June 2019 Cover Story: Mules in Finland

When Kaisa Määttänen attended the Horse Fair in Finland, she spent most of her time answering countless questions about her mule. “I was constantly speaking about mules,” said Kaisa, who lives in Järvenpää, Finland, “and it was great!

The Horse Fair attendees had a good reason to be curious about mules. Though there are about 70,000 horses and about 400 donkeys in Finland, there are only 26 mules in the country. Finland is a Northern European nation bordering Sweden, Norway and Russia, with a population of about 5.52 million. In comparison, horse-back riding is more popular in Sweden and has a population of about 300,000 horses. Mules made their debut at the fair this year when Kaisa and her friend Anu Koivisto brought three for a weekend of demonstrations in conjunction with the Finnish Donkey Society. 

“The mules were in their boxes during the weekend, and so many people came to see them and ask questions about them.” said Kaisa.  

The small group put on demonstrations both days, speaking about their mules and their feeding, care, riding, and driving. They also spent some time setting right some common misconceptions about mules. 

“Here we call all equines ‘mares,’ ‘stallions,’ or ‘geldings. We don’t have different terms for ‘jennet,’ ‘jack,’ ‘molly,’ or ‘john.’ Many thought there was no need to geld mule stallions,” said Kaisa. “Of course, we corrected this.”

The three mules highlighted at the Horse Fair were Kaisa’s mule, “Mulli,” and Anu’s mules: a smaller black mule with socks who’s pedigree is unknown, and a big grey gelding who is out of a Percheron mare, both of which were bred in France. It was a two-hour drive from Anu’s barn to Tampere where the Horse Fair was held. “Anu just bought a new trailer for four equines, though usually in Finland we use small trailers with space for two equines. Trucks and big trailers are not popular here,” said Kaisa. 

The small black mule wore a traditional wooden collar and demonstrated pulling. The Percheron cross was ridden by a Arvi Martikainen in a mule saddle imported from Brazil. 

While the mules certainly became “celebrities” over the weekend, Arvi is also a bit of a celebrity. 

“He is not an average boy, he is quite famous here!” said Kaisa. “He started making his own jewelry and keyrings at the age of 11 and was at one time known as the youngest entrepreneur in Finland.” He is now 14 and has made enough money to buy a new horse for himself. He competed at the Horse Fair on Sunday with his horse, and they came in second in show jumping.

Kaisa and her mule also have quite a few fans, as she blogs in Finnish and has a popular Instagram account. “It was very nice to meet readers and fans face to face. Many of them told me, ‘Oh, she looks so small!’ My mule is about 14.1 hands, but she looks a bit taller when she has tack on and I’m riding her,” said Kaisa. 

Kaisa has had an interesting journey to becoming a mule owner. After all, with the small number of mules in Finland, it’s definitely surprising she found herself with a set of longears. 

When Kaisa was 15, her local 4-H was looking for someone to take in a donkey jack and Shetland pony gelding for the winter. “I’m from a farm, and we had cows and three box stalls for boarding horses. The horses that had been in boarding for two years had just moved, so our stables were open. I had ridden horses for two years and I knew about their keeping and feeding.” Her parent’s are not ‘horse people,’ but the family managed to board the horses for friends - just feeding and turnout.

She really wanted the Shetland pony to come to her farm for the winter, but in order to do that, the donkey would need to come, too. “Our ‘boys’ arrived in August, and the donkey jack was a pain in the ass!” said Kaisa. “He escaped the electric fence and ran to the neighbor’s stable. I was about 40 kilos (or 88 pounds) and the donkey was over 200 kilos (440 pounds), so I was really struggling when I walked him outside or inside from the pen.” 

But the struggles didn’t last long, and by Christmas, Kaisa and the donkey were fast friends. “It just took a long time to get to know him.” He had some abuse in his background and didn’t like to lift his feet. “The farrier needed to sedate him for the first two trims, but after that he was better to trim than the Shetland pony!” As time went on, she was able to earn the donkey’s trust, and that felt great.

The ‘boys’ stayed with Kaisa and her family for four winters. She moved into her own flat, and her parents said the horse and donkey couldn’t return to the farm for the winter without her there to take care of them. 

So Kaisa spent some time without any equines, but continued to be keen on donkeys. She published four issues of the first ever Finnish donkey magazine from 2007-2008 as part of her studies. During this time, she went to see the donkeys in Finland and got to know their owners. 

There were only about 250 donkeys in Finland at this time. Kaisa went to interview the owner of a hinny, who was sired by a Finnhorse stallion and a 120 cm (47 inch) Irish donkey jennet. Kaisa rode the hinny while visiting. “He was great - so calm, beautiful and nice!” said Kaisa. 

In 2008, Kaisa helped establish the Finnish Donkey Society. She has held both the secretary and president positions, but left the board this year after 11 years. “We have had new active members joining, and I realized I just didn’t have enough time anymore.” 

She purchased her first horse in 2009, a Finnhorse gelding, and kept him three years. But she couldn’t do the kind of trail riding that she wanted to do with him. He wouldn’t leave the barn alone, and when she would ride with someone else, he crowded the other horse. 

“The real turning point at the end of my horse owning career was when I got to ride that hinny on the trails,” said Kaisa. “It was the first ever mule ride for me, and he was perfect! I just threw a saddle and bridle on and he didn’t hesitate to leave the barn with me. I thought about the mule and the nice ride I had on him for a couple of days, and then I sold the horse.” 

Kaisa thought she wanted to either buy a mule or a big donkey. She was considering competing in Dressage, and thought a mule would suit better for that event. But she didn’t buy a mule for many years.

She began searching for a mule in 2015. “I think we had about 15 mules in the whole country at that time,” said Kaisa. “I already knew all of the Finnish mules, and their owners, and none of them were for sale.” She focused first on Germany, but their mules were usually a draft-type, which was not what she wanted. During her search, she found out that Spain produces a lot of mules. “If you are familiar with Brazilian mules, they are like the Spanish mules. Elegant, smooth movers, beautiful, light...I wanted one like that!” said Kaisa. 

She found someone who helps find mules from Spain and contacted her. After three months, she had found two mules. Kaisa picked one, but was later informed that even after two months of training, it was still “very green.” So, she switched her sights to the mule’s sister, who was supposed to have had three months of training. She was also suppose to be over 15 hands tall. But the mule that arrived at her new home, a boarding barn about 10 km (6 miles) from Kaisa’s house, was 14 hands. “Well, at least she was a molly!” Kaisa joked. 

“My mule didn’t have a name on her passport, so I named her in Finland when I registered her with the Finnish National Horse Registry, which has to be done when an equine is imported,” said Kaisa. She chose Buena Chica as her registered name, but went with Muuli (which means mule in Finnish) for her barn name. “She was so shy and so small when she arrived that I was going to send her back to Spain or sell her in Finland. I named her Muuli so I didn’t get too attached to her.”

Muuli hadn’t been handled much and was afraid of people. It took a week until Kaisa could catch her, and it took another two months until she could catch her when she was inside her pen. “But the funny thing was that when I had her on the lead rope, she would follow nicely. I was also able to brush her when she was tied. I tamed her with oats for the first week. Every time she would come to me, I would give her oats. I wanted her to think I was the coolest food vending machine in the world, and it worked! When I was able to catch her, I started to work with her in the round pen, and also send her away. That worked, too!” 

Kaisa didn’t give up on Muuli, and continued to work with her. She sent her to a trainer to train her for riding, and visited several weekends so she could work with Muuli and the trainer. “I did a lot of groundwork and positive reinforcement. I still use positive reinforcement quite often, even from the saddle, if something is very hard for my mule. She seems to get a lot more motivation if I give her a treat after my praise.”

The temporary name stuck around, and so did Muuli. Kaisa now spends 4-5 days at the barn, and usually rides Muuli in the arena or on trails. They live in an area that only has about 1-2 hour trail rides. She has a Dressage lesson each week and typically rides English, though also has a western saddle. “I don’t see any big difference between the two, I want to ride her lightly and with only little pressure,” said Kaisa. The pair have also entered into their first endurance competition. “This is the first official competition for us and the length of the race is only 17 kilometers (about 10.5 miles).” 

Kaisa and Muuli are great representatives for the longears in Finland, and continue to educate those they meet about mules and donkeys. “People are always asking me for more information when I tell them that I have a mule. ‘What can mules do?’ ‘Are they stubborn?’ And all the time I answer that donkeys and mules are not stubborn or stupid, it’s that people don’t understand how they think. An animal always has a reason why it is doing something.” 

You can follow Kaisa and Muuli on her Instagram, her handle is @rosamiii and she posts partly in English.