Create A Feed & Nutrition Program for Your Mule or Donkey (Mules Can’t Stand Prosperity)

One of the most common questions I receive has to do with mule and donkey feed and nutrition. Folks want to do right by their animals and make sure they are getting exactly what they need. This article is all about the misconceptions people have about feed and what is good for the animal.

To illustrate, I’ll tell a story.

It was fall and I received a phone call from one of my clients, Ann Mulcay. She has a little mule named Norman that I started years back. Norman is a great little mule out of a foxtrotter mare.

Ann rides a lot of trails and covers a lot of miles with Norman. The spring prior, she entered him in several events at Bishop’s Mule Days. She had a lot of fun preparing Norman for Mule Days. Ann spent most days in the saddle. As with any colt, she was feeding him good alfalfa hay and some grain to keep his energy level up. She also added some grass hay. This was a good combination of feed for the type of exercise Norman was doing.

Behind Every Bush Was A Mule Eater

After Mule Days, it was summer in Arizona. I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. It’s so hot we fry eggs on the sidewalk! That’s almost true. What is true is that only the true diehard trail riders ride in the valley during the summer. Ann may have rode a dozen times over the next few months. When October came and it cooled off, Ann decided to go out on a nice trail ride. A short time into the ride she renamed the trail: “Monster Trail.” Behind every bush and every rock was a mule eater.

Once Norman found the first mule eater (a black rock behind the bush), he decided to take control of the situation. Snorting and going sideways down the trail, just sure he was going to be missing a leg before the ride was over.

Needless to say, Ann was on pins and needles during the whole trail ride. She would just get relaxed and Normal would find another mule eater. Jumping sideways, running backwards, and sometimes spinning around. Nice, sweet Norman could have been sold that day for twenty-five dollars — or better yet, Ann would have paid you five hundred to take him off her hands.

Ann took Norman home and, thinking he just needed to get out more, she tried a couple shorter rides the next week. Ann emailed me and I could hear the frustration in her message saying, “What do I do now? Monsters attached my mule!” I called her on the phone and she told me about the recent trail rides and how Norman wasn’t getting any better.

What Are You Feeding Your Mule?

First, I chewed her out real good for not calling me after that first ride. Folks, I’m here to help ya and I want to make sure that you enjoy your animal and that the animal enjoys his companionship with you!

The monsters were 10 feet tall and wall-to-wall. Once Ann calmed down, I asked her what she was feeding Norman.

Alfalfa hay.

She was awful quiet over the phone for a minute after her answer.

“Now, I know what you are going to say. I am feeding too much good feed. You’ve told me and I’ve been to your clinics and I guess I can’t get it through my head not to do that — and I guess you are going to tell me to change feed.

She was right.

I told her to start changing feed slowly because even mules can get a touch of Monday morning sickness — another name for azoturia. The farmers used to refer to it that way because their draft animals would sometimes have a bit of colic on a Monday morning after standing around without working on Sunday.

I suggested Ann try Lakin Lite pellets. Years ago I would have never considered feeding pellets. I did not think mules could possibly be full and content from eating such a small amount of food in such a short time.

What I did not realize is that the pellets expand after the animal drinks and that produces a full feeling.

Steve’s thoughts on a feed and nutrition program for foals.

What You Need to Know About Pellet Feed

Pellets are high in fiber and useable nutrients. Some pellets include grains, corn, wheat bran, cottonseed meal, etc. These types of pellets are necessary for hard working animals.

If the animal is not fed enough grain, he will first burn body fat for energy and then burn muscular tissue and this will result in a thin and less effective riding mule.

Mules are very easy keepers. I have told people for years that you can feed two mules for the same amount of money it takes to feed one horse. I have proven my theory with my own tests done over the years. I have found that mules will thrive on a good quality grass hay along with a salt block.

In 1998 I started experimenting with Lakin Lite pellets.

Lakin Milling is located here in Arizona and distributes to parts of New Mexico and Colorado. When I’m in California I use products from Star Milling. Star Milling sponsored my mule training program in Pierce College at Woodland Hills, California and the Equine Affaire Expo.

Here is a list of ingredients from the Lakin Lite package:

  • Crude Protein min. 11%
  • Crude Fat min 2%
  • Crude Fiber max 30%
  • Calcium min 0.7%
  • Calcium max 1.2%
  • Phosphorous min 0.2%
  • Copper min 15ppm
  • Selenium min 0.2ppm
  • Zinc min 50ppm
  • Vitamin A min 300IU/LB
  • Ash max 12%
  • Added Minerals max 1%

Alfalfa hay, Bermuda hay, Cane Molasses, Phosphoric Acid (feed grade) Zinc Sulfate, Manganese Sulfate, Copper Sulfate, Cobalt Carbonate, Sodium Selenite, Ethylenediamine Dihydriodide, Vitamin e supplement, vitamin B 12 supplement, Riboflavin supplement, Thiamin Mononitrate, Niacin supplement, Pyridoxine Hydrochloride, Folic Acid and D-biotin.

Any feed must contain enough fiber “roughage” to keep the animal’s digestive track moving properly. Foals and weanlings need around 16% protein while mature mules can get by on 8% protein. It is very difficult to know just what vitamins you are getting from a bale of hay. With pellets you just read the label. For instance selenium in the soil varies greatly from place to place. Consequently you are seeing this mineral being added in the pellets and concentrated feeds.

What you need to know about alfalfa.

Creating A Mule Nutrition Program that Is Right for You

Most mules and horses stand around five days a week. They eat, drink, and sleep — and get ready for the next meal (just like most Americans these days).

The good feed we are on, if not combined with exercise, results in overeating and over weight. At that point, we pursue a weight-loss diet. Mr. Mule is made to last 20 to 30 years and his big ‘ole horse-type body must stand on those little hooves he got from his daddy, Mr. Donkey.

As I travel around doing mule training clinics, I see lots of mules as fat as an old steer, ready for the butcher. It is not good to be stuffing that ‘ole mule full of high protein feed when he is just standing in the corral.

When you are using Mr. Mule two to four hours a day, five days a week, you might consider putting a nosebag on him and adding a little grain before you get in the saddle. If you feed a lot of grain to Mr. Mule when he just sits around on a daily basis and you are going to have a rocket ship on your hands — on top of that, it’s expensive to over feed him.

The colts I ride get fed real good to build bone and muscle. They get ridden in the mountains and I need them to have a lot of energy. A 1000+ pound mule is offered three pounds of grain. Usually he won’t finish it all and then I get right to work with him, either riding, driving, or packing.

Any time I have mules with a sorry attitude (i.e. snorty, bad ground manners, unwilling nature, hard to catch, in general not wanting to do anything but stand in the corral and be left alone) those mules get nothing but the Lakin Lite pellets. I have seen the absolute sorriest mule change his attitude.

These rich alfalfa hays and feeds we are feeding are like drugs for mules. It amazes me to see the awesome change in attitude in a mule by changing his feed. One mule in particular showed an amazing turn around once I changed feed.

Moses, who belongs to Rich Fillman here in AZ, is a great example. When Rich first brought Moses the mule to me, you could hardly get near him. He was hard to catch, snorty on the ground, and did not want you on either side of him. He just wanted to be left alone. So I started my foundation work on a daily basis. I fed this 1000 pound mule Lakin Lite pellets twice a day, measured out in a three pound coffee can (he was extremely fat and the top of his back was as flat as my kitchen table).

I also required him to do some aerobic exercise in the form of hiking trails, pulling wagons, and packing freight all on a daily basis. The first five days I saw a tremendous difference in Moses. He showed a willingness to be trained. He had learned a lot of bad habits over his eight years and had discovered how to bluff all his owners during that time. Not only did I have to work through his attitude, I had to give him patient and consistent training to build a good foundation and help him on his way to being a good mule.

I found that if I added alfalfa hay or other hot feed to his feeding program, he had an immediate negative attitude change.

Over the next two months of training Moses, I had him on the Lakin Lite pellets and he had a really good energy. I moved him to the wagon to start other colts and he became a great lead mule for a pack team. I also spent time in the saddle with him. He eats up a mountain trail like it was flat ground.

You need to get with your veterinarian or good nutritionist to see what will work will for your mule and what program is best for you. Don’t just change your mule’s diet as a result of what you’ve read here… make calculated changes with your vet.

Final Thoughts On Mule Feed

One thing you need to be cautioned on is not to feed grass clippings in any form. I’ll say it again…


Grass clippings should not be fed for a multitude of reasons but mostly because they have weed killers and fungicides that can be toxic to mules or horses. Grass clippings are prone to cause choking because the animals do not have to chew in order to swallow.

Some folks back East have a lot of great grass hay, which is a great feed for Mr. Mule. While spending time back East I saw the prettiest hay I’ve ever seen. Lots of folks though my mules were skinny, but when they climbed on their mules the saddle slipped sideways because their mules were so fat that the mules body could hardly hold the saddle, haha!

The reason I began experimenting with different feeds was from what I read in a book called, “How To Be Your Own Veterinarian – Sometimes” By Ruth B. James, DVM. I got this book from her about five years ago and it sure has been handy.

Oh, you are probably wondering what happened to Norman. I have been getting emails from Ann Mulcay every other day telling me that Mr. Norman is absolutely doing fantastic. He is listening to her, he is finding fewer monsters on the trail and Ann is real happy because she can relax in the saddle again. She is planning to go to the Mule Rendezvous here in Arizona and to Bishop California for the World Championships.

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    16 thoughts on “Create A Feed & Nutrition Program for Your Mule or Donkey (Mules Can’t Stand Prosperity)”

    1. Aloha my names San I have a mule and would like to change her diet . She is out in pasture with the usual Kauai (guinea grass ) and lately being hard to catch . I’ve. Been feeding her alfalfa pellets & hay as well as Timothy or orchard grass when available, along with total equine being Theres not much selection here . Wondering if there’s any thing I should order in or any other feeds you would recommend besides what I feed . I’m not sure if Lakin lite is available here.
      (7 year old mare mule named dolly)

      1. Hi San, Dave here and thank you for the message! Sorry for the delay in replying. If you are unable to get Lakin Lite where you are, the next best thing is to look at the ingredients in this article and take that list to your local feed shop. Show them what you’re looking for and they will be able to help you find the closest thing to Lakin Lite.

    2. Steve, on your Donkey and Mule clinic this week on FB, you answered my questions on a “gassy” mule. You mentioned he could have a lack of zinc…..what symptoms would he have if this was so? He doesn’t like being brushed on his sides or being cinched up with the saddle….

    3. Siena Dominguez

      Hey, howdy! Siena here from Star Valley/Payson AZ. I have a 27-28 year old mule, named Tex. He is skinny, but we feed him about 2 and half flakes a day. 1 in the morning, in the evening and that half “sometimes” in the middle of the day. Only had him for about 2 years. So not sure how the previous owner fed or took care of him. But I hear he’s a reputable guy. Anyhow, I’ve read like 50 articles, talked to a few different people, tried different product from local supply stores and I can’t figure out what I need to do to help him. I just groomed him and realized he was even skinnier than I thought. Hoping you could share some insight. I’m lost 😔.
      Thanks in advance

    4. Howdy Steve, Asking advice on free-feeding a mule. My barn is going over to self care so we are now responsible for our own. We trail ride and work in arenas daily, with a day off here and there. Normally, 1 flake am and 1 flake pm of bermuda grass. Supplment a light lunch when I am there with Teff in a hay bay before and after a work out. 1lb of crimped oats / 1lb of triple crown 30%balancer. Lots of the horse owners are converting to free-choice which makes sense but I understand mules can’t stand prosperty. We live in Carlsbad Ca and you would say it’s paradise but it still gets cold. It does seem to be that Shrek is always hungry so I am leary about over doing it. This is the mule I got back in 2010 from San Diego Wild Animal Park. He is approx.16 yrs old now and my best friend. Just trying to have his best interests in mind. Any advice or sugestions on free choice will be appreciated. Thanks, Vicki Patnode and Shrek

    5. New to mule ownership, and have some questions about our 26 year old Arab mule, Pierre. His 2nd owner could no longer properly care for him, and she gave him to us. I have put him on a mix of beet pulp, alfalfa/orchard grass pellets, and rice bran. He gets somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 lbs grass hay daily, with 1/2 flake alfalfa one time a day. His owner gave him alfalfa all the time, daily, lots of it, heavily loaded with alfalfa pellet grain. We just moved to MT, and still working on fencing property, so right now, he is in 1/4 acre enclosure with our Arab mare. He stands 14 hh, sweet, until he is not…typically the result of too much alfalfa I figured out. Our choices for pellets are slim…he will let you do almost anything with him…but when he is grouchy, watch out. Bucked me off…broke 5 ribs, doing ground work, but is there anything else I can do for his diet? I have tried adding organic, apple cider vinegar to his grain, he does like it, and seems to do well with it. Pierre’s total grain intake for the entire day (his grain rationed out to 4 feedings daily) is 32 oz pellet, 3 lbs beet pulp, 32 oz rice bran. Is all that too much, not enough? He looks pretty plump, which, considering when we first got him, he was pretty skinny. TIA

    6. I don’t understand that you are promoting a feed that has its first ingredient as alfalfa hay and then you go on to criticize the feeding of alfalfa. What am I missing here?

    7. Hi there, Alex here! I’ve read and reread this article many times. I live next door to a horse rescue that ended up with a mule. We don’t know any of her background and believe she’s maybe 15th old. She’s very approachable and sweet but not very apt to lead very well. I feel like we do a lot of tug a war. They had been feeding her the same things as the horses. Scoop of haystack pellets, scoop of dry Cobb, flake of grass, flake of alfalfa. We’ve now switched to a low carb pellet feed (same as we give our miniatures) and moved to Timothy grass instead of the flake of alfalfa. Does this sound like a good alternative to Lakin lite? We want to give her a great home and I’m trying to work with her daily in the round pen. She still needs a lot of coaxing to get going though. We don’t have any mule experience but are doing our best so far!

      1. Hi Ben! This is a great question… go ahead and give steve a call… I’m going to spell out some of the numbers so he doesn’t get spammed… (six zero two) nine nine nine-6853.

        1. Would like to know the answer to that question about how many lbs. of Lakin pellets. Let’s say for a 17 year old 875 lb. mule, 14.1 hands doing some two hour trail rides a few times/week. Would like to feed some grass hay along with the pellets. Thanks.

    8. I’m not sure if we have that feed here first hearing of it but I got a mule that the guy just stopped feeding and its been a struggle to build her topline. She gets pellets and additives that were recommended help build weight adding small keyword small amount alfalfa hay see if it helps. She is a sweet mule on and off the ground she doesn’t get ridden right now though.

    9. Still awaiting some answers…. Is the Standlee Alfalfa/Timothy hay pellets (Standlee (Alf/Timothy) 12% 1.50% 32%) close enough to Lakin Lite to work for a 19 year old mule, 14.1 hh, not being used, who is losing topline? We don’t have Lakin sold anywhere within 3 states. Mule has hay belly but losing topline. Currently getting good quality grass hay and some soaked Standlee timothy pellets and a cup of soaked beet pulp pellets. About 11 lbs. total feed/day. Thanks for helping.

    10. I have a 30 year old mule whose grinders are now flat. She came to me as a rescue when I was looking for a mule 4 years ago.

      I currently feed her a combination of soaked alfalfa pellets, soaked senior pellets, and burmuda hay. She is maintaining her weight and is healthy. At what point in time should I no longer give her grass hay? This may be considered an obvious to know the answer kind of question but I need guidance. I check her manager piles to see if she is digesting everything and it all appears to be well chewed.

      Your article references Lakin Lite pellets which are unavailable in the Santa Fe, NM area. I would appreciate your advice.

      This mule was turned out on her I wn with a mini for 7 months in the winter of 2019. She’s a good mule and gets turned out on my 8.5 acres each day with the mini and my 28 year old mustang. .

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