Army Animals


Supplemental information  about mules as pack animals, horse-drawn carts and ox-drawn wagons comes from J. G. Landels, Engineering in the Ancient World and from information about draft animals from several websites. The full references for the books are listed in the bibliography page.  Summaries of some of the material from these sources follows.


Army Animals (Horses, Mules, Oxen)

Internet Links on draft animals

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Landels discusses the role of horses, oxen and wheeled transport in the ancient world. Some salient points are as follows:

Transport: The preferred method of land transport was by mule pack. The use of wagons was limited because without the horse collar neither horses, mules nor donkeys could pull heavy loads and oxen were slow. Human labor moved lighter weights. The maximum human load that could be carried more than a short distance, 40 or 50 yards, was 50 to 60 pounds. Anything larger required pack animals. The very heavy loads were drawn by oxen in wagons.

Mules: They were normally from a female horse and male donkey, were preferred over horses for several reasons: they were less temperamental, easier to train, their skin is tougher and less easily damaged, can tolerate extremes of heat and cold better, requires less water, needs less sleep (4 to 5 hours per night), its hooves are harder and is more sure-footed. The mule walks at just over 3 miles per hour but can cover up to 50 miles a day over level ground and lightly loaded. Because of these advantages, pack mules were widely used throughout the world until this century. Evidence seems to indicate that ancient mules were roughly the size of modern mules: between 52 and 60 inches at the withers (13 to 15 hands), the largest as high as 64 inches, weighing between 6000 and 900 pounds, able to carry 30% of their weight (25% on hilly ground). The load could be between 200 pounds for a smaller mule and as high as 270 pounds for a large one. An important restriction was that the weight had to be evenly divided on either side of the pannier. If a single large weight, a stone, for example, were carried then the mule could only bear about half the weight.

Donkeys: They were also used, though it seems that mules were preferred. They are smaller than mules, between 36 and 60 inches at the withers, carrying proportionately smaller loads. A small donkey could carry about 120 pounds, a large one the same as a mule.

Horses: Ancient horses were probably about the same size as the mules. Large draft horses were not known in ancient times. Four well-bred horses might have been able to pull 2 to 3 tons at about 4 to 5 miles per hour. But the ancients actually used them to pull light loads, such as a chariot and its driver, maybe 440 pounds at a relatively fast pace. Horse drawn fast vehicles could average about 7 mph over the course of a day.

Oxen: Oxen can pull 1.5 times their body weight but can travel only 1 miles per hour, less if there are obstacles in their way. However they do have advantages in feeding since they can consume 1.5 times 3% instead of 2% of their body weight. They can survive on lower quality food since they can eat more of it. One ancient formula says that they should be fed 15 lbs. of hay and 15 to 20 pounds of mash per day --

Carts and Wagons: Two wheeled Carts and four wheeled wagons were both used. Oxen were used for the wagons and the heavy carts. Horses were used for light fast 2-wheeled carts, usually personal transport. A difficulty with the two heeled heavy carts was that the load had to be precisely balanced over the wheels or it would exert pressure on the pole either down on the yoke or up on the girth strap. There may have been a standard gauge for wagons of 112 to 114 cm. This is found in grooves worn by wagon wheels in various places. Heavy wagons were usually drawn by oxen, horses were used only for light fast transport. Both carts and wagons were designed to be drawn by two animals. The method of attaching them to the vehicles was yoke and pole, suitable for oxen but not for horses since the yoke choked the horse if too heavy a load were pulled. The horse collar was not invented until centuries later.

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Army Animals


The illustration below shows some representative sizes of horses, mules and oxen. The scales at the right show hands (magenta), feet (blue) and meters (green).

army-animals.jpg (44390 bytes)












Modern horses are measured in "hands." one hand is 4 inches (10.16 cm).   A horse smaller than 14 hands is called a pony.  Riding horses range from 14 to 16 hands.  Draft horses are 16 hands and larger.  

Ancient horses were probably somewhat smaller than modern breeds. Large draft horses were not bred until the middle ages. For modeling riding horses I looked at the ancient breeds that are still extant.  Most are on the smaller side, ponies rather than horses.  I show three horse sizes above:  13, 14 and 15 hands.  I have arbitrarily assigned the smaller ponies to the cavalry units and the larger to the officers. 

cavalryman.jpg (10567 bytes)To model the cavalry soldier I considered photographs of reenactors to estimate the size of the animals they were using.  These animals seemed to be small, about 11 or 12 hands.  I then looked at horse breeds. Many ancient breeds tend to be small, ponies rather than horses.  However the Romans are known to have used some breeds that, at least in modern times, are full sized horses.   I compromised and depicted a horse size for the regular soldier of 13 hands, a large pony.  For officers I selected larger sizes, 14 hands for officers and 15 hands for the highest ranking officers.

There is no historical justification for the selection of these sizes, they are merely meant to be representational of the animals used by the Romans.


The following table shows information taken from the internet site   "Breeds of Livestock".  Here are the sizes of some of the ancient breeds of horses:

Donkeys and Mules

Donkeys range in size from 300-pound minis up to American Mammoth Jackstock, which can be as big as draft horses and capable of handling similar work.   The Standard Donkey (most donkeys in the world are in this size range) is   36" and 48" at the withers. The Mammoth or American Standard Jack Stock   is the largest breed of donkey in the world. Males must stand 56" or more, and females must be 54" and up. 



2-views-donkey.jpg (7190 bytes)The drawing on the left shows the small donkey as illustrated above  (profile and overhead view) and the representation of the pack animals used in the drawings (the lower overhead view).   The more accurate overhead drawing (the upper one) shows the head and neck foreshortened.  Although this is more accurate, it looks unnatural.  A more natural looking overhead illustration stretches the neck and head.  This is illustrated in the bottom drawing on the left.  

The pack animal drawing used also shows a bushy tail since the animals may have been either mules, horses or donkeys.  The size of the pack animals used to illustrate the baggage train, however, is about 10 hands -- a pony, small mule or standard donkey.


Mules are normally bred from a female donkey and a male horse.  Mules can be any size.  Those smaller than 40" are called sub-miniatures.    Miniature mules are between 40" and 48". Pack mules are usually short legged. They weigh 1,000 pounds or more, making them capable of carrying a good deal of weight. They have no height limit, but packers prefer short mules to tall ones because they are easier to load. Saddle mules are 54" or taller.  Draft mules are large and heavy animals standing 60" high or more, weigh 1,200 pounds or more.  Draft mules can be up to 70" (17.5 hands).

In the drawings above I illustrated a medium/large mule, 14 hands, for draft purposes and a smaller mule for pack purposes.  Modern packers prefer shorter mules for packing because it is easier to load and unload them.  The donkey I illustrate is 10 hands.

The internet links at the end of this page list sites with information about draft animals. The Rural Heritage site lists some interesting advantages mules have over horses.


Oxen can be any size, one ancient Italian breed is well over 17 hands at the shoulder.   For the draft oxen in the illustration I settled on a medium/large animal of 12 hands.  Some ancient breeds of cattle were quite large so it is not out of the question that the Romans would have found large oxen for draft purposes. The larger animals are able to haul heavier loads and there does not seem to be a disadvantage to large oxen.

A web correspondent, Ron Andersen, wrote about the experience of using oxen on the 1997 100th anniversary recreation of the Mormon march: "Ox teams traveled between two and three miles per hour, slower than  horses and mules, that traveled about 4 miles per hour. It was easier for walkers to follow ox-drawn wagons."

Another  web correspondent, Bill Speiden, has worked with oxen for approximately 20 years.  He wrote with some valuable information about their use.    "Speed on the Trail - 2 mph. Wagon trains on the Oregon Trail would typically start at dawn and with a noon break would usually stop to camp between 4 and 4:30 PM. Assuming an 8-9 hr. moving time on the trail and with an average of 15 miles covered on a day without major obstructions (e.g. rivers or steep hills) this would give you roughly 2 mph. My own experience in parades has often been 3 mph - but this is a fresh team with a light load going 3/4 to 1-1/2 mi.   Who used oxen? 60% of the prairie schooners on the Overland Trail were pulled by oxen.   Why?  (A) A horse sold for  $75 then, an ox for $25 ($25=a month's pay then). (B) Oxen could forage off the land and still work better than horses. (C) Oxen were less subject to disease than horses - colic, pneumonia, etc. (D) If you ran out of food  - would you rather eat a horse or an ox? (E) Indians would sometimes steal horses  but rarely if ever would they steal oxen. (F) Oxen proved not to be slower than horses after several days on the trail - horses and mules, having small stomachs, could not store the feed necessary to keep up a faster pace and thus became as slow as the oxen."

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Internet Links about Draft Animals    The Tillers homepage.  It gives a great deal of information about the use of draft animals, including mules and oxen.  The site has details on how the yokes and bows are fitted and their sizes.  "For your animals to work well, they need well fitted bows. If too narrow, they pinch the neck as they slide back; if too wide, they bruise the shoulders as the oxen step forward into loads."  A page for information about draft animals of all kinds with special pages for horses, donkeys, mules and oxen.  The following is a excerpt from the  Mule Paddock:

"Why would you prefer a mule to a horse?" mule lovers are asked over and over again. Here are some of our reasons:

Mules endure heat better than horses do. It has been scientifically proven that the donkey is similar to the camel in its ability, when water starved, to drink only enough water to replace lost body fluids. Most mules inherit this ability. Water founder in a mule is so rare as to be notable when it does occur.

Mules have fewer feeding problems than horses do. Many farmers keep their draft and work mules together in pens with feed available at all times, yet the mules rarely overeat to the point of colic or founder. Mules from pony mares, however, may grass or grain or road founder, so the idea that a mule never founders is not true. Mules require no fancy hay--just plain, clean, fresh hay suitable for equines. People who buy cheaper weedy hay find that their mules clean out the weeds first.

Mules eat less than horses do. Mules that are not working usually don't need grain at all. Good pasture or clean hay is the usual maintenance ration, unless extra fat is required for show purposes. Many a man has complained that his mules won't fatten because they won't eat enough, requiring the owner to spend extra money buying richer food to put the fat on. When mules are working, their grain ration is usually about 1/3 less than that of a horse of the same size. Of course, a mule must be fed enough for its size, its metabolism, and the work it is doing.

Mules rarely have hoof problems. Mules naturally have small, upright, boxy feet--which is part of the secret of their surefootedness. Mules that work on pavement, stony ground, etc. are shod, but most pleasure animals, or mules that work on softer ground, never see a shoe. Regular hoof trimming keeps them just fine. Their feet are strong, tough, flexible, and usually not as brittle and shelly as those of a horse. They have less of a problem with splitting, chipping, and contracted heels.

Mules excel in physical soundness. Mules last longer, are more "maintenance free," and are less expensive at the vet's office than horses are. Leg problems are far less likely in a mule than in a horse, and when leg problems do occur, they are far less severe. "Why do they stay sound?" wonders Robert Miller, DVM. "Seeking answers... equine practitioners exposed daily to the tragedy of lameness in beautiful horses, look at the mules, run their hands down the tough little legs, and wonder." Not only legs, but wind, "innards," and all other parts of the mule including his hide are tougher and more durable than comparable parts of the horse. Hybrid vigor explains a lot of this; the tough physical and mental qualities of the donkey explain the rest.

Mules live longer productive lives than horses do. Farm mules average 18 years to a horse's 15 years. When the mule is a companion animal doing lighter work and getting better medical care, better feed, and good management, the mule can give its owner good riding at age 30; 40-year-old retirees are not at all uncommon.

Mules can more easily than horses be handled in large groups. Mules can be corralled on farms 30 or 40 to a group, or up to 500 in a feeding pen, without the injuries or other consequences commonly seen with horses.

Mules have a strong sense of self preservation. This is one good reason why mules physically last longer than horses do. If they are overheated, overworked, or overused for any reason, mules will either slow down to a safe pace or stop completely. Mules are not stubborn. Neither are donkeys. Yes, of you want them to work too hard for their own well being, especially in hot weather, they will be "stubborn." We have never heard of a messenger running a mule to death the way legends say they ran their horses! The facts that mules are inclined not to panic, that they think about what is happening to them, and they take care of their own physical well being prevents many accidents that might happen if they were horses.

Mules are surefooted and careful. Their surefootedness is partly physical and partly psychological. On the physical side, the mule has a narrower body than a horse of the same height and weight. He gets this from the ass side of the family. His legs are strong and his feet are small and neat. This narrow structure and small hoof configuration enable him to place his feet carefully and neatly. On the psychological side, mules have a tendency to assess situations and act according to their views (most of which have to do with self preservation). A mule will trust its own judgement before it trusts yours.

Mules incur fewer veterinary expenses. It seems odd and unprovable, but to the confirmed mule owner a horse seems to be a vet bill waiting for a place to happen. Hybrid vigor accounts for a good deal of the mule's sturdy health. The toughness of the ass accounts for the other aspects. Perhaps the instinct of self preservation that shows up in such diverse ways as not drinking or eating too much when hot, or not panicking when caught in barbed wire, accounts for the rest. This is not to say that mules never get sick, injured, or otherwise "damaged." It is just that they are tougher than horses and they take care of themselves better.

Mules don't look like horses. This is the thing about a mule that is most obvious to the casual observer--of course they look different. Well, you see, mule lovers like the look of a mule. We love those magnificent big ears. We love to watch those ears flop in a relaxing rhythm on a placid drive, or prick rigidly forward when the mule spots something interesting. We begin to think there is something wrong with those tiny little useless-looking ears of a horse. We like the mule's look of strength without bulk. We enjoy being different, knowing that a mule will draw attention where only the most outstanding and expensive horse will stand out from the crowd. Everyone looks at a colorful Appaloosa, but everyone "oohs" and "aahs" over a colorful Appaloosa mule. We like they way a mule sounds, too--kinda silly, but fun.

Mules are loaded with personality. This is the most difficult thing to define. Yes, mules are intelligent. They can be very decided about how they want to do things. They are great at running a bluff, a trait they undoubtedly get from the donkey. All of our donkeys refuse to do anything until they are absolutely positive that we are going to make them do it, then they give right in and cooperate like angels. Rather than pit your strength against the tremendous strength of a mule, either outthink him or use some physical means to calmly outmaneuver him. By physical means, we mean gadgets--yes that horrifying word. Gadgets that come immediately to mind are tying up a fore or hind foot; draw reins; twitches; chain leads; etc. Any of these, used carefully to achieve a specific goal, will allow you to call your mule's bluff. Once you do that, you have won. The key to handling mules is to do things simply, calmly, and firmly. Don't lose your temper and don't push too hard until you are ready and sure you can make it stick. The big secret to having a calm mule that never kicks and doesn't have bad habits is to handle it firmly but gently from the time it is born, or from the time you acquire the mule.   "I was struck by the importance of yoke fit and design. ...  I had worked with a number of pairs in West Africa... I began training with a simple yoke like I had used in the African project. It had a pole for a beam, steel rods for bows, and a clevis extending behind the beam for hitching. After a few weeks the team pulled a stone boat willingly, but if I stepped onto it, they would stop.

"Then I placed an historic yoke on the team. They did not mind its extra weight and readily pulled the stone boat. I
stepped on and they continued to pull without hesitation. A second person got on and the team still pulled. It took the
weight of a third person to discourage them. I was amazed that changing the yoke permitted adding about 330 pounds
(150 kg) to their load. I immediately started analyzing that old yoke and reading...about traditional yoke design and
dynamics. Obviously these yokes were superior in some simple ways."    A page on the use of draft animals to skid logs, perhaps one of the few remaining modern uses of draft animals. The page gives the following summary of the pros and cons for various draft animals:

Pair of oxen costs about as much as a single horse or mule.
Oxen require only a yoke, horses and mules require elaborate harnesses.
Oxen cannot reproduce.
Mules have better judgement or sense, and greater agility, than horses or oxen.
Mules have smaller hooves than horses.
Mules will not overeat, horses will.
Mules will not overheat.
Mules cannot reproduce.
Horses can reproduce.   The Kansas draft horse and mule association with some links    Breeds of livestock:  horses, donkeys, mules, oxen.    Draft mules with links to draft horses.  The Carolina Mule Association.    A page dedicated to oxen.  It describes how oxen are yoked and the commands used to work them. Unlike horses, no harnesses or traces are used with oxen. This site also lists some of the advantages and disadvantages of oxen over horses. A quote from their page:

"Oxen have many advantages over horses and tractors. Oxen have relatively simple equipment that is
cheap and easy to maintain. They tend to be calm and docile. They are cheaper than both the horse
and the tractor or skidder. they can start working at any age. They can stand idle for relatively long
periods with little damage to feet and legs. They can be maintained on a courser diet than the horse.
They can be trained to do almost anything the horse can do. They are less apt to shy, and in the end,
are better to eat. 

"The art of driving oxen has remained virtually unchanged for centuries. The common commands used
for driving oxen include Get up, Whoa, Back up, Gee, and Haw. Driving and training a team is relatively
simple once a few basic commands and concepts of animal training and care are learned. Oxen are
driven (actually led) with the use of voice commands and a whip or goad only. No reins, bits, or halters
are needed to work a team."    This is a site has photographs and links to the 1997 recreation of the Mormon march.  It was a source for information about the use of oxen.


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© 2003, Gary Brueggeman. All rights reserved world wide. No part of this work may be reproduced in part or whole, in any form or by any means, without permission from the author.