How Much Can a Horse or Mule Pull?

Note: This is an articIe that I (Bernie Harberts) wrote in 2008 while taking a break from the Lost Sea Expedition, my wagon journey across American with my mule Polly. It’s been such a popular post that I’ve reposted it

How much can a horse or mule pull?  It’s February and the daffodils are blooming in Southern Pines, North Carolina, where I live.  It’s time to get mule Polly in shape for Part II of the Lost Sea Expedition. That’s the wagon journey we’re taking from Canada to Mexico to learn more about the inland sea that covered the Great Plains 65 million years ago. (In Part I, we spent 6 months traveling by wagon from Canada to South Dakota).

Mule Polly and the Lost Sea Expedition wagon on virgin prairie
North of Dagmar, Montana. There’s not much unplowed prairie left.

Getting in Shape to Pull a Wagon

I’m getting Polly in shape by driving her around Southern Pines. Sometimes I drive her on the Walthour Moss Foundation, close to where Polly lives. The footing is sandy so she has to work extra hard to pull the wagon.

Other times, I go on wagon trips with my friends Victor, Kenny Tyndall, and Ronald Hudson. We’ll head out with our wagons and carts to visit a little-known corner of North Carolina. One of our favorite trips is heading out to listen to bluegrass music at Fords Mill  Bluegrass in Rockingham. Another place I like to go is Aurora to look for shark teeth.

It’s interesting what a wide range of equines and vehicles gather for these informal outings. Here’s what a mixed lot of friends and equines showed up for one of our recent rambles.

Victor’s miniature (L) keeps up with Kenny’s draft team (R). That’s my long-time friend Ronald Hudson bringing up the rear.  I took this photo from the Lost Sea Expedition wagon. (Outside Wagram, North Carolina)

From Victor’s miniature horse that weighs 200 pounds to Ken’s draft team that weighs 15 times as much, they all go the distance. How does that work?

How Much Can a Horse Pull?

The US Army put a lot of research into how much a mule could pull. To quote from a 1917 manual, “an average draft mule can pull on a level 80 lbs. (traction) at 2.5 miles an hour for 10 hours every day, or, in other words, can pull 80 lbs. over 25 miles of average level roads every day.”

In real terms, this meant that a team of 4 draft mules, which weighed about 4,500 pounds, could pull a loaded Army wagon, which weighed around 4,500 pounds, 25 miles per day.

Ronald Hudson’s Army wagon. It’s the kind of wagon the US Army used in its study to find out how much a mule can pull. Ronald’s two stout Belgian mules, Alice and Tippy, pull the wagon just fine. It’s mostly empty so it weighs about half the 4,500-pound load the US Army used in its pulling studies.
(High Falls, North Carolina)

Another way to think of it is like this. On a firm, flat surface, a draft mule can pull its own weight 20 to 25 miles per day. In ideal conditions, it should be able to do that five days per week with two days off.

Example: A 1,000-pound mule can pull a 1,000-pound load 20 to 25 miles per day for a five-day work week.

I call that the 1:1 Rule (1,000-pound animal : 1,000-pound load = 1:1)

How the 1:1 Rule Bears Out In Real Life

This rule of thumb bears out remarkably well in real life. Last summer, mule Polly, who’s a small draft mule, easily pulled her wagon 20 miles per day for four or five days in a row. Polly weighs 900 pounds. The wagon weighs about the same.

I never drove her more than 100 miles per week and often less. She stayed in perfect weight, didn’t get harness sores and her attitude stayed positive.

Is the 1:1 Rule Just for Mules?

Okay, so the 1:1 rule works great for draft mules. But what about the smaller equines?

This question crossed my mind this morning as I was feeding my friend Liz’s miniature horses. While they were eating, I thought, “what would a 200-pound pony look like hitched to a 900-pound wagon?”

The Lost Sea Expedition wagon: It weighs 900 pounds empty but I can pull it around the yard.

I put a halter and mule Polly’s pulling collar on one of Liz’s minis, Jester. Then I put him between the shafts, and it looked like this.

Clearly, imagination had overrun common sense and the 1917 Army manual. Jester immediately pointed this out to me.

“Bernie, this is a clear violation of the 1:1 rule”

This raises the question. If a 900-pound wagon dwarfs a 200-pound miniature horse, then how much, if anything, can a mini pull?

How Much Can a Miniature Horse Pull?

That’s easy. Just remember the RiverEarth 1:1 rule. This rule scales almost as well for half-ton draft animals as it does for miniature horses that weigh 200 pounds. Okay, so you won’t be able to drive a mini 25 miles per day. But hitched to a light two-wheeled cart, you can expect a fit miniature horse to pull its own weight (and then some) 10 to 15 miles per day, a very practical distance.

This is my driving buddy Victor. Here, he’s driving his mini next to my wagon. He can easily do 15 miles per day in his rig.  An added bonus to this small set-up is that he can store all his harness in a five-gallon bucket.

If you’ve got a miniature horse and have ever wondered if it can pull a small cart, well, there’s your answer. In fact, some of the most fun driving I’ve ever done was with miniature horses. They can have tons of heart and go all day long. Just be sure to leg them up properly and don’t ask them to pull much more than their own weight.

Get A Free Copy of my New Photo Book “Nineteen Million Mule Steps”

I’d love to give you a free copy of my new 134-page photo book “Nineteen Million Mule Steps”. The book is about my 7 month, 2,300 mile Long Ride from North Carolina to Idaho with my mules Brick and Cracker.

Click on the “PREVIEW” button for a look into 19 Million Mule Steps. You can buy a copy on Amazon, or keep reading to find out how you can get a FREE copy.

Here are some more illustrations from 19 Million Mules Steps you’ll enjoy.

A good long drink

Download a Free Copy of 19 Million Mule Steps

Stream the Lost Sea Expedition

Mule Polly and I have completed the Lost Sea Expedition, our wagon voyage from Canada to Mexico. I filmed the entire voyage and that footage turned into the “Lost Sea Expedition” Public Television series that premiered on Rocky Mountain PBS. The series is a must-watch if you want to see how much (and how far) a horse or mule can pull a wagon! You can stream the series right here on Amazon.


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