end. Mules have a deep chests and straighter back than a horse. From the sire donkey, the mule gets thinner limbs and smaller hooves.

Horses are typically taller than mules.

Horses are generally taller than mules. Many mules are taller than some horses. A mule can take on the height of his dam and sometimes grow taller, but generally, a mule of the same breed as the mare is shorter.

Horses’ coats are smooth and full compared to a mule’s thin, coarse coats.

Horses have shiny, smooth coats with heavy manes and tails, and mules have thinner, coarser coats like a donkey and a minimum amount of mane hair.

The coats of horses can be varieties of the following colors―chestnut, black, gray, bay, brown, palomino, pinto, and white coats. Mules follow a similar color spectrum as the horse, but most, are brown or bay-colored.

Another easy difference to spot is that, in the summer, a mule’s coat tends to more closely resemble a horse’s rather than the longer, coarse hairs of a donkey.  However, in winter, mules tend to develop coats that more closely resemble a donkey.

Mules are less likely than horses to get skin irritations.

Mules have skin that is more resistant to irritation than the skin of horses. Horses, especially ones with light-colored coats and pink skin, develop skin irritation from sun and rain much easier than mules.

Also, a mule is less likely to develop skin irritation caused by tack. Having good skin is a significant benefit to people working with animals in direct sunlight for extended periods.

Horses and mules make different vocal noises.

Mules and horses make different sounds. A mule makes a sound similar to his sire’s hee-haw sound with a little of his mother’s whinny — a horse neighs and whinnies.

The advantages of owning a mule over a horse.

Mules are typically more expensive than horses. Generally, the initial price of a good trail mule is higher than that of a comparable trail horse. However, it is essential to consider that a mule costs less to keep, lives longer, and is less likely to have to visit a veterinarian than a horse.

It costs less to feed a mule than a horse.

Mules rarely need grain to stay healthy and can maintain proper body weight by eating fresh hay or grass. The only times a mule may need grain to supplement their diet is if they are being worked unusually hard.

Even during a mule’s work period, the grain he requires is significantly less than what is needed to maintain a similarly sized horse.

Mules colic less frequently than horses.

Mules don’t overeat and rarely founder or colic. Leg problems in mules don’t occur as often as they are in horses. Overall, mules are sounder animals than horses and require fewer vet visits.

Mules Live Longer than Horses.

Mules typically live longer than horses and are productive longer as well. Depending on the care a mule gets, they can live to 40 years of age. Likewise, a horse kept similarly can live to 28 years of age.

There are cases of mules living up to 50 years old. It is not unusual to ride a mule well into its 20s.

Mules are mentioned in ancient writings.

Ancient writings mention mules; the Greek writer Homer wrote about mules in 800 B.C. The book of Genesis refers to mules in the Old Testament of the Bible.

George Washington raised mules.

Mules were good enough for the first president of our great country, George Washington. He started the first mule breeding program in North America in 1785. Does this mean you should buy a mule?

I leave that up to you, but if a mule was good enough for George Washington, then a mule should be good enough for anyone.

FAQ

What is the offspring of a donkey and a horse called?

A mule is the offspring of a donkey and a horse. More specifically, a mule is the offspring of a jack (male donkey) mated with a mare (female horse). In technical terms, a mule is an interspecific hybrid animal.

Is a mule and a hinny the same thing?

Mules and hinnies are different. Although both are products of a horse and donkey mating, a mule has a donkey sire, and a hinny has a stallion sire. Mules are more prevalent because their conformation is more predictable.
Mare x Jack= Mule
Jenny (female donkey) x Stallion= Hinney

What do you call a female mule?

A female mule is called a Molly, but the correct name for a female mule is a mare mule. A male mule is called a Jack mule, but the proper name for a male mule is a horse mule.

Is a mule the right choice for you?

A mule could be the perfect animal for you. Hybrids, such as mules, often are more adaptable and reliable than their parents in certain aspects. This is true for the mule. Mules tend to be healthier, easier to keep, have more endurance, and tolerate heat better than their dam, the horse.
Mules can also carry more weight than a horse while needing less grain. Does this mean a mule is right for you? Horses are faster and quicker than mules and can jump better with a rider than a mule. Are these the attributes you’re looking for in your next ride?

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