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  • Writer's pictureDave Rodgers

Mules in the American West

Updated: Jan 8, 2023

The American Mule deserves more credit than it's given as the trailblazer's companion. In fact, it is more versatile and valuable than the horse in its ability to cope with rough terrain and the unexpected dangers on and off the trails of the American Frontier.

Dave Rodgers is Chief Editor of the Frontier American Illustrated News. He is a tribal member and westerner descended directly from Squire and Edward Boone (father & brother of Daniel Boone). With an old-west family lineage of farmers, ranchers, lawmen and desperadoes, he takes pride in the rich story of the land his family came from. As a resident of rural Arizona, he continues the traditions of the American West and promotes the western culture as it continues on today.


The Author's Thoughts on the Mule

The least glamorous but most useful creature of genus Equus is what may be considered, the illegitimate offspring of the horse and donkey. This term fits not because of any distain that I have for the venerable old mule. No, I like them despite what many seasoned muleteers may say when spinning yarns of savage kicks, thrown 'cargas' and hapless riders, hurtled headlong into a cholla patch, soon to gain Solomon's knowledge through Job's suffering. No sir! The mule is truly a child of two families ascended to the lofty title of prince and princess of the plains.

Dun Mule: Has a light colored coat with the darker primitive 'striped' markings visible on the legs along with dark mane and tail. A dark 'cross' or dorsal stripe with dark transverse stripe across the shoulders are another common marking.

While donkeys, and horses, care naught for matrimony beyond their casual association, their tryst in cupids grove begat a sterile hybrid with the best traits of both animals combined. So, such regal perfection comes at a dear cost as each mule is condemned to its glorious reign over its own realm without hope of an heir to their dynasty. With their final breath, the sun sets on another glorious bloodline; one whose mold was broken upon the first casting with an exact copy of its likeness ne're to be seen again.

Mules have faithfully served humanity since ancient times. They have carried kings and borne the burdens of countless civilizations long before their hooves ever crushed the sod of North America’s deserts and plains.

Wagon drawn by three span of mules. Note the muleskinner, either a driver or swamper holding a 'blacksnake' or black leather whip. The Wheel Mule (nearest front left wheel) is saddled for the driver.

Since then, the mule has built a legacy of nearly five centuries, over countless miles of deer paths, game trails, highways, byways and the trackless expanse of this great land. They are no strangers to our deserts, grasslands, mountains, glades and river fords. For all this, their names should echo with reverence when spoken within the sacred halls of western lore.

Yet, they have been berated as stubborn creatures; cursed and hated for their dreaded kicks; and mocked for their long-ears and less-than-melodious bray. They are weighed, measured and condemned by the opinionated but inexperienced hippophile when compared to a Thoroughbred's speed, a Hancock's daring, or a Morgan's dashing gait.

But is the assessment of the mule by such self-professed 'horse-lovers' fair? Is one content to love just one element of genus Equus?

I pondered this when I recently attended a mule seminar hosted by muleteers John Wootton and Eric Kerr. This was a historic day as the city of Queen Creek was training members of the community's newly formed police force. This is still a western land. It's as hostile as it is beautiful with paths and traces no vehicle can use. The best answer is a tough animal that can carry rider and gear over terrain that will defeat the most sure-footed horse. I spent most of my life working with horses but I've always harbored a respect for those who worked mules. Show up on a quarter-horse for a back-country outing with a bunch of muleteers, and you'll quickly feel like you just brought a Prius to a monster truck rally.

Image of the mule seminar as the police department trainees line up for the first time in their training.

"Show up on a quarter-horse for a back-country outing with a bunch of muleteers, and you'll quickly feel like you just brought a Prius to a monster truck rally."

The officers were green riders and at first, looked awkward on their new mounts; but their curiosity and enthusiasm showed that they'd pick it up quick. Kerr and Wootton are knowledgeable teachers, so these officers were in the perfect company to learn...and so was I.

In the middle-nineteenth century, Fowler and Wells summed up the consensus in their authoritative work. “ …we possess a more noble and powerful animal in the horse, and that if the horse were unknown, and the care and attention that we lavish upon him were transferred to his now neglected and despised rival (the mule), the latter would be increased in size and developed in mental qualities to an extent which it would be difficult to anticipate, but which Eastern travelers, who have observed both animals in their native climates, and among nations by whom they are equally valued, and the good qualities of each justly appreciated, assure us to be the fact.”

-Domestic Animals Pocket Book of Cattle, Horse, and Sheep Husbandry: Fowler & Wells (1858)

Mule riding saddle and tack being demonstrated by professional muleteer Eric Kerr in Queen Creek, AZ.

In short, the mule was given a bad rap. To those interested in taking back-country travel to the next level, your life is not complete until you have become acquainted to the Mexican and American mules. Look beyond the derision and jeers from greenhorn riders, and come to know an intelligent, reliable and far more versatile creature than even our beloved mustangs, thoroughbreds, quarter-horses, and appaloosas.

John Wootton is a muleteer who took a brief moment to pose along with one of his animals. He leads back-country expeditions expeditions and on this date, was training the newly formed Queen Creek Police Department on search and rescue procedure.

What is a Mule?

The mule is a hybrid between a Jack-donkey (male) sire and a mare (female horse) or ‘dam’. Since a horse mare has a larger frame than a Jenny (female donkey) it is easier to breed mules using a horse for the brood-mare. The mule offspring will have a body that is closer in resemblance to a horse with legs more like that of a donkey. Their ears are characteristically longer and the mane tends to be shorter and thinner like a donkey has. Their tails however, may be thicker and closer in resemblance to it’s horse mother.

American mule breeds were often used to draw heavy wagons or ploughs. One farmer with two-mules could plough up to 16 acres (an area measuring 232,320 square feet, or 70,811 m²) per day. In other cases, they were used for their raw strength to work pulley systems, draw canal boats, freight wagons, or perform countless other tasks where a steam engine was not available. To create a larger-sized mule, the Mammoth Jack (Jackstock) was developed. These Mammoth Jack-donkeys (Jackasses) stand at about 14+ hands height (56 inches / 142 cm) Jennets standing over 13 1/6 hands are also classified as ‘mammoth’ stock. When bred with draft-horses, a very large variant of American Mules was produced for carrying or hauling extra heavy loads.

Twenty-mule team hauling borax wagons ca. 1883-1898

Twenty Mule Teams - A good example for the hauling capacity of large American mules was demonstrated in the famed 20-mule teams of the Borax era in the hot, uninhabited regions of Southern California. During the 1880s-1890s, twenty-mule teams were used to haul wagon loads of ore and it was a herculean effort. Two wagons weighing in at 7,800 lbs. each, carrying 10-tons of Borax ore, followed by a 1,200 lb. water wagon came to a staggering 36-tons (approx.) or 72,000 pounds (give or take a ton.)

The Difference between American and Mexican Mules -The mule is superior over all other draft animals (horses & oxen) in overall strength performance. While oxen are the arguable choice in very long-haul wagon trips on account of their affordability, endurance, and survivability, pound-for-pound, the mule is stronger. Though we have now read about the large American mules, it is time to get acquainted with its southern cousin.

Mexican Mules

The Spanish and Mexican mules were bred using the more average-sized donkeys (about 7-10 hands). This means that they are noticeably smaller than American mules but the smaller size comes with a great advantage. Despite their smaller size and strength, they are vastly superior in endurance and recovery over the larger American mules. Mexican mules carried 'cargas' that were much heavier than the weight limit of approximately 200 lbs. recommended for American mules. The smaller mules also required less feed and rest time so their recovery is much swifter. This gave them a great advantage over their larger, stronger American cousins.

What is a Hinny (or henny)?

19th century illustration of a Hinny. Note the horse-like legs with defined rump and how they contrast with the donkey-like body.

A ‘hinny’ is when a stallion (horse) breeds with a Jenny (mare donkey). They are less common as it is harder (more dangerous) for a she-ass to birth the large foal of a stallion father. Hinnies will have a body that is closer in resemblance to donkeys while their legs look more like that of a horse. A hinny has shorter ears may have longer, fuller manes. They also tend to be a bit smaller than mules.


The Horse vs. the Mule

19th Century illustration of the horse. These same anatomical features may be used in the nomenclature of the mule as well.

Horses and mules may look similar to one another but there are far more differences than just the ears. A horse makes a swifter animal in running over open ground. They will run until they drop and can be trained to charge into the jaws of war without a second thought. Since mules are hybrids, horse breeding is easier and their numbers will proliferate at a much higher rate. While a mule can be trained and used in traditional horse tasks such as roping, there are horse breeds that are better suited to the job.

Horses vs. Donkeys, A Different Mentality

The mule takes after it's donkey father in many of it's personality traits. One of which is actually having a greater intelligence. It's association between cause & effect is impressively different from that of a horse. Put a horse in a horse trailer and go on a trip. If you wrecked the truck and flipped the horse trailer, the horse (if he survives) will be very wary about getting into another horse trailer any time soon. A mule in the same situation will remember that YOU were they reason why he/she was in the trailer and the resulting wreck is squarely YOUR FAULT! Likewise, if you mistreat a mule, they are even less likely than a horse to forgive or forget.

Physiologically, here is a huge differences between the horse and the ass or mule. A horse is designed to run. It's greatest defense is in its ability to flee. Biting and kicking are secondary defenses. Horses legs swing out and grab terrain while a donkey's (and mule's) legs are better suited to climbing mountainous terrain. Since donkeys lack the sufficient speed to evade large predators, a donkey's primary defenses are its bite and kicks. A mule carries these same traits as the ass but in a horse-sized package. This is why you hear of the occasional hapless coyote or wildcat getting its skull crushed in a mule's raging jaws before the carcass is then well pulverized into the desert pavement like an old rug.

From racing to desperate cavalry charges, there are jobs that a horse does better. Still, there are reasons why the early travel guides for our emigrant ancestors recommended the mule as the animal of choice. Here are 10-good reasons why a western traveler should consider a mule for their personal mount.

Ten Common Advantages Mules Have Over Horses

Here are some of the major differences between the two animals based on period sources and the testimonials of those 'long-ear' drivers who have made a life of working with both types of animals.

Comparison of the backs of a horse versus that of a mule. Note that the horse (a Green Mountain Maid) has a curved back while the mule (below) has a more flattened back similar to its Jack-ass father. This is why the breast collar and breeching are necessary on either a saddle or pack mule's tack. These added straps prevent the saddle from sliding forward or backward on the animal.

  1. Mules have superior working endurance with a working life that outlasts a horses. According to some period accounts, by a ratio of 2:5 in active working years.

  2. A mule's superior feed conversion allows it to live off wild forage that is not suitable for horses to survive upon.

  3. The effects of heat and cold are less telling on mules where horses are prone to show the effects of their suffering sooner and more profoundly.

  4. Mules have greater resistance to illness and seem to become ill on fewer occasions than horses do. Although mules are not impervious to disease, they seem to endure illness with better fortitude than horses in many cases.

  5. Mules will work day and night without fatiguing whereas horses will become jaded and quit long before a mule will. A mule's recovery is also faster. (*Interesting note: On the other hand, a horse will run until it collapses from exhaustion. There are often times where an exhausted mule will merely stop and will not budge until rested.)

  6. When packing, mules have a faster walking pace than pack-horses do.

  7. Mules are better suited for packing, with light limbs and bulky bodies which give them a center of gravity that is more efficient in carrying heavy loads.

  8. Mules are less prone to injury than horses. The bone density is greater and muscles are stronger on a mule's frame. Donkeys thrive in arid deserts and mountainous terrain so their bodies are naturally conditioned to perform in a harsher environment.

  9. Mules are more vigilant and are even superior to dogs in detecting a concealed threat or uninvited company coming into camp. They will snort loudly at such a presence and are known to be formidable killers when confronted by wild dogs, coyotes, wolves, and even mountain lions.

  10. Mules are more sure-footed. Their eyes are set a little farther out of their sockets in order to see all 4-feet at once. Horses can't do this and it gives the mule a clear advantage in navigating difficult terrain. Mules can also tip-toe up over slick, rocky terrain that a horse will slide off of.


Proliferation of the Mule in the US and Western States

Announcement of the Royal Gift's arrival in the March 16, 1786 edition of the New York Packet

The Royal Gift - George Washington may not have been the first person in the US to own a donkey or even a mule. However, he did play a big role in taking mule breeding to the next level. In 1785, a large Zamorano-Leonés jack-donkey had arrived at Mount Vernon, a gift from King Charles III of Spain. According to the March 16, 1786 edition of The New York Packet, it was described as a four-year-old Jack that stood 14 1/2 to 15 hands high, that was bony and stout-made of dark color with a light belly and legs. For the next ten-years, The Royal Gift sired many foals with a variety of brood mares and Jennets.

1786 Publication showing an image of The Royal Gift.

From there, mules began to proliferate especially through the southern states and new western territories. Their utilitarian capabilities made them a favorite of explorers, fur trappers, soldiers and emigrants from the dawn of the nineteenth century, through the following decades into the expansionist era.

According to Blaine's Encyclopedia of Rural Sports (1840), "Mules are much used in warm climates, where they are preferred to horses for many purposes. They are very numerous in our Southern States and not uncommon in the Middle and "Western States. Kentucky is the great mule-breeding State. Many thou-sands are annually raised there for the New York and Southern


By the time of the 1850 US Census, there were 4,336,719 horses listed as owned property as opposed to 559,331 asses & mules. By 1860, an even more accurate picture on the horse to mule ratio could be seen on the various states and territories. While horses are the choice pick for the highways and byways of the east, nothing beat the mule for its off-road and hauling capacity. While fleet horses were the best choice for the open plains and rolling hills of Texas and California, mules and asses dominated the desert landscapes of New Mexico (& Arizona) Territory.

Texas is a country of open country, forests, marshlands and rolling hills complete with a great plain gently sloping from the Midwest toward the gulf coast. By 1860, it showed 63,334 asses & mules as compared to 325,698 horses kept by riders in the lone star state.

California was the epicenter of the Spanish/Mexican ranchos and its horse culture was the stuff of legend with generations of vaqueros dashing along coastal and inland valley grasslands to move vast herds of cattle. American industry needed great drive belts for its factories and other leather products as well as beef for those who chased their dreams of El Dorado in the California gold fields. California may host some of the highest peaks and jagged terrain in the US but there was also little reason to get too far off the beaten track. Roadways were extensive and the Californio horse was king. While California's 1860 census showed 160,610 horses owned by its citizenry, there were only 3,681 asses and mules counted.

'New Mexico Territory' (present day Arizona and New Mexico) was a sparsely populated region of vast deserts with rocky terrain in its southern regions, and high mountains, grasslands, dense forests and great canyons to the north. A riding animal that could live off desert forage, tip-toe up rock faces that would break a horse's legs, and endure hardship and privation was in far greater demand. Naturally, the 1860 census for Arizona/New Mexico recorded 11,291 asses & mules over the 10,066 horses by a ratio of more than (11:10).

The Civil War & Beyond

Mules would continue to proliferate through the war years of the great rebellion (1861-1865 Civil War). They were absolutely essential in drawing wagons and performing the muscle-work of Army logistics. They were even used to a limited degree in direct combat by hauling mountain howitzers over broken, hilly terrain. They suffered terrible losses over the course of the war. Due to battle, disease, and accidents, the conservative estimates place the losses of horses and mules at around 1.25 million animals dead. Other estimates place the number closer to perhaps, as high as 3 million animals. This means that for every one of the soldiers who died in the civil war, about 2 - 5 animals also died of all causes depending on the cited source data. Following the war, they carried a great exodus of Americans and foreign immigrants west in search of a new start.

Mountain Howitzers were often broken down and carried on horses or mules. Although mules are not as ideal for direct combat roles, they were superior at packing the load. This was done in the years previous to the Civil War, during the War, and today, mules still carry the latest in portable missile/artillery technology over broken terrain into modern battlefields.

The mule would continue its work in blazing trails, working farmlands, building cities, and hauling a nation's freight where rail and sail could not go right up until hitting its zenith in 1925 with about 6-million animals. With the advent of automobiles and paved highways over the next few years, the heyday of the American mule was over.


Kindness vs. Cruelty

19th century illustration of a mule skinner abusing his mount. These animals would commonly halt when they perceived a threat which contributed to their 'stubborn' image. The picture used here serves as an example of what not to do.

In the days of animal-powered transportation, there were always those who did believe in animal kindness not only from a sense of moral virtue, but because it also enabled the individual to get more compliance and productivity from the animal if it felt well treated and in a better state of health. Then as now, there are those who mistreated their animals either from a sense of pure cruelty or from a lack of empathy for a 'dumb animal' whose mind cannot possibly be as comprehensive as its human master.

In his 1859 book, Captain Randolph Marcy gives the following advice to American travelers in regard to how stock (horses, mules, oxen, etc.) of their wagon trains should be properly managed. He warns strongly against cruel treatment especially, the excessive use of the whip.

'Drivers should be closely watched, and never, unless absolutely necessary, permitted to beat their animals, or to force them out of a walk, as this will soon break down the best teams. Those teamsters who make the least use of the whip invariably keep their animals in the best condition. Unless the drivers are checked at the outset, they are very apt to fall into the habit of flogging their teams. It is not only wholly unnecessary but cruel, and should never be tolerated.'

-The Prairie Traveler, R. Marcy (1859)

Marcy also questioned the methods of our cousins to the south. He noted that despite their superior skills in packing and driving mules, Spanish and Mexican muleteers would use burdens exceeding the recommended 200 pound max load. According to Marcy, they typically used primitive pack saddles, which were excessively cruel in their discomfort leaving many animals with mangled backs if not, ruined outright.

"The Spanish Mexicans are, however, cruel masters, having no mercy upon their beasts, and it is no uncommon thing for them to load their mules with the enormous burden of three or four hundred pounds.'

In fairness to every culture whose people have thrown a saddle or fixed a bit, it is foolish to think that cruelty to horses and mules is a character flaw exclusive to just one group of people. Alas, cruelty is an unfortunate affliction found in every culture of every people. Legendary horse trainer and the original 'horse whisperer', J. S. Rarey, wrote extensively on animal cruelty and how counter productive its exercise was on European and American farmyards.

'And so long as you present him (the horse or mule) with nothing that offends his eyes, nose, or ears, you can then handle him at will, notwithstanding he may be frightened at first, so that in a short time he will not be afraid of anything he is brought in contact with. All of the whipping and spurring of horses for shying, stumbling, &c., is useless and cruel. If he shys, and you whip him for it, it only adds terror, and makes the object larger than it would otherwise be; give him time to examine it without punishing him.'

-J.S. Rarey 1827-1866 (Published in 1868)

1850's Daguerrotype of a typical 'Muleskinner" Note the 'Blacksnake' whip

In his 1867 book, Harvey Riley spoke extensively of the terrible misuse of American mules during out great Civil War of 1861-65. He regularly criticized the use of underage mules being used extensively despite their critical vulnerability to hardship and the elements. Although he spoke of other abuses committed by inexperienced Army muleteers, he opened with a basic statement in his first chapter that underscores the general misunderstanding riders have and the abuses that should be avoided.

'Probably no animal has been the subject of more cruel and brutal treatment than the mule, and it is safe to say that no animal ever performed his part better, not even the horse. In breaking the mule, most persons are apt to get out of patience with him. I have got out of patience with him myself. But patience is the great essential in breaking, and in the use of it you will find that you get along much better. The mule

is an unnatural animal, and hence more timid of man than the horse ; and yet he is tractable, and capable of being taught to understand what you want him to do. And when he understands what you want, and has gained your confidence, you will, if you treat him kindly, have little trouble in making him perform his duty.'

--The Mule, H. Riley (1867)

Don't Mess With A Mule's Ears! One of the greatest bits of advice I've heard from muleteers is that touching a mule's ears the wrong way, is a surefire way to lose their cooperation. Ear Shyness is a real thing and many muleteers have their methods from unbuckling the headstall to caressing those ears the right way. One thing for certain is that bending those beautiful long ears will not make you a friend.


Tack for the Mule

While the mule's saddle is very similar to that of a horse, the breeching especially as well as the breast collar are necessary on account of the mule's comparatively flat back. This prevents the saddle from shifting too drastically. Regarding the crupper, I have seen many period references to their use on mules. I have also seen images where they are not used. I also know many muleteers who host back country hunting expeditions and they staunchly refuse to use a crupper on account that it may injure the animal's tail. Things like this are good examples of experienced professionals picking the right gear for the right job.

What Our Western Ancestors Said: Packing and Driving Mules

One of the greatest plot holes in most western stories is the absence of a pack horse or mule. A mounted traveler can only carry a few days rations, some essentials, and perhaps some clothing rolled up in the bedding. In truth, a pack animal is essentials for any journey lasting more than a few days. Hunting and foraging along the way takes time and time is an asset frontier travelers typically did not have enough of. Pack mules carry the main stores of food, tools, and camping equipment. They can access narrow defiles and treacherous terrain that no wagon could travel. Long before western road networks paved the way for freight wagons, pack animals were the most efficient means of transporting goods to the remotest outposts along the wild frontier.

In the 1859 book, The Prairie Traveler, US Army Captain Randolph Marcy drew upon 25 years experience upon the frontier. Below are numerous observations on the mule. The Mexican culture had been using mules on the frontier long before the Americans had. Here are some of this thoughts on Mexican muleteers.

''No people, probably, are more familiar with the art of packing than the Mexicans. They understand the habits, disposition, and powers of the mule perfectly, and will get more work out of him than any other men I have ever seen. The mule and the donkey are to them as the camel to the Arab—their porters over deserts and mountains where no other means of transportation can be used to advantage.

Marcy included observations on the proper methods of herding a mule caravan.

The muleteers and herders should be mounted upon well-trained horses, and be careful to keep the animals of the caravan from wandering or scattering along the road. This can easily be done by having some of the men riding upon each side, and others in rear of the caravan.

One of the best methods to keep a mule caravan together is through the use of a 'madrina' or bell-mare. More will be said about this in just a moment.

In herding mules it is customary among prairie travelers to have a bell-mare, to which the mules soon become so attached that they will follow her wherever she goes. By keeping her in charge of one of the herdsmen, the herds are easily controlled;

and during a stampede, if the herdsman mounts her, and rushes ahead toward camp, they will generally follow.'

-R. Marcy, (1859)

Mule Packing in the Fur Trade Era.

Grimsley's 1840's era pack saddle showing pommel, cantle, breeching and crupper (rt.).

When the large camp is on the march, it has a leader, generally one of the Booshways, who rides in advance, or at the head of the column. Near him is a led mule, chosen for its qualities of speed and trustworthiness, on which are packed two small trunks that balance each other like panniers, and which contain the company's books, papers, and articles of agreement with the men.

Then follow the pack animals, each one bearing three packs — one on each side, and one on top — so nicely adjusted as not to slip in traveling. These are in charge of certain men called camp-keepers, who have each three of these to look after. The trappers and hunters have two horses, or mules, one to ride, and one to pack their traps. If there are women and children in the train, all are mounted. Where the country is safe, the caravan moves in single file, often stretching out for half or three-quarters of a mile. At the end of the column rides the second man, or 'little Booshway,' as the men call him; usually a hired officer, whose business it is to look after the order and condition of the whole camp.

- Eleven Years in the Rocky Mountains (1877)

1885 publication demonstrating the proper method of packing or lading a mule or packhorse.

'Packs, when taken off in camp, should be piled in a row upon the ground, and, if there be a prospect of rain, the saddles should be placed over them, and the whole covered with the saddle-blankets or canvas.'

-R. Marcy, (1859)

100-year-old illustration by D. C. Beard illustrating a one-man method of hitching carga to a horse or mule's back. In its day, it was commonly referred to as a 'squaw-hitch'. Nowadays, some people consider word to be derrogatory, but it is used here for historic purpose as 19th century dictionaries identified it merely as an (American) Indian woman.

Descriptive of Packing a Mule

'The carga if a single package, is laid across the mule's back, but when composed of two,

they are placed lengthwise, side by side ; and being coupled with a cord, they are bound

upon the aparejo with a long rope of seagrass or raw-hide, which is so skillfully and tensely twined about the packages as effectually to secure them upon the animal. The mule is at first so tightly bound that it seems scarcely able to move ; but the weight of the pack soon settles the aparejo, and so loosens the girths and cords as frequently to render it necessary to tighten them again soon after getting under way.

Diagram for the Diamond Hitch. This is more complicated than the 'squaw-hitch' but this 2-man hitch is also more utilitarian. It is reputed to be of very old design but the earliest known publication about it dates from Capt. A. E. Wood of the 4th US Cavalry (1879)

It keeps most of the muleteers actively employed during the day, to maintain the packs in condition ; for they often lose their balance and sometimes fall off. This is done without detaining the atajo (drove of pack-mules), the rest of which travel on while one is stopped to adjust its disordered pack.'

-Commerce of the Prairies, Josiah Gregg (1849)


Bell-Mares “Madrinas”

Randolph Marcy gives one of the best accounts on the proper way to herd and drive mules. Despite the hardships of the frontier, he really pushed for ethical treatment of herd animals, making him a favorite reference source for historians interested in methods that are often still practiced today.

''The madrina or bell-mare, acts a most important part in a herd of mules, and is regarded by experienced campaigners as indispensable to their security. She is selected for her quiet and regular habits. She will not wander far from the camp. If she happen to have a colt by her side, this is no objection, as the mules soon form the most devoted

attachment to it. I have often seen them leave their grazing when very hungry, and flock around a small colt, manifesting their delight by rubbing it with their noses, licking it with their tongues, kicking up their heels, and making a variety of other grotesque demonstrations of affection, while the poor little colt, perfectly unconscious of the cause

of these ungainly caresses, stood trembling with fear, but unable to make his escape from the compact circle of his mulish admirers. Horses and asses are also used as bell animals, and the mules soon become accustomed to following them. If a man leads or

rides a bell animal in advance, the mules follow, like so many dogs, in the most orderly procession.'

-The Prairie Traveler, R. Marcy (1859)

Fording Rivers

This is a tricky procedure. Contrary to myth, a fully loaded wagon is not a seaworthy vessel and the practice of crossing deep fords without losing stock requires an experienced driver. Marcy gave a great account of how fording mules without loss should be attempted.

'In crossing rivers the bell-mare should pass first, after which the mules are easily induced to take to the water and pass over, even if they have to swim. Mules are good swimmers unless they happen, by plunging off a high bank, to get water in their ears, when they are often drowned. Whenever a mule in the water drops his ears, it is a sure indication that he has water in them, and he should be taken out as soon as possible. To prevent accidents of this nature, where the water is deep and the banks abrupt, the mule herds should be allowed to enter slowly, and without crowding, as otherwise they

are not only likely to get their heads under water, but to throw each other over and get injured.'

-The Prairie Traveler, R. Marcy (1859)


Shave-Tails and Bell Tassels

The practice of shaving a mule's tail was a means of easily showing a mule's level of training and it was especially useful when training animals in large numbers. It does not appear to have been a common practice in the US until the mid-19th century and really came into its own during the 20th century. In fact, the practice is still observed today and mules still play a vital role with 21st century combat troops in various remote regions of the world.

In his 1841 book, Charles H. Smith made note of Moroccans shaving the tails of young mules and he also took note of the actual practice of 'bell-cut' being used in Spain and parts of rural France.

"In Auvergnc and the south of France and Spain, partially supplied from beyond

the Pyrenees, the race is in general black, large, and robust. It is the fashion to shave their skins in summer, and their tails are often clipped in a succession of tassels like a bell-rope."

-The Natural History of Horses, Lieut.-Col. Chas. Hamilton Smith, (1841)

In the latter-half of the 19th century, the process of shaving a mule's tail and trimming it into a series of bell tassels became a practice in showing the various stages in a mule's evolution from an untrained animal to one that which is well trained. The term "breaking" sounds harsh but the vast majority of 19th century authors on the subject urged their readers to refrain from cruelty and instead, develop a partnership with the animal. Although abuse and poor treatment did occur, those who were really in the know on the topic emphasized the art of training over the bite of a lash.

Here are the four stages of the 'Bell-Tail" - This is the easiest way to identify the skill set of mules when working with a barren of mules.

Tail Shaved: This is a green mule that has just arrived with little to no training at all. The term "shavetail" would become a slang term for a green cavalryman. Later, during the second world war, shave-tail would become a derisive term for a young, inexperienced officer.

1-Bell: The mule has been broken to take to the pack. This means that the mule is now trained to stand and be laded. A typical burden may be about 200 lbs.

2-Bell: The mule is now broken to drive. This is when the mule is at a point where it may be laded, and worked as a span with another pack mule or in a 'larger group of other pack mules that you may choose to call a pack', 'barren', 'herd' or 'string'.

3-Bell: This is when a pack mule has been trained to take a rider and riding saddle as well. Once a mule is well broken to ride, it is considered a 'well schooled' animal.

*Authors note: I have found little evidence that even suggests that this practice was done to any great degree during America's Civil War. Aside from a few debatable speculations, I have found no wartime photos, eyewitness sketches or mention of it in contemporary books on the topic, indicating that it likely became a more common practice with the US Army at a later date as the earliest photos of its practice that I have found date from around the turn of the century. That said, I felt it to be a travesty if I decided against mentioning this at all. If any readers can provide historic sources that proves this practice being more common during and before the American Civil War, I'd be grateful and cite you as the person who brought this source to my attention.


Useful Terms for Muleteers

Wootton hitching up a mule for the day's ride/lesson.

Term Definition

Ass - A donkey or burro

Atajo - drove of pack-mules

Blacksnake - Black or dark brown leathern whip used by muleskinners

Broodmare - A female horse or donkey used for breeding

Burro - Spanish name for donkey or ass

Carga - Spanish term for the load on a pack mule

Colt - A young male horse less than 3 years old

Dam - The 'mare' or 'broodmare' mother of the foal

Filly - A young female horse less than 3 years old

Foal - A horse that is less than one year old, male or female

Gelded - To castrate a male horse, mule, or ass. A 'gelding" is the animal after castration. It is generally advised to geld a horse-mule since they are already sterile.

Hand - Measurement of 4-inches. Hand measurements from the ground to the peak of the withers gives the horse's height

Hinny - A hybrid of a horse sire and a donkey dam

Hippophile - Someone who loves horses and other members of the Equine family

Horse - Generic name for a male horse

Horse Mule - Male mule

Jack - A male donkey, ass, or burro

Jackass - Male donkey, ass, or burro

Jennet (Jenny) - A female donkey

Mare Mule - Female Mule

Molly - A female mule or ass

Mule - a hybrid of a donkey sire and a horse dam

Sire - The 'stallion' or 'stud' father in horse-breeding

Stallion - Ungelded male horse, prime breeding stock

Stud - Stallion used for breeding stock

Wheel horse or Wheel mule - Horse or mule nearest the wagon's front wheel. It is typically the left-side animal that is fitted with a saddle for the driver


The Mule Today

With the development of the automobile, the mule quietly retired to a more leisurely life of pastureland trotting, back country hunting trips, and trail rides. It's best known role is carrying tourists in and out of the Grand Canyon. Believe it or not, various military forces around the world, including those of the United States still use mules in operations where even the best off-road vehicles cannot navigate the terrain. In many rural American communities, the mule is still a valued friend, conducting search and rescue operations as well as assisting law enforcement in pursuing smugglers and fugitives. On the day that the author took the modern pictures for this article, it was during a training session for the newly-formed Queen Creek Police Department in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Modern use in Today's Old West: Members of the newly formed Queen Creek Police Department are being trained by Wootton (red shirt) as mules can be used with search and rescue or fugitive recovery efforts in the rugged back country of South-Central Arizona. Wootton is on the far right (red shirt).

I slid out of my saddle and took a group photo of John Wootton and his three new students as they lined up for the occasion. Despite the awkward fit of their pandemic masks and the distant roar of passing cars, the present day was becoming a distant memory.

I could see a change in the countenance of each officer riding higher in his saddle by the second. These modern men were rediscovering a new perspective from the back of an age-old friend. The world is a different place when seen from a saddle and Arizona is a great place for such a view.

Typical desert view where the author lives. This is in the Superstition Wilderness, not far from Queen Creek.

The land under our feet was once ranged by the likes of Kitt Carson, Geronimo, The Apache Kid, and various other westerners on their horses and mules. About a mile, distant, stands the stark remains of an 1860's era stagecoach station, the town's oldest surviving American structure.

Remains of the Desert Wells Stage Stop, and 1860s era stagecoach station in Queen Creek, AZ.

The spirit of the American West is still alive and it came over these officers like I've seen it do with people at Town & Tribal Rodeos, guest ranches, and in the eyes of my friends as we ride across the deserts and plains. When traveling down a dusty road, look no farther than the solemn old rancher riding his fence line, or the experienced cowgirl rolling her stock around. I watched Wootton and his students as they started off over the ridge on their orientation ride. That was my queue to pack up and head back to the homestead. I thanked my creator for days like these and started my own way home with a happy heart. For some, the west is a favorite film or an ancestor's old photo; for us fortunate few, it's home, and a life that we love to live.


*Special Thanks to Muleteers Eric Kerr and John Wootton whose knowledge and wisdom contributed greatly to the completion of this article.

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1 Comment

Arizona Ghostriders
Arizona Ghostriders
Jul 28, 2021

I found the ten common advantages over horses very interesting. As always, much was learned. Thanks, Dave.

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