If you’re planning to attend the Donkey and Mule Show at next month’s S.C. State Fair, it might be-hoof you to know a bit about these long-eared creatures.
So, without further ado, here’s the Greenhorn’s Guide to Mules and Donkeys, brought to you by veterinarian Dr. Lari Hoback, who treats mules and donkeys and lives on a farm in Eastover, and Shannon Hoffman, an accomplished horsewoman who lives in Zebulon, North Carolina, and will be judging this year’s show.
So first all, what is a mule?
“The mule is the result of a cross between a male donkey (called a jack) and a female horse,” Hoback said. “The resulting offspring is sterile in all but the most unusual situations.”
Despite their sterility, mules have male and female anatomy, thus, a female mule is often called a “molly mule” and a male, a “john mule.”
“There is another not-so-common equine hybrid called a hinny,” Hoffman said. “This is made with a father horse and a mother donkey. The hinny tends to be smaller, short-eared and has personality traits more like a donkey.”
What about the history of the mule?
“Mules and donkeys were integral in the foundation of our country,” Hoback said. “George Washington was fascinated with mules and ultimately acquired his jack, named Royal Gift, from the Spanish. He had a tremendous breeding program for mules at Mount Vernon.”
Washington, Hoback said, once noted that mules were found to “live longer, be less liable to disease, require less food, and in every respect be more serviceable and economical than the horse in the agricultural labor of the Southern states.’
“Since then,” Hoback said, “the mule and donkey have continued to assist us and were even utilized during the Iraq war to help carry supplies through the mountains.”
So why do mules and donkeys have such long ears?
“Donkeys are desert animals,” Hoffman said. “Like many animals which live and thrive in the desert, donkeys have big ears. The larger ears create more surface area for the body to help dissipate heat in the hot climates like Africa. The bigger ears seem to also help increase their ability to hear, something else important to help protect donkeys from predators.”
And while horses whinny and neigh, what is the reason behind the loud and unusual noise – called braying – that mules and donkeys make?
“Their physical structure is different,” Hoffman said, “and so when moving air across their larynxes, it causes them to have their very own sound. Each mule and donkey sounds totally different from the other and seems to have their own style of braying.”
Are there any common misunderstandings about mules and donkeys?
“Mules and donkeys are often considered stubborn because they are thinkers with a very strong self-preservation instinct and a reliance on common sense,” Hoback said.
“This makes them evaluate every angle of a situation before they decide on the best course of action. There was an animal behaviorist who conducted testing and found mules and donkeys to be better problem-solvers than horses or even most dogs. Once a mule accepts you and trusts your plan of action, they are one of the most reliable mounts you’ll ever ride. But sometimes getting to that understanding can take quite a bit of time and patience compared to training a horse, and that is where the designation of stubborn is often employed.”
What other differences are there between horses and mules?
“Mules are two to three times stronger than horses,” Hoffman said.
“The mule must have complete trust in its owner/trainer or it will not willingly follow commands. A mule must see the point or goal in the job it is doing. Mules take a lot longer to grow and mature. They live longer and generally are able to work and be ridden longer.”
Mules are also exceptionally sure-footed. Their hooves are smaller and more vertical and thus, mules are more able to pick and choose where to safely place their feet in rocky terrain.
Is there anything else folks should know before attending the fair’s Donkey and Mule Show?
“Mule and donkey people are some of the most wonderful, salt of the earth, friendly people,” Hoffman said.
“We love our mules and donkeys with passion and will willingly talk to you about them and answer any questions you might have. Oh yes, and we have heard every ass and long-ear joke you can think of!”
The Donkey and Mule Show is Oct. 14-15 at the S.C. State Fair.
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing email@example.com.