I was asked the other day if I knew the difference between a mule, an ass and a donkey, and to be honest, I thought it was the start of a joke, but it was a serious question. Well, they all do tend to look the same to me. My colleague is housesitting where a mule (named, well let’s say it’s ‘Muffin’ to protect the owner’s identity) nearby extends his head above the wall and starts its ‘Hee’Haw’ racket at anything from 5am onwards, presumably hoping someone will appear with some food. Surprisingly he doesn’t like all greens as he actually turned up his nose at some left-over lettuce, celery and leeks we thought he would enjoy – maybe too strong a flavour and certainly not as sweet as apples or oranges, his favourites.

I kept calling it a donkey, but I was told it was a mule. What’s the difference I wondered. Turns out it’s a breeding issue – mules are a result of a male donkey mating with a female horse, and they tend to have the head of a donkey and the body of a horse – their combined characteristics of both donkey and horse create a tough, more resilient working animal.


Breeding or cross-breeding is where it gets complicated. Horse and donkey belong to two separate species and although they do interbreed as mentioned above, their offspring will not be fertile due to an uneven chromosome count - the result is a hybrid, the mule, and can be either a male or female. Often a male mule is gelded in order to make him a safe and sociable animal. Except for the long ears, mules look very similar to horses, but their muscle composition is different.

Credits: envato elements; Author: robertovivancos;

Don’t let the old saying ‘as stubborn as a mule’ fool you - mules are thought to be more docile than their donkey fathers. But a mule’s intelligence also means that they are more cautious and aware of danger, making them safer to ride when crossing dangerous terrain. The skin of a mule is less sensitive than that of a horse and more resistant to sun and rain, which makes them a dependable option for outside work in harsh weather and strong sunlight.

And just for your information, China breeds the largest number of mules in the world, followed by Mexico.

Although mules are usually docile, an angry mule can kick both backwards and to the side - so a mule’s hind legs should be avoided, as these animals can pack quite a punch!


So far so good, that’s mules covered. So what about donkeys? Well, donkeys are a breed unto themselves, and wild ones are the ones called asses - so asses that have been domesticated are called donkeys. Male donkeys are called ‘jacks’, and females are ‘jennets’, and a donkey bred to a donkey produces another donkey. So, donkeys are domesticated asses: four-footed, hoofed mammals related to the horse, but smaller, with longer ears and a shorter mane, shorter hair on the tail, and a dark stripe along the back.

So, male donkeys – the jacks - are bred with female horses to produce mules, while the opposite cross, male horses bred with female donkeys - jennets -gives a rare offspring called a ‘hinny’, which closely resembles its donkey mother, having the long ears of a donkey. (Got it so far?)

Credits: envato elements; Author: 5PH;


Specifically, donkey and ass can be used interchangeably to refer to the animal Equus africanus asinus. This is the scientific name for a donkey, although it is often referred to as just an ass. Ass comes directly from the Latin, and the term donkey comes from the Irish, meaning little dun-coloured animal.

And a Jackass? This is actually a male donkey, but is often a derogatory word used for someone who randomly acts silly or very stupid like an ‘ass’.

There’s an old Sicilian saying that says if a mule isn’t kicking, it’s biting, so I am glad there is a sturdy wall between us and ‘Muffin’ when we go giving him treats!


Marilyn writes regularly for The Portugal News, and has lived in the Algarve for some years. A dog-lover, she has lived in Ireland, UK, Bermuda and the Isle of Man. 

Marilyn Sheridan