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What Is a Mule Skinner?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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A mule skinner or muleskinner is someone who specializes in handling mules. Mules are famous for their high level of intelligence and obstinacy, and they can be difficult to handle as a result of these traits. Mule skinners are very experienced with mules and know how to work with them to accomplish a goal.

Mules are crosses between horses and donkeys, with a donkey father and a horse mother. For the most part, mules are sterile, although there have been a few recorded examples of female mules bearing live young. The mule is said to blend the best traits of horses and donkeys, although inevitably some of the less desirable traits associated with these animals are also inherited.

Famously surefooted, mules are also very strong, with a high level of endurance. Like their donkey fathers, they tend to be obstinate, but they are also very adept problem solvers. While these traits might seem like drawbacks in some cases, in the case of a well trained mule, they can contribute to intelligent refusal, in which the animal will refuse to do something which is potentially dangerous. A mule skinner who is familiar with her or his animals can tell when a mule is being contrary, and when a mule recognizes a genuine safety risk which should be addressed before moving on.

Mules have historically been used as pack animals because they can carry heavy loads across long distances. They can also be used as riding animals, especially in areas where the terrain is rough or the conditions are harsh, as horses do not do well in harsh conditions. Mule skinners can also use their animals for plowing and other agricultural tasks.

A mule skinner's approach to a group of mules can vary. Historically, control was often exerted with the use of whips and other physical techniques. Mules were quickly “broken” with brutal techniques which taught them to fear human handlers, and thus, to obey them to avoid punishment. Today, some mule skinners may be more inclined to approach their animals with kindness, cultivating a cooperative relationship which is not based on fear of violence or pain.

While working animals are in less common use than they once were, there are still some settings where a mule skinner can find employment. In some regions, mules continue to be used as working animals, in which case handlers are needed, and in others, mules may be used as a novelty method of transport, in which case a mule skinner may need to be able to handle nervous and experienced riders as well as recalcitrant mules. Mule skinners may also compete with their animals in events which test endurance, training, and skills.

Why Are They Called Mule Skinners?

Depending on the context of its use, the verb "to skin" has several definitions. Consequently, there are a couple of conflicting theories that attempt to answer where the term mule skinners came from.

The first hypothesis takes aim at a more traditional use of the word skin, regarding the removal of animal hide. Mule skinners were known to carry long bullwhips that helped them maintain control of their team. The heavy leather of the whip could crack a disobedient mule, damaging its skin. In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the animal rights movement did not have the same influence that it has today, so such abuse of domesticated livestock was a more widely accepted practice. However, the challenge to this belief is that, historically, bullwhips were not commonly used to strike the animals. Instead, the cracking sound they produced startled the mules. The fear this noise created served as an effective method for behavior correction without ever having to make physical contact.

Another theory for why they are called mule skinners delves into the influence slang has on language. Although less recognized now, "to skin" was once synonymous with "to swindle" or "to outsmart." The connection in this context is related to the mule's reputation for being an intelligent and stubborn animal. The people who chose this line of work needed to know how to drive mules and manipulate them into compliance in case of resistance. Therefore, the term mule skinner could have emerged as a person capable of outsmarting a mule.

What Does a Mule Skinner Do in the 21st Century?

The modernization of technology and logistics has replaced much of the traditional use of pack mules for hauling efficiency. However, this does not mean the entire practice of mule driving has become obsolete. Mule skinners have evolved too, and there is still a demand for their services in the 21st century.

Military

U.S. Marines are known to undergo many different exercises. One example involves simulating battlefield conditions to prepare for actual combat. The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, located in California's Sierra Nevada, is a military facility for this specific training style. Soldiers learn the skills required for mountainous warfare here. Part of this curriculum includes an animal packers course. Marines emulate the skills of a mule skinner by driving teams carrying their essential gear over treacherous terrain.

U.S. Forest Service

A remote wildfire makes equipment logistics challenging for the wildland firefighters working at the frontline. The heavily wooded areas can be difficult to reach for even the most specialized off-road vehicles to get necessary supplies to the crews. However, mules are still used today to serve this very purpose. They have the ability to carry up to 20% of their own body weight, making them and the mule skinners who drive them invaluable assets to the U.S. Forest Service.

Entertainment

Competitive livestock shows are popular across the United States. People attend to watch the various animals on display or compete in competitions. Mules are no different and have their own events. Although the attention tends to be on the mule at these contests, mule skinners actually facilitate the performance that entertains the crowd. Some of the different skills on display at a mule show include:

  • Driving shows that highlight a mule team's ability to respond to the skinner's voice commands
  • Riding shows that focus on an individual mule's directional agility, jumping ability and other dressage skills
  • Pulling shows that include moving logs, sleighs and other grounded weights
  • Racing shows that challenge mules and their riders in speed exhibitions
All Things Nature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a All Things Nature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1006536 — On Mar 31, 2022

This is a very interesting article. In harmony with the first hypothesis on the origin of the term 'mule skinner' I found a 1928 newspaper article (York Republican-Nebraska Aug 16, p.5) in which the term is used interchangeably with 'donkey spanker'. --Sean

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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