I can remember this question being debated by horse and mule owners as far back as when I was a little boy hanging onto my dad’s overall-leg at prestigious gatherings of farmers who owned and used these animals. “Why, my span of black mules are much smarter than any of your horses” was quickly rebutted by “your jackasses couldn’t stand in the shade of a pair of my roan mares!” As I remember, these arguments were often in fun and did not become heated enough to cause the kettle to boil over. So, to get a handle on the answer to the question, let’s take a look at the psychology of the horse and the mule.
After the end of the last ice age, which was about ten or twelve thousand years ago, there were four species of the horse left in what is now northern Europe and eastern Asia. Three of these species survived into recorded history and were the ancestors of many of our present day breeds of the modern light horse. The fourth specie, the Forest Horse, became the ancestor of our draft breeds, and, in its wild state, was hunted into extinction in its habitat of the forests of northern Europe.
The surviving wild horses found the vast grasslands of Eastern Europe and Asia to be to their liking. It was in this environment that these animals developed and became the foundation of many of our horse breeds of today.
These animals were “preyed upon” by man and other mammals known as predators. Besides humans, their natural enemies were wolves, bears and the big cats, such as the lion, leopard and tiger. While living in this environment through eons of time, the horse developed many traits for its protection and defense from predators which have carried on down to the modern day wild or domestic animal.
First of all, the horse is a herd animal. It has learned to live in a well disciplined social group for protection and for the preservation of the individual. It has learned that on the great plains there is safety in numbers in the detection of and protection from predators. These herd instincts are present today in all of our modern horses and can be noted in any group of two or more animals.
The horse has acutely developed its senses of sight, hearing and smell to detect those things which in its mind are going to cause it great bodily harm or perhaps take its life.
Horses are blessed (or cursed) with the wonderful ability to remember everything, good or bad, which they have been exposed to. In the animal kingdom, scholars have rated their memory ability to be second only to the elephant.
Every horse, or for that matter, all equines, operate under a so-called “flight pattern.” This simply means that when the animal is subjected to an unknown sound, smell or sight, it will become frightened, invoke its flight pattern and flee the area. Typically, the frightened animal or herd will run a distance from the cause of alarm and stop, turn around, and reassess the cause for its fright. If all is well, the animals will return to grazing, but if the cause for alarm should repeat itself, they will again flee from it, all of the while remembering everything which has happened.
The horse is well equipped to fight. It will bite, strike with the forelegs and feet and kick with the rear legs. Mares and stallions will fight to protect their young and themselves if trapped or cornered. A stallion will fight to protect his band of mares. However, the individual or herd will invoke the flight pattern almost always to escape from something they deem to be a threat to their security or life. With their great speed, strength and agility, they are well prepared to do this.
For horses living on the grasslands, the flight pattern method of defense worked extremely well since there was plenty of room in which to maneuver to escape a predator, imagined or real. The important factor is that under these circumstances the horse did not learn to think, but instead relied upon flight to remove him from danger.
Now let’s take a good look at the psychology of the mule. We all know, or at least most of us should know, that the mule is a hybrid born from a “horse” mare and its sire being a male of the ass family. Mules, male and female are sterile. They cannot reproduce. Oh sure, there are on record a very few cases where a molly mule conceived and gave birth to a foal. As a matter of fact, there was a famous molly mule who delivered several foals, but this is extremely rare. We have already examined the horse half of the mule equation so now let’s take a look at the ass family.
It is generally conceded by those who should know, that the origins of this member of the equine family lie with the primeval horse but developed as we know it today in the mountainous, desert lands surrounding the Mediterranean Ocean. The topography of this area is extremely mountainous with enumerable cliffs, canyons, gorges and valleys. Many parts of this area are desert-like with sparse vegetation and a scarcity of water. Of course there are valleys where water and forage abounds. Generally this area has desert-like temperatures but its northern fringe could also be cold.
Predators of many kinds abounded in this region–wolves, bears and the big cats being the primary killers of the ass family. As years went by, man became a predator as well. This predation drove the ass family into the least accessible areas of its range. Let’s not forget the very poisonous snakes that also abounded in this region which these animals encountered and had to reckon with.
Members of the ass family living in this rugged country when confronting real or imagined dangers often could not invoke their flight pattern and flee the scene such as their relatives in the horse family are known to do. The ass, in its flight, could possibly sustain serious physical damage to itself or go over a cliff to its doom. Over time, it appears that these animals learned not to beat a hasty retreat but, in the interest of self preservation, studied the cause of alarm and then undertook a more self-preserving departure.
The ass, after living in this environment for thousands upon thousands of years, developed into a much different animal than its equine partner, the horse. Let’s take a look at some of these traits and compare them between the two families.
Both the ass and horse are herd-oriented, however the ass much less so than the horse. Many times a horse will go through a fence to be by other horses. The ass or mule, however, is not as quick to do likewise, as they don’t appear to be so apprehensive when left by themselves.
The ass is much more agile in mountainous country than the horse. In fact, the ass’s agility is so great and fast that it can easily and quickly straddle a dog, coyote or wolf and kill it when it tries to get away. Members of the ass family are thus employed by sheep and goat ranchers to protect their flocks from these predators. I have known of mules that were so adept at this maneuver that dogs had to be kept away from them when they were not working.
The ass can subsist on much less forage, feed and water than members of the horse family. It has adapted to food and water shortage which naturally occurred in its environment. The ass also learned, after periods of forage and water deprivation, not to overeat or drink excessively when food and water became abundant. They will founder but rarely as compared to members of the horse family.
Since food and water was often scarce, the ass developed into an animal that does not expend any more energy than is required for the job at hand. Compared to the horse its action is very mild. When moving, the feet barely clear the ground. It is also a fact that the ass can “stand more heat” than the horse.
I have mentioned some important differences in the psychology of the ass and horse. The biggest item is left to discuss. Both animal families have that wonderful memory, of good and bad experiences. However, the ass family differs in that they have learned to think, whereas the thinking process in the horse family is very rudimentary.
I also believe the ass family is very conscious about death and self preservation, while the horse does not seem to be as well informed.
Now let’s turn our attention to the mule. Its dam is from the horse family and the sire is a jack from the ass family. Thus, a mule will inherit good and bad traits from either family. In the natural scheme of life the mule seems to have inherited many traits from the ass side of the family tree, among them the most important asset, which is the ability to think. Let me illustrate the point.
Mules do not founder very quickly. They will do so (I have treated some), but as a rule, it is not a problem with them. When I was just a kid my dad took my brother and me to a big road building project. The contractor was putting the grade in for a highway and they were moving a lot of dirt. A large “Cat” was pulling a “dirt elevator.” It had two big disc blades on it to cut the dirt loose and the dirt then was “elevated” up onto a belt which took it to a dump wagon drawn by three mules. When the wagon was full, a bell rang, and as the loaded one pulled away, an empty wagon took its place. This job, as I recall, was done in the middle of the summer so it was hot and heavy work for the draft mules.
Dad took us to the area where the mules were unharnessed and turned out into a fenced-in lot. They would bring the mules in, strip off and hang up the harness in a tent and then turn the mules loose. The animals would roll, go to the water tank and then onto the bunks containing shelled corn and hay. Under those circumstances a horse would have overeaten, foundered and died the first day. Not so the mule. These animals have inherited from the ass side of the family the ability to regulate their water and feed intake, possibly by thought.
Another example of possible thinking by mules is that most horses getting their foot or leg in a fence wire will invoke their flight pattern and leave, tearing out two rods or more of wire and injuring their leg, sometimes almost cutting it off. Not so the mule. It will usually stand there until it figures out how to get away from the wire or someone comes and frees its foot or leg.
Did you, the reader, know that mules will go on strike? I have never heard of a group of horses striking but ever since I was a kid I have heard several mule farmers telling about a mule strike. Here is a very good example of a mule strike.
When I came to Orange City in ’49 to practice vet medicine, I met and made friends with an old retired farmer. He had been an excellent farmer and had always done his farm work using four mules and one horse. His neighbors told me he was a very good stockman. He “broke” his young mules and after a few years of use on the farm, they were sold and young ones were purchased to be trained and used in the farm operation.
Let’s call him Joe. Joe rode with me on lots of calls, and I had ample time to visit with him about “mule farming” which he loved to talk about. One time, I asked him if he’d ever had a mule strike. I’ll never forget how he laughed and replied, “Oh yeah, I had a couple good ones.” He then proceeded to tell me about one of them.
He told me it was in June when he was cultivating corn with four mules on a John Deere two-row cultivator. He had been working them for four or five days before the strike. He went on to say that he had brought them in at noon, given them a little water, put them in the barn in their stalls and gave them their midday grain ration. After dinner (in farming country you have “dinner” at noon and “supper” at night), he came to the barn to hitch them to the cultivator. Surprise, surprise, not a one of the four would leave its stall!
“What’d you do?” was my question. “Well,” he said, “I got some log chains and put them around their necks. I harnessed the old breaking horse, tied the chains to his single tree and led him out the door. I never looked back. There was an awful commotion in the barn but they all came out.”
“What did you do then?” I asked. “Well,” he replied, “I hitched them up, got my whip and we cultivated corn, and if they even thought about going back to the barn I let them know that I was the boss. Those four never struck again!”
So now you know what many old time mule men knew. Mules will strike, all of them at the same time. They must be able to think, communicate and react as a team when the plot thickens. I have never heard of horses striking en masse.
Mules seem to know about death or at least self-preservation similar to the ass family. The best example of this is probably the following:
I have never heard of or read about a cavalry charge made by troops astride mules! A mule or horse can be trained not to be frightened by gunfire, artillery explosions, firecrackers and other explosives. The trained horse will take his rider forward into battle in the face of heavy enemy fire but a mule seems to say “If you want to go up there, boss, and get killed, go on but I’m not going!” Apparently the mule can think, even though he has been trained for gunfire, and will refuse to go on such a mission.
A runaway team of horses who have become very frightened and are operating under their flight pattern will often run blindly away. In the process of leaving the scene they will go through fences, ditches and sometimes will end up running into the side of a building or barn. Mules will run away also, but in the course of their run many of the teams will not attempt to go through fences or other obstacles which would do them great bodily harm. In many runaways involving mules, they seem to look out for themselves and as a result, they sustain little or no physical damage.
Here is another example of a mule’s ability to think. As a rule, a mule will not go into a bog or boggy area. A horse usually will go right in up to his hocks. When the ground gets soft and boggy, the mule will put on its brakes and will refuse to enter the area. This will happen the first time the mule has been exposed to a bog.
I could give you more examples of the difference between the horse and mule as far as their ability exists to think about a given problem and therefore try to resolve it or at least minimize it, but I believe the subject has been thoroughly illustrated and we should be ready to vote. I have been around horses all my life and have raised and shown a good number of Belgians and I also owned nine mules at one time. As a result of this exposure I believe I am qualified to vote.
The question is: “Which do you think is the smartest, the horse or the mule?”
If you are a dyed-in-the-wool horseman, you probably will vote for the horse. On the other hand, if you are a true mule skinner, you certainly will cast your ballot for the mule.
I have to cast my vote for the mule. My personal observations lead me to believe that a number of mules are much “smarter” than their owners, let alone horses!
Have fun and vote!