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.

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