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  • December 28th, 2011


            A mule looks like a horse that God had fun with…but there’s more to equine-ness than beauty.  Mules are either smarter than horses or instinctively more adaptable.  That’s why they use mules to carry tourists out of the depths of the Grand Canyon and not horses.

            The trails are steep and narrow and the penalty for making a mistake is a fall that even if Humpty Dumpty had been made from tempered steel he still would have wound up in pieces.

            “A mule will never walk off the edge,” said our wrangler.  “A horse might.  On the other hand, make sure the mule faces out over the edge.  They like to see the scenery.  If you face him toward the inside he just might back off the edge.”

            All this was as reassuring as hearing, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you,” for someone with acrophobia—me, for example.   Riding a mule from the floor of the Canyon to the top was a seven hour communication between “dumb” beast and Man.  Of the two the beast was far more self-assured and intelligent.

            But after those seven hours of unremitting terror, the mule and I parted company, each with a sigh of relief, at the top of Bright Angel Trail—the mule to transport supplies down to Phantom Ranch, me to do my best to stay on level ground forevermore.

            Still, it was a connection of historic significance since I am a Missourian where the mule is as revered as, say, a Texas longhorn steer or a South Dakota pheasant.  You can’t grow up in the Show- Me State without feeling a parochial empathy with this hybrid cross between a horse and a donkey.  The Missouri mule is as familiar an American icon as Idaho potatoes or Georgia peaches.  Just harder to get along with. 

In some ways, Missouri never has outgrown its mule image.  My property tax form still asks me to list my Asses and Jennets (it also asks me to list my automobiles, so there is some concession to the 21st century).  It has been the official State Animal since 1995. 

Although Missouri and mules are like Bugs Bunny and carrots, the fact is Texas historically was a much more productive mule state.  My Grand Canyon  mule probably came from Tennessee (the existing mule string largely is from that state) and whoever named her Streak has a sense of humor that should be featured on the Grand Ole Opry.  She made the proverbial molasses in January look like mercury.

       There have to be reasons precipitous trail riders prefer mules to horses, none of which is physical beauty.  A mule is not ugly, but neither is it My Friend Flicka.  Heroic creatures tend to be horses and collies, not mules.  When they cast a clown creature, it was Francis, a mule.  On the other hand, Black Beauty could not have carried on a decent conversation the best day she ever saw, while Francis was as much fun to talk to as Jay Leno.

            As most everyone who has even a hazy notion of genetics knows, a mule is a hybrid animal, a cross between a female horse (mare) and a male donkey (cross a stallion with a female donkey and you get a hinny).  The result is a creature with a horselike body, but a donkey face…and one that is almost always sterile.  The difference is chromosomal—donkeys have 62 chromosomes and horses 64.  This does not matter to the two in moments of love, but is reproductively a turn-off.  The only sure way to get more mules is by crossbreeding horses and donkeys, but the occasional mule has more on his mind than his next bale of hay and the equipment to do something about it for reasons that escape any but a dedicated geneticist..

            The men’s athletic teams of Central Missouri State University are the Mules and the woman’s teams are the Jennies.  How being symbolized by sterile animals affects the self-esteem of hormonally-charged teenagers is anyone’s guess.

It’s no surprise that mules historically were cherished above horses.  They are superior in just about everything but looks: endurance, intelligence, skin toughness, sure-footedness, harder hooves and even temperament.  A horse can run faster, not a requirement on a narrow Grand Canyon trail with a thousand-foot dropoff a hoof-width away.

            It may pain groupies of King Arthur and his noble knights to discover that, rather than riding noble steeds of the horse persuasion, knights of the era preferred mules because they are bigger and stronger than horses and it takes a big animal to tote a fully-clad knight (up to 70 extra pounds).

            Fortunately for two portly members of our rafting party, the two biggest mules happened to be at Phantom Ranch when we were ready to climb out of the Canyon.  Each rider weighed considerably more than the allowed maximum of 220 pounds.  “We can’t take you,” the wrangler said. 

            One of the two had heart problems and the other was still recovering from a hip replacement.  “How will we get out?” one asked, his voice a bit quavery.  The wrangler shrugged.  “You can walk,” she said.  “Or hire a helicopter.”

            Helicopter taxi service costs about as much as the helicopter and hiking was out of the question.  There was some intense negotiation, involving groveling, and finally the wrangler took pity on the two and said, “Nip and Tuck are down here and I suppose you can ride them out.”

            Nip and Tuck were burly mules, like seeing Charles Barkley and Karl Malone shoulder to shoulder.  Contrarily, the wrangler was riding a small, sprightly mule and she brought a bit of home to me when she explained it was a Missouri jumping mule. 

            That’s not a breed; it’s an attribute.  Missourians have developed a strain of mules to ride to hounds, usually after coyotes which tend to go long distances in straight lines.  Long distances in Missouri inevitably means barbed wire fences to cross and the riders have trained their athletic mules to jump over the barriers.

            It’s not like a steeplechase with horses.  Instead the rider dismounts, drapes a protective cover over the top wire, and the mule obediently leaps the fence, the rider crosses, remounts and off they go.

            So far there is no mule event to rival Olympic equestrian events dedicated to horses and their riders, or England’s famed steeplechases.  There have been various Olympic events for horses over the years, including jumping and dressage (the judging of horses on various gaits).  The average mule probably would consider a jumping course a massive waste of time and simply refuse to jump over barriers when it could go around them and as for dressage, the typical mule has only one gait—its own, depending on circumstance, not the rider’s inclination.

            However some modern mules have been bred to compete in hunter/jumper competition and dressage and, according to Wikepedia which is sometimes suspect some formerly exclusive horse shows are accepting mules in competition.

            Our Grand Canyon mules placidly began their long journey to the top and after a night under the stars, would do it in reverse, carrying a load of supplies down.  Day after day the same routine—there possibly are more rewarding careers than being a Grand Canyon mule. 

            But there is the incomparable scenery of the Canyon.  The mules would pause from time to time to gaze benignly over a million acres of wonderland, always facing out which meant that the acrophobic rider also was gazing over a bottomless pit.  It did not help my equanimity when I glanced down and saw a mule hoof so close to the edge that it was nudging pebbles into the abyss.

            “We’ve never had a mule walk off the edge yet,” said the wrangler.  “But there’s always the chance they could back off—so keep them faced out.”

            There is a probably true, possibly apocryphal story about a mule-mounted cannon designed for use in World War One.  So the story goes the mule panicked, bolted and somehow stepped on the lanyard, firing the 37 mm howitzer.  The recoil toppled the mule into a nearby river.  More likely is that the gun, which actually did exist, was merely carried by the mule, but detached to fire.  Think of a poor mule with a howitzer going off between its long ears!

            Another wartime mule story was about air drops of the animals by parachute to partisans fighting the Japanese in the China-Burma Theater.  Chances are this also is an inflated story if not an outright howler since no self-respecting mule would let itself be loaded onto a plane, then be booted out many hundreds of feet in the air.

            But a true story involves the transport of nearly 400 mules by glider in the China-Burma Theater in 1944.  The story is that the mules were three abreast, facing forward, and a soldier was stationed at their heads with a rifle and orders to shoot all three if they began to buck and kick.  The troop carrier group responsible for the mule lift got a unit citation for the mule taxi service and its other cargo carrying—more than 6,000 flights..

            There are two mule jokes, both so venerable as to have white beards.  One involves a fellow who bought a mule for $100, but it died before he picked it up.  “Load it up,” he told the seller.  “What are you going to do with a dead mule?” asks the first fellow.  “Raffle it off,” says the buyer.  “You can’t raffle off a dead mule,” says the first.  “Sure I can,” says the second.  “I just won’t tell anyone it’s dead.”

            They meet a week later and the first farmer says, “What happened with the dead mule?”  “Raffled him off and sold 500 tickets at $2 each.”  “Didn’t anyone complain?” asks the first farmer.  “Only the guy who won and I gave him his money back.”

            The other joke says you can talk kindly to a mule, but first whack him across the brow with a two-by-four “to get his attention” and then you can whisper in his ear.

            By the way, there are no best-selling books or box office smash movies titled “The Mule Whisperer.”  Rodney Dangerfield had nothing on the mule.

            It don’t get no respect either.


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1 Comment

  1. Don Wilson

    February 9th, 2013 at 9:04 pm


    I know if you can explain this joke. What does a man from Missouri say when someone asks him to see a Missouri mule? The answer is show me.
    This had driven me crazy for years. .

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