Stubborn as a mule? Is a mule really that stubborn? As a 6 year old girl riding her small donkey “Poncho”, I would have most certainly said, “Yes.” On a hot summer day I was riding Poncho around the yard bareback having a grand time until the brakes went on. Poncho had decided his entertainment time was over and he was going no further. No problem, I could just get off and start him up again but no, there was a very large and imposing rose bush with exceptionally long, sharp thorns adorning the whole near side. So there I was riding in shorts with no way to properly dismount. I kicked and I kicked and I KICKED. Not a step did Poncho take, and my frustration escalated. But long ears don’t really care about your insisting efforts to change their mind in times like this.

You see, long ears have their own perspective on the world and how they should be treated. They are rather firm in their beliefs that have been handed down over 5000 years through some form of domestication and service to mankind. Trouble is, mankind has not always been kind, or thoughtful, or even curious to look at the world through the mind of a long ear. And that is when trouble ensues. Learning the long ear lingo and some of the behavioral differences can give you a leg up on avoiding a standoff that humans most certainly lose when long ears are involved.

long-eared mule

For horse handlers, all long ears may look and act about the same and their mere presence can send their horses into the land of snorting. But remember Rule #1: All long ears are not the same and do not think alike. Donkeys shoulder the reproductive aspect for producing long ears via males called Jacks or Jackass and the mares called “Jennets or Jennys”. Donkeys range in size from Miniature (36” or less) to Standard (48-54” for jennets or 56” for jacks) and Mammoth Jackstock at 14 hands and up. Donkeys or burrows as they are sometimes called, tend to be gentle, social, even a bit more flexible until threatened and then donkeys will fight rather than flee as horses have been engrained to do for thousands of years. This protective behavior gives many donkeys the farm responsibility of protecting sheep, goats, or newborn calves from hungry predators.

 The other equine in the long ear category are the hybrids that are not reproductively sound. Donkeys have 31 chromosome pairs, horses have 32 chromosome pairs, so the hybrid offspring are sterile.

Most popular are the mules. Breeding a Jack(ass) to a mare will produce a male “horse mule” or a female “mare mule or molly mule”. The opposite cross of a stallion (horse) with a jenny will produce the hybrid “Hinny”. A male Horse Mule and male hinny are both typically castrated right after weaning to improve their outlook on life and make them safer to be around. The mare mule and mare hinny will cycle like normal horse mares but only very rarely will they become pregnant. Either the mare mule or hinny can be excellent recipient mares, giving birth and raising embryo transfer foals with excellent milk production.

 It is interesting that even muleskinners can’t distinguish mules from hinnies but the hybrids’ true heritage shows when left to their own choice in a herd. Since mules tend to favor horses, packers will turnout a mare with a bell at night to help bind their pack mules for the morning duties. One of the easiest ways to tell if a long ear is a hinny is to turn them out with a donkey or horse. Hinnies also are drawn to their motherly roots and hang with the donkeys. Ahhhh, the power of that early imprinting time is awesome.

How about their means of verbal communication? Who can hold a straight face when they hear a donkey bray, especially when it seems to go on forever? But the genetic heritage of the mule and hinny leaves them a bit more confused. They start out with a nicker and end with the “aw ah aw” of a bray as indicated on the American Donkey and Mule Society web page.

 If there is a meaningful buzz word for donkeys and mules, it might be “CAUTION.” All resources reviewed and contacts made for preparing this article quickly shared the same advice for Rule #2: Long ears prefer a foundation of TRUST that is built on rewards, a gentle touch, and a soothing voice that begins on the day they are born. Otherwise, they may very well cling to the “Stranger Danger” slogan for life. While donkeys are typically a bit more flexible and forgiving, mules and hinnies tend to be more “structured in their beliefs” and harbor them for years . . . or life. You can even buy mule head stalls that omit the need to push the ear forward when bridling a mule. After all, long ears are rather proud and protective of their crowning glories and it is always best for them to think you also treasure them. Are there differences in those ears too? You bet. Donkeys have the longest ears of all.

So back on that hot summer day as I sat on Poncho worn out from kicking, I finally realized that sliding down the off side was my only option. After I carefully slid down with no fireworks, Poncho followed me for a bit as I grazed him, and then I hopped back on for a ride to the barn and a snack.

 Lesson learned? Donkeys can be stubborn, or “confident” to put a more positive spin on it. I am sure Poncho was intentional to not reward my frustrated kicking, no matter the increase in frequency and effort. But ultimately I wore out and thought outside the box for for more acceptable communication lines. To this day I value the experience as my first rung on the ladder of “long ear logic” that serves me well when I work with horses, dogs, cats or any behavior modification effort. Hats off and cheers to the ears of Poncho, my first equine teacher. And, I might add, I never went close to that rose bush again…

Dr. Julia McCann, Retired UGA Equine Specialist