You’ve heard of kill pens, but you may not know why they’re so dangerous. Kill pens are usually filled with mules and donkey rescues that are claimed from the wild, untrained, and have behavioral issues. People who want to save money on buying a rescue donkey or rescue mule will often go to these kill pens because these animals can be found at a lower price point than if they were from an actual breeder.
NOTE: Throughout this article the words mule and donkey can be used interchangeably unless otherwise noted. What is applicable for a mule will be applicable for a donkey, too.
The problem is that many of these animals come from questionable backgrounds and locations – it’s hard to tell what their health condition is. These animals also typically have no training whatsoever, which means people who buy them need even more patience when trying to train them. It can take a minimum of six months of groundwork in order for the animal to feel safe, at home, and in partnership with their pack leader – and that’s before you ever sit in the saddle.
It is possible to find a diamond in the rough, but it’s going to require a lot of patience and hard work. There’s no guarantee that you’ll find the mule you’re looking for – or that the mules you find will be a good fit. There’s also no guarantee that the mule you’re going to purchase will be a good fit for you and your work together.
If you’re willing to put in the work, are aware of the risks, and have time and patience to train, this article can help you be prepared to make the most of your search for your rescue donkey.
The truth about kill pen mules and kill pen donkeys
You may think a kill pen is gruesome and horrible. But consider the conditions these rescue mules were living in before the pen. It’s true that many of these animals would be better served by being put down than being in an abusive situation. They don’t have a great quality of life, they’re not animals that have a clean slate as far as their behavior goes, and they’re not used to being around humans. The mule’s instinct is to be alone, and to run away from humans – if you’ve never tried to put a rope around a mule’s neck… you’ve got your work cut out for you.
At its most basic, equines are not people – this gets confusing when folks just like you with good hearts want to save a rescue donkey from a kill pen. There are different boundaries between equine and people, and must treat all of creation with respect. It’s important to consider the most compassionate choice for the animal, when choosing whether or not to find a rescue donkey from a kill pen. I reckon we all want to save a donkey from the kill pen, as much as it pains us. But let’s be fair and consider what is in their best interest first.
Many times, it’s in their best interest to stay in the kill pen, because they’re dangerous animals. They can kill, crush, and break you. Many of these animals are past the point of being able to be trained, rehabilitated, or even be able to interact with a human being. These are not companions, folks. These animals, most of the time, aren’t even capable of being working animals, because of their history and their behavior.
Sometimes the kill pen is actually the most compassionate place for a mule. Many folks just don’t understand what actually happens for a mule to end up in a kill pen, and what it means to “rescue” a mule from there.
If you’re still considering a rescue mule, the rest of this article will help you be as prepared as possible. It’ll help you understand what you’re getting yourself into, and what you need to have on-hand in order to make the transition from the pen to the mule’s new home the best situation possible.
Reasons why people want to rescue
I’m tellin’ you now, many people think donkeys and mules are beautiful animals because they are – but you can’t buy them or rescue them for their beauty.
Many folks want to rescue them because they have compassion and feel heartbroken when they see a donkey or mule in a kill pen. God is creative, and He made donkeys and mules so special – they’re a creation like no other. It can be hard to see a donkey in the kill pen. Because of our compassion, we don’t want to see an animal headed toward euthanasia without trying to find them a home, and want to do our part in saving their life, but that’s a dangerous mindset.
Some folks realize that the mules for sale in kill pens are cheap. With behavioral issues, health issues, and usually little or no training, these mules are at a discount, because they need a significant amount of work, veterinary care, and training. If you don’t have much history with animals, and the thought of dropping five figures on a good mule is out of reach, kill pens typically have animals at a lower price point – but these animals come at a big cost in many other ways.
It can be hard to find a good quality donkey so an easy go-to source is a mule or donkey rescue. You’ll find lots of mule rescues in Texas, Arizona, Ohio, and other states with a simple internet search. It’s the low-hanging fruit in terms of inventory. If you can find one close, that’s an option. Some folks choose to search Craigslist for mules, as mules for sale on Craigslist can be popular.
Things to be aware of when considering rescuing a donkey from a kill pen
Animals are in the kill pen for a reason, and it’s important to know what that reason is. There can be multiple reasons that a rescue mule or rescue donkey ends up in a kill pen. Some animals have major anatomy issues, like injured or deformed hooves and feet. Some have had bad or no training, so they are reckless. When you search for a rescue mule at a kill pen (some folks search for mules on Craigslist), you don’t know the history of the animal.
You might get fooled into buying a 10-year-old donkey with a smooth tongue. He tells you he’s young, but in truth he has seen many years pass by. You don’t know the health history, genetics, or who the donkey’s parents are, which makes a big difference in temperament and overall health. You don’t know what the donkey’s nutrition has been like, and what their transition to your nutrition program will look like. (We’ll get into that later.)
You need to know that while the animal might be inexpensive at first, the cost overall of rehabilitating a rescue donkey, a nutrition program, tack, quarters, transport, and training time/resources is quite expensive. You won’t know what kind of training (if any) the animal has had, and how they responded. You won’t know if they can even tolerate a human coming toward them, let alone put a rope around their neck.
Mule rescues usually have very limited information on the history of the animal, so you’re taking a gamble when you find a rescue donkey. Sure, you may be able to find a well-behaved, healthy, curious mule, but your chances are very slim to none.
So, no matter why you have an unruly beast or if their caretaker was not so kind—even then—you can’t ignore that fact: You’ve got this huge equine who could definitely do some damage to people, other animals, and themselves. You can’t expect a donkey to follow you around just because you want it to or because you saved it from a kill pen. You gotta earn its trust and respect first.
Visiting and meeting a potential rescue mule
When you visit a mule at the kill pen, my basic rule of thumb is to start by standing at the corral, and I just lean against it. I like to use a lot of cologne because then the mule will have an interest in you. One of the tips I learned years ago was to put cologne on my gloves, pat down my shirt with it, and pat down my hat. The mule will smell it and be curious. Let the mule approach you – do NOT get into the corral with the mule. Again, these animals are dangerous and can kill you in a matter of seconds.
We don’t open the gate and walk into it. We just lean up against the corral. Never put your hand out to pet a mule. When we try to pet the mule the first time, we are at the neutral place, called the shoulder. And that shoulder is a neutral place because there’s really no safe place.
When you watch equine with one another, they come face-to-face. That’s them trying to say, “I am the herd leader.” If we go up to them face-to-face, we have a good chance that they’ll see that as competition and want to dominate us. So we approach the shoulder which is a neutral zone. We start petting at the shoulder working our way forward.
Now, another downside of the kill pen is that a lot of these folks are getting these animals without touching or seeing them other than a few pictures. This is why it’s extremely important to make sure that your veterinarian goes to check out the mule before you purchase or exchange any money. It’s well worth the cost, which varies by veterinarian, to make sure that the mule is in fairly decent health.
Once that’s done, make sure someone picks up all four feet. Now, by picking up all four feet, you can determine the mule’s disposition. That’ll tell you how they tolerate people, how easy they may be to catch, etc.
Never ever buy a mule you can’t touch. Period.
Where you can go wrong, right off the bat
Many folks want a rescue mule because their heartstrings got pulled. But I’d advise that if you must get a rescue mule, try to get one with the best temperament you can find, otherwise, your ride could turn into quite the bucking bronco – even being dangerous enough to kill you.
See, you may be looking at getting a rescue donkey because you want companionship and because it hurts to see an animal in a kill pen environment. But these aren’t companions – they’re livestock, working animals. They can easily crush you, kill you, and break your bones.
When searching for a rescue donkey, it’s not realistic to want a buddy. It’s a dangerous mindset because you’re asking the animal to go against its nature, which doesn’t work out well. You can’t pursue a rescue mule wanting companionship. Mules are meant for a working relationship – and a working relationship only.
Getting in the saddle too early is a common problem I see with many new mule owners. Everyone wants to ride the mule – I get it, folks. I do. But in an absolute best-case scenario, finding a rescue mule with minimal issues (which is rare), you need at least six months of ground foundation work with your mule before ever thinking about getting in the saddle. With a typical rescue donkey from the kill pen, you’re going to need more time than that, because you’re not training a clean slate.
Do not get in the saddle immediately – even if you met the rescue mule and you were able to ride mules for sale on the property. You work with that mule from the ground.
We start from the ground and we work our way up to eventually build a relationship with the animal where there is mutual trust. We do not buy a mule just because we’ve been able to ride it. That’s the icing on the cake – first, we’ve got to build the cake.
You’ll need to spend extensive time undoing the bad habits the rescue donkey has picked up and then training them the way you want them to behave. If you try to get on their back without a clear understanding of where the mule is, and you haven’t done ground foundation training, you could end up in the hospital or dead. You don’t know this mule’s background, and you don’t know what their response to humans is. If you proceed with trying to put a saddle on the mule, after getting the rescue mule home, or worse – getting on to ride – you’ll be in for quite a surprise.
Make sure that if you’re wanting a rescue donkey, you’re in it for the long haul – you’ll need to spend the time and attention necessary to the animal for the foreseeable future. Training any animal – especially a rescue donkey – takes significant time and energy. If you’re wanting a rescue donkey, be prepared to give it time and attention for as long as necessary. Buying an animal is hard work, but if you want one that has been through a lot, then make sure to go in with your eyes open!
You can go wrong by putting your rescue mule with other animals. Mules want to be left alone – it’s one of their main personality traits. By introducing them to your other animals (livestock, horses, dogs, etc), you run the risk of aggravating them and potentially causing the mule, your other animals, or yourself serious harm. Don’t do it, folks.
Where to find a rescue donkey
There are many options for finding a rescue donkey. Bigger animal sanctuaries in Florida, animal sanctuaries in Texas, and animal sanctuaries in Arizona are known for rescue mules and rescue donkeys. These animals are usually in a sanctuary because of behavior, training, nutrition, or personality issues. Their behavior can be alarming, violent, and reckless. With nutrition switches between their first living area, to the kill pen, and then home with you, they can be malnourished or refuse to eat. The stress on the animal capitalizes on this, and they usually act out with behavior issues on top of their existing lack of training. With no history on their parents, you’ll be without information that could help you pick a great mule.
BLM (Bureau of Land Management) burros are state-owned wild burros. They offer adoption and sales of rescue donkeys, by working to place animals in private care. They also partner with organizations across the country to place donkeys in need of a good home into stable long term environments.
If you wish to adopt or buy a rescue donkey from the Bureau of Land Management, there are minimum requirements, like the owner (adopter) being at least 18 years of age, the adopter being free of inhumane treatment of animals convictions, as well as facility requirements for the shelter, feed, and water for the animal. (source)
Truth is, you don’t find too many mules through BLM. You find donkeys and you find horses. Matter of fact, the Florence prison out here in Arizona has an excellent equine program where you can buy a donkey for $250 that’s been ridden and sometimes driven.
Some people also search Craigslist for rescue donkeys and rescue mules. As always, with a private sale, there is a risk, just like a sanctuary or BLM burro. You may not have any medical or behavioral information on the mule, which is something to consider before you think about transporting it home or attempting to train it. In fact, if we don’t know anything about a creature’s health and behavior, there are some serious risks that could happen when trying to transport them back into their habitat after they’ve been relocated outside of it.
What happens when you receive your rescue donkey?
Number one, folks – and I know a lot of you aren’t going to like this – but you need to keep your kids away from the mule or donkey. Children are the perfect height for a donkey or mule to bite, and any mule (but especially an untrained one) has the capacity to attack. I’ve heard so many horror stories about this. Keep your kids away from your mule or donkey. When a donkey grabs a hold of you with his teeth and shakes you around, that’s a horrible thing to see.
It’s not so much that these mules have been abused – it’s that these animals are not dogs. They’re not companions, they’re livestock. They are not meant to be affectionate creatures that desire companionship. They are prey animals at the bottom of the food chain, and they are born to run away, as their biggest desire is to protect themselves and be alone.
What is important is that you work on your ground foundation training. You need to get a Come-A-Long rope on that mule or donkey and lead them. The brushing and grooming aren’t important – in fact, mules will spin and kick you, or worse, bite! People have been hurt way more on the ground than they have in the saddle by equines. They all bite, they all kick, they all run off – they’re not a dog, and that’s very important to remember.
Another thing I like to encourage mule owners to do is to give their male mules “brain surgery” right away – in other words, if their testicles have dropped, cut them off. A young john mule (also sometimes called a stallion) will push and kick out fences and have really reckless behavior if they’re still intact. I recommend that if your mule is a young john, you get that taken care of.
One of the issues that can arise with rescuing your mule is that they can be an ear shy mule. Ear shy mules are sensitive to having their ears touched. This makes putting any rope, halter, or bridle onto the mule that much more difficult.
I have a training resource for this, but please know that any rescue mule is generally going to be very hesitant to allow you to go anywhere near their head, especially if they are an ear-shy mule. And mules train very differently than horses, folks. They are not the same. If you are trying to train your mule like you have trained horses, you’re in for some trouble. Here’s a training video I offer on problem mules, and what can happen if you try to train them like a horse.
How to start rehabilitating your new mule
One of the main ways that rescue donkeys experience medical issues is through their feet.
As working animals, mules’ feet are one of the most important places on their body. Their feet support them (and you, once you can ride) and are going to be of major concern when you’re looking at a rescue donkey to purchase or adopt. Some of these animals are in such bad shape that they don’t have a foot anymore – and without a foot, you don’t have a working animal.
You’re going to want to start things off with a veterinary check before you ever pay a dime for the mule. You’ll want to make sure that the animal is in good health. (It’s a good idea to have the vet come check out the rescue donkey before you buy it, as well as after you transport the animal home.) A veterinarian is trained in equine health and will be able to tell you what steps need to be taken to help increase the health of the animal, as well as provide any medications, braces, and prescriptions that are needed.
The veterinarian is a professional. They can do some basic identification of problems and make a determination that the animal would be one that you could be around – potentially – or, one you better stay away from. What you don’t want to do is listen to the cowboys, the employees that are there, saying that all the mule needs are A, B, C. A lot of rescue mule owners say that the mule was “well behaved” when they first saw it, but that the mule “changed” when it got home.
The truth is that a lot of these animals (before they get picked up or before they are seen) are drugged. A veterinarian will know if a mule has been drugged by taking a blood sample and running a test on it.
You’ll want to have a nutrition program ready to go before your rescue donkey comes home. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend the feed that’s needed for your donkey based on their nutritional needs and their current circumstances. You’ll want to make sure that you have this in place before the mule comes home, as well as a transition plan for changing their feed to what you and your veterinarian have decided. Likely, that choice is different from the feed they had at the kill pen.
There are also options for sending a sample of the rescue mule’s hair to a veterinary genetics laboratory. This panel of tests, done from a sample of hair, tests for coat colors, coat patterns, hair length, spotting of coats, light points in their pigmentation, parentage, and mutations like Red Factor. Red Factor is a mutation that causes red body and red trim in donkeys. (source) Getting a hair sample test completed is recommended for all animals and for a rescue that there is little documentation on, it can provide a wealth of information to help you better understand the history of the animal.
Your first training session with your rescue donkey
The best thing you can do is to lay the groundwork for training before you ever start training itself. Getting educated is the number one step that can save you time and frustration because it’ll help you start things off on the right foot, and correct the issues that your mule has because of being in the kill pen environment.
I offer a FREE weekly livestream to help educate mule owners and prospective rescue donkey owners about how to care for, train, and get results from their animal. As a matter of fact, I decided to write this article because we receive so many questions from folks regarding a rescue animal they are considering bringing home or issues they have with one that has already been purchased.
You can also message me with questions about your own training, your mule questions, as well as what you would like to see in future videos on our channel.
Education is going to be your number one tool and priority when you’re working with your mule, whether it’s the first time you’re training, or you’ve been working on your ground foundation for at least six months and are seeing progress. Educating yourself on the best training methods and getting help for the issues you and your mule are experiencing together is priceless.
Starting out with any donkey is hard, but especially a rescue mule from a kill pen. They are stubborn and don’t like to do their work. However, it isn’t impossible to achieve success if you truly understand what they need in order to succeed, and you’re able and willing to provide that.
You’re going to want to try to get a Come-A-Long hitch on your rescue mule. This is part of the ground foundation training that you’ll need to work on with your mule so that they learn when it is okay and not okay to move! The Come-A-Long rope is also important for being able to begin a baseline relationship with your mule, and get the groundwork done before you are in a space to be able to put a saddle on your animal.
I hear from folks all the time that just want to get in the saddle. They want to ride, and they often push to ride too quickly after interacting with their mule for a short time. Don’t even think about getting in the saddle, trying to drive, or trying to pack – your goal at the beginning of training is to become the pack leader. You’re working to become someone that the mule trusts, can communicate with, and can respect. That’s the entire goal of the first part of your training with your rescue donkey. You have to become the herd leader, and establish a baseline of who is in charge, so that your mule knows they don’t call the shots!
When it’s time for bits, I recommend not starting out with a smooth snaffle bit because the donkey isn’t going to respond well to that. Folks use the smooth snaffle bit thinking they’re being nice to their mules when in reality they are not going to get the results they want. This is why I use the double twisted wire driving bit. It’s easier on the mouth and easier to communicate with the mule this way – it evenly communicates the command across the tongue. If your mule isn’t steering well, you want to get them steering well first using a Mule Rider’s Martingale bit. I’m what you might call a mule-whisperer. I know and understand them, and they trust me because of it. And when an animal trusts you, it’s easy to do what is best for both of you.
Learn everything you need to know about mule and donkey bits.
I recommend that you look at the foundation training that we offer, which includes nearly every instructional video I’ve ever recorded, and you get to keep them forever! The collection includes 15 full-length instruction lessons that cover everything from green mules to green riders, to drivers, to hobbling. You get immediate access because the library is entirely digital.
Is it okay to give up on my kill pen mule?
The thing is, we have to realize that there have been several years that the mule has been trained prior to you “rescuing” it. But inadvertently, the mule has been trained by other people who don’t realize that just opening the gate and walking into the corral is actually a form of training.
Training 4-to-6 hours a week on a six-month timeframe should be an average. A tip I tell everybody is don’t overdo the training. People will say, “Oh my mule just did really good, let’s do it 10 more times!” No, no, no. Build a foundation. Yeah, those old boys will come later once the foundation is built.
The downside is most mules and donkeys have no foundation, especially when coming out of a kill pen. They do not respect the lead rope which is attached to the halter, which on the other end is attached to your hand.
Train consistently, but don’t over-do it. You’re probably wanting to give up because you’re training too hard.
Moving forward with your rescue donkey
Finding a rescue donkey or mule in a kill pen can be a challenging feat. Not only are there a lot of risks, it can be difficult to create a positive relationship with an animal that has so much history of reckless behavior, maltreatment, and difficult training experiences.
Compassion is a good character trait to have, and the desire to nurture an animal is something to be celebrated. However, having livestock or an equine being the subject of these feelings can be difficult because of the nature of the relationship a mule requires.
Mules are working animals, not companions, and that’s hard for a lot of folks considering owning a mule to remember.
Nothing is wrong with you for wanting a rescue donkey or mule, you just need an understanding of what these animals are – livestock, working animals, with a collection of undocumented issues. Sometimes it’s not the best choice to move forward with a mule or donkey just because you have feelings of compassion or connection to an animal. What is best for the animal and what is best for you need to be considered.
Wanting to be a mule or donkey owner makes you part of a huge community. Mules and donkeys have risen in popularity steadily since the early 2000s, and up until then were an amazing secret. So many people who weren’t able to experience a horse relationship or didn’t have a good experience with horses are finding out that they prefer donkeys and mules. They’re great work animals. When you’re doing work with them, it’s rewarding.
If you decide to rescue a donkey or mule from a kill pen
It’s very important for prospective rescue donkey owners to educate themselves on the rehabilitation process and what they should expect when working with an unknown and potentially dangerous animal like a rescue mule or rescue donkey.
Rescue donkeys can be found at kill pens as well as sanctuaries and BLM Burros throughout the country.
It typically takes 6 months minimum in order to build the trust needed to rehabilitate these animals before they’re ready for adoption into your home or ranch environment.
If you have the time, space, patience, education, training, finances, and work ethic, then rescuing a mule could be one of the most rewarding experiences possible!
You should be applauded for your compassion and desire to create a better life for anything found in creation. Nurturing, caring for, and taking on the responsibility for another living thing is something the Good Lord placed inside of us. It is for this reason that I share all these thoughts about rescuing a mule or donkey from a kill pen. It is a big undertaking that not everyone is able to do, no matter how willing they may be.
If, after reading this article, you decide that maybe you should reconsider the challenge of rescuing an equine from a kill pen, don’t be hard on yourself. As I shared at the very beginning, often it is in the best interest of the animal itself to be put down so it will no longer hurt itself or pose a threat to others.
I want you to have a rewarding, working relationship with an animal that finds equal reward in what you do together. I reckon you’re just going to have to work really hard. And when you do, you’ll be rewarded with a donkey that will stick by your side always.