Mules Rule Over Horses, Donkeys in Spatial Cognition Tests

By Christa Lesté-Lasserre

September 16, 2013

Mules Rule Over Horses, Donkeys in Spatial Cognition Tests
Mules Rule Over Horses, Donkeys in Spatial Cognition Tests

The gate is on the other side. No, the other side. The other side, horse! The gate is on the other side. If you’ve ever seen your horse get “stuck” in a pasture because they’ve “forgotten” where the gate is, you’re likely not alone. And when it comes to spatial cognition, the old adage “stubborn as a mule” might better be said, “stubborn as a horse” or “sensible as a mule.”

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, UK. 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.”

These cognitive tasks started with a simple design of setting up a fence between the animal and its food, with an open gate at one end of the fence. The researchers tested 12 horses, 12 donkeys, and 12 mules as they each tried to find their way to the food. While horses usually worked at a trot, donkeys at a slow walk, and mules at a fast walk, it was the mules who would find the open gate the fastest, Osthaus said. The horses were the slowest to solve the problem.

The researchers then complicated the task by moving the open gate to the other end of the fence. Mules were slightly better at finding the new gate than the donkeys were, but for the most part, worked at a chance level (50/50 chance of finding the gate). The horses, on the other hand, kept insisting that the gate was still in the same place and seemed to “refuse to believe their eyes,” she said.

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, maybe 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.

And while mules have much to offer humans through their sturdiness and intelligence, it certainly doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong equid if you’re riding a horse instead. “Problem-solving ability is not always necessary in competitive disciplines—in fact, it’s often better if the animal is more obedient than clever,” Osthaus 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.”

Leanne Proops, PhD, of the Mammal Vocal Communication and Cognition Research group at the University of Sussex, in the UK, and Ian Hocking, PhD, also of Canterbury Christ Church University, contributed to this research. Courtesy The Horse

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