Maintaining a Healthy Mule Through Winter

















by Angie J. Mayfield     -     Loogootee, Indiana

As cold weather arrives, so do our mules’ woolly winter coats and their need for additional care. Many of us own older mules who have rightfully earned a special place in our hearts and barns. However, aging equines require even more food and attention as temperatures drop. I’ve owned many mules over my lifetime, and I’ve lost a few old timers as well – always in the winter.    
Senior animals do not regulate their body warmth as well and are more vulnerable to health issues. Their energy stores are depleted simply trying to stay warm, so offering extra forage and supplements, as well as adequate shelter, are essential for maintaining their weight and health through the tough winter months. It is difficult for an older animal to gain weight in the winter, so heading into Thanksgiving with a few extra pounds is a good thing for a mule.
Evaluating your mules’ feed and nutrition is the first step in winter preparedness Equines need to consume a minimum of 1 percent of their body weight in forage each day, though most consume 2 percent counting all food sources. Therefore, make sure your hay supply is plentiful before that snowstorm hits. Buying and storing early is easier on everyone – and your wallet.
Changing to a higher quality forage in the winter is important to provide additional calories that aged animals need. Forage provides heat through fermentation, so giving more hay in the evening can make those cold nights more bearable and less energy-depleting for our mules. I keep a round bale of mixed hay in front of my herd at all times and then throw down some square bales of alfalfa at night during those cold spells. I also keep a salt block and loose minerals available for my herd.
Legume-type forage, such as alfalfa, has higher calorie and protein content, so mixing it with grass hay, or even soaking some cubes, provides additional energy our mules need to stay warm and maintain body weight. Alfalfa is gentler on the stomach because it is easier to digest, and it encourages animals to drink water because of the high nitrogen content in the protein. Still, I avoid too much alfalfa or “mule crack” during riding season. The effects on a few of my mules are equivalent to giving my 4-year-old son a Mountain Dew and a candy bar.
Concentrated feeds/grains are also important to add nutrients for older equines. Pelleted senior feeds are easier to digest, but look at the label and ensure the protein value is about 12-14 percent and the added fat/crude fat value is 8-12 percent for optimal energy levels. Most experts agree never to give an average-sized equine (1,000 pounds) more than 5 pounds of grain per day. Supplementing forage with feed can help ensure our loyal old friends stay healthy until spring, but adding too much grain creates a greater risk for laminitis, colic, and digestive problems. Remember that it may take a few weeks to see results or body changes after supplementing feed.
If your mule is still losing weight after adding forage and feed, it could be a digestion problem. Digestion begins with chewing, and poor teeth can make it even more difficult to maintain body weight and energy levels during the winter. If your senior mule has trouble chewing, then he/she may need to see an equine dentist and/or veterinarian and/or need to start a senior or complete feed.
Next, evaluate your mules’ appearance and energy levels regularly. Thick hair can be deceptive and lead owners to believe their mule is healthy when under that long winter coat is a thin animal. Protruding bellies also mislead us to believe our equines are fat, but older animals carry weight differently and a thin or unhealthy mule can still have a big belly. The amount of fat on an equine is better evaluated by looking at the upper rib cage and back and between the hind legs. I have my vet visit the farm each fall for yearly vaccinations and individual exams to ensure my mules are in optimal health. I also worm them quarterly, rotating brands of wormer with Panacure in the spring, Ivermectrin Gold in the summer, and Ivermectrin in early winter. Some people winterize their homes and campers but forget some of their most precious investments.
Winter is hard on all of us, and we tend to spend less time outdoors with our animals when they need us the most. Take that extra time to let your mules know they haven’t been forgotten. Adequate shelter and food, a gentle touch, a few kind words, and maybe even a treat each day will help keep them healthy and happy and prevent future healthcare problems. It will also maintain that trust and personal relationship, keeping them coming to the gate for attention that all creatures crave.
Unfortunately, even mules don’t live forever, but we can do our best to ensure they live as long and comfortably as possible. There have been a few winters where my mules seemed to be one of the few elements keeping me content and sane until spring, so I make sure they receive the loving care they deserve.
Angie J. Mayfield is an author, professor, and mule enthusiast who has trail ridden in 46 states, Canada, and Mexico on her mules.