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.
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.
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.
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…
DO NOT FEED GRASS CLIPPINGS in any form.
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.