Intermediate between the horse and the ass, in nature and in utility, comes the mule. For certain purposes, this hybrid is superior to both, combining in himself several of the good qualities of the horse and ass, and few, if any, of their bad ones. As an American writer on the mule says: "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 favourable; 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 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."
The mule is but little used in this country, though his services might be largely made available, especially in agriculture. He is much stronger than the ass, is more capable of bearing fatigue than the horse, is less restive under the pressure of heavy weights on his back, and his skin being harder and less sensitive, renders him capable of resisting better the sun and rain. He lives as long as the horse, costs less, is more suitable as a beast of burden, and is far superior in sure-footedness. He can do more work daily than the ox, but is perhaps more expensive to purchase; while he is dearer to keep, as the ox can be turned out to graze, but some suitable food must generally be provided for the mule, if he is doing work.
It has for centuries been recognised that, for general purposes, the mule is the best of military transport animals, for which his special qualities eminently fit him: he being frugal, patient possessed of great endurance, slightly affected by heat or rain, easily fed, and equally good for burden as for draught; he walks well, picks his way easily on bad roads, moves by the side of a precipice with much safety, and passes over every description of ground, independent of roads.
He is long-lived and seldom sick, though his infirmities are generally acute. He is said to be easily alarmed by the noise of firing, by thunder, and by violent thunder-storms; though perhaps he is not so liable to mad panic as the horse.
The principal mule countries in Europe are the South of France, Spain, Portugal and Italy. The French mules are found on the borders of the Pyrenees, in Gascony and Poitou; of all these, the best are those from the neighbourhood of the Pyrenees. Mules are used in Spain in the Catalan provinces, in the mountainous districts of Andalusia, and in the province of Alicante. Good draught mules come from La Mancha; in the districts on the slopes of the Pyrenees mules are much used for pack. During the Abyssinian expedition, mules were purchased at Cyprus, on the coast of Asia Minor, in Egypt, at Bagdad and Bushire, and in the Punjab provinces of British India - so widespread is the breeding-ground for mules.
Good mules are also reared in North and South America. The principal provinces for mule rearing in the United States are Kentucky, Missouri, and Kansas. The Kentucky mules are of good build and showy; those from Missouri are hardy animals, well able to endure privation and hardship. The mules of Old and New Mexico, bred by a jackass out of a mustang mare, are also very hardy, robust, and serviceable animals, pronounced superior to those of the United States. The mules from the district between the Tigris and the Persian frontier have a very good reputation, as have also those of Poitou, in France.
Mules are rarely employed in any capacity in this country; as pack-saddle carriage, for which they are so well adapted, is seldom resorted to anywhere, and then perhaps donkeys are preferred. Though largely used for draught in some countries, yet it would appear that they are not so serviceable in towns and cities as in the country.
An American writer says with regard to the use of mules: "Proprietors of omnibuses, stage lines, and city railways, have, in many cases, tried to work mules, as a matter of economy; but, as a general thing, the experiment proved a failure, and they gave it up and returned to horses. The great reason for this failure was, that the persons placed in charge of them knew nothing of their disposition, and lacked that experience in handling them which is so necessary to success. But it must be admitted that, as a general tiling, they are not well adapted for road or city purposes, no matter how much you may understand driving and handling them.
"The mule may be made to do good service on the prairies, in supplying our army, in towing canal boats, in hauling cars inside of coal mines - these are his proper places, where he can jog along and take his own time, patiently. Work of this kind would, however, in nearly all cases, break down the spirit of the horse, and render him useless in a very short time. . . . The mule, especially if large, cannot stand hard roads and pavements. His limbs are too small for his body, and they generally give out. You will notice that all good judges of road and trotting horses like to see a good strong bone in the leg. This is actually necessary. The mule, you will notice, is very deficient in leg, and generally has poor muscle; and many of them are what is called cat-hammed."
In harness they often prove remarkably serviceable in heavy ground and in mountainous countries, where they are said to be better than horses. An observer writes: " In South America, mules are more used among the mountains (than horses), a habit probably introduced from Spain. They are perhaps better with the average driver, although they will never make the pace that good horses will do. They are not so excitable; they are more easily made reliable at a pull; they are far more certain to take care of themselves; they are even more clever in ascending and descending excessively steep places than either the horse, the ox, or the zebra; but in running down ordinary hills they are far more liable to stumble or fall on their knees than an ordinary horse."