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The Mule Part 1
The Mule Part 1

Arguably the finest set of Belgian farm mules ever to tug a plow ‘round are an extension of their best friend, Mike Adkins of Ohio.

by Harvey Riley, Superintendent of the Government Corral, WA DC.
Published 1867

A Treatise On The Breeding, Training, And Uses To Which He May Be Put.

For those in the know, Harvey Riley’s treatise on the Mule (which came out immediately following the civil war) is a classic and valued to me. With slight edits to attempt to mollify the political-correctness police, we hope to offer the text pretty much in its entirety. Though written 150 years ago, this text is remarkably accessible and useful today. We are keen to read, in detail, your opinions on this article and mules in general. LRM

Editor’s Note: It is perhaps interesting to note that, at the time of this writing mules had a working history in North America of just 80 to 90 years. LRM


There is no more useful or willing animal than the Mule. And perhaps there is no other animal so much abused, or so little cared for. Popular opinion of his nature has not been favorable; and he has had to plod and work through life against the prejudices of the ignorant. Still, he has been the great friend of man, in war and in peace serving him well and faithfully. If he could tell man what he most needed it would be kind treatment. We all know how much can be done to improve the condition and advance the comfort of this animal; and he is a true friend of humanity who does what he can for his benefit. My object in writing this book was to do what I could toward working out a much needed reform in the breeding, care, and treatment of these animals. Let me ask that what I have said in regard to the value of kind treatment be carefully read and followed. I have had thirty years’ experience in the use of this animal, and during that time have made his nature a study. The result of that study is that humanity as well as economy will be best served by kindness.

It has indeed seemed to me that the Government might make a great saving every year by employing only such teamsters and wagon-masters as had been thoroughly instructed in the treatment and management of animals, and were in every way qualified to perform their duties properly. Indeed, it would seem only reasonable not to trust a man with a valuable team of animals, or perhaps a train, until he had been thoroughly instructed in their use, and had received a certificate of capacity from the Quartermaster’s Department. If this were done, it would go far to establish a system that would check that great destruction of animal life which costs the Government so heavy a sum every year.

NOTE. I have, in another part of this work, spoken of the mule as being free from splint. Perhaps I should have said that I had never seen one that had it; notwithstanding the number I have had to do with. There are, I know, persons who assert that they have seen mules that had it. I ought to mention here, also, by way of correction, that there is another ailment the mule does not have in common with the horse, and that is quarter-crack. The same cause that keeps them from having quarter-crack preserves them from splint – the want of front action.

A great many persons insist that a mule has no marrow in the bones of his legs. This is a very singular error. The bone of the mule’s leg has a cavity, and is as well filled with marrow as the horse’s. It also varies in just the same proportion as in the horse’s leg. The feet of some mules, however, will crack and split, but in most cases it is the result of bad shoeing. It at times occurs from a lack of moisture to the foot; and is seen among mules used in cities, where there are no facilities for driving them into running water every day, to soften the feet and keep them moist.

The Mule Part 1

CHAPTER I – How Mules Should Be Treated In Breaking

I have long had it in contemplation to write something concerning the mule, in the hope that it might be of benefit to those who had to deal with him, as well in as out of the army, and make them better acquainted with his habits and usefulness. The patient, plodding mule is indeed an animal that has served us well in the army, and done a great amount of good for humanity during the late war. He was in truth a necessity to the army and the Government, and performed a most important part in supplying our army in the field. That he will perform an equally important part in the future movements of our army is equally clear, and should not be lost sight of by the Government. It has seemed to me somewhat strange, then, that so little should have been written concerning him, and so little pains taken to improve his quality. I have noticed in the army that those who had most to do with him were the least acquainted with his habits, and took the least pains to study his disposition, or to ascertain by proper means how he could be made the most useful. The government might have saved hundreds of thousands of dollars, if, when the war began, there had been a proper understanding of this animal among its employees.

Probably no animal has been the subject of more cruel and brutal treatment than the mule, and it is safe to say that no animal ever performed his part better, not even the horse. In breaking the mule, most persons are apt to get out of patience with him. I have got out of patience with him myself. But patience is the great essential in breaking, and in the use of it you will find that you get along much better. The mule is an unnatural animal, and hence more timid of man than the horse; and yet he is tractable, and capable of being taught to understand what you want him to do. And when he understands what you want, and has gained your confidence, you will, if you treat him kindly, have little trouble in making him perform his duty.

In commencing to break the mule, take hold of him gently, and talk to him kindly. Don’t spring at him, as if he were a tiger you were in dread of. Don’t yell at him; don’t jerk him; don’t strike him with a club, as is too often done; don’t get excited at his jumping and kicking. Approach and handle him the same as you would an animal already broken, and through kindness you will, in less than a week, have your mule more tractable, better broken, and kinder than you would in a month, had you used the whip. Mules, with very few exceptions, are born kickers. Breed them as you will, the moment they are able to stand up, and you put your hand on them, they will kick. It is, indeed, their natural means of defence, and they resort to it through the force of instinct. In commencing to break them, then, kicking is the first thing to guard against and overcome. The young mule kicks because he is afraid of a man. He has seen those intrusted with their care beat and abuse the older ones, and he very naturally fears the same treatment as soon as a man approaches him. Most persons intrusted with the care of these young and green mules have not had experience enough with them to know that this defect of kicking is soonest remedied by kind treatment. Careful study of the animal’s nature and long experience with the animal have taught me that, in breaking the mule, whipping and harsh treatment almost invariably make him a worse kicker. They certainly make him more timid and afraid of you. And just as long as you fight a young mule and keep him afraid of you, just so long will you be in danger of his kicking you. You must convince him through kindness that you are not going to hurt or punish him. And the sooner you do this, the sooner you are out of danger from his feet.

It may at times become necessary to correct the mule before he is subdued; but before doing so he should be well bridle or halter-broken, and also used to harness. He should also be made to know what you are whipping him for. In harnessing up a mule that will kick or strike with the forefeet, get a rope, or, as we term it in the army, a lariat. Throw, or put the noose of this over his head, taking care at the same time that it be done so that the noose does not choke him; then get the mule on the near side of a wagon, put the end of the lariat through the space between the spokes of the fore wheel, then pull the end through so that you can walk back with it to the hinder wheel (taking care to keep it tight), then pass it through the same, and pull the mule close to the wagon. In this position you can bridle and harness him without fear of being crippled. In putting the rope through the above places, it should be put through the wheels, so as to bring it as high as the mule’s breast in front, and flanks in the rear. In making them fast in this way, they frequently kick until they get over the rope, or lariat; hence the necessity of keeping it as high up as possible. If you chance upon a mule so wild that you cannot handle him in this way, put a noose of the lariat in the mule’s mouth, and let the eye, or the part where you put the end of the lariat through, be so as to form another noose. Set this directly at the root of the mule’s ear; pull it tight on him, taking care to keep the noose in the same place. But when you get it pulled tight enough, let some one hold the end of the lariat, and, my word for it, you will bridle the mule without much further trouble.

In hitching the mule to a wagon, if he be wild or vicious, keep the lariat the same as I have described until you get him hitched up, then slack it gently, as nearly all mules will buck or jump stiff-legged as soon as you ease up the lariat; and be careful not to pull the rope too tight when first put on, as by so doing you might split the mule’s mouth. Let me say here that I have broken thousands of four and six-mule teams that not one of the animals had ever had a strap of harness on when I began with them, and I have driven six-mule teams for years on the frontier, but I have yet to see the first team of unbroken mules that could be driven with any degree of certainty. I do not mean to say that they cannot be got along the road; but I regard it no driving worthy of the name when a driver cannot get his team to any place where he may desire to go in a reasonable time – and this he cannot do with unbroken mules. With green or unbroken mules, you must chase or herd them along without the whip, until you get them to know that you want them to pull in a wagon. When you have got them in a wagon, pull their heads round in the direction you want them to go; then convince them by your kindness that you are not going to abuse them, and in twelve days’ careful handling you will be able to drive them any way you please.

In bridling the young mule, it is necessary to have a bit that will not injure the animal’s mouth. Hundred of mules belonging to the Government are, in a measure, ruined by using a bridle bit that is not much thicker than the wire used by the telegraph. I do not mean by this that the bridle bit used by the Government in its blind bridles is not well adapted to the purpose. If properly made and properly used, it is. Nor do I think any board of officers could have gotten up or devised a better harness and wagon for army purposes than those made in conformity with the decision of the board of officers that recommended the harness and wagon now used. The trouble with a great many of the bits is, that they are not made up to the regulations, and are too thin. And this bit, when the animal’s head is reined up too tight, as army teamsters are very likely to do, is sure to work a sore mouth.

There are few things in breaking the mule that should be so carefully guarded against as this. For as soon as the animal gets a sore mouth, he cannot eat well, and becomes fretful; then he cannot drink well, and as his mouth keeps splitting up on the sides, he soon gets so that he cannot keep water in it, and every swallow he attempts to take, the water will spirt out of the sides, just above the bit. As soon as the mule finds that he cannot drink without this trouble, he very natural- ly pushes his nose into the water above where his mouth is split, and drinks until the want of breath forces him to stop, although he has not had sufficient water. The animal, of course, throws up its head, and the stupid teamster, as a general thing, drives the mule away from the water with his thirst about half satisfied.

Mules with their mouths split in this way are not fit to be used in the teams, and the sooner they are taken out and cured the better for the army and the Government. I have frequently seen Government trains detained several minutes, block the road, and throw the train into disorder, in order to give a mule with a split mouth time to drink. In making up teams for a train, I invariably leave out all mules whose mouths are not in a sound state, and this I do without regard to the kind or quality of the animal. But the mule’s mouth can be saved from the condition I have referred to, if the bit be made in a proper manner. is a live, ever-changing subscription website. To gain access to all the content on this site, subscribe for just $5 per month. If you are not completely satisfied, cancel at any time. Here at your own convenience you can access past articles from Small Farmer's Journal's first forty years and all of the brand new content of new issues. You will also find posts of complete equipment manuals, a wide assortment of valuable ads, a vibrant events calendar, and up to the minute small farm news bulletins. The site features weather forecasts for your own area, moon phase calendaring for farm decisions, recipes, and loads of miscellaneous information.

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