Last Tuesday morning I attended a Mule Theory Training Course at Paccombe Training Centre with Ben Hart. I was in my element, being an avid mule fan. Ben said that someone once told him that mules are like marmite, you either love them or you hate them and this is so true! Some people find them difficult and stubborn and prefer the simplicity of donkeys or horses/ponies. Some people love their complex nature and find the challenge of working with mules appealing.
We started off by having a good brainstorming session in groups, about what we think we know about mules, and I learnt a lot about the history of these magnificent creatures.
The Romans were keen mule breeders; apparently emperors, popes, queens and noble ladies rode mules instead of horses as they were considered more special.
Mules were used by the Roman Army and in both World Wars; although they were never used as cavalry chargers, as they have a high sense of self preservation and therefore would refuse to run headfirst into danger, they were used as pack animals to carry guns and supplies.
Ben showed us some amazing pictures of mules who were strapped to pallets and parachuted out of aeroplanes into the work in the wars, it is unbelievable to think that the mules co-operated but we saw the photographic evidence, and Ben read us some fascinating snippets from a book written by a man who worked with mules in the army, and says he owes his life to the mules who served with him. The book was called The Military Mule in the Army and Indian Army; it is not available in the shops, so we felt very privileged to be able to have a flick through at lunchtime.
Moving on to a little bit of American history, George Washington introduced a mule breeding programme to America after he was given a large Spanish Jack by The King of Spain as a gift in 1785, and today mules are hugely popular in America. They have competitions where the mules do everything horses do, such as dressage, show jumping and more; they have special mule jumping competitions called ‘Coon Jumping’ where the mules jump incredible heights from a standstill, the idea for this originates from the old tradition of raccoon hunting, when the mule handlers trained their mules to jump fences instead of going to find gates. Mules can jump more than their own height from a complete standstill. (Ben showed us some breathtaking footage from YouTube).
We then moved on to mule behaviour and we learned that because a mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey, when frightened generally the first instinct is flight and so mules will try to run away, which they have inherited from the horse, the second instinct if flight is not an option is to stand stock still and deal with the situation, which is inherited from the donkey.
Next we talked about the differences between mules and hinnies. A mule has a horse mother and a donkey father, and therefore generally has the body of a horse with the extremities of a donkey. They are more vocal than hinnies but sound more like a donkey and their behaviour is a mixture of horse and donkey, they can be nervous and flighty yet also stoic and calm. A hinny has a donkey mother and a pony father, therefore generally has the body of a donkey and the extremities of a horse or pony, they are less vocal than mules and they tend to be more donkey-like in behaviour which makes them quieter to handle.
It can be hard to tell just by looking whether they are mules or hinnies. Ben told us one way to test this can be to turn them out with a mixed group to see who they will choose for companions, mules would be likely to choose other mules or horses whereas hinnies would choose other hinnies or donkeys, maybe because they would choose the species they were reared with.
We then moved onto a group brainstorm about what type of person you need to be to train mules, and the best type of environment for training them. Ben showed us some video footage of a mule called Mrs Knox who now lives at Paccombe Training Centre. When she first came into the Sanctuary she was difficult to handle, and it was really interesting to see her old behaviour before we went out on the yard to meet her.
Ben also passed on some words of wisdom for us to remember when training mules “A horse will forgive and forget, a mule will remember and get you back, even if it is sometime in the future!”
Before we came to the end of the course Ben briefly demonstrated some of Mrs Knox's typical behaviour and things he has trained her to do. My practical course is to follow at Town Barton Farm where they have over 100 mules and hinnies all in various stages of their training, so I simply cannot wait to attend part two of the mule course!