Mules rule over horses, donkeys in spatial cognition tests

Written by Christa Lesté-Lasserre

Cross-posted from

Donkey portrait. Google image.
Google image.

According to recent research by British scientists, mules appear to have a faster capacity to learn about spatial relations—figuring out where things are, or navigating around objects—than horses and donkeys.

And when objects get moved and the animals must find new paths around them, horses stand out as being particularly attached to their old ways. In other words, they tend to stubbornly insist that the old way is still the right way. Yep, stubborn as a mule. Or horse.

“I would say that mules in general are smarter than horses and donkeys, based on our findings so far,” said Britta Osthaus, PhD, researcher in the psychology department of Christ Church University in Canterbury, [England]. This could be attributable to what she calls “hybrid vigor”—or “the advantageous combination of parental traits,” Osthaus said. “In the mule this would mean they are better in the cognitive tasks we have set them to so far.”

This isn’t an advertisement for mules, however, Osthaus warned. “We want to make people aware of their often unused abilities,” she said. “It’s also important from a welfare aspect to offer mental stimulation to animals that have the capacity to get bored and, as a consequence, may be destructive or aggressive.”

Faith Burden, PhD, researcher at The Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth, UK, and co-author of the study, agreed. “I have a mule, but I would certainly not recommend them for most riders!” she said. “Their intelligence works both for and against them as riding animals. If you are happy to spend ample time building the trust of the mule in you then you’ll have a partnership like no other. But if you want a safe all-rounder quickly, then they aren’t for you.”

The mule’s advanced intelligence gives it an ability to make decisions “based on logic and safety” that has often been mislabeled as “stubbornness,” Burden said. “The expression ‘stubborn as a mule’ would be better described as ‘sensible as a mule.’”

Getting mules to ride directly into a battle zone in a cavalry stampede, for example, was a hopeless task during wartimes—as if they knew it was a bad idea. (But they were very useful as pack animals carrying artillery.) “It is extremely difficult to get a mule to do something that it does not want to do,” Burden said.

If you do own or ride a mule, be sure to keep his higher intelligence in mind, for your own safety and for his own welfare, Osthaus added.

“This is not a competition between horses, mules, and donkeys,” she said. “It’s about the appreciation that they are different and offer a variety of traits. They also have different needs based on their cognitive abilities.”

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The study, “Spatial cognition and perseveration by horses, donkeys, and mules in a simple A-not-B detour task,” appeared in March in Animal Cognition.

4 thoughts on “Mules rule over horses, donkeys in spatial cognition tests”

  1. As a mule-owner and advocate, all I can say is “we” didn’t need a researcher to tell us this! Long Ears Rule!


  2. LOL Years ago I went on a “wilderness” trek in Montana. We “dudes” were on horses–the guide was on a mule. We asked him about this. He answered,”You out-east people want to ride like the TV cowboys–so we put you on the horses. We mountain men want to live a
    long time–so we ride the mules. They won’t fall off the cliffs !”


  3. No surprise here. Our Rhode Island state nursery have used mules to work the fields for over one hundred years and still use them today. They never step on the young plants and know their job.


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