Who’s Smarter: A Mule Or a Horse? Plus Death Valley’s Beautiful 20 Mule Team Canyon

Who’s smarter? This girl with her wild eyes and gorgeous eyelids…
Or this fellow with a large nose and impressive nose hairs?

Or, the question going through your mind might be, “Why in the heck is Curt asking this question when his post is on Death Valley?”

Well, it started when I was doing research on Death Valley’s well-know, historic 20 Mule Team. Given that I am featuring the 20 Mule Canyon on my post today, I wanted to provide some background information, which I will. But the first thing I learned (or relearned) was that it wasn’t a 20 mule team that was used to haul borax out of Death Valley from 1893-96. It actually consisted of 18 mules and 2 horses. All of the animals had very specific tasks. Some required more intelligence than others.

Luckily for me, the town just up the road from where we camped near Bryce Canyon (Tropic) had a Mules Days event going on and there was a horse corral just across the road from us in Cannonville. I was able to persuade a mule and a horse to pose for me.

There is a ton of information on the twenty mule teams. This may seem like a lot until you take into consideration that the 18 mules and 2 horses were actually hauling close to 9 tons of Borax at a time out of Death Valley in temperatures that sometimes exceeded a 100 degrees F. (Operations were halted over the hot summer months.) They started their epic journey from the Harmony Borax Works near Furnace Creek and traveled for 165 miles over primitive roads to the railhead near Mohave. As you might imagine, it was quite the challenge. It required close to a heroic effort on the part of the mules, the horses and the muleskinners. Millions of dollars could be made if the venture was successful, however, and it was. Borax has lots of uses.

Still, all of this would be a mere note in the history books except for a couple of factors. One, Borax Soap featured the mules in a very extensive advertising campaign. The second was the radio and TV program, Death Valley Days. For those of you who are old enough to remember the 50s and 60s TV show, you may also remember that Ronald Reagan hosted the show in the mid 60s just before he jumped into his campaign for California Governor.

I think this 20 mule team traveling through 20 Mule Canyon is a team that Borax Soap used to promote its product. The photo is from the US Borax’s Visitor Center in Boron, which is well worth a stop. The two large wagons were for hauling the borax. The last wagon contained water for the mules since water holes were few and far between on the long, dry 10-day journey— and it was very thirsty work. The man at the back of the line is riding one of the two horses. The two lead mules, both female, have bells.
This historic photo provides a good perspective on just how big the wagons were. The large wheel is seven feet tall. The man on the left is the muleskinner who was in charge. On his right was his swamper who carried out a number of supportive jobs including handling a back up brake to be used if the wagon decided to run away going down hill.The muleskinner earned $4 per day, his swamper, $2, and the Chinese laborers who did the hardest work of digging out the borax, $1.25

I found a rather amusing, imaginary discussion with a muleskinner on the Death Valley National Park site. The greatest challenge he noted was in getting around corners. He used a diagram to describe the operation. An 80 foot chain connects the lead mules to the wagon.

Here’s what he had to say about the process: “Now I’ll tell you just how smart my mules is: it’s one thing drivin’ along a straight road; it’s a whole nother thing turnin’ corners on a mountain pass. My 2 lead mules, both mares, are about 80 feet ahead of me–so far away I can’t even begin to use my 9-foot long whip on ‘em. I’ve been known to throw pebbles at ‘em to get their attention. Aim’s good too. Back to gettin’ around corners. The next 5 pairs of mules are my “swing teams”, they ain’t real smart, they just know their names and what ‘pull’ and ‘stop’ means. Now the next 3 sets of mules behind the swings are my “pointers”. These mules are trained special to jump over that 80-foot chain and side-step away from the curve to keep that chain tight and my wagons goin’ ‘round that corner right. Next comes the 2 big horses. They’re strong enough to start my wagons rollin’, but that’s all they’re good for. A dumb mule (and I ain’t seen one yet) is a whole lot smarter than a smart horse.”

So, there you have it— which animal is smarter. At least from the perspective of a muleskinner. I’ll allow that a horse lover might have a different point of view. Grin. And now, it’s time to get away from all of the words and take you through 20 Mule Canyon in photos. The canyon starts no more than a mile above Zabriskie Point. And even though the road is dirt, cars with two wheel drive seem to handle it easily.

The dirt road.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Photo by Peggy Mekemson.
Peggy caught a photo of me hiking up a trail. There are a number of stops along the road where you can get out, stretch your legs and take photos, if you want.
I captured this photo of Peggy Woohoo! And the next two photos.
I’ll conclude today with this photo of a very colorful place along the road. The colors are created by the oxidation of minerals/metals. I cover which metals cause which colors in my next post. It will be on the even more colorful drive to the Artists Palette. I am going to feature pup fish as well. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

To bring you up to date, Peggy and I have now spent a week in Zion Canyon National Park and a week in Bryce. We are now in the small, but fun community of Kanab, perched on the border between Utah and Arizona. Here’s a photo we took last week to give you a view of things to come.

A pair of hoodoos we found near Bryce Canyon. The name hoodoo is derived from a Paiute Indian name meaning scary. I think I can see why.

22 thoughts on “Who’s Smarter: A Mule Or a Horse? Plus Death Valley’s Beautiful 20 Mule Team Canyon

  1. Of course I’m old enough to have watched Death Valley Days faithfully, so you had my attention right away. We saw a wagon when we visited Death Valley but never got to Boron, so I found the muleskinner’s description particularly interesting.

    • I watched it a few times, Ray, but I was more into Bonanza. It came on Sunday night and was a great incentive for me to get my homework done before the show! I thought the muleskinner description really brought it to life. –Curt

  2. Very interesting story about turning a mule team!
    We were in Kanab Wednesday night. We always enjoy the scenery along 89A south of there and 89 north of there.

      • Yes, we took 12 on our drive home in 2015. The ‘Head of the Rocks Overlook’ was one of my favourite stops! On that trip we had perfect weather at Bryce Canyon – big dark storm clouds to the west, but sun at the canyon – very dramatic for photos. Not quite as dramatic as our trip there in December, 2005 – it had snowed. In 2016 we went to Moab and Arches National Park. So much to see in that part of America!

      • Glad you made that trip, Margy. It’s one of my all time favorites. The week we just spent at Bryce was magical. I’ll be blogging on it as soon as I get through Death Valley and Zion. A month on the road and I already have enough post to write to keep me busy for two months. Grin.

  3. This is fascinating. I’m guessing ‘Death Valley Days’ never aired in Nebraska because I have no memory of ever seeing it. As an aside, I’ve always loved the expression ‘a whole nother thing’.

    • I agree, Peggy, an interesting piece of history for sure. The show was syndicated, so it’s a whole nother thing whether your local station would have picked it up. Grin,

  4. What a fascinating post. It must have taken a lot of training to get a good mule and horse team. Never heard of a muleskinner. I wonder if it is mule-skinner or mules-kinner? (knowledge of mules)

    • Thanks Gerard.And yes, I’m sure it did take a lot of training, especially for the lead mules and for the ones who stepped over the chain to help get the wagons around corners. Here’s what the muleskinner said about his name:” I’m a muleskinner, proud to be one and good at my job. I don’t skin mules–I drive ‘em, that’s what muleskinner means”.

  5. I’ve had several folks who should know tell me that mules are smarter than horses. One I remember ran the mules that take people down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon… apparently mules are far less likely to spook and fall on that narrow and very steep trail. Or so they say…
    Fun post! Thanks, Curt.

    • Glad you enjoyed it, Gunta. And way back when, I rode one of those mules down into the canyon. My weight was right at the limit and the mule knew it. He kept trying to bite me and would swing his feet out over the edge to punish me. 🙂 At least it seemed that way. My tail hurt for a couple of days!

  6. What a history, Curt, and I’m glad you answered the mule vs. horse question. Now I know. Lol. I feel like I’m following in your footsteps as I head east to the dry country. Great photos!

  7. I suppose if you think about it, if you have one animal that’ll let you ride it to death, and another that looks at you like you’re missing a few brain cells if you ask it to do something that’s a pain for the ass, it’s not hard to figure out which is the horse and which is the mule, and which is smarter.

    It’d be interesting to see an aerial video of a 20 mule team going around a corner.

    • Good way to put it, Dave. And I agree, it would be interesting. to see a video of the wagons making it around a corner. I wonder if they ever did that during Death Valley Days. –Curt

  8. One of my great-grandfathers farmed with mule teams. Mom said they could (would?) outwork the horses, but first you had to persuade them that working was a good idea. Legend or not, she said her grandfather said the first thing you had to do was get their attention, like with a 2×4 alongside the head. That’s surely hyperbole, but it makes the point. If I were a mule or a horse, it would take more than that to persuade me to make that trek through the desert!

    I just read an article about other uses than laundry for Borax. Very interesting!

    • Borax has dozens of uses, Linda.

      The mule story is an old one, Linda. I remember hearing it in my youth.

      There is a guy screaming at his mule to get it to plow. Another guy comes along and says, “That’s no way to get a mule to work. You have to talk to them gently.”

      “Okay,” the first guy says. “You show me how it is done.” Whereupon the second guy whips out a 2×4 and whacks the mule across the butt.

      “What?” yells the first guy. I thought you said you have to talk gently to it.”

      “You do,” he replies, “but first you have to get its attention.”

  9. Hi Curt, just realised that I don’t get your posts anymore through the follow option but have to sign up for email notifications. That sucks.
    Anyway, I am looking at options to be in Amsterdam on 11th July. Does that suit?

    • The 11th sounds great, Andrew. We can work out the details as it gets closer. You know a lot more about Amsterdam than we do. Suggestions will be gladly accepted! Did I tell you that Peggy was a high school exchange student in Holland way back when.
      I’ve got to spend some time working with WP over what the heck they are doing. Hopefully I can get it straightened out this week. –Curt

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