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Burros, Donkeys, and Mules: Their Uses by Man

During the development and expansion of the Southwest and most of the United States, burros, donkeys, and mules were important animals to use for transportation of people and goods, warfare, work in fields or mines, and occasionally food. Here are definitions for each of these animals.

A burro is the smaller originally wild version of a donkey or ass. Burro comes from the Spanish word for a small donkey. The Spanish conquistadors brought them to the Americas to use as work and pack animals. Burros, descended from this early Spanish stock, are differentiated from “donkeys,” larger animals descended from stock imported directly from Europe.

A donkey is a member of the equine family. They differ from horses because they are slower, smaller, hardier. Donkeys were first domesticated in ancient Egypt around 4000 B.C. By 1800 B.C. They reached the Middle East. Donkeys are of the species Equus asinus; horses are Equus caballos. The wild ancestor of the donkey is the African Wild Ass, Equus africanus asinus.

A mule is the result of breeding a male donkey (jack) and a female horse. A male horse can also be bred with a female donkey (jenny or jennet) to produce a hinny. Mules are larger than donkeys and stronger. They can pull larger loads and carry greater weights than donkeys. Mules are almost always infertile due to differences in the number of chromosomes. Horses have 64 pairs, donkeys have 62 pairs, and mules have 63 pairs. In very rare cases, mules have been able to breed. Mules are considered more desirable than hinnies due to bigger size and strength and are easier to handle, so mules are more common in total numbers.

Burro, Donkey, and Mule Trivia

Here’s a quick burro, donkey, and mule ” Trivia Quiz” to introduce some interesting facts about these animals.

(1) Who was “Brighty”?
(2) Approximately how many wild burros roam public lands in Arizona?
(3) What is a “mountain canary”?
(4) Which U.S. President imported the first “mammoth Jack” stock and donkeys and sought to produce quality work mules?
(5) Which U.S. Cavalry General preferred to ride a mule instead of a horse?


Brighty of the Grand Canyon(1) “Brighty” was a shaggy little burro who actually lived in the Grand Canyon from 1892 to 1922. The award-winning 1953 book, Brighty of Grand Canyon, by Marguerite Henry (1902-1997), and later made into a 1967 movie, told the true story of this gentle burro. He spent summers carrying water from a spring below the rim to tourists and accompanied President Theodore Roosevelt hunting mountain lions in the Canyon. A statue of Brighty once stood at the entrance to Grand Canyon National Park and is now in the lobby of the Grand Canyon Lodge on the North Rim. All wild burros were removed by the Park Service. Now only mules for commercial pack trips and rides into the Canyon remain.

Mule Pack Train

Mule pack train, Grand Canyon. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Helten

(2) There are approximately 1500 wild burros roaming public lands in seven management areas and three herd areas. According to BLM statistics for 2007, there were 406 near Wickenburg near Lake Pleasant, Alamo Lake, and the Harquahala area. Alamo Lake Campground, on the south side of the lake, is noted for the many burros that come to graze on the lawns.

Wild Burros

Wild burros near Castle Hot Springs Road. Photo courtesy of Bonnie Helten.

The BLM manages and controls wild horses and burros under the authority of the 1971 Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act and the 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act. The BLM sees its major responsibility to determine the “appropriate management level” for wild horses and burros on the public rangelands. Because these animals have virtually no natural predators, their herd sizes can nearly double every four years. BLM’s goal is to make certain the number of wild horses and burros exists in balance with other public land resources and uses.

More Wild Burros

Wild burros near the Colorado River. Note the different colors. Photo courtesy of Barbara Thompson.

However, a recent 2009 amendment to the 1971 Act has been considered by the U.S. Senate. The Restore Our American Mustangs Act (ROAM) would expand wild horse and burro populations on all public lands. In the view of the Arizona Game and Fish Commission, this would greatly complicate management of wild horse and burro herds. The Commission voted in its September 2009 meeting to oppose this bill. Among concerns were restrictions on capturing and removing wild burros, and provisions for relocating them to possible new rangelands. The commission believes adequate funding to manage the current program, with its built-in checks and balances to prevent overpopulation and reduce resource damage on the range, is preferable.

(3) A “mountain canary” refers to the sound of a distinctive bray made by a donkey, which can bray (hee-haw) while breathing in and out. A mule can bray only on the exhale.

(4) President George Washington was the first United States mule breeder. The King of Spain, when Washington wrote him inquiring about purchasing good quality breeding stock, sent two Andalusian jacks and some jennets as a gift. Later, the Marquis de Lafayette sent Washington a black Maltese jack and several jennets. These animals were bred with his Andalusians to begin the “American Mammoth Jackstock.” mules.

General Crook on his Mule

General Crook on his mule, “Apache,” with White Mtn.Scout Alchesay on his right. U.S. Army Photo.

(5) General George C. Crook, 7th Calvary, noted for wars against the Apaches and others in the 1870s, preferred to ride a mule, named Apache, an animal he insisted was far superior to a horse. A famous photo shows him mounted on this mule. During the Battle of Slim Buttes on the Great Sioux Reservation, September 9-10, 1876, General Crook and his men soon began running short on supplies. He ordered his men to go on half rations. Soon, many of the men resorted to eating mules and horses. The U.S. Army used mules for transport of men and materials during the 1800s. President Abraham Lincoln reportedly, when reviewing troops of the Union Army, paid more attention to the comfort of the sturdy mules than of his officers. Mules were used during the Civil War to transport the cannons and other artillery. They wouldn’t spook and run away like horses, making them extremely important while in critical times of battle.

More about Burros & Donkeys

Burros are often pictured in Western lore and movies as walking alongside a prospector (usually looking for gold), carrying his gear and heavy packs. They are clever and curious and still largely used for pack animals in Central and South America. Many people adopt wild burros from BLM to use as pack animals or, more commonly, pets. If they are well-treated and well-trained, they appreciate and even seek attention and grooming.

Mother and Baby Burro in Oatman

Mother and baby burro in Oatman. Photo by Kathy Block.

In Oatman, Arizona, burros are a big tourist attraction. These descendents of burros lost or abandoned by early miners flock to town almost every day from nearby hills to beg for carrots from tourists and roam the streets and boardwalks. The townspeople have developed traditions, such as the first person to spot a newborn burro gets to name it. (They all have names.)

Baby Burro

Baby burro curious about dog in baby carriage. Note paper diamond on forehead. Photo by Kathy Block.

Baby burros have paper diamonds attached to their foreheads to denote, “Don’t feed me, I can’t digest carrots.” Any other burro food is forbidden and a tourist caught feeding burros other food is gently scolded by the nearest shopkeeper.

Albino Baby Burro

Mother and albino baby taking a nap amid tourists. Photo by Kathy Block.

The BLM is not favorably viewed here, as they sometimes “cull excess burros.” Signs warn people that burros are wild animals; there have been incidents where tourists have been bitten or kicked — usually their own fault! Occasionally, despite warning signs, burros have been hit and killed on the highways leading to town.

Unhappy Burro

Unhappy pack donkey. Sketch by Kathy Block.

Donkeys are used often for the same types of work that they have done for 8000 years – transportation (riding, pack animals, or pulling carts). These intelligent, friendly, playful, eager to learn animals are also used for work on farms, such as pulling plows, threshing, pulling of water from wells, and other jobs, mostly in Mediterranean countries today. Some people raise donkeys to breed mules. Donkeys are thought to have a calming effect on nervous horses and may be pastured or stabled together. A few donkeys are milked or raised for meat. Donkeys were used in the past by the Italian Army Mountain Fusiliers to carry their gear. In extreme circumstances they ate their donkeys.

Here’s a personal experience with donkeys. Many years ago, my husband Ed and I borrowed a donkey from a farmer, near our home in Portland, Oregon, and set off on a backpacking and hunting trip in Eagle Cap Wilderness in N.E. Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains. We were extreme novices! We had packs made of canvas that fitted over the donkey’s back and hung down on each side to carry our gear. Using a rented horse trailer, we transported “Jenny”, a large black donkey, to the trailhead and our adventures began. We soon learned she would refuse to cross a bridge, so one of us (usually Ed) would have to remove boots and socks and drag her across cold creeks thru the water. Once, when tied up at night, she broke free and we heard her braying the next morning to another donkey across a meadow. A fellow hiker had tied her to a post about a mile from camp. Ed shot a four-point mule deer buck. Bringing the meat back ws a challenge. We had to keep her head up whenever we stopped. Otherwise, she rolled on her side and back, crushing our cooking pan and gear. She tried to bite anyone who came too close to the pack to adjust it. A final hurdle was getting her back into the horse trailer in the parking lot. She refused to be led into the trailer and instead dragged Ed, who was clutching her lead rope, down the road away from the trailer. Some very amused horsemen finally lassoed her and helped load her, kicking and braying, into the trailer. During the ten hour trip home, she kicked and brayed most of the time, especially when we stopped briefly in our city neighborhood. We returned her to the farmer, along with some choice backstrap and $25 “rent”. Only then did he admit Jenny had never been used or trained as a pack animal. This was truly an experience!

A regular column in Gold Prospecting Magazine, published by the Gold Prospectors Association of America, features articles by Jackass Jill about her donkeys she uses for packing prospecting supplies. One article was about her donkey named Willy who wouldn’t get in a horse trailer with her other donkeys. So she closed the gate and drove away down a potholed dirt road! She soon heard a sound that sounded like “a fog horn with hiccups”. She stopped and the donkey came running with frantic braying and when she swung the trailer gate open, he hopped right in. It proved to be a loading technique that worked a few times since!

Mules were preferred to pull wagons of pioneers. They could pull wagons somewhat faster than oxen. For packing goods, a 900 pound mule with a short back and good size can carry up to 200 pounds all day without tiring excessively. The mule’s small hoofs enable them to dig into the uncertain footing of rocks and rock slides better than horses. Mules will follow other animals in a pack string better than horses. If a mule should fall, it will simply lie there and wait for help, while a horse might die from frantic struggling if it falls on its back or gets tangled in gear.

The famous 20-Mule Team of Death Valley was actually 18 mules and 2 horses as leads. They carried borax from “Borax Works” mills in Death Valley to the railroad in harsh conditions thru the desert. They traveled 16 to 18 miles per day from Furnace Creek in Death Valley over 162 miles of trail, to Baker, Mojave, and Daggett. The trip took about 10 days. July to October the work stopped due to temperatures as high as136 degrees in Death Valley. Early wagons had unseasoned wheel spokes which shrunk from the heat. The spokes had to be replaced with thoroughly dried wood. Some wagons are on display at Furnace Creek in Death Valley.

Frank Crampton, in Deep Enough, often mentioned the use of mules to haul ore from the mines in the Wickenburg area for processing and shipping. Sometimes rather cruel methods were used to train mules.

On the historic Old Spanish Trail, which connected Santa Fe and Los Angeles, trains of pack mules, from 1829 to 1849, mainly carried woolen goods. High-quality woolen products from New Mexico were traded for horses and mules. When Santa Fe merchant Antonio Armijo opened this 2,700 mile long trail, considered the longest, crookedest, most arduous pack mule trail in the history of America, he led 60 men and 100 mules. Towards the end of the trail, some of the mules were eaten out of necessity. The need for the Old Spanish Trail disappeared in 1849, as easier trails for wagons opened, and the land, which had been part of Mexico, was ceded to the United States after the Mexican-American war.


Arrastra at Garlock, California. This one used a motor, but the function is similar. Photo by Ed Block.

Mules were very useful in mining. Mines in many areas used arrastras to crush ore. Mules or donkeys were hitched to wooden bars and walked around in circles, dragging stones over the floor to grind the ore, usually within a circular walled enclosure.

The Silver Queen mine in Bisbee, Arizona and others would bring mules into the mine and stable them underground. Often they’d remain there until they were no longer useful to haul ore carts. The miners found they’d balk at returning underground if they were brought outside to pasture. Supposedly some mules became blind from lack of light and sun.

Mules as Food

Mules have been eaten as a survival food in various situations. In one famous incident, John C. Fremont, as a private citizen in 1848, led a party of 33 men and 100 mules over the San Juan Mountains by way of the Rio Grande valley, in the middle of winter, despite warnings from Bill Williams, a fur trapper and mountain man. As they reached the 12,000 foot level amid deep snows, Williams took a wrong turn. They were trapped and starving. Fremont sent four men south to New Mexico for help. After 16 days Fremont took four men with him down river, leaving the rest to fend for themselves. Eventually eleven men died, all the mules died and were eaten, and all equipment was destroyed. A journal entry from this expedition joked about eating mules as:

“BILL OF FARE. CAMP DESOLATION. Dec. 25, 1848. (Christmas Day). MENU: SOUP. Mule tail, fish-baked white mule. Broiled gray mule. MEATS-Mule steak, fried mule, mule chops, broiled mule, stewed mule, boiled mule, scrambled mule, shirred mule, french fried mule, minced mule. DAMNED MULE – mule on toast (without the toast), short ribs of mule with apple sauce (without the apple sauce), relishes – Black mule, brown mule, yellow mule, bay mule, roan mule. Beverages: snow, snow-water, water.”

Native American Apaches allegedly liked to steal the white man’s mule to kill and eat. On the frontier, this was a real threat, as “the Apache Indian like mule meat as much as he hated the white man.” Another article stated that among most Native Americans, horses and mules -many stolen from miners and travelers or the Army- were so valuable in the hunt, war, and as pack animals, that they were only eaten in times of famine or when there was nothing else to eat, or during feasts, for religious rituals, or to honor important guests. The journals of Lewis and Clark reported that Northwest natives preferred mule meat to wild game.

Now, there are restrictions in the United States against buying or selling horse or mule meat as human food. Pet food can be produced from horse and mule meat, under strict guidelines. Horse and mule meat is still sold and consumed in Europe and other countries. A quick Internet search yielded an advertisement from a company in India that sold all forms of horse and mule meats, flash frozen, and shipped to you overnight!


In summary, burros, donkeys, and mules were useful animals in the development of the American frontier and in farming, mining, wars, and transportation. The occupation of “mule skinner” had lore of its own. There are magazines devoted to mules, i.e. “Mules and More” (a magazine for mule and donkey enthusiasts since 1980), and “Western Mule Magazine.” Books and Internet sites abound about how to raise, train, and use donkeys and mules as pack animals. There are many clubs and organizations for aficionados of burros, donkeys, and mules. The use of these animals may have shifted in modern times, but they remain popular as part of our Western and Southwestern history.

Note: The author wishes to thank Allan Hall for urging me to write this article after hearing the anecdote of the adventures of Ed and I with the donkey; and Bonnie Helten, who reviewed the article with a keen eye for any errors about horses. Any errors of fact are my own, though!

Last 5 posts by Kathy Block

3 comments to Burros, Donkeys, and Mules: Their Uses by Man

  • Wonderful article! I liked the donkey story. Some people like to say that they have a sense of humor. I don’t know if I would use that term. Long-eared friends played a big part in the expansion westward, and they’re still with us today. They are benefitting from the “new” gentler methods of training the same way that horses are.

    I didn’t see it mentioned in the article, but a big part of the mule’s surefootedness comes from the fact that they can see their hind feet, where a horse cannot. Another attractive attribute was their more efficient metabolism relative to horses. A mule will work for around 25% less feed.

    There is a wonderful program on RFD-TV (DirecTV Channel 345) called Rural Heritage that carries a lot of educational material on mules, donkeys, and other draft animals. There is a lot more to that stuff than most people realize!

  • Deb Kidwell

    Kathy, could you e-mail me please…there are some errors in your information about George Washington, and I don’t know if you are interested in fixing them or not, but this page is a wealth of information for those looking for facts about mules and donks and I would love for it to be correct;-) Deb and the longears

  • art

    i want badly to adopt a jenny and babby is great in well off soif you could send someone my way my family will be forever be greatful the kemp family please call 714-813-7717
    oh by thr way i have just purchased a new home in green vally 20 acre conpletely fenced and a barn