So You Want to Buy A Mule?

One day you’re reading through the ads and you see her.  She’s just what you’re looking for.  Beautiful.  Look at all that color!

You decide to make a phone call.  The feller on the other end says that she does everything and to come on down and take a look. “I’ll take $1500 for her”, he tells you. You jump in the truck thinking, “Boy!  I’m gonna own a mule!”  When you get there the mule is all saddled up, ready to go.  The trader starts telling you all about the mule.  He gets on and rides and then offers for you to ride.  You’re excited.  You ride around a little.  Maybe you notice that the mule won’t go just where you want or you have to pull him around.  That’s OK; she’s cheap, and a pretty mule, so you decide to take her home.

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When you get home you put her in the corral because it’s late.  It’s late because it took three hours to load this great mule!  Now you feed your mule and say good night.

The next morning, you go out and walk in the corral and that great-deal-mule won’t come near you.  Two hours  later, and with the help of the neighbors, you catch the “great deal.”  Now you are leading the mule to the hitch rail and you are wishing that you had a tractor to lead with.  While she’s tied at the hitch rail, you go to brush the great deal and she tries to kick your head off. The problems with this “great deal” go on and on.

Now this is just one little story out of hundreds that we have heard over the years.  Lots of folks have thoughts on what a broke saddle mule is suppose to look like.  I like what Ben Tennison said in one of his articles, “My favorite color is broke.”  “Broke” is the old cowboy term for “trained”, or as I have seen it on most outfits, half trained.  I want to share with you some of the things you can look for in a mule that rides, drives and packs.

Help Buying A Mule – What to Look For and What Matters Most

First, let’s look at a saddle mule.  “Disposition” is everything for any mule.  If your potential mule won’t work with you and doesn’t like people, don’t go any farther.  As you are looking at the mule, allow  the owner to go into the corral to get the mule.  If the mule is already saddled, this always throws up a red flag to me.  The mule could be lots of things: drugged, hard to catch, bad to saddle and full of lots of other spoiled habits.  What I would like to see is for the mule to be in the corral and meet you and the owner at the gate.  Watch to see if the mule turns and faces the owner or turns to go the other way.

Now, as he halters the mule, you want to see the mule put her nose in the halter.   As the owner leads the mule, it’s good to see the mule lead easily with slack in the lead rope, following rather then dragging.

While brushing, I like to see the mule stand quietly, enjoying the brushing and the conversation.  Yes, conversation!  Mules like it when you talk in a nice quiet voice.  Yes, their vocabulary is limited to a few words they were taught in their foundation training; “get over”, “give me the foot”, “gee”, “ha”, “whoa”, etc.  The most important word they need to know is WHOA!  Whoa means a complete stop; no other movement, just stand still and quiet and wait.

As the owner picks up all the feet, at no time should the mule lean on him or pull away.  Have the owner take a hammer and tap on each hoof.  Miss Mule should stand still and quiet the whole time.  All the while, watch the ears and the tail.  The ears should be still and not stiff, the tail should  hang quietly — not switching or sucked up.

How to Buy A Riding Mule

At this point, it’s time for saddling.  You are watching to see that as the owner is saddling, the mule stands quietly.  Now it’s time for the bridle.  As the bridle is put on, the ears can be easily moved into place.  If they have to unbuckle the bridle, the mule may have ear-shying problems.  This can be a big problem.  I have found that this is a hole in training that is time consuming to fix.  It is also the start of other problems that are going to surface later on  when you are not expecting it.  Note the bit: how does the mule respond to it?  Does she neck rein or do you need to plow rein to turn?

Now you are ready to watch the owner  ride. I’m never impressed when someone jumps them out into a run or a lope (canter).  I want to see the mule stand still to get on, waiting to see what the rider is going to ask of her. That could be step to the right two steps, or to the left five steps, or a quiet back up or back five steps, then walk off quietly.

If the mule is saddled ask the owner to remove the saddle.  Look at the mule’s back.  If you see white spots, she has had an improper saddle on.  Folks try and fit a horse saddle on a mule and they hurt the mule’s back.  The bigger the white spots, the more the problems.  Look for any old scars on the mule and ask questions about the scars.

Here is the problem with a poorly fitted saddle: a mule doesn’t like pain and the wrong saddle is like boots that don’t fit; soon your feet will get sore.  There are a lot of mules bobbing their heads going down a little hill, and by doing this, they are telling you that the saddle is hurting their back and one day they will get tired of telling you and they  will buck you off!  Now they’ll have your attention!  Other saddle fit problems are evident when the mule is walking short and choppy,  jumping around, or even kicking the saddle out of your hands.

Have the owner lead the mule back to her corral and turn her loose.  Visit with the owner and listen to the stories about the mule.  Ask where he got the mule, how long he’s had the mule and why is he selling the mule.  Note the mule’s attitude while she is standing in the corral.  Now take the mule back to the hitching post and have him saddle the mule.  The whole time a mule is being saddled, observe the mule’s disposition.  The ears need to be loose and moving around quietly.  The tail must be hanging loose and not tight.

If the owner has a britchen, note how goosey she is and the crupper the same.  If the owner doesn’t us a crupper or britchen ask why.  I have seen lots of mules that, when you slide the crupper under the tail or the britchen down, they go to kicking at you or they are very goosey.  If he doesn’t have a britchen or crupper ask  him to tie a rope to the horn, go the long way around, then slide the rope under the tail and around the hips.  This will show you how goosey  the mule is.  Now for the bit, watch  for its ability to work with the mule.  When they get on the mule does he stand still and patiently?  Ask him to back first.  Note the ease of the backup: did he work off the bit, or the rider’s legs or both?  Next ask him to ride him in a figure 8. Is the rider having to pull on the rein to get the mule to turn, or is the mule light on the bit?  Watch to see if the mule responds to leg cues.  Spend as much time as it takes to do all of the above on the first visit.

Now at this time I suggest you  tell the owner you’re going to think about it.  Go home and do a lot of thinking.  If you’re interested in the mule, set up an appointment.  This time, set up a pre-purchase exam by your veterinarian, then revisit and go through the steps again.  You are buying this mule to relax on your time off, so take your time.  When you take your mule home, spend a lot of time on the ground.  This will help the mule get used to you. Take her out as much as possible,  lead her around, tie her to the mule trailer or anywhere else.  This teaches the mule that their job is not to just stand around in their corral and eat and drink all day.

How to Buy A Driving Mule

So we know what to look for in a riding mule. You know you want to see: disposition, conformation, training.  We need to look for these same traits in the driving mule.  I start by asking how the mule was started.  What type of training has he had?  I want to know about the foundation work.

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As an example, we start all our driving mules without blinders.  The reason is that Mr. Mule wants to know everything going on around him.  He is much happier when he can see everything that is happening around him.  Did he start learning to drive by first pulling poles, tires, etc.?  How long was his training before the first drive?  Thirty days will give a good foundation.  (I would never consider him trained in only thirty days.)  Did he start single or as a team?  Can he drive single and/or double?

Now let’s look at Mr. Mule’s disposition.  When buying a mule, start at the corral.  How easy is he to catch? The very best mule will walk up to you.  I like to see the mule drop his head and tip the nose toward me to put the nose into halter.  While leading him to be groomed, how attentive is the mule to the owner?  He should follow willingly, not be pulled.  The mule should stand quietly as he is being groomed.  He should be able to have his feet and legs worked with ease.  Before you hook him to a wagon, I would like to see the mule dry drive, (without a wagon) pulling a tire or pole or just walking quietly behind him.  While putting the harness on, Mr. Mule needs to be quiet, but a little shifting of weight is OK.  He should not be bothered by the different parts of the harness touching him.

Be specific when you ask about driving.  Ask if the mule drives single, double or both.  How do you want to drive Mr. Mule?  Just because someone says ‘he drives’ doesn’t mean single and double!

Let’s take a minute and look at single driving harness.  Here at the ranch, we like single harness with a collar rather than breast harness.  We believe that the mule can pull with more ease and will be more apt to enjoy the drive.

When being hooked to the wagon Mr. Mule needs to wait for every move the teamster will ask for.  A well-trained team will walk quietly and step over the pole and stand quietly while the teamster hooks them up.

When climbing in the wagon and holding onto the lines, Mr. Mule needs to stand still and quietly while waiting for the teamster to pick up on the lines.  At this point the mule should not start to move — not until the driver asks for either a backup, come gee (right) or come haw (left), etc.  As Mr. Mule starts out, his head position should go straight, not to the right or the left.  When you come to the gate going out to the street, does the mule wait on the driver, or he is impatiently ready to go as soon as the gate opens?  This is a taught trait and not the fault of the mule.  This is the driver’s fault.  This teaches the mule impatience.  Does the driver have to slap the mule with the lines?  This is “only in the movies”, as Bud Brown would say.  Instead when you ‘pick up on’ the lines and youspeak to the mule. The mule, if he has a good foundation, will go the way he is asked.

Now the real test!  The road is a very dangerous place.  Just being on the road with all kinds of vehicles and folks who are all in a hurry is bad enough.  With a vehicle, you have bumpers.  But with a wagon, the mule has the driver and he needs to be very experienced!  This can be a fun time but it is very difficult; it is a hard test with the traffic flying by and lots of noise.  Watch the ears and tail; Mr. Mule will tell you what he is thinking. The tail should hang quiet and not be switching.  If it is switching, he is upset.  Hanging quiet, he is at ease. The ears will be flopping if he is at total ease and straight up if he is questioning something.  The ears will be straight up and stiff when he is mad.

Folks, before you get in to the expense of driving, do your homework.  Read, go to clinics, buy videos, take classes and most importantly, drive a lot with an experienced driver.

As you observe the way different mules respond to the above test, you will begin to have a genuine insight as to what it takes to make a good mule.  Driving is great family fun if it is done safely.

How to Buy A Packing Mule

So we have covered riding and driving.  I cannot emphasize disposition enough. This means that the mule must be a willing friend; willing to go where you go and willing to do what you ask.  A big quiet brown eye, not snorting when you come around, anxious to see you when you come to the gate. In short a willing nature.

I prefer a medium bone conformation. The head coming straight up out of the shoulder, the longer the ear, the better. Nice round hips and a good wither would be a bonus.  I’m 5’ 6″, so packing a 16 hand mule is sure tough.  I prefer 14.2 hands to pack.

Lots of folks think that a pack mule doesn’t need to know much.  I look at packing as a level of knowledge and foundation the mule needs to know before he becomes a good saddle mule.  We believe in lots of training aids.  We tie to our trailers, we front leg hobble, and we use hitching posts and hot walkers.  These all teach the mule patience.  These days, mules think their job is to stand in a corral. When you take them out of the corral they paw, jump in the air, or move around a lot.  Tying them out helps them under stand the need to be happy anywhere you ask them to go or stay.

In lots of packing books, the author suggests to “make everything tight so nothing rattles and scares the mule”.  As part of our training program, we put tin cans and any thing else that would rattle in the boxes so we can sack him out.  How about the day you open a stick of gum and this little noise scares Mr. Mule?

I use packing as final sacking and preparation for riding.  I figure that pack boxes won’t jump like I will when the new mule hits a tree or a saguaro cactus.  An experienced pack mule will know to step to the side and go around those things; that pack box could have been my leg hitting the tree or cactus!

A good pack mule should stand still while you are packing him.  The pack bags and boxes are bright orange but this should not be a problem as mules are color-blind.  This packing is good foundation training that will help Mr. Mule get adjusted to weight and noise.

Opening a tarp and pulling it over the pack outfit will sure blow a mule’s mind if he has not been sacked out.  Notice we use a plastic tarp to pull over the mule.  We take a foot away at the same time with a scotch hobble.  This teaches the mule to give to the new pressure of giving to his leg.  A few times of this and he will learn that he can’t take his leg away.  You will be training him to accept the tarp and give his leg at the same time.  This is essential training to prepare for easy shoeing and foot care.

The lash rope flying over the back of Mr. Pack Mule can be tough, especially when the lash slaps him on the belly.  By the time you get the 40-ft. rope tied, you have trusted Mr. Pack Mule with your life.  You have been under his belly, around his back legs and moving around the off side (right side).  Yes it is a very good mule to just handle the loading part!

While the leg is tied up, you can practice with the lash rope.  We place the mule in training in a string with a good mule for the lead.  I tie the mule I’m training to the good mule and we head down the trail for an hour or two.  We string five mules together to pack our freight to camps.  Mr. Mule gets a lot of trail miles this way.

The first time out with a new pack mule can be quite exciting.  The mule may have done great up to this point, then the sorry beggar thinks that he is a boat anchor.  This is where good halter training comes into play.  I start all my mules with come-along hitch, or as some call it, a nerve line.  This goes around the nose and up over the pole.  When Mr. Mule sets back in the string, he’ll only do it once or twice before his foundation will come back to him.  He remembers to lead with out any problem.  I have a low opinion of mule halters with chains that go on the noise or under the chin.  I think that if he has a good foundation, Mr. Mule will lead with just a rope halter.  Mr. Mule likes his nose and you will get a softer mule if you don’t hurt it.

It is very important for the pack mule be in good physical condition.  Packing dead weight is tough on the animal.  Don’t just take him out one day and put a pack outfit on his back.  He needs to be conditioned.  Use a hot walker if you have one available.  Lead him behind your riding animal for a few days.

Let’s take a quick review of the things you want to look for when buying a mule to ride, drive, or pack:

  1. Good disposition
  2. Conformation
  3. Easy to catch
  4. Stands quietly for grooming and mounting
  5. communicates with voice ,hands ,legs ,seat
  6. Leads well
  7. Gets along with equine in the back of him and in the front
  8. Medium to heavy bone structure
  9. trailers well
  10. good to shoe
  11. Good physical condition

We know that buying and maintaining a mule is expensive.  By following the guidelines we have laid out in the last three articles, we trust you will truly be purchasing “a friend for life”.

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    2 thoughts on “So You Want to Buy A Mule?”

    1. Hey Steve, as always good advice on buyin a mule. Really enjoying learning about these animals. Thanks.

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