Mules and donkeys are enjoying popularity as the equines of choice, either as pets, companions for recreation or as performance animals. Although all three equids, horses, donkeys, and mules, share many similar characteristics, they also have differences worthy of note.
Mules are the product of mating a horse and a donkey. It can go either way – breeding a stallion to a jennet or breeding a jack to a mare. The offspring of the former is called a hinny and that of the latter is a mule. Because a horse has 64 chromosomes and a donkey has 62, the mule winds up with 63, making it near impossible for the chromosomes of either a horse or a donkey to pair up with those of a mule. As a result, mules are generally sterile.
The past 30 years have seen mules, and to a lesser extent donkeys, go from beasts of burden to relative newcomers to the equine recreational scene. High-quality mares bred to high-quality jacks are producing mules capable of competing with horses in many disciplines.
From a health perspective, routine care of a donkey/mule is comparable to that of a horse. They have similar medical conditions yet show illness less frequently. Known to be very stoic animals they are slow to show pain and discomfort. This leads to difficult diagnostics for both owner and veterinarian.
TRAINING AND FEEDING
Advanced training of the donkey and mule is best delayed until they are about four years old. This is when they are physically and mentally mature. Tests have shown that the closure of growth plates in donkeys was incomplete at 54 months.
Donkeys’/mules’ feet do best in dry environments. This comes from their desert ancestry. Their foot is upright and five to seven degrees steeper than a horse’s. Short toes are necessary.
Donkeys and mules do well with a simple diet of grass and grass hay. They cannot tolerate rich feeds. They will store excess fat on their back or neck. This fat infiltrates with scar tissue, making it permanent. Be sure to have minerals, loose salt, and fresh water available.
Castration of donkeys/mules is similar to that of horses, requiring general anesthesia and secure ligation of large blood vessels. Mules should be castrated at between six and nine months for tractability.
Deworming may be necessary and is best evaluated according to need with fecal evaluations. Donkeys, and to a lesser degree mules, can contract lungworms, and, if so, coughing may be a symptom. A special fecal test called a Baerman is needed to diagnose lungworm infection.
Although donkeys and mules are very tolerant of heat, their hair coat is not well adapted to shedding rain or snow. Shelter during inclement weather is imperative to a donkey’s wellbeing in Western Canada.
The mental makeups of a horse, a mule and a donkey differ. This is undeniable. Donkeys and mules have a strong sense of self-preservation. This cautious nature is often confused with stubbornness. Patience and understanding are admirable qualities when training both donkeys and mules. Perhaps it is this interesting mentality in combination with their generally kind demeanour that appeals to the growing number of donkey and mule fanciers.