Watching Mae Bea C.T. work a ring is enough to make any horse lover's heart sing. The young dun is only at the second level of dressage training, but her conditioning, her sense of rhythm and her willingness are obvious. She flexes her neck elegantly. Her movement is springy. Her transitions from walk to trot to canter are crisp, and when she halts, she stops—poised and alert—with all four feet squarely beneath her.
In a combined training trial—which tests a mount's overall athletic ability through dressage, cross-country and stadium jumping events—Bea exudes strength as well as grace. She gallops steadily across the three miles of hilly fields in the cross-country endurance test, refusing none of the 18 obstacles, including ditches, bridges and piles of logs. In the stadium jumping event she takes each jump easily, coiling back on her powerful hindquarters, then curling her forelegs neatly beneath her as she leaps the obstacle. Any hesitation at a jump is brief, a mere stutter step that registers not fear or refusal, but thinking. You can see it in her ears.
Horses communicate with their ears, of course; wild stallions direct their herds with them. But Bea's ears are different. They're about a foot long, and she flaps them vigorously as she nears a jump, looking like Dumbo on a hurdles course. Bea is different in other ways, too. Her head, while nicely tucked, is big. Her back is straight. Her legs are very long. And her voice is a cross between the sounds of a squeaky pump and an anguished pig. The fact is, this four-legged beast hurtling along the course isn't a horse. She's a mule, a $25,000 mule in training for the highest levels of equine competition.
Mules have long been regarded by many as stubborn, ugly and vicious animals. Often the butt of jokes among the horsey set, they nearly disappeared. Today the animal's popularity in the U.S. is skyrocketing. Mules now compete in every kind of equine sport—racing, vaulting, driving, jumping, polo, dressage, fox hunting and rodeo. These aren't old-fashioned plow mules, though. They're show and sport mules, also called contemporary mules or fancy mules: carefully bred, highly trained animals worth thousands of dollars each. "There's always been this taboo about mules," says Meredith Hodges, who owns Bea and trains her at the Lucky Three Ranch in Loveland, Colo. "But people are finding that mules are 10 times better than horses."
A mule is a hybrid—the offspring of a male donkey (a jack) and a female horse. The resulting animal looks like a horse but has a donkey's long ears, big head, straight legs and small hooves. The animal's distinctive call is a cross between a horse's whinny and a donkey's bray—a sort of harsh heeee haaawww with vibrato. "I just love a mule's holler," says (Caroline Glenn, who raises draft mules at her Big Oak Mule Company in Anderson, S.C. "A mule sounds like an angel." Perhaps unearthly is a better description.
Mules are sterile. Breeders create each one from scratch, training their jacks to mount mares, and sometimes digging breeding pits for the mares so the smaller jacks can more easily reach their intendeds. It may seem as if a breeder goes to a lot of trouble to create a mule, but an animal that is bigger than a donkey and tougher than a horse can be very valuable. Mules can tolerate high temperatures and survive for hours without water. They're disease resistant. They have superstrong legs that rarely break down and neat feet that give them extraordinary surefootedness. And mules are levelheaded. Unlike horses, they'll come to a stop if they're overheated or overworked or find themselves in a dangerous situation.
"A horse will tangle with barbed wire or fall in a ditch or get stuck in the mud," says Hodges, who primarily breeds and trains "long-ears." "Mules are too smart for that. They won't do anything that they don't think is a good idea."
Mules tend to like people. Walk into a pasture full of horses, and often they will keep grazing or walk away from you. Walk into a pasture of well-treated mules, and they'll usually trot over to sniff, nudge and, well, horse around with you.
In this country George Washington was the first to breed fine mules; he mated prize jacks given to him by the king of Spain with his own mares to produce driving and draft mules. For the next 125 years mules provided much of the horsepower for agriculture, industry and the military. By the early 20th century there were some six million mules in the U.S. By the 1940s, however, tractors and trucks had largely replaced mules. Though some were still used on small farms and to carry supplies to remote areas, the mule had all but disappeared.
In 1967, in an attempt to popularize the animal again and create an organized breeding program, Betsy and Paul Hutchins, donkey fanciers in Denton, Texas, established the American Donkey and Mule Society. The society started with 50 members and no local affiliates. Today the society boasts some 5,500 members and three breeding registries and is affiliated with more than 70 local and 19 international organizations. Paul estimates there are now approximately 300,000 mules in the U.S.
The current mule mania is largely due to the discovery that well-bred mules have the ability to perform well in equine sports and that they also have the temperament for pleasure riding. And mules' affinity for humans and their muscular strength are especially suited to dressage, the equine discipline that's half ballet and half aerobics and demands superior conditioning and coordination from both the mount and its rider. Even at the five training levels in which mount and rider concentrate on moving in straight lines and large circles, on gait changes and novice lateral work—in which the animal moves sideways by crossing its legs—strength and control are essential. The intermediate and Grand Prix levels (which include trotting and cantering sideways, trotting in place and doing pirouettes at a canter) require the mount to have extraordinary athleticism and sensitivity to the rider.
Hodges is doing some of the most advanced mule dressage work in the country. Bea and three other Lucky Three mules are at the second level of dressage, and Lucky Three Sundowner was the third-level world-champion dressage mule in 1992. All perform a choreographed dressage program as part of Hodges's eight-mule quadrille team.
Mules now compete in more than 200 all-mule shows around the U.S., a fourfold increase in a decade. Some meets include races—usually 100-yard to three-furlong distances (a mule runs a quarter of a mile about two seconds slower than a quarter horse)—and Western classes, including reining (the animal docs figures in the center of a ring and is judged on its responses to rein pressure), barrel-racing and pole-bending (the animals run a slalom course) classes. Mule meets also often include English classes such as pleasure riding, jumping and dressage. The biggest show in the country is Mule Days, held each May in Bishop, Calif. The four-day event draws 50,000 people and determines world champions in a number of classes, including dressage, races, gymkhana and jumping. In 1992 Spots Illustrated, a white Appaloosa mule, won top all-around mule in the English classes.
Mules are also beating horses at their own games. In the open novice division, Mac Bea C.T placed second out of 72 entries in combined training events at the Abbe Ranch Horse Trials in Larkspur, Colo., in 1992 and was second in a combined driving event in 1992. Sue Sally Hale, one of the first women admitted to the U.S. Polo Association, had a polo-playing mule. Garon Stutzman of Clifton, Va., rides his thoroughbred mule, Hillary Clinton, in the Bull Run Hunt Club's fox hunt and the Howard County Iron Bridge Hunt in Virginia. In fact, Stutzman is the whipper-in of the hunt, the man who keeps the hounds together. He says Hillary is perfect as a whipper-in mount because she has tremendous stamina and is not afraid of the sound of a whip or a pistol. She jumps anything, including barbed wire and fallen trees, and her thick hide makes it easier for her to crash through brambles. "She may not be as fast as the horses, but she's a doggone good animal for this sport," he says.
Not everyone is thrilled by mules. The U.S. Combined Training Association allows them to compete in nonrecognized events, and the U.S. Dressage Federation allows them in schooling, regional and nonrecognized events. It isn't likely, though, that mules will be competing any time soon in national events. These have to be approved by the American Horse Show Association, and the AHSA doesn't approve of mules' competing in its events. "They're not horses," says Liz Hoskinson, communications director for the AHSA. "They're half-horses."
Most mule fanciers think the real hurdle is that modern mules are now capable of winning equine events. "Mules are just so athletic," says Glenn. "They can beat the high-dollar horses. That irritates the horse owners."
Mules in the old days were often bred from poor mares and neighborhood donkeys. Today's mule is usually carefully engineered. "The quality of mules is just growing by leaps and bounds," says Loyd Hawley, whose farm in Prairie Grove, Ark., is one of the biggest mule-breeding operations in the country. "The breeding's getting to be an art and a science." The most popular jack stock sizes are the Mammoth Jack, a large donkey that can be traced back to George Washington's herd, and the Large Standard size, which is slightly smaller and more refined than the Mammoth. The most popular mares are quarter horses and thoroughbreds. But breeders are also using gaited horses such as Tennessee walking horses and Missouri Fox Trotters, to produce gaited mules; Belgian, Shire and Percheron mares, to produce draft mules; and Shetland ponies, to create miniature mules.
Hodges is trying to create Olympic-caliber dressage mules by crossing her prize Large Standard, Little Jack Horner, with quarter-horse and thoroughbred marcs. "I think we're finally getting there," she says. "I think we're getting the right mule." Hodges has also been working on her jack stock to breed a Mammoth-sized donkey with a more refined bone structure.
These mules aren't cheap. A pair of Hawley's Belgian draft mules can go for $6,000. Tennessee walking mules bring between $3,000 and $5,000, fox-hunting mules up to $10,000. Hodges has been offered $25,000 apiece for Bea and Sundowner and expects to get $50,000 for Calypso, a quarter-horse mule in dressage training.
Hawley says that these days, most good mules are bought by horse people, though some potential buyers are unable to hide their prejudices. "They have trouble believing that a man in Arkansas can breed a good mule," he says. "Sometimes they act like all mules are plow mules and I'm riding them bareback and barefoot, in my overalls."
Susan Davis is a journalist who is based in San Francisco.