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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 be 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. Hundreds 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 naturally
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.

The bit should be one inch and seven-eighths round, and five inches in
the draw, or between the rings. It should also have a sweep of one
quarter of an inch to the five inches long. I refer now to the bit for
the blind bridle. With a bit of this kind it is almost impossible to
injure the mule's mouth, unless he is very young, and it cannot be done
then if the animal is handled with proper care.

There is another matter in regard to harnessing the mule which I deem
worthy of notice here. Government teamsters, as a general thing, like to
see a mule's head reined tightly up. I confess that, with all my
experience, I have never seen the benefit there was to be derived from
this. I always found that the mule worked better when allowed to carry
his head and neck in a natural position. When not reined up at all, he
will do more work, out-pull, and wear out the one that is. At present,
nearly all the Government mule-teams are reined up, and worked with a
single rein. This is the old Virginia way of driving mules. It used to
be said that any negro knew enough to drive mules. I fear the Government
has too long acted on that idea.

I never heard but one reason given for reining the heads of a mule-team
up tight, and that was, that it made the animals look better.

The next thing requiring particular attention is the harnessing. During
the war it became customary to cut the drawing-chains, or, as some call
them, the trace-chains. The object of this was, to bring the mule close
up to his work. The theory was taken from the strings of horses used in
drawing railroad cars through cities. Horses that are used for hauling
cars in this manner are generally fed morning, noon, and night; and are
able to get out of the way of a swingle-tree, should it be let down so
low as to work on the brakes, as it did too frequently in the army.
Besides, the coupling of the car, or the part they attach the horse to,
is two-thirds the height of a common-sized animal, which, it will be
seen at a glance, is enough to keep the swingle-tree off his heels. Now,
the tongue of a Government wagon is a very different thing. In its
proper condition, it is about on an average height with the mule's
hocks; and, especially during the last two years of the war, it was
customary to pull the mule so close up to the swingle-tree that his
hocks would touch it. The result of hitching in this manner is, that the
mule is continually trying to keep out of the way of the swingle-tree,
and, finding that he cannot succeed, he becomes discouraged. And as soon
as he does this he will lag behind; and as he gets sore from this
continual banging, he will spread his hind legs and try to avoid the
blows; and, in doing this, he forgets his business and becomes
irritable. This excites the teamster, and, in ninety-nine cases out of a
hundred, he will beat and punish the animal cruelly, expecting thereby
to cure him of the trouble. But, instead of pacifying the mule, he will
only make him worse, which should, under no circumstances, be done. The
proper course to pursue, and I say so from long experience, is to stop
the team at once, and let all the traces out to a length that will allow
the swingle-tree to swing half way between the hock and the heel of the
hoof. In other words, give him room enough to step, between the collar
and swingle-tree, so that the swingle-tree cannot touch his legs when
walking at his longest stride. If the above rule be followed, the animal
will not be apt to touch the swingle-tree. Indeed, it will not be apt to
touch him, unless he be lazy; and, in that case, the sooner you get
another mule the better. I say this because one lazy mule will spoil a
good team, invariably. A lazy mule will be kept up to his work with a
whip, you will say; but, in whipping a lazy animal, you keep the others
in such a state of excitement that they are certain to get poor and

There is another advantage in having the drawing-chains worked at the
length I have described. It is this: The officers that formed the board
that recommended the drawing-chain, also recommended a number of large
links on one end of the chain, so that it could be made longer or
shorter, as desired. If made in conformity with the recommendation of
that board of officers, it can be let out so as to fit the largest sized
mule, and can be taken up to fit the shortest. When I say this, I mean
to include such animals as are received according to the standard of the
Quartermaster-General's department.

Next: The Disadvantages Of Working Mules That Are Too Young

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