The Peruvian Mule
I saw my first Peruvian mule in 1962. To tell the truth, I scarcely noticed it. A few seconds earlier I’d seen my first Peruvian horse, and my attention was focused there.
I think it’s safe to say that mules are an acquired taste. Most aficionados learn to love mules because a mentor helps them develop an appreciation for these much-maligned hybrids. Never having been around anyone who knew much about mules, I hadn’t given them much thought.
That quickly changed while I was in Peru. Many of the farmers there preferred mules to horses, and why not? Peruvian Paso horses produce wonderful mules with a smooth, ground-covering, lateral gait and a remarkable docile nature.
My interest increased when I found a historical reference to Peruvian mules ridden by a squadron under the command of Lawrence of Arabia, during his famous World War I campaign against the Turks. I was fascinated to discover that Peruvian mules have proven their worth in deserts far from those they so comfortably navigate in their homeland.
Since it began in 1945, the National Tournament of Peruvian Paso Horses has offered classes for these remarkable hybrids. Listening to spectators year after year, as they admiringly discussed Peruvian mules, I came to realize that here was something special and deserving of respect. I was also intrigued by the commercial possibilities.
However, I soon discovered that importation costs eliminated any possibility of bringing these animals to the States for profit, and I gave up on that idea. So did everyone else involved in the early importation of Peru’s National Horse. Nonetheless, a few Peruvian mules reached our shores during their native country’s agrarian reform.
Peru’s paso horses were bred for work on plantations, and their market was temporarily destroyed when the government confiscated these establishments. Less than two years later, the horse market would rebound dramatically, with the help of buyers from the United States.
On the other hand, the market for mules flourished during those two "down years," and thus some high-quality mares were bred to donkeys. A couple of these were sold to Americans and were imported before giving birth.
When these U.S.-born mules grew to riding age, they created quite a sensation. It quickly became evident that there is enormous potential for gaited mules in North America. If they could somehow be produced here – and therefore be free of importation costs – Peruvian mules could be very profitable. Several American breeders looked into the possibility, but a complication soon appeared.
The Peruvians had ambling donkeys with an exceptionally high-quality gait, and these were the key to producing laterally gaited mules. No one was inclined to import those donkeys, however. They were scarce, expensive and too small to produce mules for people the size of Americans.
The Peruvian horse’s lateral gait is deeply bred-in and passes without fail to the offspring of a pureblooded mare and stallion. However, no one was unduly surprised when it was discovered that this gait passes much-less-reliably when these horses are crossed with a trotting jack.
Several years ago, at a Peruvian Paso show in Moab, Utah, a man brought a pair of mules he’d produced using Peruvian mares and American jacks. He said that he’d been doing this for a while and was selling his mules at unbelievable prices. In fact, he’d stopped by the show on his way to deliver two mules to a buyer.
Upon learning that the judge, Jose Antonio Dapelo, was a great aficionado of mules, the exhibitor graciously offered to let him try out the paso mules after the show. Sr. Dapelo enthusiastically accepted.
Jose Antonio was obviously looking forward to riding the mules, but I was sure he’d be severely disappointed. Without comment, I watched as the mules were brought before him. He complimented the breeder on their size and conformation. Then he rode.
To my surprise, more compliments flowed. My initial impression was that Sr. Dapelo was being polite. However, his enthusiasm grew lavish, far beyond good manners. He was genuinely impressed and commented that these mules were as well-gaited as those produced in Peru.
Further conversation revealed that North America, too, has laterally-gaited donkeys. Though I’ve never since seen one with a gait the quality of that done by Peruvian donkeys, a very good lateral gait is reliably transmitted to mules produced by crossing these with Peruvian horses. Most have enough "ambling blood" that a talented rider can get them to gait, and many will gait for anyone who rides properly.
Peru’s mule owners are every bit as colorful as their counterparts in other parts of the world. Among them is Juan Pardo who loved horses with a passion but preferred mules. He enjoyed nothing more than to needle his fellow horse lovers by reciting the long list of reasons he considered the mule superior to the horse.
Once while riding in the thick foliage of a sugar cane field, Pardo rounded a corner and came face to face with a bear. There was little time for thought, but he remembers being thankful he was on a mule and not a horse. The next sound he heard was the thud of his mount hitting the ground.
The poor, terrified animal had fainted!
Pardo’s luck was good that day. The bear was a pet that had escaped from a neighbor’s private zoo. He was well-fed, accustomed to people and so pleased with his sudden freedom that he continued on his way with nary a look at the man standing next to his prostrate mule.
After telling his tale a few times, Sr. Pardo decided to turn it into a testimonial for his beloved mules. This required only one small adjustment. Pardo began reporting - with a huge smile - that his mule was so intelligent it had decided to play dead!
He can be forgiven for his small exaggeration. After all, his point was (and is) valid. Mules are generally smarter than horses. They’re also tougher, and in the case of Peruvian mules, they cover ground more comfortably and with a ground-covering gait that will put non-gaited horses into a fast trot.