What's the Difference Between Donkeys and Mules?

Mules often look more like horses than donkeys.

Two donkeys close up to the camera
Two donkeys on a farm.

Tara Moore / Getty Images

Donkeys and mules look a lot alike with their telltale long ears, broad heads, thin limbs, and short manes. Being the offspring of a male donkey (jack) and a female horse (mare), it's safe to say many of a mule's traits hail from the paternal side of its lineage. However, mules are known to take more after their mothers in body shape, size, and coat. They're more likely to be mistaken for horses than for donkeys.

Besides their physical characteristics, there are many differences between these two domestic equids—one of them is sterile, for example, and therefore technically not even considered a species. Learn more about mules and donkeys, including how to tell the two apart the next time you come across one of the commonly confused animals.

Key Differences

  • Size: Mules are bigger than donkeys, standing about 60 inches at the withers versus 45 inches.
  • Body shape: Mules have a slight curve in their backs, similar to horses, whereas donkeys' backs are flat.
  • Markings: Donkeys have a primitive marking known as a dorsal line—shaped like a cross, stretching down their backs and across their shoulders—and mules don't.
  • Ears: Both have long ears, but donkeys' ears are dark at the tips and around the edges.

Donkey and Mule Classification

Wild burro standing on dirt road with mesa in background
Wild burros are domestic donkeys that have returned to the wild.

Martina Birnbaum / EyeEm / Getty Images

The donkey (Equus asinus) belongs to the family Equidae and genus Equus with horses and zebras. It's classed as such because it has a long neck, a mane, and a single toe on each foot. Donkeys differ from their horse relatives in the shape of their faces (a donkey's is much shorter), their ears (which are longer and thicker), and backs (flatter than a horse's and containing one fewer vertebrae).

There are other types of donkey besides the domestic donkey, like the African wild ass (Equus africanus somaliensis), a wild subspecies that inhabits deserts in Eritrea, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Though not technically a donkey, the Asiatic wild ass (Equus hemionus) is closely related and named after its asinus cousin. It occurs in Iran, India, Mongolia, and parts of northern China.

Mules are bred from male donkeys (Equus asinus) and female horses (Equus caballus)—a female donkey that breeds with a male horse, rather, produces a hinny. Hinnies are not as common.

Mixing the chromosomes of horses and mules causes both mules and hinnies to be sterile, except on a few recorded occasions. And because "species" is technically defined as "a group of living organisms consisting of similar individuals capable of exchanging genes or interbreeding," mules and hinnies are not considered species. They're hybrids, rather. They do, however, have a scientific name, Equus mulus.

Mules, of course, belong to the same family and genus as donkeys and horses.

Characteristics of Donkeys vs. Mules

Donkeys and mules are tough to tell apart just by looking at them, but they do have some distinguishing physical features, one of the most prominent being a primitive marking belonging to only one.


Portrait of a donkey
Donkeys (pictured) and mules have short, thick heads and long ears.

John McKeen / Getty Images

Both mules and donkeys are known to have short, thick heads, but the donkey's is slightly shorter and thicker than the mule's. Compared to a horse, a mule has long ears, but they resemble the shape of a horse's whereas a donkey's ears are thicker and more wideset. The openings are larger because they're adapted for temperature regulation, a helpful trait to have in the hot desert from which donkeys originated. Another subtle difference: Donkeys' ears, unlike mules' ears, darken at the tips and around the edges.

Body Size and Shape

Two mules standing behind a fence near wildflowers
Mules resemble horses in their size, body shape, and coloration.

Chris Rogers / Getty Images

Whereas donkeys have flat backs, a mule's is slightly curved, like a horse's but less exaggerated. Mules are bigger than donkeys, taking their size after horses. Mules and horses both reach about 60 inches—or 15 hands—from hoof to withers (shoulders) whereas donkeys stand only about 45 inches at the withers.

Donkeys and mules both have thin limbs and narrow hooves.


Donkey grazing
Donkeys have a primitive marking that trails down their backs and across their shoulders.

Moelyn Photos / Getty Images 

Mules have short manes like donkeys, not like horses. Their coats, however, are more like horses', meaning they have relatively fine hair that comes in an array of colors—including brown, reddish-brown ("bay"), black, gray, or even white, palomino, and dun.

Donkeys have coarser coats and are usually gray, although some are black or brown. They have a distinguishing dorsal line, a primitive and crosslike marking that begins at the base of the mane, trails down the spine, and typically intersects with a stripe that connects the shoulders.

Conservation Status

Profile of an African wild ass standing in a desert environment
The African wild ass is critically endangered.

Reynold Mainse / Design Pics / Getty Images

Most donkeys and mules are domestic. In the U.S., with the exception of a few domestic burro populations that have returned to the wild across the West and Southwest, they exist only in zoos and pastoral environments. Outside of the U.S., the equids also occur across Mexico, Central and South America, Asia, and Africa. They are some of the most common working animals in the world, used for tourism, transportation, and agriculture.

The African wild ass, a subspecies and suspected descendent of the donkey, still roams free but is rapidly disappearing across its native Horn of Africa range. In fact, the IUCN has listed it as critically endangered since 1996. There are believed to be only 23 to 200 mature individuals left.

Its biggest threat is hunting—for both food and medicinal purposes, according to the IUCN. The locals will source its bones and body parts to treat a number of maladies, from backaches to tuberculosis. Another threat, though, is potential interbreeding with the domestic donkey, though there is no evidence that this is a common problem.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • Can a donkey give birth to a mule?

    A donkey can't give birth to a mule because mules are the result of male donkeys breeding with female horses. A female donkey that breeds with a male horse gives birth to a hinny.

  • Can mules reproduce?

    Most mules (and hinnies) are sterile because they're born with an odd number of chromosomes (63, between the horse's 64 and donkey's 62). There are recorded occurrences, however, of mules reproducing.

  • What is a male and female mule called?

    A male mule is called a "john" and a female a "molly."

View Article Sources
  1. Moehlman, P.D., F. Kebede, and H. Yohannes. "Equus africanus." The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2015: e.T7949A45170994. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2015-2.RLTS.T7949A45170994.en