Horses are used more for pleasure than business, but they still have a place in Fifth District agriculture
By Charles Gerena
Horses weren't the only equines used in Southern agriculture. On farms that raised tobacco and cotton, the mule had various advantages that often made it more economically attractive. Economist Martin Garrett Jr. of the College of William and Mary outlined theseadvantages in a 1990 article in the Journal of Economic History.
The mule, a sterile hybrid of a male donkey and a female horse, is in many ways a superior work animal to the horse. Mules are self-regulating – they eat and drink only when necessary, and adjust their work pace as the weather gets hot. In contrast, a horse can sicken itself from overconsumption and work itself to death in the heat, so it must be closely managed in order to remain productive. In addition, mules are less prone to disease than horses, take longer to tire, and recover more quickly, all of which tends to increase their longevity and efficiency.
Finally, mules are more trainable, despite their reputation for being stubborn. This is one of the major reasons tobacco and cotton farmers used them, according to Garrett's article.
"The agility of the mule made it less prone to step on young [tobacco] plants, and since it was easier to train to voice commands, it was easier to keep in line," he wrote. Moreover, cotton could be planted in narrower rows than corn, "hence the agility of the mule took on greater significance. These characteristics, especially when combined with the ability of the mule to perform better in warm climates, would cause the mule to be the preferred draft animal in row crop production in the South."
However, not every farm in the Fifth District was brimming with mules. In Virginia counties where cotton or tobacco wasn't an important crop, notes Garrett, the number of horses far exceeded the number of mules in 1910. The same was true for West Virginia, a state that produced no cotton and only a little tobacco.
Use of mules continued after the Civil War, when the plantation system was supplanted by tenant farming. According to Garrett's statistical analysis, counties with a higher share of tenant farms versus owner-operated farms also had a higher ratio of mules to horses. "Since the landowner wanted the tenant to maximize the output of the row crops," it made sense that he would supply the efficient draft animal for that purpose, he wrote.
But mule use would decline throughout the South in the 1940s and 1950s as gasoline-driven tractors became widespread. The horse's role on the farm also declined with advances in mechanization and transportation, but its recreational value remained.