Researchers have found that mules learn significantly faster than horses and donkeys. | Photo: iStock

Q. What considerations would you suggest keeping in mind when working with mules as opposed to horses?

A. Mules certainly are different from horses. Many of the difficulties folks have when working with them stem from the fact that, compared to horses, they are extremely quick learners and attend to very fine details in their environment. One of my all-time favorite scientific papers is one by Dr. Leanne Proops and her colleagues (“Mule Cognition, A Case of Hybrid Vigour?” Animal Cognition, 2009) in which they compared mules, donkeys, and ponies’ learning efficiency in a simple two-choice discrimination task. 

They found that mules learned significantly faster than either parent species. This extraordinary ability to quickly make and remember associations means that as a trainer or handler, you need to be very consistent and careful not to make timing mistakes that inadvertently result in punishing a desired behavior or rewarding an undesirable behavior. (Editor’s note: Read about a similar study in Mules Rule Over Horses, Donkeys in Spatial Cognition Tests on TheHorse.com.)

Also, compared to horses, and even to donkeys, a mule’s outward signs of fear, discomfort, or confusion are extremely muted. So just as with zebras, it’s easy for impending explosive escape or aggressive response to go unnoticed or to be misread as “stubbornness.”

One thing is for sure: If you grew up with mules and with good role model handlers who understand and enjoy working with them, you will find horses and donkeys much easier to read and train.