A common question we get at Queen Valley Mule Ranch is when can a young mule be ridden or used for packing and driving? It’s exciting to break a mule, but how do you know when to start? This question was echoed recently when a customer asked:
Is my Molly too young for me to be riding? She’s just three, she was being rode before I got her. I’ve trail rode her three times, and been driving her, saddle and unsaddled. I use all the tack I got from you; the Martingale is great, and she’s getting a nice headset – I love it. Somebody on a mule page on Facebook said no mule should be rode till after three years old. What do you think?
There is a difference between being physically ready to ride and being mentally ready. Let’s look at both issues.
When is a Mule Physically Ready to Carry Weight?
Mules and donkeys are a favorite for carrying heavy loads as they can work harder and smarter than most horses. But to make sure your mule doesn’t have foundering issues later in life you must be certain the leg joints have closed before adding weight.
The leg joints on a mule close at three years of age. The only way to be certain they have closed is to have your vet ultrasound their knees. While it’s tempting to add weight to your mule when it turns three, it is critical to check the knees first. An ultrasound can save the mule a lifetime of pain and save you lots of money in the long run. So, don’t skip the ultrasound.
Why Ultrasound the Knees?
Any kind of trauma to the joints can cause inflammation. Once inflammation sets in, it sets off a chain reaction. The cartilage begins to break down rapidly and production of the cartilage decreases. Simply put, not only is the knee joint breaking down fast if weight is added too early, but the production of cartilage slows down too. It’s a double punch to your animal.
That cartilage will continue to break down day-by-day. Like everything else with these mules, you may not see the problem at first. But the mule will develop osteoarthritis in those joints just like us humans. It’s painful. Ask anyone who suffers from arthritis. The mule will tolerate the pain for a long time. Then one day everything just breaks apart. This is a perfect storm for someone to get hurt.
There is no cure for this cartilage breakdown. Yes, scientists are experimenting with stem cell regeneration. But for most folks, that is simply out of reach as a treatment option. You can add joint supplements to your feed, but again, it’s better to prevent damage in the first place. Also, if you choose to add supplements, have your vet take a hair sample and see what your animal needs before supplementing.
My advice is to take the time and spend a bit of money to have the ultrasound done. Once the leg joints have closed, your mule is ready to bear weight. But it doesn’t stop there. You must also look at your mule’s temperament to see if he’s ready mentally.
When is a Mule Mentally Ready to Carry Weight?
Before trying to mount a mule, you should have a solid six months of foundation training. Mules will follow a strong leader and can be very easy going if you make instructions black and white. They will not follow you if are inconsistent in your directions.
Foundation training should start at two-and-a-half years of age to prepare the mule for working once the leg joints have closed. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be working with your mule sooner. Your colt will benefit from being handled properly from birth. Instill good manners early and your mule will be loyal and hard working for decades.
Develop Good Behaviors Early
Stop any bad behaviors before they start. Don’t allow your colt to bite, kick, or push you. Handle your young mule for small training sessions, 15 minutes at a time, then let it rest to play or nurse. You can train once a day or several sessions a day.
Keep your young mule calm and offer plenty of praise, but not treats. I often say training is the reward, not treats. A rub on the back or haunches and kind words will go a lot further in bonding with your animal than trying to bribe him with treats, which could lead to demanding behaviors.
Getting Ready to Ride, Pack, or Drive Your Mule
Don’t forget, it takes a solid six months to build a foundation with your animal. Once you have laid a solid foundation, built trust with your mule, and have confirmed the leg joints are closed, you can ride your mule. Continue giving consistent directions and praise to your mule and he will be loyal to you.
I’m Here to Help
I can’t say enough about the fact that most problems with mules can be changed with proper foundation training. If you have questions about your mule’s leg joints closing or any other behaviors, send me an email or give me a call. I am here to help you and your mule work together.