A mule skinner or muleskinner is someone who specializes in handling mules. Mules are famous for their high level of intelligence and obstinacy, and they can be difficult to handle as a result of these traits. Mule skinners are very experienced with mules and know how to work with them to accomplish a goal.
Mules are crosses between horses and donkeys, with a donkey father and a horse mother. For the most part, mules are sterile, although there have been a few recorded examples of female mules bearing live young. The mule is said to blend the best traits of horses and donkeys, although inevitably some of the less desirable traits associated with these animals are also inherited.
Famously surefooted, mules are also very strong, with a high level of endurance. Like their donkey fathers, they tend to be obstinate, but they are also very adept problem solvers. While these traits might seem like drawbacks in some cases, in the case of a well trained mule, they can contribute to intelligent refusal, in which the animal will refuse to do something which is potentially dangerous. A mule skinner who is familiar with her or his animals can tell when a mule is being contrary, and when a mule recognizes a genuine safety risk which should be addressed before moving on.
Mules have historically been used as pack animals because they can carry heavy loads across long distances. They can also be used as riding animals, especially in areas where the terrain is rough or the conditions are harsh, as horses do not do well in harsh conditions. Mule skinners can also use their animals for plowing and other agricultural tasks.
A mule skinner's approach to a group of mules can vary. Historically, control was often exerted with the use of whips and other physical techniques. Mules were quickly “broken” with brutal techniques which taught them to fear human handlers, and thus, to obey them to avoid punishment. Today, some mule skinners may be more inclined to approach their animals with kindness, cultivating a cooperative relationship which is not based on fear of violence or pain.
While working animals are in less common use than they once were, there are still some settings where a mule skinner can find employment. In some regions, mules continue to be used as working animals, in which case handlers are needed, and in others, mules may be used as a novelty method of transport, in which case a mule skinner may need to be able to handle nervous and experienced riders as well as recalcitrant mules. Mule skinners may also compete with their animals in events which test endurance, training, and skills.