Select Page

Military Draft Animals

Draft animals were still extensively used by the military in the 19th century for transportation of materials, supplies and troops. Each draft animal had its own use particular to the need for carrying people, pulling light-weight cargo or a heavy supply wagon. The key draft animals employed were horses, mules and oxen.


The horse was used primarily to transport a single soldier. Horses were also used to pull light cargo, such as artillery caissons or small wagons. The horse provided speed in maneuvering mounted troops (dragoons or cavalry) into battle positions or striking fear into ground-based troops. Horses were also relatively steady under fire, were able to wheel around, and responded well to rein commands, thus their utility as cavalry. The horse enabled mounted troops to cover long distances and reduce the fatigue factor suffered by marching infantry. Mounted scouts and messengers were able to relay troop movements and troop positioning orders to battle commanders. Traveling by horse, couriers provided a link between settlements, forts or camps to pass on communications. However, the horse has limitations in terms of endurance and required much care in terms of rest, feed, water and protecting their hoofs with metal shoes.


The mule is a hybrid animal resulting from mating a female horse (mare) with a male donkey (jack). The mule inherits its size and strength from the horse and its surefootedness, strong sense of self-preservation and long ears from the donkey. The mule is usually sterile, but on rare occasion a mule mare (molly) might give birth. Mules are bred for particular uses:

Saddle mule – at least 54” in height, this breed was used primarily for riding.

Pack mule – over 1000 lbs in weight, strong, sturdy and short-legged, capable of carrying heavy loads. Shorter pack mules are easier to pack.

Work mule – usually 900 to 1300 lbs in weight with a strong build, used to pull wagons and perform heavy labor chores.

Mules possess several traits and characteristics that made them more suitable than horses for heavy labor purposes.

  1. Mules endure heat better. When it comes to water, the mule behaves similar to a camel in drinking only enough water to replace lost body fluids.
  2. Mules have less feeding issues. The mule generally eats less than a horse, about 1/3 the grain requirement of a horse of the same size. Mules rarely overeat to the point of developing colic. However, the mule does require sufficient feed for its size and amount of work.
  3. Mules have less hoof problems. Mules have naturally small, upright, boxy feet which are strong, tough, flexible and less brittle than a horse. Although helpful, mules don’t require being shoed to protect their hoofs.
  4. Mules are physically sound. Mules have longer life-spans and experienced fewer and less severe leg problems. Also, the hybrid genetics makes the mule more durable with a tougher wind (respiration), “innards,” and hide compared to the horse.
  5. Mules have a strong sense of self-preservation. If a mule is overheated, overworked or overused, it will slow down or stop completely, hence the inappropriate label of being stubborn. Mules are not inclined to panic. Rather they will think about the situation and take care of their own well-being, which prevents many accidents from occurring as might happen with a horse, such as the mule is inclined not to overdrink or overeat when hot.
  6. Mules are surefooted and careful. Physically, the mule has a narrower body than a horse of the same height and weight. The mule’s legs are strong with a narrow and small hoof structure that enables the mule to place his feet carefully and neatly. Psychologically, the mule will assess situations and act in his own best interest, trusting his judgment over that of the animal handlers.
  7. Mules are calculating animals with intelligence and personality. Mules tend to run a bluff and are not inclined to perform a labor unless their bluff is called by calmly outmaneuvering them by physical means, such as tying up a fore or hind foot, drawing reins, using chain leads, etc. Mules respond to simplicity, calmness and firmness, but resist action (stubborn) when the handler loses his temper or pushes too hard.

Mule teams were commonly hitched to supply wagons in three pairs with the lead pair (span) in front, followed by the swing pair, and lastly the pole or wheel pair nearest the wagon. The driver was termed the mule skinner, who rode the saddled near (left) pole mule. The lead team was guided using a long single rein (jerk line) that went through harness loops on the swing mule and connected to the bit of the near leader mule. This bit was connected to an iron rod leading to the bit of the off (right) leader mule. With a steady pull on the rein while shouting “Haw!” the team would head to the left. Short jerks on the rein and the command, “Gee!” would head the team to the right. “Yay!” was the command for the team to go straight ahead.


Oxen are castrated adult male bovines called steers, usually at least 4 years old that have been trained to work. Although slower than horses or mules, oxen had greater pulling power through obstacles (1 ox – 1500 lb/10 hr vs.1 mule – 750 lb/10 hr vs. 1 horse – 250-300 lb/10 hr). With a lower center of gravity, greater weight (2000 lb ox vs. 1000 lb mule) and pushing against the wood frame yoke (ox-bow), oxen had better 4-hoof traction than mules, allowing oxen to perform better in rough, uneven terrain. Oxen also required less training, needed simpler equipment (ox-bow yoke vs. chains, tree bars and spreader bars for mules and horses) and generally did better in any situation requiring endurance and patience rather than speed. Oxen were also less expensive than mules ($200/8 oxen vs. $600/6 mules) and could survive on range grass rather than requiring special feed (grain). However, oxen were more susceptible to heat. Oxen were less liable to stampede or be driven off by Indians as horses and mules were more valued for riding. In dire times, oxen could also be used for beef. Oxen were yoked together in teams of two. Heavy supply wagons (3000-5000 lb loads) might require 3 or 4 teams of oxen. Because they responded poorly to reins, oxen were driven with the use of whips, goads and verbal commands by the teamster (bullwhacker) who walked on the left side of the teams. The orientation of multiple teams and commands were the same as described above for mules.


  1. Paul and Betsy Hutchins,
  2. Dick Crews, Mule-Drawn Wagon Trains,
  3. 1800s Travel Guidelines for Man and Beast,