The Skinny on Mule and Donkey Hoof Care – Contracted Heels

Donkeys and mules are often known for their extremely tough and hard hooves. In fact, it is this very wonderful characteristic that can get them into a world of trouble! Because of their strong hooves, the notion that hoof care in the mule and donkey world is not as critical as it is in the horse world is a myth that is commonly repeated.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Mules and donkeys do have strong hoof structures. But it is important to understand that while their general leg and hoof structure sets them up for a more upright appearance of their hooves, there still needs to be a good balance of hoof appearance and animal health.

What Is A Contracted Heel?

When we pick up a hoof and look at the bottom, we should see an almost round shape. The frog should be wide at the back of the hoof, and when the mule or donkey steps down heel first they should touch the ground with the frog. This contact is critical to stimulating good blood flow. The frog should take up about 2/3 of the length of the hoof and about ½ of the width at the back. If it is smaller than that, the contact with the ground will not be sufficient.

In the case of contracted heels, the heel bulbs and frog appear pinched and the back of the hoof is narrow. This can lift the frog so that it does not touch the ground and that changes everything about circulation. If allowed to persist, the hoof and its shock absorbing qualities will malfunction. Circulation, nerves and alignment will suffer. This can lead to extensive damage and many problems.

Remember that when the mule or donkey steps, the heel should hit the ground first. The heel and frog should have good contact to promote circulation and the toe must be of an appropriate length and shape as to “roll over” as the stride continues.

A lot is at stake here. Tendon and ligaments, bone structures, circulation and nerves all depend on the balance of the trim.

How Does This Happen?

Most of the time, contracted heels occur because of poorly balanced trims or improper shoeing. Some people feel mules and donkeys don’t need hoof care like horses. Others find the trims more difficult because of the tough structures, uncooperative animals (those that have not been properly trained to stand for farrier service) or improper shoeing techniques.

The simple fact is that if the hoof is not properly shaped a couple of things can happen.

  • If the toe is allowed to get too long, there will be excessive pressure on the back of the hoof at the heel and this pressure may cause the heel to roll in and contract.
  • The other scenario is short toes and high heels which lifts the frog off the ground and the heels begin to contract or narrow.

If the mule or donkey has an improperly fitted shoe, the hoof can be severely restricted in its movement. Some shoes actually pull the heels inward and promote contraction. I have personally seen this in a few mules. The balanced trim must be fitted with a shoe that permits expansion of the hoof wall. Just because the hoof wall is very hard in a mule or donkey does not mean that it does not expand with weight bearing.

Another contributor to contracted heels is a lack of exercise or use. Mules and donkeys are not built to stand in stalls. They need to walk and be active. If the trim or shoeing is marginal, the thing that will put this into the “red zone” will be the lack of exercise.

The Consequences

Contracted heels cause compromised circulation. Without the shock absorbing features of the frog, tendon and ligament damage can happen as structures are abnormally shifted forward. Nerves will be impinged upon in some cases as the animal starts to rock forward on his toes to protect against the pain from this misalignment. This only serves to make the entire problem worse.

In addition to all of this, cracks can form, inviting infections like thrush. It is very difficult to try to fix a hoof that is filled with infection, so first treating any additional conditions like thrush is imperative.

Bottom line is you will have a lame horse, one that could require months of work to reshape the hooves and get the frog and heel performing as they should. It may even be necessary to perform some corrective shoeing, though barefoot therapy is often the route of choice. This may mean that the animal will not be used for some time if terrain requires shoes.

During the phase of correction, your farrier needs to have a plan and keep trimmings routine and frequent with careful attention to getting the balance back. This is done gradually to avoid additional trauma and requires patience and persistence.

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

If you are a donkey or mule owner, your farrier should be skilled at mule and donkey hooves. Make sure that all of the old myths about infrequent care or the lack of importance of trims have been tossed out the window! Your mule or donkey needs balanced trims with good shape, proper heel height and toe length and the frog must make good, healthy contact with the ground.

Feed your animal well, exercise him regularly, trim him routinely, shoe appropriately and keep a close eye on those heels. You will not be sorry. If you have questions, give me a holler. I’ll try to point you in the right direction!

The Skinny on Mule and Donkey Hoof Care – Cracks

Ever heard that mules and donkeys have tough hoofs and need no shoes or trimming? I have and many people I talk to have also heard this.

When I purchased my first mule, I was actually told they needed very little care, that they eat very little food, drank very little water and did not need any shoes or trimming.

These things are not true. In fact, I have been so disturbed by all the nonsense that you may have heard that I am working on a book called “Four Decades of Breaking Mule and Donkey Myths.”

In this article and the next one, I want to help you understand this thought – no hoof, no mule or donkey. I believe the donkey has the most imperfect hoof and conformation in the equine world. Cracks and contracted heels are the two major causes of lameness and other problems. In this article I will talk about cracks. My next article will address contracted heels. If you don’t do another thing to learn more about your mule or donkey, read these articles! They can make a difference in the soundness of your animal.

Talking Mule and Donkey Hoof Cracks

Hoof cracks happen for a variety of reasons. Some cracks are superficial and are actually more cosmetic than anything else. Others are serious and can seriously mess up the hoof. Some cracks are temporary and will grow out or heal. Others will be permanent and won’t ever completely go away. But cracks or no cracks, lameness or no lameness, inspecting and picking your long-ear’s hooves daily is the best way to detect problems early. I always recommend keeping your mule or donkey on a regular trimming/shoeing schedule, not only for balance and soundness, but to keep cracks from happening in the first place. I like to plan for farrier care no less than every 6 to 8 weeks.

So what is it that makes the difference between a hoof that cracks and one that doesn’t? Well, there are several possibilities. The environment in which your mule or donkey lives is the first thing that comes to mind. My donkeys live in the hot and dry areas of Arizona. I have students who have been bitterly complaining about wet spring conditions and mud this year. Mules in each of these extremes will face their own challenges. The mule in hot, dry conditions will need to hydrate the hoof without the help of his paddock, while the mule who stands in mud and wet conditions all day will have the potential for bacteria, thrush and other assorted fungal infections. So it is important to know your own particular environmental pluses and minuses and respond accordingly.

Examples of the adjustments I am talking about might include:

  • In a hot, bone dry environment, let the water trough run over when you fill it. Your mule can stand in the water for a bit. You can also let him stand in a stream for a little longer when you are on a trail ride.
  • In a wet, muddy paddock, give the mule a dry place to stand at least part of the time. Hose his feet and legs off when he comes in, and consider treating him for thrush routinely.

The front hoof is round and the rear hoof is oval in shape. The wider the heel, the healthier the hoof! The shape of the hoof and the conformation of the mule or donkey is largely genetic. While you can’t do much to change that, trims can be done accordingly, and consideration for the mule’s conformation will help you when considering shoes and trims.

Make sure that if you have a mule or donkey, your farrier is well versed in the normal anatomy of the hoof of a mule or donkey. Trimming like a horse simply will not serve your animal well. BALANCE IS CRITICAL!

Nutrition is pretty important when it comes to hoof cracks. Lots of people like to feed mules and donkeys less than optimal hay. I have even heard that you can feed donkeys straw. But without minerals and vitamins, amino acids and proper tissue building nutrients, you will not have a healthy animal. To be blunt, “garbage in – garbage out.” I have found that most mules and donkeys don’t need a hoof supplement if they are fed good forage.

Related to the idea of good nutrition is not to let your mule or donkey become too fat. Extra weight is a big strain on the hoof and can contribute to leg and hoof problems. Most mules and donkeys won’t eat themselves sick, but if they are left with nothing else to do and lots of grub, they can become fat pretty fast. Pasture is a smorgasbord and we all know we over-eat at those places! My rule of thumb is all night in a pasture, all day in a corral. I prefer a proper diet for each mule or donkey and they have no smorgasbord! I have an article on my web site, Mules Can’t Stand Prosperity. Have a look at my feed program and the results.

So now let’s talk about what you can do if your mule or donkey gets cracks.

Quarter Cracks

Quarter cracks often cause lameness. They usually start at the coronary band and extend toward the ground. They are full thickness and offer a lot of opportunity for problems. They can be caused by things ranging from improper hoof care or balance, an animal with toe in or toe out conformation or hoof overgrowth when trims are not done routinely. They can be related to injuries near the coronary band. Coffin bone defects can also lead to confirmation issues that result in cracks.

Some of these quarter cracks might bleed or become infected, causing considerable pain. You will clearly need the help of your farrier and your veterinarian to sort out the cause of the crack in this case and make a plan to resolve the lameness. X-rays may also be needed. They can show if there is a foreign object that is contributing to the crack or if there is some underlying bone defect. But no matter what, you need to sort out the likely culprit in this situation and do your best to fix it. Without a solution, your animal can be chronically lame.

Cracks Related to an Abscess

A hoof abscess can cause cracks. If your mule or donkey has an abscess and the infection drains from the coronary band, a small horizontal crack called a cleft might appear at the hairline. Usually, these clefts will grow down the hoof wall with no problems as long as they are kept clean and reasonably dry. Your farrier may recommend some antiseptic solutions to help keep them clean.

Cracks Related to Delayed Trims

Some cracks will occur at the ground level if the mule or donkey is left without proper farrier care and the hooves overgrow, flare or are “self trimming” with the aid of the environment. Rocky conditions might result in chips or cracks of the hoof that is not as hard as it might be. Most of these cracks are relatively harmless unless part of the hoof wall is lost. They should be tended to with a proper treatment schedule.

Treatment of Cracks

What can your farrier and veterinarian do to help treat the problem? First of all, determining the cause of the crack is the most important piece of the puzzle because it can help prevent recurrence. Sometimes it is a combination. Other times, it is clearly due to a particular concern.

An experienced vet will do a lameness exam. He or she will watch your long-ears move – in all gaits. Confirmation will be the focus, then the vet will turn to the issues we have previously discussed. What are you asking the animal to do, and in what conditions does the creature live. Is your farrier experienced at trimming mules and donkeys? Is the schedule adequate? Have you been feeding your mule or donkey appropriately? Perhaps supplements will be suggested.

The next step will be to fix or at least stabilize the crack. Your farrier and veterinarian might have particular methods they recommend for different types of cracks. Balancing Mr. Donkey’s hooves so his weight is evenly distributed over his hoof is important to let the hoof work the way God intended. In some cases trimming the foot is all that’s needed to remove the crack or to get the mule or donkey on the road to recovery. Other times corrective shoes or other treatments are needed to make the crack stable. There are implants and materials that can be used to bridge cracks. Heck, they can even bridge the crack with some wire lacing that involves drilling holes and making a shoe lace type effect across the crack using small screws as anchors.

Your farrier can use a patch material to glue or fill hoof cracks, as well. Some of these polymers or acrylics are very strong. But these fills are not a great plan if the crack is bleeding or infected. The problem must be addressed first as you don’t want to seal the problem inside the hoof – it can actually make it worse though we might feel better about the way it looks. What your farrier chooses to use must fit the circumstances or it will solve nothing.


Hoof cracks can also come from small gravel stuck in the white line area of the hoof. This gravel slowly works its way up inside the hoof. The gravel can actually travel all the way up to the coronary band and break out there. Figuring this one out is generally not too tough.

There is also an infection that can get in the sensitive parts of the hoof and undermine the sole. This kind of infection is due to a piece of sand or dirt introducing bacteria into the white line area and it affects the inside hoof wall. This one is a little tougher to figure out than flat out graveling. But lots of times, if the farrier places a close nail and allows the introduction of the contaminant, it will travel up and the hoof will abscess at the coronary band.

I can tell you that graveling can also take place near the bars instead of the white line. In this case, the mule stays off of his heels and walks like a ballerina – on his toes! The mule or donkey will be markedly lame and may even look like he broke something. This is a really scary scenario because the leg is swollen, the mule has a fever and the animal is extremely lame.

So if your vet asks you if your mule or donkey has recently been shod, he suspects that a nail introduced bacteria into the inner hoof structures. Treatment will depend on the extent of the problem. These cases generally don’t resolve without the help of your vet.

If you see a crack, be prepared to answer these questions from your vet or farrier.

  • Does it start at the ground or the coronary band?
  • Is the mule or donkey lame?
  • Was he or she recently shod?
  • Have trims been kept current?
  • What condition is the mule or donkey living in?
  • Any other symptoms like hoof odor, bleeding, pus, etc?

You won’t need to call the vet or farrier with every crack – but if in doubt, call.

Properly Installing a Halter

Steve Edwards: Just go nice and relaxed. Look at the ears, nice and quiet.

Sue: Good girl.

Steve Edwards: Good. The tail’s a little switchy, but not a big deal. This is where you need to spend time on the right-hand side.

Sue: Okay.

Steve Edwards: Catching him on the right-hand side. Okay. Once you catch him, it’s okay to put the lead rope around him. Go ahead, put the lead rope itself around the neck now. Just the lead rope itself. Okay, and put it on the other side, and then kind of pull her towards you a little bit. You don’t want to go in there, and get yourself boxed in, and maybe get hurt. Go ahead and pull her to you just a little bit, nice and easy. Nice. Very good, keep on coming, keep on coming. Bring it on out.

Sue: Oh, I don’t want to.

Steve Edwards: You bet. Now, come around to the other side. Now, you see you’re in a safe area. That was nice and quiet. Just touching them nice and quiet. The animal stayed quiet the whole time. Now, notice the frame of this mule. As it walks, head is down, framed up, and balanced. That’s a nice trail animal, but notice the animal went past her, okay, and came around in the front even. Okay.

Only thing that happened was Sue did not teach her a cue, I want you to be here. She knew, but she just wants to go anywhere, okay. Once that halter’s on there, now our communication’s going to be crisper and cleaner.

Now, this is really important. Notice how the halter is tied above the loop here. What happens is, as this mule moves around, moves around, moves around, moves around; see it coming out.

Sue: Um-huh.

Steve Edwards: Pretty soon this is going to come completely out.

Sue: Okay.

Steve Edwards: What we’re going to do is we’re going to make sure it’s up in the notch of the poll. You feel this right here? That’s the skull ending right there, in this kind of tender place. We want to be right in that notch. It’s okay, baby. That’s right. Okay, and then we’re going to pull it up, and -bump your nose over here- we’re going to pull it down here. Okay. Go ahead and do that.

Again, we see a lot of people trained and teaching mule stuff, and they’re saying it’s mule classes; but if they don’t have a halter adjusted, their communication is not going to be as crisp and clean.

Man: It is more critical with a mule than a horse?

Steve Edwards: Yes, very much more critical of a mule. Okay, do you see how it’s above? It needs to be below.

Sue: It needs to be below what?

Steve Edwards: It needs to be below this loop. Like this, come underneath.

Sue: Oh, okay.

Steve Edwards: Like that.

Sue: Let me try one more time.

Steve Edwards: Yes, you’ll see horse trainers that are trying to train mules and say they’re mule trainers; but as soon as you see their halters -as I just demonstrated to you earlier, and I’ll demonstrate it to you one more time – is that your communication, you can still get things done, but you’ve got to be more aggressive at it. I want to get away from the aggression. I want my communication to be crisp and clean. Okay. Very good, Sue. There you go, like that.

Now, as the mule moves around, this will get snugger; but it’ll be easy to do. This is the original snap. You just turn it like this, slide it right out.

Sue: Okay.

Steve Edwards: Okay. Now, again, if we had the knots adjusted out here, we’d push on it, we’d get a foot. This time we got more. If we lower it down, we get all kinds of feet. The proper way, as far as I’m concerned, for a halter to be adjusted is down here on the nostril. Your communication is crisper and cleaner. Where up here, I’m pushing on bone. It’s uncomfortable. Down here, I get feet movement.

Steve Edwards: Soft, easy, with no pressure. That’s like I say. You’ll see a lot of guys, a lot of women, guys and girls both, say, “Okay, I’m a mule trainer.” Okay, you probably are, but how crisp and clean is your communication? You know. If you’re really a mule trainer, you’ll understand the nose. The nose is the most important part to your mule, okay.

Catching Your Mule on Your Terms

Steve Edwards: Still nice and relaxed, look at the ears, nice and quiet.

Steve Edwards: Good. The tail’s a little switchy but not a big deal. This is where you need to spend time on the right hand side.

Sue: Okay.

Steve Edwards: Catching them on the right hand side. Once you catch them, it’s okay to put the lead rope around them. Go ahead and put the lead rope itself around the neck, now. Just the lead rope itself. Put it on the other side and pull her towards you a little bit. You don’t want to go in there and get yourself boxed in and maybe get hurt. Go ahead and pull her to you just a little bit nice and easy. Nice, very good. Keep on coming. Keep on coming. Bring it on out.

Sue: Oh, I don’t want to-

Steve Edwards: You bet. Now, come around to the other side. Now, you see you’re in a safe area. That was nice and quiet. Just touching them nice and quiet. The animal stayed quiet the whole time. Now, again the mule is already easy to catch. She’s gentle but we want to build her leadership that says you move your feet when I say move them, and you keep your feet quiet when I say quiet. It’s going to be a little tight, Sue.

Sue: I was going to say it’s very tight.

Steve Edwards: It’s going to be tight. That’s okay-

Sue: She’s not going to like that.

Steve Edwards: No, she’s not but she’ll get over it. Always remember they may like something, but that don’t mean nothing. They may be unhappy with it, that don’t mean nothing. Two fingers above the nostril’s good. They’ll get over it. It’s not a big problem. That’s okay. Keep on tying it the way you’re doing it. You’re doing fine. I’m going to show you a little bit more correct way. That’s very good. What we’re doing here, now, is we’re building her leadership. Animal’s already easy to catch, but he’s easy to catch on his rules not your rules. When we slap our leg, we make him uncomfortable. When we get quiet, we make them comfortable. They’re starting to say, “Oh.” Where’s this going to be handy?

You’re going to be out in the field someplace or someplace that’s hard to catch. They’re going to remember the lesson we just did. Now, we’re going to do this today into threes like we just did. The next time we’re going to do it, those three. Then we’re going to do three more. We’re going to six. Next time we’re going to do it, we’re going to do those six. We’re going to do three more. Make nine and build a foundation. Pretty soon the mule will just be just boom, boom, boom until you get to 12. Now, this is what happens, come on over here, Sue.

The Halter and the Lead Rope Working Together

Steve Edwards: When I go to move, I want my mule to understand that when I stop, I want him to stop back here, so as I come up, and I pick up on the lead rope, and I ask him to come along, really bracing. You see that bracingness there? Now I want him to stop. I’ll wiggle the rope. His feet stops first. My feet stop second, so as I come home here, I’ll wiggle the rope. His feet stop first. My feet stop second. Now as I come along here, and I ask for a stop, let’s see what happens. You see that? I didn’t have to wiggle the rope. He says, “Wait a minute. Your body stopped.” This way here, he doesn’t have to have a wiggle of the rope. His nose doesn’t have to be sore. As I’m walking along, do you see my lead rope? I don’t want to have to pull on this. I want the pressure of the lead rope. Now right there, I got a little pressure, so I’ll give him a sharp bump, and then I’ll come along. Sharp bump. I want him to follow just the pressure of the lead rope only. Just the pressure of the lead rope only. If I feel any pressure at all, I’m going to give him a sharp bump. I want the lead rope and the halter to work together. Sharp bump. Sharp bump. Good.

When I pick up on that lead rope, I expect him to move. If they’re going to stop or put pressure on me, I’m going to make them uncomfortable with sharp little bumps. You can see how the mule is using its neck muscles and using his throat latch to stiffen up to get a hold of him. That’s from us pulling on him all the time. That’s also from an incorrectly adjusted halter. Now it’s natural. There’s not hardly a person out there that has a mule that I don’t see people constantly pulling on them, and they wonder one day, they’re out there leading ol’ Fluffy, and Fluffy’s happy. All of a sudden, Fluffy says, “Nope. I want to go that way.” And they’re mule skiing. I can’t tell you how many mule skiers come to my clinics. Again, when you’re coming to a clinic, you don’t want to go there and have to muscle. Why? No reason for it. If your halter’s adjusted correctly, and if you’re using the correct tool of using your hands rolling rather than pulling, you’re going to be able to have good communication.

Now when I pick up on the lead rope, I expect response like that. Put it down, I expect response like that. I pick up on it. There’s pressure, so now I’m going to change my hand, and I’m going to bump. I’m going to put it down. Now did you like … Oh, oh, oh. You see the difference?

Man: Look what you stepped in.

Steve Edwards: Yeah, well, now I’m going to grow.

Man: That’s the first time.

Steve Edwards: Yeah. Here’s the thing. It’s ask. Then I change my hands. I tell. If I have to, I’m going to demand. I don’t want to have to pull on him. I’m back up in these mountains, and all of a sudden they get scared, I want them to respect that halter enough that I barely touch it, and I get some response. Is it always going to happen? Not always going to happen, but at least they’re going to respect that halter. Again, when I pick up on it, I expect for them to come just from the weight of the lead rope only and not from me pulling on them, so I’ll pick it up, and I’ll ask them to come. As I come up, I’m going to ask. Now I’m going to tell. I’m going to demand. Now I’m going to ask. I’m going to tell. Good. We’re going to ask. Good. All right? Ask, tell, demand.

Now everybody’s going to say, “Oh look, he’s trained!” No, no, no. Three, six, nine, 12. You got to get that in him, and once we hit 12, then we can mix and match.

Bits and Bridles

Steve Edwards: These days you can walk into a tack store and you see all kinds of bits, pretty bits, ugly bits, and pretty ugly bits, all kinds of ways, because people think, “Oh, by golly, I want the one that’s pretty. Oh, look, it’s got some engraving right here. That’s the bit that I want, because it’s pretty. It’s got the engraving on it, really makes it neat.”

No, no, no. What works best for the mule? “But, Steven, looks like your bit has got a little port in it right here. It’s got some shanks on it, and it moves.” No, this is not a bit for a mule. Get rid of it.

“Oh, look, Steve. I got a bit like yours, that moves on each side, moves in the middle, too. I’ve never seen a mule yet with a square in the roof of his mouth.” That’s not the bit for the mule.

“Oh, look, Steve. I’ve got a snaffle bit where it breaks in the middle and it bends on each side, and I got some shanks. Now I got control.” You have control but you don’t have refined communication. When you start getting shanks, that means you’re going to be doing less. If you were really riding, you’d ride with a piece of hay twine right here and that’s all. That’s not the bit.

What I have learned over the years, watching these animals, number one thing that you do is you first balance their teeth. You go to a good dentist, get their teeth balanced, get their wolf teeth pulled. Now you’ve got the mechanical out of the way on the mule. Now let’s start building a foundation.

You first go with my Mule Riders Martingale, then you go into the finished bit. My Mule Riders Martingale is meant for two things, for building a foundation, and for fixing problems, because the communication comes from the corner of the mouth. As you progress, in three months, training four to six hours per week, that’s all. Four to six hours per week, over a three month time frame, you then can start progressing from the Mule Riders Martingale over to the finished bit.

By the time you have six months, training four to six hours a week. I’m not saying put that all in a weekend. Spread it out. You don’t have to train every day. Worst thing you can do is train every day. Spread it out. If you train at the first of the month on the fifth, and you don’t train again til the 25th, that’s okay. If you build a foundation that’s correct, the mule will respond accordingly.

You do not have to train every day. What do I use? I found out a long time ago, correctional mouthpiece. Notice how it bends in the center here, back and forth. It just whisks the roof of the mouth. It’s not a cruel bit. It’s a very nice, quiet, easy bit. Notice it bends on the sides, and notice it rust. It rust. Why does it rust? Because this bit has got sweet iron in it.

Sweet iron makes it feel good to the mule, and my shank. This happens to be my wife’s bit, it’s a custom bit. Yeah, we’ve added some gingerbread to it to make it kind of fancy, and this sort of thing. A little silver and some silver dots in it as well, but notice the military shank.

This right here gives me leverage, where I barely pick it up. Notice my reins are nice and light. They’re out. They’re an eight braid, and they’re done out of parachute cords, and they’re done in a round braid.

Notice no snaps. Snaps. Go home, take your spoon, tap on your teeth and tell me how good that feels. That’s what happens when snaps are bouncing on that bit and tapping on those teeth. No wonder your mule is gapping his mouth and throwing his head.

Go direct in there, nice and smooth and easy, have eight foot split reins. Do not tie them. If you tie those reins and it gets caught on a branch or if it gets caught on its legs. I’ve seen plenty of times, plenty of wrecks, to where they reach down to get a drink, they get their foot over top of the reins, you’ve got reins tied together. The animal flips over or knocks you down in the water, it makes a heck of a mess.

I like split reins. You could put a bat on the end if you want. Just something for some weight, but you don’t want a lot of weight on the bit. You want to just be able to just pick up on the bit, and you get results. I use a double wire chain, or a single. I start out with a double and then I go to single, and then I go to leather.

Notice I do not use leather or buckles. I use nylon and I tie a fancy knot in here, just so I don’t have to have leather to have to maintain, and I don’t have to have buckles that’s going to break. That’s my bridle. That’s my finished bridle. Split ear piece. You do not want a single ear piece that makes them always be worried about their ears, so you want a split ear piece, and you want a bit and a bridle to match.

A snaffle bit is going to have one type of bridle, and how the bit is going to hang, and a finished bit like this is, it’s going to have another type of bridle, so that the bit, again, hangs correctly into the mouth. There’s a little bit about bridles and bits.

What’s Wrong With My Saddle?

Steve Edwards: People that say, “My saddle is fine up here on top of the scapula,” do this for a test. Slide your hand up underneath here where the scapula is and then turn the head toward that. As you do that, you’re going to find that that thing’s mashing your fingers. Come over here. Slide your hand up underneath here, turn the head towards you. Feel it?

Man: Oh yeah.

Steve Edwards: Oh, yeah. Now take that and put your wife’s 75 pounds up here on the top. You see how I made points there?

Man: Yeah.

Steve Edwards: Okay, and put-

Speaker 2: She weighs more.

Steve Edwards: Watch this, okay?

Speaker 2: Oh yeah.

Steve Edwards: And that’s just my little 35 pounds right here, okay? That’s what’s on there. So can you imagine what’s happening? Every time that scapula comes up, boom boom boom. The folks when you see a saddle that the cinch is way up underneath the front legs, and you see a saddle up on that scapula and people say they got that mule for sale, those people don’t know anything about mules. Get away from them because they are ruining this mule. They’re doing it like a horse, just setting the saddle up on the wither like a horse. We don’t want to do that.

Other mistake folks make, yes this is my saddle. Queen Valley Mule Ranch, got the old conchos, you know, the saddle is probably what, five years old?

Man: Something like that.

Steve Edwards: Something like that, okay. My saddle, all my equipment, but installed incorrectly, so it’s going to work like everybody else’s saddle, okay? Number one, the back cinch. The back cinch allows that saddle to stick up in the back. Okay? The back cinch needs to be the tightest; the front cinch needs to be the loosest. The back cinch needs to be here, and then what a lot of people do to keep this cinch back away from the front leg is they put this strap here. That don’t do a bit of good, as you can see, you know, it’s already up there. It don’t do a bit of good. Plus at your britchen now you can slide your hand up under here so you actually only have about one inch of britchen compared with three inches you should have.

Man: This is the worst case scenario.

Steve Edwards: This is the worst case scenario, but it’ll be okay, all right? She’s not going to hit me too hard, shoot.

Woman: The back cinch, when do you really, really need the back cinch?

Steve Edwards: When do you really need a back cinch? You need a back cinch all the time.

Woman: Why?

Steve Edwards: The reason that is is because their belly is hourglass shaped and they carry their weight down low, so the saddle with the front cinch makes the saddle go forward and gets up on top of their shoulder, okay? I have people all the time say, “Well I do just fine.” Okay, well ask your mule how well he’s doing, you know? Try to put your hand up underneath there, or put your hand down here and let me sit my foot on it and see how long you like it. It’s the same feeling, you know? Because these poor animals are putting up with a lot. An awful lot. You have to have a rear cinch on the mule all the time. All the time. The front cinch needs to be loosest, the back cinch needs to be the tightest.

These straps need to be back here on the bars. Here’s the back of the bar, here’s the back of the bar. Hand me one of those bars down there on the ground back there.

Woman: Which one of them, the mule one?

Steve Edwards: Yeah, the mule one. There you go, you know it’s a mule, look at that.

When we have it here, we’re only pulling on one side. We need to pull directly onto the bar from right here. When we got it down here we tend to pull the bar down, and it doesn’t work the same. We want this strap to go here. We want the hip plate to be back here, okay? With the hip plate being here look here how it’s pulling the saddle up, and see how it’s rubbing the hindquarters? You want to know how the mule lost his hair right there? Not the britchen’s fault. It’s my fault. I have to understand that when I adjust the britchen incorrectly I’m going to have that problem. Okay?

Here’s the little salt and pepper white hairs when the britchen’s rubbing, you know? Okay, so

Man: So you’re going to fix all this for us?

Steve Edwards: Sure I am! Absolutely.

Man: Just want to make sure.

Steve Edwards: I don’t leave you alone like this. Okay, see, notice how I told you about conways, how you don’t pull the strap through like this? It makes it extremely difficult to get loose.

I’m going to fix you up old mule. You’re going to be so happy with me. You’re going to say, “Oh I love Steve.”

Notice how my D ring goes back?

Man: Yeah.

Steve Edwards: It’s adjusted. It’s way different than everyone else. I do this for a reason. If I’ve got a full rigging plate, the ring is going to be here. Three quarters is going to be here and then seven eighths is going to be here. I’ve got it right in between seven eighths and three quarters so that I’ve got it in the right place for my mule’s shoulders, okay? That’s the purpose of that.

Loosen this up a little bit, two notches, but you see this all the time and people say, “It’s the only way I can make my saddle work.” Well then why in the world are you riding that kind of a saddle, you know? That you’ve got to make work and it’s still sore on the animal? You hear it all the time. They don’t want to spend the money to make it right, the poor guy’s always suffering.

Ready to Buy a Mule? What You Should Look For

Steve Edwards: When I look at animals for people I look at conformation. All the time, people ask me what to look for. Well, what to look for is this. You look for disposition first. Disposition, a willing disposition. One that says, “Ah, that’s okay, ah, that’s all right,” and pretty much goes along with everything. The majority of the time, yeah, they’ll get grumpy, like Daisy where she’s kind of wanting to be the top of the pecking order and she’ll be grumpy for a little bit, but disposition.

Second thing I look for is conformation. Now, conformation. If we look and see a little stubby neck, that is hard for an animal to turn with a little stubby neck like that. Can you get it? Yes, you can. Notice how when this mule stands, his neck comes up out of his shoulders. You see that? Notice when this mule stands, his neck comes down out of her shoulders. Do you see the difference? When I’m looking for a trail animal, I’m looking for conformation next, I’m looking for when they walk they walk just like this. Framed up, all ready. Naturally framed up without bridling. Okay? So that’s the next thing I look for.

Next thing I look for then is I look for conformation-wise, look at how straight the legs are. You see how the slope of the shoulder fits the slope of the foot. Real nice. Clean, front end. Nice and straight. Okay? Things I look for is white hairs like this and bumps like this. Some way or another this mule has hit himself on the cannon bone area.

Women: No, no, no, those are just flies.

Steve Edwards: Oh, you got the fly problem? Okay. For flies, take WD-40 in the spring, before the flies start getting them, and spray WD-40 on their legs. It’s not an oil-based, it’s not a petroleum, it’s a fish-base. That oil on there will keep the flies off of it and keep the itching off of it.

Women: How long will it last? Do you have to do it every day?

Steve Edwards: It just depends on the animal. Depends on the dust and that sort of thing. I also put it on their hair on their tails, so when they flip around their tails, it flips the oil onto them, the WD-40.

Okay. The next thing we look at. We look back here in the back legs. This little mule here, whoa, this little mule here has got a really nice heavy gaskin muscle. See this muscle right here?

Man: Yeah.

Steve Edwards: That’s a nice, big, heavy gaskin muscle. But this is Quarter Horse bred. Her type of hip is Quarter, it slopes down. So some type of Quarter Horse is in this little mule.

Now, when you look at this little mule from behind, you see it has a nice rounded hip. Let me move the legs a little bit here. Okay. Now, with them standing, you see how this little mule stands fairly straight. Step. Step. Step. Okay. You see in the back here, notice how the feet flair out toward the front. Right and left. That’s from not being trimmed as a baby. So it’s actually walking like a duck, kind of like this. That, unfortunately, what that does to him, that brings the hock area, which is this area right in here, it brings the hocks close together. All right? Now, watch when I walk this mule how far apart the hocks are. That’s really important, because if he’s got a lot of donkey in him, you’ll see the hocks will come close together and will be brushing each other, which can create problems later on in life.

Using A Bitt For Your Mule

Steve Edwards: We must have a bitt in order to communicate. I use a double twisted wire snaffle bit simply because I capture the tongue on both sides of the tongue, rather than a single snaffle which captures the tongue in one place. Put your fingers out here. Now, this is the tongue of the mouth. When this is inside of the mule’s mouth, it looks like this. It’s just laying here. When I want to say, “Whoa,” I pick up on both sides of the ring. You can see then the snaffle goes on both sides of the tongue, and then they put the pressure. You can feel the pressure. Then of course, the animal says, “Well, what can I do to be comfortable?” As soon as he stops, I let go and the bitt comes back into place.

Unlike a snaffle bit which is just one single, when it’s a pressure, you feel the difference in the pressure? That’s a lot more pressure there with just one single than it is with a double that goes on both sides. A whole lot more comfortable, even though the bitt looks a lot nastier. It looks a lot more uncomfortable. It’s phenomenally comfortable which you just saw. Now, put your fingers out here, the two fingers. Now, let’s just say I want to go off to the right. This is going to be like the violin bow on the violin. When I want to go to the right, the mule or a horse feels, just keep your tongue in one place, feels that. You feel that?

Man: Okay.

Steve Edwards: It feels and it says, “What can I do to be comfortable?” As soon as his head goes, my hands get quiet. Get the idea? “What can I do to get comfortable?” As soon as his head goes, my hands get quiet. Feel the difference? I want to go a direction. I’m uncomfortable. As soon as you go that direction, my hands get quiet. Feel the difference? It’s very, very important we understand that we must have the proper bitt to do the proper job.

Halter Training – Keeping the Feet Still

Steve Edwards: It’s very important that the animal’s feet be quiet and still. We’re going to … (Whistles) Yah, yah, yah. Now, your feet moved a lot. (Whistles) Yah, yah. Feet don’t move. (Whistles) Feet don’t move. (Whistles) Feet don’t move. (Whistles) Feet don’t move. (Whistles) Yah, yah, yah.

Women: When we did that this morning, we wanted them.

Steve Edwards: That’s right. We wanted them to move, okay? Now, we’re going to come to a point to where he’s going to learn when to stand still, ie. with a lead rope and when to stand still with no lead rope.

Women: Okay.

Steve Edwards: You see? I know it gets mind boggling to you.

Man: You didn’t have a lead rope on him when we were doing it.

Steve Edwards: Exactly, you know? There’s different ways of moving around. I let you all do that because these guys are pretty gentle. You did good, okay? Here’s the thing, anybody can make their feet move because it’s natural for them to do it, but to get them to make their feet stand still, that’s hard to do. If you notice, I tried to do it with just a bump and let go to be loose. (Whistles) Yah, yah, yah. Don’t move that foot. Yah, yah, yah. (Whistles) On a loose lead rope, okay? Now, when I pick it up, I want to go somewhere, I pick it up and I bump him, now they can move their feet. Starts to go away, sharp bump, “No, you follow me.” What I’m asking is, “Will you follow me around on a loose lead or will you try to go do your own thing?” If you do, that’s the wrong answer to my question and I’m going to bump you. Okay? If you follow me around, I’m a loose … That’s right. That’s right, good. Okay, now come over here. Come over here. This is all halter work.