For decades the usual beast of burden on Georgia farms was the mule. Horses were good for transportation, but mules were better for pulling plows. Oxen are strong, as the “strong as an ox” descriptor suggests. Timber cutters favored them for dragging trees out of boggy places. But they were too slow for most farm work or for a trip to town on Saturday. So, mules were found on almost every farm.
Now, mules are rare. Those who think they know about mules after seeing the movie, “Two Mules for Sister Sara,” are mistaken. The film starring Clint Eastwood and Shirley MacLaine shows up on television occasionally and the title is always wrong. The animal Sister Sara rode was not a mule but a donkey (aka burro) — close kin, but different. Television’s “Gunsmoke” got it right because Festus rode a mule.
Mules are not a species, but a true hybrid, half donkey and half horse. The sire is always a male donkey (jackass or jack) and the dam is a mare. Reverse pairing might produce offspring of the same characteristics, but a female donkey (jenny) is too small to bear and deliver it.
As hybrids, mules are sterile. Females do not have estrus cycles. Males are gelded to block stallion or jack impulses. Adult mules range from less than a thousand pounds to twice as large, depending on the sizes of the jack and mare. Breeders know how to pair them to produce offspring suited for different types of work.
Donkeys are an ancient breed, mentioned often in the Bible. One bore Mary, mother of Jesus, from Nazareth to Bethlehem, where he was born. He rode another from Bethany into Jerusalem in his “Triumphal Entry.” No doubt the mount each time was a jenny because an ungelded jack is an ornery critter.
Donkeys have many useful qualities. They are sure-footed, strong for their size and durable. They recover quickly from hard duty and are not picky eaters. Before camels became dominators of the deserts of the Middle East and Africa, people crossed these forbidding places with donkeys as their burden bearers. Spanish conquistadores introduced them to the Americas — as they did horses — because they were so well-suited for certain work in certain locations.
Mules were valued for some of the useful characteristics of their donkey parents. They were used in many other places than Georgia farms. They were harnessed to wagons to transport settlers along rough trails and freight wagons across deserts. Remember the product Twenty-Mule Team Borax? They pulled ore cars along tracks in mines. They were hitched to timber carts to move logs when oxen were not needed. Even now they carry visitors to the Grand Canyon along narrow, dangerous trails down to the Colorado River and back.
Mules are much larger and stronger than their donkey sires. They can pull or carry heavier loads and are faster, all due to kinship with the horse. Like the donkey, they are sure-footed, durable and hardy. They also have the reputation of being donkey-like stubborn. Some — but not all — are and that is also true of horses.
South Georgia farmers preferred mules over horses in cultivating row crops. Horses tend to move fast, often too fast for precise work near growing plants. My father traded for one in 1940 after his best mule died, but sent him back quickly after he broke plows and harness when put to work in the field.
Horses also have big hooves, a drawback when plowing close to crop rows. Mules have smaller hooves. Properly trained and commanded, they can walk within inches of the row of growing plants, making the plowman’s work easier.
Mules eat less than horses: corn, hay or fodder, all of which could become scarce from one harvest to the next. Most important, they cost less to buy. They certainly were not cheap, the equivalent of the profit from an acre of tobacco in a good year. Still, they cost less than horses and were more versatile.
I became acquainted with mules when I was young — 8 and 9 years old under supervision — and plowed an acre of peanuts with a “Joe Harrow” at age 10, an undersized 10 at that. I drove mules pulling tobacco sleds from field to barn and back for father and kin each summer.
I learned that they are as different as people. I first plowed “Tiny,” small, intelligent, fast-paced, needing little instruction, but inclined to work herself into exhaustion if not constrained. She was traded for “Dinah,” gentle, strong, easy to manage, but not as intelligent. I also worked some that were plain mean.
I soon became a regular behind plows and other implements when not in school. I learned by experience why “hard-tailed” was an adjective applied to mules in plain folk parlance. Compared to horses, mules’ tails are blunter and clubbed with hair that is shorter and coarser. The process of hitching a mule to a plow requires getting close to the backside of the animal. If said animal is being pestered by horseflies, gnats, etc., the tail will be suddenly swished in defense.
Contact between the plowman’s head and the mule’s hard tail is detrimental to his head and refined language. It does produce a lasting memory.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.