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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.