Horses vs. Mules in Amish country

Some years ago, when I was a server at Der Dutchman Restaurant in Walnut Creek, I was asked why Amish farmers in Ohio use horses and not mules. And the answer is…well, it’s tradition. 

What’s the difference between a mule and a horse? Mules are actually a hybrid that comes from mating a donkey male (called a “jack”) and a horse female. Mules are sterile, except in very rare cases, because this is a cross of different species with differing numbers of chromosomes. Crossing a male horse and a female donkey produces a hinny, much rarer and harder to obtain.

Horses are celebrated as being beautiful, noble and fleet creatures while mules have the reputation of being homely and stubborn. That’s not necessarily true. Certainly, a mule has a different disposition than a horse, but that’s not all bad. A mule has a strong sense of self-preservation. Where a horse may be excitable and work itself until it is sick, a mule will pace itself, never going faster than it thinks is necessary. And they are known to be more surefooted than a horse, making better pack animals.

Training a mule is a bit different than training a horse and takes a specially skilled individual. They tend to have more expressive and distinctive personalities. While horses are a bit more forgiving, a mule has a longer memory. Once a mule knows its master, it is a dedicated and trusting friend for life. On the other hand, mistreat a mule and he will remember it for a long, long time.

Draft horses are by far the choice of Amish farmers in Ohio. This preference probably dates back to 1865 when an Amish ministers meeting deemed it “improper to mix creatures of God, such as the horse and donkey, by which mules arise, because God did not create such in the beginning,” (quoted from the book Amish Society by John Andrew Hostetler). Although there are no such dictates at this time, most farmers in Holmes County use horses because that’s what they know and understand. You don’t mess with tradition.

On the other hand, in Lancaster County in Pennsylvania and Missouri, many Amish farmers have always been partial to “draft” mules. These mules are crosses of a “mammoth” jack, or a very large donkey, and a draft horse mare. They believe that mules have more endurance, consume less feed and are hardier than horses.

Regardless of whether you prefer the mule or horse, there various large events in Holmes and Tuscarawas counties that celebrate all varieties of the equine species. Coming up soon is the Mid-Ohio Draft Horse Sale on October 7 to 9. Located at the Mount Hope Sale Barn, you can see over 800 draft horses of all breeds for sale and demonstration. You’ll see high quality show stock, breeding stock to general farm horses. It’s a great opportunity to see what is literally a dying breed – draft horses breeds are endangered livestock breeds.

On summer and early fall weekends, you might be fortunate enough to run into one of the local “Wagon Trains”. They are an informal collection of Amish folks who will be driving all sorts of wagons, including covered wagons, doctor’s buggies and open carts in an old fashioned “train”. You’ll also see mounted outriders on ponies and light horses. They meet in a central location and camp along a designated route, cooking over the open fire. If you’d like to watch one, drive the back roads around Charm and New Bedford over Labor Day weekend. It’s fun for everyone and is a way to enjoy their animals and fellowship with friends.

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