Should I Be Using A Mechanical Hackamore?

A lot of clients email me with questions about hackamores and I do my best to respond quickly, to get them the information they need so they can get back in the saddle. A recent question came in about using a hackamore. Here is what the client had to say:

What kind of bridle or hackamore do you use on your donkeys? I got a new donkey a little over a year ago and she is very spirited and a quick learner, but she likes to fight her mechanical hackamore when she wants to go. I have tried a couple other bits and hackamores but she doesn’t listen to them at all. I would really appreciate the help.

What Is A Mechanical Hackamore

First, it’s important to understand what a hackamore is and why it’s used. A hackamore is a bridle without a bit. A mechanical hackamore is a bitless bridle with shanks.

The shanks on the mechanical hackamore provide leverage. Rather than pressure being applied in the mouth, the hackamore has a special type of noseband that communicates to pressure points on the nose and chin. When the reins are pulled, the crown of the bridle is pulled down behind the mule’s ears, the nose piece is pulled against the mule’s nose and the chin strap applies pressure against the chin in a similar fashion to the action of a curb bit.

The noseband can be just a rubber hose over a bicycle chain on the mule’s nose or it can be a bicycle chain with braided leather on the nose or it can be a flat nose piece that goes across the nose, and some people even use use straight chain, which is not very comfortable for the mule. Those are four different types of mechanical hackamores. The noseband, the nose piece itself has different designs to get different results.

The braided leather nose piece is the one you start out with because it gives you more communication value and is a little rougher so the mule will start responding, getting his nose on the vertical. As you progress, you’ll move to a rubber nose piece which is not as aggressive as the braided one. When the mule gets really easy and light and you barely have to pick up the reins, then you move to the flat nose piece. These are some of the different stages, in general, for what it would look like to have these different nosebands.

What You Need to Know About Using A Hackamore On Your Mule or Donkey

A hackamore should only be used if you can ride 80% using only your legs. Mules and donkeys care more about their nose than they do their mouth; their noses are VERY sensitive. In this regard, you could be using a hackamore that is not properly designed for the mule and donkey, so it isn’t communicating with the nose. It is also possible that you have it in the wrong place.

There are two things I’d like you to do for your donkey.

  1. Make sure the teeth are floated properly and done every year.
  2. Make sure the wolf teeth are pulled.

After you do those two things, try the hackamore again. If it still isn’t working, it could be in the wrong place. Here’s how you place the hackamore correctly. The hackamore should be placed two inches above the donkey’s nostrils, which is the beginning foundational position. As the mule progresses, you’re going to move the hackamore farther up the nose. Here’s a photo of correct hackamore placement on a donkey.

If you’ve fixed your mule’s or donkey’s teeth and the hackamore is placed properly, it might be that you need a mule and donkey hackamore. I use a mechanical hackamore on all my mules as a way to refresh a mule. This hackamore is top quality and features a rubber nose band and adjustable chin strap. Here’s a link to my mechanical hackamore. You shouldn’t have any more problems.

You can always call or email me if you have more questions about hackamores. I’m always happy to help mule and donkey owners get the most rewarding behavior from their animals.

Happy Trails!

A Great Example of Donkey Driving

I received this donkey driving video from Jana Schmidt, one of my clients. Jana is receiving coaching as she drives her donkey pulling a cart. She wanted to know what I thought of the donkey’s cart-pulling ability and if there was anything she could do to improve.

What You See From the Donkey

In the video, you’ve got a donkey that’s doing an excellent job of listening to the driver. The donkey is framed up and it’s head is down. The donkey is walking with a four-beat gait, which is good. The head is not elevated, it’s balanced and framed up, looking very nice; the nose is on the vertical and it all looks very good.

It looks like the tack and the harness are in a good place, right where they belong. I’m not a fan of the breast collar harness; Jana’s using a breast collar here. I prefer a collar harness instead. The collar harness goes around the neck. It’s a lot easier on donkeys and mules because these animals are very lateral when they are walking and their shoulders will hit the breast collar harness. A donkey can easily get what’s called a Sweeney shoulder, which is damage to the suprascapular nerve, tendons and things like this. So my preference is a collar harness, just be very watchful of the donkey tripping or maybe dropping his head; things like this are indications that the breast collar is putting pressure on the shoulder. My thing is I really prefer a collar harness over a breast collar harness, it does so much better.

What You See From the Driver

She’s doing a very good job of driving the cart. I appreciate that she’s wearing a helmet. That’s great! I can’t see her hands all that well, but it looks like she has great communication between the lines with the donkey. The donkey is extremely relaxed. If the donkey is relaxed, that means she’s communicating very well.

What You See Regarding the Cart

The cart is the right size for the donkey and it’s a nice cart. It’s got a fifth wheel undercut on it which is very, very nice for turning. I noticed that when she stopped, the cart went forward, past the front of the shoulders which tells me she needs to shorten the quarter straps that go to the britchen (the britchen is the brakes), so when she stops, the cart should only move about 2”. If I was going to do anything at all, I would adjust the quarter straps for the breeching so that she has better brakes.

Driving a donkey cart well isn’t easy, It takes time to improve. She’s doing correct training, in that she’s using obstacles to go in and out, that’s always very good. It gives the donkey something to think about. I don’t see her arms moving a lot which is great. That means her communication from her hands to the bridle is very subtle and the donkey is following through with it.

You gotta love donkeys for their disposition. A donkey will show you if they’re unhappy if you’re pulling on them. I think she’s doing a very good job all the way around.

 

How to Treat Mule Leg Sores

Leg sores are a topic that raises questions all the time. It can be frightening to see leg sores develop on your mule or donkey, especially if you haven’t noticed them early on and when you finally see them, they’re at their worst. One of my clients wrote in with a great question about leg sores and I wanted to share it with you so that you can apply the same solution if leg sores become a problem with your mule or donkey.

“I have a couple of mules that get bad sores on their front legs. The sores are caused by the mules biting at their legs. I have tried several creams and bug sprays, but nothing helps. I put wraps on their legs, but the mules just chew them up. The sores only show up in the warmer months. I asked my vet and he thought maybe it was an allergy, but he wasn’t sure. Only some of my mules have them and none of my horses. Have you ever experienced this? By the way I love the videos you have been putting on Facebook and YouTube.”

Options for Leg Sore Treatment

Don’t you just hate to see your mule in pain? This is a great owner who is doing everything he can for his mule – including talking to the vet. Folks, I can’t tell you how important it is to do your research and find a good vet who you can call on when your mule or donkey needs them.

In this case, since the sores are only showing up in the summer, there are several things that could be causing the leg sores and several ways you can help the mule.

Bot Flies Causing Leg Sores

One thing that causes leg sores on mules and donkeys are bot flies. A bot fly is a bee-like creature that flies around your mule and drives him crazy. These flies lay a lot of yellow eggs which attach to Mr. Mule’s hair. Keep the eggs off your mule’s legs and body using a bot knife; it’s safer that using a pocket knife. You can knock bot flies down with your hand and then step on them. Use a dewormer that takes care of bots before the bot season.

Chorioptic Mange Mites Causing Leg Sores

Leg sores can also be caused by Chorioptic Mange Mites. These mites are very small but can cause irritation, skin lesions, and licking or scratching of the fetlock. They can also cause pastern dermatitis. Mange mites are more common in the summer in equines that are pastured. They can be spread by direct contact or through grooming equipment.

Here’s what to look for on your mule to spot signs of the mites:

  • Reddening of Skin
  • Crust Formation
  • Hair Loss
  • Thickening Skin
  • Swelling
  • Stomping Their Feet
  • Rubbing Against Feeders, Posts, Fences

Here’s what you can do to get rid of these mites. Clip or shave the long hair on the pasterns to make cleaning easier and more effective. This also helps lengthen the contact time so the chemicals work better. Use keratolytic or selenium sulfide shampoo to help remove skin debris and mites.

Insecticides and endectocides have been used to try to get rid of these mites. Chorioptic mange is partly responsive to macrocyclic lactone drugs, such as ivermectin and moxidectin which are used to de-worm equines. Parasiticides used for cows or dogs have been used with some success when applied topically. Doramectin, fipronil and eprinomectin also show some success. The effectiveness of these options is helped when combined with clipping the long hair around affected areas and shampooing or scrubbing to remove all crusts, scales, and skin debris before the use of chemicals.

Leg Sores Caused by Jack Sores or Summer Sores

If it’s not bot files and it isn’t mites, it could be habronemiasis causing these leg sores. Habronemiasis is more commonly known as Jack Sores or Summer Sores because the sores occur most often in the spring and summer, when the fly season starts.

The wounds usually shrink during winter months and will appear to be healing – only to flare up again in the spring. These sores are caused by the larvae of stomach worms. Flies carry and deposit Habronema stomach worm larvae that can cause inflammation when they infect small wounds or other moist areas of the equine’s body.

In the normal stomach worm life cycle, flies pick up the stomach worm larvae in mule manure, old bedding, and rotten feed, then deposit them near the mule’s mouth. The mule eats the larvae that travel to the stomach and, in a couple of months, mature into adult worms that usually cause little damage to the equine. The adults lay eggs that are passed in the mule’s manure. Flies pick up the hatched larvae and cycle begins all over again.

The problem starts when the stomach worm larvae are deposited by house, stable, or face flies that feed on fresh wounds or moist areas. The larvae can’t mature into adult worms, so they move around in the wound and cause swelling and severe itching. The mule or donkey chews on the wound and swollen flesh that surrounds a healing wound, becoming a wound that doesn’t heal and can last for years, getting worse over time.

Here are signs to look for which indicate Jack Sores or Summer Sores:

  • Annoying and unsightly sores
  • Non-healing skin wounds
  • Intense itching
  • Formation of tissue that is red, moist, soft, and bumpy
  • “Greasy” look
  • Blood-tinged fluid draining from the sores
  • Yellow or white hard “rice grain-like” material from the sores

Young and thin-skinned animals are especially susceptible to the pests.

Treatment of summer sores can be difficult, requiring a number of approaches. In small wounds, deworming the animal with either an ivermectin or moxidectin paste dewormer will kill the worm larvae and allow the sore to heal. Wrapping the wound if it’s on the legs will protect it and prevent the mule from chewing on it. In serious cases of infected sores, surgery may be needed to remove the dead or diseased skin.

Best Treatment for Mule and Donkey Leg Sores

Unfortunately, the best treatment is prevention. You should setup a regular deworming program, about every six to eight weeks in warm weather, less often in winter.

Do everything you can to keep flies at a minimum, including the use of fly traps. Make sure to always dispose of manure and bedding properly from stalls and rotating pastures.

Always inspect for fly breeding sites; quickly and regularly remove all fly eggs from tack and the equine’s coat.

Be diligent in keeping flies from infecting the mule’s food and water. Keep infected animals away from the rest of the herd, as well.

Faithful application of a good repellant will also help keep infected flies away from our four-legged friends.

Before trying any of these treatments, you should check with your veterinarian to make sure you are using the right medicine and the correct dosage.

Importance of Fitting a Saddle to a Mule

Saddle fit is extremely important to the mule! People who don’t know mules or donkeys might say that they’re dumb or stubborn. Wrong. They are incredibly intelligent – they just don’t like to be in pain and when they’re in pain, it’s hard for them to do much of anything.

There is a lot to know about getting the right saddle for your mule or donkey. In this article we will look specifically at saddle fitting – however, be sure to educate yourself with everything you need to know about mule saddles before you make your next purchase. Education is the most important thing you can have when owning a mule or donkey.

If you love Ole Fluffy, go to the lengths necessary to make sure the saddle fits and is comfortable. When you do, your buddy will do so much better out on the trail. Why? Because each step will be comfortable instead of filled with excruciating pain.

Another reason to have the right saddle fit is your safety. When the mule is comfortable he moves better and can respond better to your communication. If Mr. Mule is in real pain from an ill-fitting saddle, that’s when you get bucking… that’s when you might see bolting. Getting a saddle that is made to fit your animal is the best thing you can do for the quality of life of the animal, your safety, and overall enjoyment!

When you invest in a saddle that is constructed to fit your mule, not only is Fluffy more comfortable, not only are you safer, not only are you more comfortable and not only is Fluffy safer, but you also save money. You see, a saddle that is built correctly to fit a mule or donkey will fit the next mule or donkey. You may think you need a custom saddle in order to get the perfect fit. Folks, you’ll have the perfect fit as long as that animal stays that same size (but he won’t).

You want to fit your saddle to the animal’s bone structure and the only way you get that is with a saddle that is made with mule bars – Steve Edwards mule bars.

Problems with a Saddle that Doesn’t Fit

As you’re learning more about mules and trying to figure out how to be the best owner possible, you’re discovering that maybe the tack you’ve been using, maybe the saddle you’ve been using might be causing some of the problems you’ve been experiencing.

If your mule is showing any of the following signs, folks, chances are that your saddle is ruining your mule – slowly but surely.

  • Your mule moves away from you when you’re trying to saddle him.
  • Your mule moves away from you when you are trying to get in the saddle.
  • You notice your mule elevates his head when you try to get in the saddle.
  • You are seeing your mule shake his head when you’re riding down hill.
  • Watching your mule, you notice he becomes short-strided.
  • After removing the saddle, you see white hairs, hair loss or sores under the saddle.
  • Your mule shows uneven sweat patterns or ruffled hairs after riding.

These are just a few of the more common behaviors a mule will use to let you know he’s uncomfortable. Maybe you’re not seeing any of these signs, but something just seems off. You’re not convinced that the ‘mule saddle’ you are using is actually a mule saddle. Or, you’re still using a horse saddle.

You need to ride with confidence and confidence comes with proper ground foundation training and using the right tools to communicate with your animal – including a mule saddle with mule bars.

How to Get the Perfect Saddle Fit for Your Mule or Donkey

I first got started with mules back in 1982 and my first mule was Casper. I went to check out this mule, looking to buy, and when I took him out on the trail he bucked me off. I thought, “Well, I’m going to by this son-of-a-gun and get even with him.” That was the beginning of me working with, learning about, and listening to the mule.

I never got into mules to make saddles or instruct others how to care for them, but as I listened to the mule and learned, I discovered that a lot of my problems were rooted in a saddle that didn’t fit. I took to designing a saddle that was made for the mule. That truly is how how my Steve Edwards Signature Saddles came about.

My saddles are the only saddles in the world built with true mule bars. The bars of the saddle are the two pieces of the saddle tree that go down the mule’s back on each side of the spine. True mule bars – my mule bars – will be level with the back all the way from the front to the rear of the mule. There is a little bit of elevation in the back to allow the kidneys to remain safe and protected from pressure coming down on top of them.

Used to be that folks didn’t sell ‘mule saddles’ – rather, they just told mule owners, “Oh, this horse saddle will fit just fine.” I thank the good Lord that our mule and donkey people know better these days. Our animals are better for it. However, with owners being more educated, there are some who would make small adjustments in a saddle to have them appear to be for the mule or donkey – but at their core level, the bar level, those saddles are every bit as rotten as a horse saddle on a mule.

The only way to know if a saddle is made with true mule bars, Steve Edwards mule bars, is to strip everything off of it and look at the tree. Not really an option, is it? This is why it is imperative that you buy a mule saddle, confident that it is truly for your animal.

Every portion of the saddle should be designed correctly. Let’s just take a quick look at one area, the pommel. The space underneath the pommel is called a saddle gullet and it is located over the mule’s withers. It is important that the gullet have the right amount of clearance over the withers. If the height is too short, the saddle will rub on the mule’s withers. If the gullet is too wide, the saddle will sit too low on the shoulders and also rub on the mule’s withers and the fat pocket right underneath the D-rings of the saddle. When you go too wide, you end up being on the fat pockets which can lead to the possibility of kicking out the ribs.

Getting the Perfect Saddle Fit with the Right Tack

Often folks will think that getting the saddle is all they need to do in order to correct a lot of the issues they find in their mule. It’s a great start, but it isn’t going to make much of a difference if you’re using tack that isn’t designed to fit with the saddle.

My saddle is designed to be used with a britchen, a breast collar that allows for full and fluid motion, and two cinches (loose in the front and snug in the back). By fitting your mule with the proper saddle and tack setup, you will see many benefits.

  • The saddle does not rest on Mr. Mule’s spine or poke him.
  • The tree sits in the sweet spot of the ribs, well back from the scapulae.
  • The breast collar and britchen stabilize the saddle and keep it from moving front to back or side to side.
  • The rear cinch is tighter, but neither need to be “cranked down”.
  • The rider feels secure in the saddle.
  • The saddle fits the mule year round and fits most mules.

While I didn’t get into the mule world to sell saddles and tack, I did take it upon myself to do what no one else out there was doing – listen to the mule and find out how to best communicate with him. After decades of working with mule owners, folks just like you, and seeing what a difference having the right saddle fit makes in the life of the mule and the owner, I’m proud to put my brand on my saddles and tack.

I want every mule owner to buy my saddle because I want the best for the owner and the mule and I care about the safety and comfort of you and Mr. Mule!

It is natural to have questions about your mule, your situation, and what you need in order to help get Mr. Mule back on the path to joy so give me a holler, I want to help ya! I encourage you to call me at 602.999.6853 or email me, support@muleranch.com, with your questions.

Mule Tack for Your Mule Saddle – Essential Gear

You have learned everything you need to know about mule saddles, you’ve read about the difference having a true mule saddle makes from other mule owners – a Steve Edwards mule saddle 😉 – and now you’re ready to purchase. The last question is, what mule tack do I need to go along with the new mule saddle?

Before we get into a list of recommended items, it is very important for mule owners to understand WHY certain tack is essential to pair with your mule saddle and why it is essential that the tack be installed in a very particular way.

You Must Ride with A Proper Breeching, Not A Crupper

The most important difference between the horse saddle and mule saddle is that the tree has true mule bars – Steve Edwards mule bars. Without true mule bars, your saddle is going to slide forward.

However, you’ve already made the decision to buy a Steve Edwards saddle. Won’t that solve the sliding forward problem? No. It’s a first step, but it’s imperative to understand that the saddle will still slide forward because the mule is built by the good Lord in such a way that it will always slide forward. It doesn’t make any difference if you’re riding on flat ground or mountains. To keep the saddle from sliding forward, you must ride with a breeching, not a crupper.

Folks will ride with a crupper on their mules, but what they don’t understand is that the mule and donkey tail is all bone – if enough weight is placed on that crupper, it can break the tail and from there, destroy an otherwise awesome mule.

Picture of a mule with britchen placed for steep mountain riding.

In this picture, the britchen is properly adjusted for riding down a steep mountain. This is not suitable for flat ground.

Your britchen is not meant to hold the saddle back – it is to prevent the saddle from moving forward. Each time the hip comes back, it keeps the saddle in place. The rear cinch is ultimately what keeps the saddle in place.

The britchen is essential because as you ride, when the saddle moves forward, the breeching bumps the rump to prevent the saddle from moving forward. That’s exactly what you want.

A Mule Saddle Pad Does Not Fix the Problem

Folks will try to take shortcuts to compensate for using a horse saddle on a mule or not investing in the right tack by buying a saddle pad to ‘fix’ problems. Folks, the gimmicks of shims on saddle pads does nothing but create future problems. I see it all the time, “Oh, Steve, I made this one little change and now he’s not giving me problems no more…” yeah, you may have ‘fixed’ one problem with a shortcut, but you’ve just created three future problems that are going to be much worse.

A mule saddle pad is meant to be used with the mule saddle. If you’re trying to prevent the mule from bucking, running off, or biting then listen to him – he is saying, “I have a back problem,” so you need to change what you’re doing. Fortunately for you, you’ve already decided to ease your mule’s pain with a true mule saddle and because of that, you will get the full benefit a mule saddle pad has to offer.

Two Cinches – Loose In the Front and Tight In the Back

Owning a mule is not like owning a horse. Sure, they’re equine, sure they’re related, but golly, the days of, “an equine is an equine is an equine,” are just gone. We know better.

And now that we know better, we know that the saddle needs to be secured with two cinches – one in the front, nice and loose and one in the back, snug and secure. When you ride with one cinch, the saddle is not secure on the mule’s bone structure and an insecure saddle means restriction on the mule’s overall movement. People think, “Oh, he really did great” after a couple short rides. Now, you’re ready to go on a 5-day ride, and one day in, you have a mule that starts acting up. The mule was communicating the entire time, “Hey, this saddle is moving around and it sure is hurting,” but without listening to the mule, you didn’t know and now you and your mule are in for a rough ride.

On a mule or donkey, using one cinch is just asking to have the saddle roll. Folks, two cinches – loose in the front and snug and secure in the back.

Pulling Collars Are the Worst Possible Breast Collar You Can Use

The name says it all… which way does the pulling collar pull? FORWARD! Folks will use a fixed breast collar and every time that mule takes a step forward, his shoulder bumps the strap, and that, in turn, moves the saddle forward.

The breast collar is meant to keep the saddle from going backwards – not pull the saddle forward. If you have a properly adjusted breeching and a properly adjusted breast collar, you will find they help keep the saddle in place when you’re riding down the trail.

You want a breast collar that allows for full fluid movement from the mule up front. You want a free-moving breast collar that utilizes a pommel strap system – in this way, the breast collar does exactly what it is meant to do – prevent the saddle from going backwards, not the opposite!

Conformation, Conformation, Conformation

You can do everything in the world right – use the mule saddle, mule saddle pad, ride with a properly adjusted breeching, ride with a properly adjusted breast collar, and ride with two-cinches… it will never make up for any conformation defects in your animal.

It is imperative that you understand the mule’s conformation is also one of the problems with the saddle moving. Too fat of a mule and it’s going to be really difficult to keep a saddle on. Nothing you do is going to fully compensate for a too fat mule. Nothing is going to 100% compensate for a mule with a downhill hip, either (here is the best I’ve been able to do with downhill hip).

Conformation is extremely important when talking about how to keep the saddle on and prevent it from moving. Don’t buy a mule because you pet him and he was sweet as peach cobbler – look at the conformation. If you don’t know what you’re looking at, get with someone who does.

“Yeah, I’ve Never Had Any Problems Doing It This Way”

When I share this information at my live clinics I will hear from folks, “Steve, I have been riding without a breaching for years and never had a problem,” or they’ll say, “I just don’t see the need to ride with a second cinch.” I say, “then don’t ride the mule.”

If you care about your mule, you must have everything correct. Riding a mule without the right setup is like riding in a car with bald tires, going down the road thinking that everything is going to be alright.

I have four decades of experience and have learned that there are no shortcuts. If you care about your mule, do it right the first time – and if you’ve been doing it wrong… then repeat after me, “The past is the past, I’m free at last.” You can use my four decades of experience and do it right or you can listen to someone who has been working with mules for two or three years and has limited experience.

Folks with limited experienced don’t see the major differences between punching cows or riding down the trail for a nice afternoon out. It is imperative that you become the herd leader, this animal is looking to you for help and leadership. If you don’t want to take the time to understand the mule, don’t own one. If you’re willing to take the time to do it right, then the list below is for you.

Essential Mule Tack to Go Along with Your New Mule Saddle

Here is a list of what I tell every client who asks, “Steve, I’m going to get a saddle – what do I need for the whole setup.”

  • Saddle
  • Saddle Pad
  • Cinches (2)
  • Breast Collar
  • Breeching
  • Split Reins
  • Stirrups or Tapaderos
    • Proper stirrup width is really important
  • Beta Bridle & Reins OR
  • Headstall
    • You want the proper bridle for the bit you’re going to use

Now, with that list, you’ll find on my store alongside the traditional leather I sell (which is an old-timey leather), I also sell beta products. I have fallen in love with beta because it is maintenance free, easy to clean, light, looks great, and is STRONG. Beta is measured at 650 psi compared to leather which measures 250 psi. If you’re more of a traditionalist, well, maybe go with the leather – I choose to ride beta.

Don’t take shortcuts. Don’t assume you’re mule is okay. Don’t believe that your mule, donkey, ride, or tack is the exception.

Do listen to your mule. Do listen to experience. Do go about things right by your mule.

If you have any questions, I sure would like to help you. You can call me at 602-999-6853 or send me an email at support@muleranch.com. Bottom line – your new saddle will work as designed when you use the appropriate tack and accessories. You will see a huge difference in your mule or donkey and they will be much happier riding down the trail.

Grass Founder Article Featured Image

Grass Founder In Mules and Donkeys

Is grass founder in mules and donkeys something you need to be concerned about? It’s been said that mules and donkeys are stronger and healthier than horses and immune to many equine diseases.

I wish that were true. Unfortunately, that is a myth.

Where did this myth come from? It is actually an exaggeration of the truth. While mules and donkeys are not immune to many of the diseases and illnesses that horses contract, they are more resistant to them.

Mules and donkeys are injured less often, they are less prone to colic, and they are less likely to develop common equine illnesses – with some exceptions, of course. They need the same basic care that is provided to horses because they can, and many will, suffer from the issues that plague horses.

So what about grass founder in mules and donkeys? Should that be a concern? Before we get to the answer, let’s make sure that we have a clear understanding of grass founder.

What Is Grass Founder?

Grass Founder, also known as laminitis, is a painful and potentially harmful hoof condition that can affect any and all equine, including mules and donkeys. There are many different circumstances that can lead to laminitis, the most prevalent issue is allowing an equine unlimited grazing in a pasture that’s growing new grass.

In a recent survey, access to a lush pasture was thought to be responsible for almost 50% of all cases of laminitis. That is a statistic that cannot be ignored. In most parts of the country, the risk for grass founder is highest during the spring and early summer when plants experience their greatest amount of growth.

When an equine has grass founder, they experience inflammation of the laminae in the foot. Laminae are accordion-like tissues, like a shock absorber, that attach the inner surface of the hoof wall to the coffin bone in the hoof, to keep the coffin bone in place. As the outside hoof wall widens, it pushes on the coffin bone, rotating it backwards causing excruciating pain. Very important stuff. You don’t have a hoof, you don’t have a mule.

An animal suffering from laminitis will experience less blood flow to the laminae, which begin to die and separate. The result is hoof wall separation, rotation of the coffin bone, and extreme pain. In severe cases, the coffin bone will actually rotate through the sole of the hoof where it becomes infected. If this comes to pass, the mule may need to be put down.

How does a donkey or mule get grass founder?

The reason mules, donkeys, overweight horses, and ponies get grass founder when eating rich, green grass is because it’s high in simple sugars and starches that are easily broken down by the bacteria in the equine large intestine.

What happens when these simple sugars breakdown, is it causes a production of a substance that can damage the basement membrane, a structure in the hoof. The basement membrane forms the “glue” that attaches the hoof wall to the coffin bone at the base of the hoof. Breakdown of the bond between the hoof wall and the bone is the process associated with laminitis.

Carbohydrate levels in the pasture are highest in the spring and summer months. On sunny days, the level of simple sugars rises in the morning until about noon and are lowest just before dawn. The worst time for an animal that tends to get grass founder to be in the pasture is between late morning and late afternoon in the spring or early summer. That’s not the only time grass founder can happen. It’s less common, but it can happen during a mild, wet autumn or after a drought, any time rainfall, sunlight, and daytime temperatures stimulate grass growth.

What are the signs of grass founder in a mule or donkey?

Foundered animals will assume a characteristic “sawhorse” stance with their hind feet up under their body and their front feet placed farther forward than normal. This is because the equine is trying to shift its weight off its painful front feet to its hind legs. Long standing cases of front foot laminitis may result in loss of muscle over the shoulder area as the donkey attempts to take most of its body weight on the hind limbs.

Thick, “cresty” neck and abnormal fat deposits can be a sign of grass founder. Check your equine often for heavy fat pockets or pads that show up on different parts of the body, such as across the neck, top of the ribs and the dock of the tail.

A mule’s or donkey’s pulse may throb and can be felt on either side of the fetlock. The donkey may appear ‘dull’ and we already know that a dull donkey is a veterinary emergency.

Grass-foundered equines move gingerly, like they’re walking on eggshells and are often unwilling to turn or move at all. In severe cases, they may refuse to stand. If your mule or donkey demonstrates these signs after being turned out on grass, immediately pull him out of the pasture and call the vet.

After equines are turned out to pasture, check them often for signs of laminitis such as heat in the feet and a pounding pulse at the back of the pastern. Check the white line of the hoof trimmings for signs of bruising and/or seedy toe. It can give you a lot of information about the health of the hoof.

Equines that suffer this condition are more susceptible to future incidents. Evidence of bouts of laminitis is revealed by ‘laminitic rings’ on the hoof wall. These can be distinguished from other event rings because they are not parallel with each other, but diverge towards the heels.

Summary of grass founder signs:

  • Sawhorse Stance
  • Throbbing Pulse
  • Appearing Dull
  • Laminitic Rings on the Hoof Wall
  • Reluctant Movement
  • Refusing to Stand

What are the best ways to treat grass founder?

If you suspect your donkey has laminitis, ensure it has access to a deep bed of shavings, easy access to food and water, then call your vet immediately. As with many diseases, prompt treatment can make all the difference. Your vet will probably prescribe painkillers such as phenylbutazone, commonly known as bute, a very common pain killer. Whole sole supports, rather than frog supports used in horses, may be advised. A sole is a flat piece of plastic, ¼” thick in the front and as much as 1” in the back that goes between the shoe and the laminitic hoof. There are different size pads, depending on the rotation of the coffin bone. X-rays may be taken to see the extent of rotation of the coffin bone. These pictures will be essential for the farrier to study for subsequent trimming.

Treatment will depend on the diagnosis, the animal’s health history, the veterinarian’s and farrier’s experience with founder, and their ability to assist each other in alleviating the symptoms, preventing further hoof structure damage and, over time, to restoring a more satisfactory shape to the hoof, and doing whatever is possible to improve the animal’s comfort and ability to move.

Some common treatments include antibiotics to combat infection, anti-endotoxins to reduce bacterial toxicity, anticoagulants, and vasodilators. A veterinarian may also prescribe medication to treat the animal’s pain, as mentioned above. Never give medications to an animal without an examination of the animal by your veterinarian and follow any dosage instructions.

A trained and experienced farrier may be able to offer therapeutic treatments according to your veterinarian’s advice through the use of specialized shoes and shoeing systems to reduce the stress that a long hoof toe places on the hoof structure, and to lift the animal’s heel to reduce stress to the tendons. Shoeing may utilize a combination of heart bars, supporting putty, or other corrective shoeing methods.

Suggestions for Avoiding Grass Founder in Your Mule or Donkey

  • Limit their access to lush pasture. In those equines that have had grass founder before, it may be best to keep them off lush pasture entirely until the grass is more mature. See Getting Your Mule to Trust You and Catching Them In Pasture On Your Terms
  • Restrict pasture time to only a few hours a day, avoiding those high-risk hours between late morning and late afternoon.
  • Use a grazing muzzle which is a strap-on webbing or leather muzzle that allows the equine to eat some grass, but not a lot. They can drink with the muzzle on without difficulty, while allowing them to exercise.
  • Fence off part of the pasture to make a small 20’x20’ paddock without grass.
  • It’s imperative that the hooves are trimmed every eight weeks so that you and your farrier look at the hooves regularly.
  • Float the teeth every Spring so that the mule or donkey is able to grind grass so it passes through their system without causing any problems. If the points of the teeth are flattened, they can grind without pain. The sharp points on their teeth cause them to not grind their feed properly.

Grass Founder is a disease which can result in pain, destruction of inner hoof tissues, and even the eventual rotation of the coffin bone within the hoof. It may involve one, two, or all four feet, and be mild to severe. No matter to what degree an animal is affected, some change is almost inevitable to the internal structure of the animal’s hooves and their future ability to walk or run normally. This disease is painful, crippling, complicated, expensive, and difficult to treat.

Mule Saddle – Everything You Need To Know

If you’re reading this article, you are either a proud owner of a mule, you are thinking about becoming an owner, or you work with mules and donkeys and want to know how to best care for these awesome animals. And they are awesome! No equine rides more smoothly than a donkey or mule – they are the “Cadillac” of the equine. Problem is, you don’t have a true mule saddle.

“The only saddle you have is an old horse saddle.”

Is it okay to use a horse saddle on a mule? Is it okay to use a horse saddle on a donkey?

Don’t do it! You may look at a mule and see similarities, but underneath the skin, their skeletal structure is fundamentally different than a horse. Using a horse saddle is going to do all sorts of damage, from causing your mule to walk funny all the way to destroying their muscles and health. A horse saddle will not fit a mule or a donkey “correctly.”

Anybody who says differently doesn’t understand the mule.

  • Yes, that person may mean well.
  • Yes, that person is trying to be nice in the way they ‘educate you’.
  • Yes, that person is trying to be helpful.
  • Yes, that person is sharing the same advice that has been passed down from owner to owner.

If we were still living in the old days of “an equine is an equine is an equine” with all the other old knowledge of mules and donkeys, their advice would be all you had to go on.

Thankfully, we’re not living in the old days and we no longer have to go by the old ways of the mule and donkey. We have learned so much about these animals in the last 30 years and simply saying “an equine is an equine is an equine” is no longer valid – and it’s dangerous. One thing I’ve been encouraged to see is that mule and donkey folks take awesome care of their animals these days and as much as they are interested in the nutrition and housing conditions of their animals, they are equally interested in the appropriate training and mule-specific tack.

You want a mule saddle and this article will get you up to speed on everything you need to know in order to purchase a mule saddle that is perfect for you and your mule!

Oh, one final thing as we get into this – we will use the phrase ‘mule saddle’ throughout – however, be aware, that just because someone says, “oh, partner, yes, this is a mule saddle,” doesn’t mean it’s a mule saddle. As you’ll see in the end, you don’t actually want a mule saddle… you want a very specific type of saddle. I’ll get to that throughout the article.

A Quick Word For Donkey Owners and Donkey Saddles

Throughout this article I will refer to mule saddles. So what about the donkey? Good news, donkey owner, everything in this article applies to you, as well. You already know this, but the donkey is growing in popularity and people are finding out what you and I have known for years: donkeys are great!

When reading this article, anytime you see the word mule, you can also read donkey. Everything you see in this article is for you and your awesome donkey. Just as the equine world is finally understanding the differences between a mule and a horse, they are also starting to understand the difference between a horse and a donkey; it’s very exciting.

So don’t pass over mule and think it doesn’t apply to you. It does! It certainly does!

If you have any specific questions that aren’t addressed here, please contact me and I’ll be happy to answer any additional questions.

So without further delay, let’s get into talking all about the mule saddle (and remember, that means the donkey saddle, too).

A Horse Saddle Does Not Fit A Mule

What we’re talking about here is so important, I’m going to say it again: A horse saddle does not fit a mule and I am going to tell you exactly why.

The mule bone structure is different from the horse bone structure. Yes, a mule is part horse. Yes, they look similar. But a mule is also part donkey and the donkey’s bone structure is fundamentally different than a horse’s. The mule gets his bone structure, or skeletal structure, from the donkey. While what you and I see on the outside may look like the same shape and sizing as a horse, underneath the skin, everything is different.

If you want to throw a horse saddle up on a mule, you might as well throw a camel saddle up there. As you situate that saddle, you may ‘feel like’ it fits, but soon you’ll find that you are needing to make all sorts of adjustments to hold the saddle in place, and even then, you will find it moves around.

Why? Because the mule is not a horse. Because the mule does not have a horse skeletal structure. Because the mule is uniquely different from a horse, from the inside all the way to the outside, for instance, in the way the mule walks.

How A Mule Walks vs How A Horse Walks – Mule Shoulder Movement

While you might not be able to see the difference between a mule or horse when they are standing still, as soon as they start moving, you can see that they are not the same. Let’s first look at shoulder movement.

The mule’s shoulder moves up and down. When you watch a mule walk, you can actually see the shoulder moving up and down – why? Because they get their bone structure from a donkey and when the donkey walks, his shoulders go up and down. When you watch a horse walk, you’ll see that they don’t move up and down. The horse shoulders actually move backward and forward.

So a mule walks differently than a horse… big deal!

Yes, it is a big deal! When you throw a horse saddle up on a horse, that saddle is going to sit on the shoulder. You don’t want to block that shoulder from moving forwards and backwards. You want the horse to move freely. Take the same horse saddle, meant to accommodate a forward-backward shoulder movement and place it on a mule. Can you tell me what you’ll see? Think about it. Instead of a saddle that sits safely away from the animal’s movement, you now have a saddle that sits right on top of the mule’s shoulder and every time he takes a step, his shoulder is hitting that saddle.

There is a name for the part of the shoulder that horse saddles hit on a mule. It’s known as the scapula. When the mule walks with a horse saddle, that scapula goes up and down, continually hitting the saddle with every step. Mr Mule will not be happy with the constant impact on his shoulders. In fact, he’ll be in pain.

The Shape Of A Mule’s Shoulders And Why Your Saddle Continues To Move Forward On Your Mule

So now we know about the mule’s scapula hitting the saddle. Can’t you just move your saddle back so it’s out of the way of the scapula. Sure, but you already know that this won’t fix it. Why? Because you’ve already experienced your saddle sliding forward.

Not only does the mule shoulder move differently than a horse’s shoulder, the shape of the shoulder is fundamentally different. When we look at a mule we see that they are V-shaped in the shoulders, they have an hourglass belly and they carry the bulk of their weight down low. Horses, on the other hand, are A-shaped in their shoulders and they carry their weight up high.

Mule owners around the world call me saying, “my saddle keeps riding up on my mule and I can’t do anything to get it to stay still”; I immediately know that they are trying to use a horse saddle which is causing problems. Oh, maybe they bought a ‘mule saddle,’ but when I ask them about the skirting, it’s not a mule saddle. When I ask about the D-ring placement for the cinches, it’s not a mule saddle. They were told one thing, though they were doing the right thing, and by golly, didn’t get what they really needed to help the mule.

Understanding The Mule’s Back And Why Separated Saddle Skirting Matters

Now that we understand the shape of the shoulders in a mule, let’s talk about the back of a mule. When looking at a horse saddle, you’ll see that the skirting on a horse saddle is square in the front, sitting right on top of the mule’s shoulder (hitting the scapula every time he takes a step). When it goes to hitting the scapula, the reverse momentum pushes it backwards so it hits the mule’s hip. Double whammy!

Look at the rear of a horse saddle as it sits on the horse’s back. You’ll see the skirting is leather-bound – binding the two sides of the saddle together in the middle. That’s fine for a horse. Guess what, not good for a mule. If your saddle skirting is sewn together in the rear, that skirting will sit right on top of the spine and put hundreds of pounds of pressure on it.

Mule moves forward.
Shoulder moves up.
Hits the saddle.
Propels it backwards.
Rear of the saddle comes down on the hip and spine.
Not good.

Mule saddles need the skirting separated in the rear to make room for the unique shape of the mule’s spine. You might believe me, but I want you to see it for yourself. Look at the mule’s back near the rear of the spine and you’ll see three bones sticking up… right above where your saddle will sit. Skirting on a horse can be bound together. Skirting on a mule needs to be separated. It’s really simple. The leather is hard; when the spine rubs against the leather, it’s going to cause something called a fistula on a mule. Now, we are using horse saddles on mules that are stitched in the back with leather binding and that leather binding creates a rasping situation – causing a fistula on the spine.

Horse Saddle vs Mule Saddle: Mule Saddle Wins On Account Of Bone Structure

It is my hope that you can already see how a horse saddle can inflict large amounts of pain on your mule. Obviously, that’s not your intent. You want the best for your animal – that’s why you’re reading this article (and have made it this far). Don’t beat yourself up over it. Believe it or not, I didn’t always see things this way. In my early days of cowboying, I didn’t know a darn thing about mules. I thought “an equine is an equine is an equine” and I treated mules like horses.

Folks, all we can do now is say, “The past is the past, I’m free at last.” If Jesus can set us free from sin, we can certainly be set free from past “mule saddle mistakes.”

Because the mule has a completely different bone structure from a horse, we need to begin looking at what that means for a saddle.

The most natural question to ask at this point is, “What do I need to look for in a good mule saddle?”

A good mule saddle is made to fit the mule’s basic conformation. And let’s be clear saying a saddle is a ‘mule saddle’ doesn’t make it a mule saddle. Keep reading and you’ll see what I mean.

How A Mule Saddle Is Different From A Horse Saddle

Looking at a mule saddle and horse saddle is very much like looking at a mule and a horse. At first glance they look the same, but when you start to examine them more closely, at what’s underneath the surface, the differences are clear as day.

The most fundamental thing to understand about the difference between a mule saddle and a horse saddle are the saddle bars. Now that you understand a horse saddle won’t fit a mule, you’ll start shopping for a mule saddle; you’ll notice there are a lot of saddles out there labeled mule saddles. Many folks who don’t understand mules are selling products and throwing the word mule in front of the saddle name. Why? Because they see a marketing opportunity, they made a few modifications to get something in their catalog.

Trouble is, these mule saddles – in my experience – are not mule saddles. Why? Because they are made with horse saddle bars, not mule saddle bars. That makes all the difference in the world.

Back in 1982, I took a liking to mules. I bought my first mule, Casper, when I didn’t know anything. I wanted to buy a mule. I found Casper, went to ride him, and he threw me off. I thought, “dog gone it, I’m going to buy this mule so I can get even with him.” That was where my journey with mules began; after listening to Casper – and every mule I’ve owned since then – I discovered that no saddle out there was made to fit my mule. The only way I could be certain that my saddle was going to be comfortable for my mule, was to make my own.

Folks, the only way you can really know if a saddle is using true mule saddle bars – shy of tearing it apart and ruining it – is to know and trust who is selling it to you. For that reason, I tell folks who want to buy a mule saddle that they don’t want a saddle with mule bars – you want a saddle with Steve’s mule bars because that’s the only way you will know.

There is no other saddle in the world that makes the mule saddle with mule bars designed like my mule bars.

And just to make sure we’re all on the same page, the bars of the saddle are the two pieces of the saddle tree that go down on the mule’s back on each side of the spine. The bars protect the spine while distributing the pressure of the rider’s weight across the entirety of the animal’s back.

A horse saddle has horse saddle bars and rather than distributing the weight of the rider across the entirety of the back, the saddle actually creates a bridge across the back, placing the rider’s weight squarely on the shoulder and the hip.

On my mule saddles, the mule saddle bars come up in the front by the shoulder to relieve pressure from the scapula, so it doesn’t hit the scapula as it moves up and down. The saddle rises up in the front to accommodate that bone structure and movement.

The bars are level with the back all the way from the front to the rear of my mule. There’s a little bit of elevation in the back to allow the kidneys to remain safe and protected. My mule bars accommodate the kidneys in the back, the shoulders in the front and place the bulk of the rider’s weight in the seat. All of this together allows the mule to have fluid, full-motion. Whereas a horse saddle is going to restrict movement while causing the mule pain, which can lead to all sorts of other problems.

Understanding The Parts Of A Proper Mule Saddle

We now know that a proper mule saddle requires true mule bars, “Steve’s mule bars” and saddle skirting that is separated in the rear. These are the two most fundamental elements of a mule saddle as they allow the saddle to fit to the mule’s natural conformation.

There is a lot more to a proper mule saddle than these two elements. I have sold thousands of saddles and the vast majority of those saddle owners will send me pictures of their mule all rigged up – they want to make sure that everything is in its proper place to best accommodate the mule. I love looking at these photos and hopping on the phone with my clients to help them optimize every part of their saddle tack because every part of my saddle has been made specifically to fit the mule and donkey.

Understanding the mule saddle means understanding all the parts of a mule saddle. I want to start by introducing you to the specific features of a true mule saddle, “Steve’s mule saddle,” and why each part matters.

Mule Saddle Shape And Saddletree

The overall frame of the saddle is called the saddletree. The saddle tree can be made from a variety of materials from wood to composite materials such as polypropylene, with wood being the most common. The saddletree is covered with leather and is made up of two bars connected by two forks for the pommel and cantle.

The pommel is the forward, arched portion of the saddletree. On many saddles, the pommel is nailed into the saddletree. This is an opportunity for me to note a big difference between my saddles and other mule saddles. My saddles are made from a polypropylene-like material and they contain the pommel in the one-piece shape. The reason for this is that it gives the saddle a lot more strength.

The horn is an extension of the pommel, often tilted forward and used for holding rope. Different regions of the world will have different style horns, each being used for different things such as cutting and roping.

Looking at the pommel, the space just underneath is called a saddle gullet and is located over the mule’s withers. It’s important that the gullet have the right amount of clearance over the withers. If the height is too short, the saddle will rub on the mule’s withers. If the gullet is too wide, the saddle will sit too low on the shoulders, and also rub on the mule’s withers and the fat pocket right underneath the D-rings of the saddle. When you go too wide, you end up being on the fat pockets which can lead to the possibility of kicking out the ribs. Both of these equal an unhappy mule – we do not want that!

The part of the saddle that supports the rider is called the seat. Every seat is attached to the tree of the saddle. The seat is both curved and a bit sloped, to match the pelvic tilt of the rider. If you’ve never sat on a poorly constructed seat on a long trail, let’s keep it that way. Just like a poorly made saddle tree will make Mr. Mule unhappy, a poorly constructed seat makes for an unhappy rider.

The cantle is the arched, rear portion of the saddle tree, the back of the seat. I created a nice, protective cantle that is buckaroo in style and will give extra support after hours in the saddle.

Skirts are the large leather panels attached to the saddletree, to protect the rigging and give form to the saddle. While horse skirting is often squared, a mule saddle should have front skirting that is rounded to accommodate the scapula. The rear skirting should also be rounded to allow the saddle to fit around the animal and leave room for attaching D-rings to the skirting and the tree. When looking at your skirting, it can be leather or Cordura. Whichever you use, it needs to be rounded, not squared.

Mule Saddle Rigging Plates

Rigging is just as important to riding as the mule bars are to the shape of the mule. You’re going to need to connect all the appropriate tack such as a breast collar, cinches, britchen, reins, and more. The placement of the D-rings and rigging hardware is vital to having all the parts of the saddle work correctly.

The D-rings are used to connect the ties to the saddle and it’s important that they be in the correct place for the mule and in the exact same place on each side of the saddle.

Tie straps hang from a D-ring which secure the cinch. On a double-rigged saddle there is also a second cinch. The cinch is a leather or fabric band that holds the saddle on the mule’s back by tightening it under the body. Usually it is fastened to leather straps or nylon straps that hang from the rigging on each side of the saddle. If you ask me, I prefer the nylon because it’s stronger, needs less maintenance, and it’s smoother when you cinch up the mule so Mr. Mule doesn’t learn to hold air in his lungs to protect against an over-tightened cinch.

Saddle strings, or ties, are narrow strips of tanned leather, usually in pairs, that lace through the saddletree or coverings, and are held on the surface by rosettes; the long ends can be decorative as well as tie on ropes, water bottles, and other pieces of equipment. Typically, you’ll have to visit a saddle maker if you would like to replace your ties. All of my saddles have completely removable ties so you can replace them on your own.

Mule Saddle Fenders, Stirrups, And Saddle Pads

The fenders hang from the saddle and are connected to the stirrups. Fenders need to be treated and shaped to fit the individual rider’s legs. This is one problem you encounter when purchasing a used saddle. When the fenders are shaped for a different rider, especially over a long period of time, any new rider opens up the possibility of developing knee problems. Not to say you should never buy used, but it is definitely something to consider. My fenders rotate forward and backward to accommodate riding on a variety of inclines, taking pressure off the rider’s legs while allowing the rider to move more fluidly with the animal.

Underneath the saddle, you have the saddle pad. In the early days, soldiers would use a thick blanket underneath the saddle to serve as a pad – but it was also the same blanket they would sleep with. We’ve come a long way from soldiers riding into battle on equines. Now, we ride with saddle pads. Saddle pads serve a variety of purposes, not the least of which is keeping the saddle in place.

Additional Tack Connected To Your Mule Saddle

Even though the saddle pad is not connected to the saddle, it is just as important. This is also the case with your britchen and breast collar.

You must always ride with a britchen. The britchen is a strap arrangement that fits over your mule’s hind quarters and back around the rump to keep the saddle from sliding forward, particularly when riding downhill. The britchen needs to be adjusted to accommodate the incline of the terrain you’re riding on. Even when riding on flat terrain, you must ride with a britchen.

As an aside, some may say to ride with a crupper. A crupper is a leather strap that goes around the mule’s tail to keep the saddle from slipping forward. DO NOT USE A CRUPPER. The amount of weight that the crupper will place on the mule’s tail is too much for the tail to absorb. You’re looking at a strong possibility of breaking the mule’s tail, if not their entire back. I’ve seen riders have to put their mule down because of riding with a crupper. Remember, the tail is all bone and no muscle mass. When the crupper pulls against the tail, when the crupper starts overheating the tail and we loosen it up to take the pressure off, now the crupper comes up and can break the tailbone. Once the tail bone breaks, the donkey has to be put down.

A breast collar is the strap that passes around the mule’s chest on either side of the neck and is “connected” to the saddle. I use quotes because many get the breast collar wrong on the mule. When the breast collar is attached to the saddle, meaning it is fixed, as the mule walks forward his shoulders will bump the breast collar and slowly, but surely, the saddle will inch forward. I have designed a breast collar that is “connected” to the saddle through a pommel strap and allows the breast collar to slide left and right.

Click here to learn more about proper placement for the mule breast collar as well as my breast collar design.

5 Signs You Need To Buy A Mule Saddle

If you’re going to ride Ole Fluffy, he’s going to need a saddle. So, what would actually happen if you decide to use your horse saddle instead of buying a mule saddle? Your mule is going to start communicating with you, telling you that he doesn’t like the saddle. The trouble is, you might not understand what he’s trying to say. He isn’t going to turn around like Balaam’s Ass, look at you and say, “hey buddy, I don’t like this saddle!” He is going to speak “mule,” and unless you understand “mule,” you’ll miss the signs.

So let’s go through how your mule will tell you he is uncomfortable.

  1. Your mule will start shaking his head when you’re riding down hill.
  2. Your mule will start to move away from you when you’re trying to saddle him.
  3. Your mule will start to move away from you when you are trying to get in the saddle.
  4. Your mule will show sores and hair removal behind the front leg.
  5. Your mule will start to elevate his head when you go to get in the saddle.

There are far more signs to look for, however, these are the five most visible signs that you need to ditch the horse saddle, invest in a mule saddle – remember, “Steve’s saddle” – and preserve the health of your mule.

How To Find the Best Mule Saddle For You

In addition to educating you about why you need to buy a mule saddle, we’ve also talked about what makes a mule saddle a mule saddle – the bars. Should you have a custom saddle made so it fits perfectly? Should you go to your local tack shop and pick up a saddle and hope it’s got mule bars? Should you purchase one from my website?

Buy A Custom Made Mule Saddle

The most obvious solution for having a saddle that fits your mule, is to order a custom saddle made specifically to fit the measurements of your mule. But as you and I both know, sometimes the most obvious solution is not the best solution.

The benefit is clear, the saddle will fit your mule perfectly… well, it will fit your mule perfectly as long as she stays the same size. And therein lies the first problem. Your mule isn’t going to stay the same size. As the mule ages, her size is going to change. As the mule’s nutrition goes, so will her shape go.

More important than either age or nutrition, is the season of the year. When you measure your mule in the winter for a custom saddle so it’s ready to use in the spring, your mule will be fat and underworked. So what happens when spring rolls around? Perhaps it fits for a while, but as you ride Ole Fluffy more and more, she’ll start to lose weight and that perfect fit, well, it’s starts to not fit so perfectly.

When you build a custom saddle, what you’re actually building for is the muscle mass of the animal; as the muscle mass changes, so will the saddle fit. As far as fit, a custom saddle is great as long as your girl’s muscle mass doesn’t fluctuate.

Something else to consider regarding a custom saddle is cost. A custom saddle is going to run $2,000 to $3,000 more than a retail saddle. Why? Because it’s custom, haha! Don’t get me wrong, there are times for a custom saddle and there are reasons to justify the cost. Perhaps you have some discretionary income and you have a particular design in mind for your saddle. Maybe at that point, you can’t find the ‘look’ you want and a custom saddle is the only way. Okay, that makes sense. However, it will only work as well as the measurements are accurate. And speaking of measurements, that leads me to the final thing you need to consider regarding a custom saddle: the life of your animal.

In 2014, my wife’s mule of 28 years, Stacy, passed away. She was a great mule and had provided hundreds of rides to family members, friends, vacationers, other mule owners, equine enthusiasts, apprentices, children, and many others. When Stacy passed away, it was a sad day for our family. It was during the Arizona monsoon season and I wound up burying her during a storm. Burying an animal is very difficult and comes with all sorts of emotions. I’ll save all that for a different article.

The reason I share my story about Stacy is that the loss of an animal, whether through death or other circumstances, is something we must consider when we purchase a custom made saddle. When that animal dies, the saddle can no longer be used. When you sell that animal, the saddle has to go with it because it’s made for the muscle mass of that animal. A custom saddle means it will only fit one mule during that mule’s lifetime.

For these reasons, I choose not to invest in custom saddles. Sure, I’ll do custom work on my saddles (stamping, materials, etc) but as far as the tree itself, I use my own saddle trees that are made to fit the skeletal structure of all mules and donkeys. Stacy’s saddle is one that I still have in my tack room today and continue to use. It’s a bittersweet reality that a bit of Stacy is always with us, but it’s also a heck of a lot cheaper to keep using a saddle on my new mules than having to buy a new one each time.

Find And Buy A Used Mule Saddle

One of the most frequently asked questions I receive is if I sell any of my saddles used. Used markets are amazing places to find value. Used trucks, used mules, used RVs, used trailers, and just about anything else you could think of. So is buying a used saddle a good option when in the market for a mule saddle?

Personally, I don’t believe there is much of a downside to purchasing a used saddle other than this: that saddle has been fitted to it’s first rider, particularly in the fenders and seat size. Finding a used mule saddle (remember, with REAL MULE BARS) is difficult enough. Finding a used mule saddle with the right seat size and fenders that have been shaped to fit your legs and height is nearly impossible.

When you ride with a saddle that is not sized and shaped for you, you open yourself up, unnecessarily, to injury. Now don’t hear me wrong, there is always going to be danger when working with these animals. If you think there is a safe mule, a safe donkey, a safe way to ride, you have got to change your thinking right away. These animals are dangerous. They are big and if they decide to do something, there is little you can do in the moment to change their minds (which is why ground foundation training is so important). Now, getting back to the saddle. If everything goes great on your ride, but you’re riding in a saddle that’s too big, you’re going to be sitting way back on the spine, pushing the spine outward. Sit directly on the spine and you’re pushing the saddle backward rather than forward. You want to sit squared and centered in the saddle. That makes the animal most comfortable.

Looking back at the question that I am asked so often, “Steve, do you have any used saddles for sale?” the answer is no. Now, I call used saddles experienced saddles and the reason why I don’t sell experienced saddles is because my saddles hold their resale value really well and when folks go to buy a used saddle they’re looking for a deal, say, 50% off. However, my saddles sell used typically for between 75% to 80% their original cost so it just doesn’t make much sense for me to stock used saddles, especially when considering the details mentioned above. Just to illustrate, at the time of this writing, I had seen one of my Cowboy Saddles, six years old, for sale on eBay. At the time of that auction, the Cowboy was selling new on my site for just over $1,000. The current auction price, keep in mind – not the final price, was over $800.

So if you’re looking for a used saddle, there are deals to be had out there, but you’ll need to spend a lot of time looking and then make sure it’s the right size for the rider.

Buying A Steve Edwards’ Mule Saddle

I never got into the mule life to be a mule tack manufacturer. No, sir. I got into it because I was a cowboy and heard other cowboys, men whom I greatly respected, talk about how awesome mules were. As I learned more about the mule, I realized that the word-of-mouth training that had been passed along to me just didn’t make sense. I started to listen to the mule rather than listen to men and that’s when things changed for me.

Fast forward through decades to today, I have a full line of saddles, tack, instructional videos, and resources to pass along to you, today’s mule owner, everything I’ve learned. I can say, confidently, that my saddles are the best fit for mules and donkeys. Yes, I want you to buy one of my saddles; the reason is because I want the best for you and your mule. I care about your safety and I care about the mule’s comfort. That’s why I am still training, traveling, and innovating long after many of my peers have retired and moved to a more tropical climate.

The saddles available on my website fit the bone structure of your mule. These saddles are made to fit any mule with average conformation and for those with conformation conditions, such as downhill hip, I work with owners to help them get the best fit possible. One example of how I’ve helped owners with mules having a downhill hip is by developing a downhill hip saddle pad that compensates for the condition.

As long as your mule has been raised right, does not have significant bone issues, we’re talking major issues here, and has average conformation, my saddle with fit your mule. Why? Because my mule saddle fits the mule’s bone structure.

I never thought I would be in the saddle business, but the truth is that I could not find anything out there that actually met the needs of these animals. I couldn’t find anything that didn’t cause these animals pain. I couldn’t find anything that was actually made to fit my animal. I started doing what nobody else was willing to do: listen to the mule, learn from the mule, create a saddle, create tack that is meant to get the best out of the mule.

You have all four saddle options. I make sure people know they have four options. I’m just presenting the evidence to you and letting you make the decision yourself.

How To Choose The Right Saddle Size For You, The Rider

By now, it is my hope that you’re on board with the idea of putting your horse-saddle-on-a-mule’s-back way behind you and can say, “The past is the past, I’m free at last.” It is my hope that you’re able to see that you will find much greater joy in riding and your mule will find much greater comfort in serving you when using a mule saddle with mule bars – Steve’s saddle.

It is my hope you’re committed to purchasing a true mule saddle with mule saddle bars. So the next question you need to consider is what size mule saddle you need to purchase.

My saddles come in four seat sizes: 14”, 15”, 16”, and 17”.

There is a myth that you have to be able to sit in the saddle to find the right saddle size. The reason this is a myth is because all saddles are essentially the same for the rider. There might be a bit of extra padding or the size of the cantle might be different on a saddle here or there. The truth is that these modifications are not for the size of the rider, they are for the work being done in the saddle. I’ve sold thousands of saddles through my website to people who have never sat in my saddle. If they don’t know what size they need, they contact me with their height and weight so I can tell them exactly which size they need. If they see me at an expo or clinic, I’ll usually have a few saddles and will measure them right then and there. So how do you measure for the rider? How am I able to tell from height and weight? Well, it’s all in what you’re measuring for.

Click here to contact Steve with your height and weight if you’d like to know which size saddle to purchase

Most often people believe that the size of the seat is determined by the rump size of the rider. It makes sense to think that way and unless you’ve been told differently, it’s all you have to go by. The truth is, you pick the size of your seat based on the size of your thigh. Your thigh size determines the size of seat you will want for your mule saddle.

How To Measure A Saddle Seat In 10 Steps

  1. Sit in the saddle
  2. Put your heels down and your toes up
  3. Move your shoulders back and push your chest out
  4. Place your rump against the cantle
  5. Do not put your feet in the stirrups*
  6. Let your legs hang down
  7. Take your first two fingers and place your fingers against the saddle between your thigh and the pommel
  8. If you have just enough room for those two fingers in the small space, you have the right size mule saddle
  9. If you have more than enough space for your first two fingers, you need a smaller saddle
  10. If you do not have enough space for your first two fingers, you need a larger saddle

*If you put your feet in the stirrups first, it’s going to kick your leg back almost three inches and you can’t get an accurate measurement when your legs are kicked back.

It’s difficult to find the right saddle for you by just sitting in a bunch of saddles. Folks think they need to sit in the saddle to find the right fit and it’s not true. You need to actually look for something. There’s one core measurement that will determine whether or not that saddle is the right fit for you. And that is your thigh measurement.

Mule Saddle Function And Features

Choosing a saddle ultimately comes down to function and features. What do you want to do with your saddle and what do you want it to look like? With that in mind, I have to make something very clear: Looks have absolutely nothing to do with the functionality of a saddle. The look is 100% for you. Now, if you’re showing your mule, then looks are a little bit more important and I understand the need to give them more consideration. For the other 98% of us, when it comes to just riding, looks play no importance in the functionality of your saddle.

Even though looks have nothing to do with the functionality, they are still important! After all, you need to like the saddle you’re riding. If you’re building a custom saddle (we’ve already talked about the pros and cons of that) you will have a lot of flexibility in determining what you want. You’ll spend at least $2,000 more than a retail saddle and you could probably go all the way up to $20,000 more if you wanted to.

At Queen Valley Mule Ranch, our saddles are built in the US using top shelf materials and manufactured by experienced suppliers. Our saddles are made to be stylish and each one has a unique look. The only customization we provide on our saddles is custom stamping on the fenders, the seat, the pommel, and the skirting.

Though the only custom feature we offer is stamping, that’s not to say that my saddles aren’t designed to turn heads! Every one of my saddles is built on my tree, using real mule bars, and each one has a unique look, giving you multiple options in regards to finding the one that works best for you.

8 Design Features To Customize The Look of Your Saddle

  1. Color: You will often have a choice of single, 2-tone, or 3-tone color.
  2. Seat: Choose a padded seat or an unpadded seat.
  3. Cheyenne roll: This is behind the seat so you can reach behind and grab a hold when you’re going downhill.
  4. Horn: Nearly all saddles will have a horn, though you can find saddles that are made without a horn.
  5. Cantle: You can have a 4” cantle, like my saddles, or you can go up as high as a 6” cantle. It all depends on how you want to use it. I’ve found a 4” cantle is easiest to get in without sacrificing much height.
  6. Ties: You’re going to want to tie down your slickers, water bottles, saddle bags, and other travel gear. Your ties will either be built into the saddle (you’ll have to have them repaired or replaced by a saddle maker) or they will be like the ties on my saddle, removable and replaceable on your own.
  7. Conchos: Stylized conchos are mainly for looks and boy, do they look awesome! Our conchos are custom made for my Steve Edwards’ Signature Series Saddles and has the QVMR brand on them.
  8. Stamping: Though we already talked about this, you can use custom stamping to really have a saddle that turns heads.

When it’s all said and done, you want a saddle that suits your needs. Looks are important, but comfort for you and comfort for your mule is the ultimate concern.

Final Thoughts On Buying A Mule Saddle

First, I want to say thank you for taking the time to educate yourself about the mule. In the old days, I was ignorant and there are a lot of things I wish I could go back and do differently. Knowing what I know now has completely changed the way I communicate with my mules and has made being a mule owner and an equine lover much more rewarding.

Disposition and confirmation are two things that are just in a mule. You can’t train disposition and you can’t do much to change their conformation. The two things you and I are in control of is training the animal, and the equipment we choose to use with our animal. That makes your saddle and tack extremely important.

I realize that not everyone is ready to buy a new saddle. Give me a holler, I’d love to talk to you about what you can do now to take steps so that when you buy your mule saddle, that’s the last piece of the puzzle. The truth is, as much as it is important to buy a mule saddle made with mule bars – remember, Steve’s saddle – the saddle will only be as good as the saddle fitting, and that’s for another article.

If you’re ready to make that investment for you and your mule, great! You can buy your first or next saddle here!

If you’re not quite ready to buy that saddle, but you do want to keep taking steps forward, please feel free to contact me. I implore you to ask any questions you have. Become more educated about your mule, your tack, and your saddle. Don’t think learning about the mule is something you can finish, think of it as something that is part of your daily routine – like brushing your teeth, hopefully! Work on your ground foundation, learn how to communicate with the mule and gain her trust. Let’s even take a look at your nutrition program and see how we can get that mule’s health at top level from the inside out.

These animals are truly wonderful. You and I are fortunate to have discovered what a blessing they can provide to us as riders and owners. More and more people are starting to discover what you and I already know – mules and donkeys are the hardest working equine out there and now that you know the importance of treating them like a mule or donkey – and not a horse – it’s up to you to tell everyone else. Together, we can ensure each one has a fulfilling life – you and I have a productive investment – not to mention, a great friend!

Happy trails, partner!

We Were Doing Fine Until My Mule Bolted

Of all the emails and phone calls I receive, the most common and often the most desperate sounding ones center around mules that bolt. For no apparent reason and seldom with warning, someone’s mule took off like a rocket and scared the heck out of the rider or even worse, resulted in a crash. The caller usually says that the trust has been broken, the relationship severely damaged, and in some cases, the owner is wanting to sell the mule because of this event. They contact me to ask why it happened. They want concrete answers and they want them fast. Despite years of experience with mules and donkeys, I don’t have one simple answer. But I can offer a bit of a “checklist” which might explain a bolt. I cannot guarantee it will never happen again, but I can give you some things to look at to try to make sure you minimize your chances of a bolt.

When I look at a mule that had a behavior event, I often start by looking at the mule in his environment. And these are the questions I ask.

Is Your Mule Healthy?

  • Does he appear in good physical condition with no obvious injuries or sources of pain?
  • Have his teeth been floated routinely?
  • Is his farrier care up-to-date and are shoes in place if you need them?
  • Does he move easily and show good flexibility, muscle tone, and activity?
  • Has he been seen by a chiropractor, massage therapist, or vet lately? This is especially important if he has not worked routinely.
  • Is his feed appropriate for his activity? Most mules don’t need sweet feed.
  • Does he get adequate turn out? If trail riding is the only outdoor time he gets, he will be frisky.

Does Your Mule Have A Good Foundation?

  • Is your mule respectful of you on the ground?
  • Does he lead well?
  • Does he stand for grooming, tacking, and mounting?
  • Have you refreshed his groundwork before starting your trail season and then periodically throughout the season?
  • Does he understand that you are the leader?
  • Does he clearly understand cues?
  • Are his trailer manners intact?
  • Does he tie well and ground tie?
  • Does he only move when you ask him to move?

Are You Using The Correct Tack To Promote Comfort And Compliance?

  • Is your saddle a good fit for your animal and for you?
  • Is your saddle pad one that supports the saddle and prevents slipping?
  • Have you selected the appropriate bit for his level of training?
  • Do you have a breast collar and britchen and are they fitted correctly?
  • Do you have both cinches in place, connected together, with the back being the tighter of the two?
  • If you are using saddle bags or carrying items, have you secured them and have you introduced them to your mule before you take that long trail ride?
  • Are your reins ones that you can easily handle?

Have You Done What You Can To Manage Behavior Issues?

  • Is your mule buddy or barn sour?
  • Can your mule comfortably ride alone or does he need a buddy or group?
  • Are you the regular rider?
  • Are you a confident leader?
  • Are you able to address behavior issues calmly and confidently, or does your mule scare you?
  • Are you riding with reliable trail partners?
  • Do you have realistic expectations?

By now, you are saying, “Steve – you ask too many questions!” Well, there are these issues and many more possible causes for a mule bolt. And there are no shortcuts. You need to look at each and every one of these points and be brutally honest.

If I had to pick the most common areas where I most often find room for improvement – I would select these five:

  1. Many mules do not have a solid training foundation. Owners want to ride so they cut corners; the end result is that the mule does not have a solid foundation that will save him and his rider.
  2. The mule’s teeth have not been tended to. For some reason, people don’t seem to be as regular about floating a mule’s teeth as they are with horses.
  3. The saddle is one that pinches or stabs the scapula area of the mule. You can’t just set a saddle on and go. If your mule bolts while on hills, especially going down hills, it is almost certainly his saddle that is the issue.
  4. The bit is wrong for the mule. Lots of mules play with their bits. And thinking that you can control a mule with a bit is shear folly. The bit is a communication tool. Fit it well and use the bit that is appropriate for your mule’s training level.
  5. You are not a confident leader. I often hear people say that the mule is smart so they let him make the decisions. Well, you can sure let him have input – but you have to be in control and there must be consequences for behaviors that show disrespect.

Now again, I am not suggesting that you skip any of the other evaluation steps or that you ignore other possibilities. Sometimes an animal will just spook and take off – mule or horse, this can happen.

So How Can We Put This All Into Practice?

Here is an actual client story:

This rider lives in an area where there is a lot of snow and cold in winter. The lady is older, so she is not a fan of winter riding. She turns her mule out each day all year round and her mule gets good quality first cut hay and a ration balancer (no sweet feed!). In summer, she is on pasture as well. The mule is regularly vetted, sees a massage therapist, gets her teeth floated every year, and has an excellent tack package (not to brag, but she selected my saddle, pad, britchen, breast collar, cinches, and correction bit). Each spring, she refreshes her mule’s training in the round pen. During those cold winter months, she also works in the stall on this mule, keeping her supple, flexible, and obedient about picking her feet up, standing for grooming, etc. After several round pen sessions, she takes the mule on some walks around her farm. She can evaluate how the mule is moving and how she responds to seeing things she will see on the trail. This all happens BEFORE that first spring ride. This has been her practice for five years.

This spring, while taking her mule for a walk, the molly spooked and took off. She pulled the rope away from the woman and ran around like a crazy animal with no provocation and no obvious issue. She was hard to catch, but when she was finally caught, the owner, being confident that this was not a physical issue but a behavior one, put the mule immediately into corrective work. Now, what does that mean?

It means she picked up the lead rope and took the molly who was winded and tired from her excursion, and put her in the round pen and had her work – and work hard. She did circles at a trot and a canter, she backed, she side passed, did figure eights, she yielded her hinds and her fores and she did it some more. There were no breaks. The molly was soaked with sweat and just wanting to eat after her walkabout – but the owner said, “No! – you want to run around, we will run around – you decided, not me.” After about 30 minutes of strenuous work and once there was complete and total obedience and submission, the woman let the molly slow down and let her stop. But still no food. She then did a thorough grooming and left the molly tied for another 30 minutes until she cooled down. Then she was walked back to a small paddock and placed on a dry lot for the remainder of the afternoon with fresh water and a salt block. She let the mule digest this experience and three days later, she took the mule for a walk in the same areas and she jokingly says that the mare was so quiet and slow that she had to “check for a pulse.”

In other cases, you need to evaluate possible physical causes. A mule that is generally very good but has an issue going downhill through ditches may have a saddle problem. A mule that throws his head around and then takes off may have a tooth or bit problem. A mule who consistently fails to respond to seat, leg, and rein cues likely has a foundation hole. Be a detective! You can probably even add to the list above when it comes to checking things out. But know that bolting does not have a single cause. There is no stock answer. And when you call me for help, I will ask a lot of questions. I will ask you to send me pictures. I will ask you about the training you have done and how your mule did with those lessons. My answers may only be as good as the information you give me. But in many cases, you can answer the questions yourself if you follow the checklist.

I don’t consider any question a dumb question. Please feel free to give me a holler!

Training A Mule – Don’t Create An “Ass From Hell”

I recently received a letter from a man who has a couple of young mules. I must first commend him on asking for help. But then I have to get really firm with him, because he is making some strategic mistakes that can jeopardize his safety. Let me begin by paraphrasing his issues.

Understanding Your Mule’s Behavior

We’ll call the writer “Fred” to protect his confidentiality. Fred wrote that he and his family were offering his mule some apples when the mule bit him. Apparently, the mule has done this with others as well. and they’re complaining that the bites are painful. He asked how floating the teeth fits into this situation, if at all, and then asked a bit about general behavior. He reports that the mule is leaning into him and pushing him around.

Where to start? I think for safety’s sake, we have to begin with the mule respecting the owner’s space. I can tell you a story from my days at Pierce College when some of my students were watching a hundred-pound, petite lady fight with her 17-hand Shire horse at a show. She was being tossed around like a rag doll in the midst of a busy venue. She had a chain on the horse, but it was not effective at all. I could see that disaster was just around the corner. There were lots of people around, kids running, babies in strollers, etc. So, I asked one of my students to fetch my Come-A-Long rope. In the meantime, I asked the woman if I could be of assistance and she was happy to hand her horse over to me.

Show Your Mule or Donkey Who Is In Control

Once I had the Come-A-Long in place, I was able to control the horse’s feet in a matter of a few minutes, meaning he learned to stand still. I am a firm believer that the equine should stand still at a safe distance. But this carries with it the responsibility of the owner to stay a safe distance away from the mule. When people run up too close to the mule or horse, their natural instincts will kick in.

Remember, mules have a fight or flight response. If you move in too quickly or with a posture that makes the mule question your motives, he will either take off OR he will push back. Neither is desirable. In using the Come-A-Long rope, our goal is to establish that we control the mule’s feet and will have a safe buffer space between us at all times. No questions asked.

Now to do this, nobody has to be mean to the animal. Trust me when I tell you that the mule is grateful to have a responsible, consistent and fair leader. You must set the rules and you must follow them religiously. The mule cannot live in a world where sometimes you do it one way and sometimes you do it another way because you are tired, want to hug him or whatever. He wants black and white. He wants to know exactly where he stands.

Establishing Leadership With Your Mule Or Donkey

Using the Come-A-Long allows me to draw a clear line between comfortable and uncomfortable for the equine. Do what I ask and there is no pressure on your precious nose. But give me attitude or move in a way that is not acceptable and your nose will suffer the consequences. It’s that simple and direct. Mr. Mule will always opt for comfort when given the choice between comfortable and uncomfortable.

First and foremost, communication with your mule begins with establishing that you are the leader. You say when and how he can move. And you say how far away from you he must stand. Sometimes, I even kick a little dirt at a mule who is thinking about encroaching on my space. It’s a gentle “reminder.” I have a DVD about communication with your mule that goes into this in more detail.

Should You Give Your Mule Or Donkey Treats?

Now, let’s talk about the treat situation. The woman that I mentioned above told me how she loved to give her horse carrots. The problem was that one time she reached up to pet his nose and he thought her finger was a carrot. She now has half an index finger where he bit it off. The crushing power of a horse’s or mule’s jaw is intense. Our little body parts are no match.

Any behavior that encourages mouthing is totally unacceptable. The mule should have a quiet mouth at all times when in our vicinity or doing anything with us. Folks seem to always want to give treats to mules and horses – I cringe when I see it. They are not dogs. Training for a horse or mule does not need to involve a treat. The training itself is a reward and the treat does not reinforce the lesson. In fact, it may well undermine your good intentions by making the mule “demand” the treat; eventually Mr. Mule won’t perform the task without a treat. Remember, they are smart!

In the Grand Canyon, lots of people want to “treat” their mules. That is, until they get bit. There are huge signs telling people not to feed the mules, but people still get bit because they will offer grass or some goody on the sly. Mr. Mule will not look at you adoringly like your puppy does after he gets a good treat. Instead, he will either totally dismiss you when he sees you have no more OR he will get pushy and demand more. Neither is good. While we do control the food, it must be on our terms. We are not feed bags.

There are times when offering a treat does foster training and communication. But these times are limited and should be done only with a clear understanding of the goal. For example, if you can’t get a mule to approach you, you can entice him to come closer with a treat. But when he reaches a reasonable distance (3-4 feet from you), you should either drop the treat, so he can pick it up OR hold it out at full arms length in an open and flat hand, so he can’t grab your fingers.

Giving treats is a hot topic among equine trainers. Some insist that no treats should ever be given by hand. At the other extreme, some say that the equine should be trained to be gentle enough to take a treat from a child. I am somewhere in between, I guess. But generally, I am not a treat person; I think you can see why.

Treats Are Not Always The Best Solution

Before I get off the treat issue, I want to share one more story. I knew a lady who decided that if she gave her mule treats while she was preparing to mount, the animal would stand still enjoying the treat so she wouldn’t have to work so hard to teach her molly to stand still at the mounting block. This is trouble for a couple of reasons. First, you may have to mount when you don’t have a treat handy and the mule will surely make you pay for that mistake. Secondly, her mule learned to wolf that treat down pretty quickly and would “beat her to the punch” – the treat would be gone, the woman would be half on and the mule would be dancing around looking for another treat.

The Health of Your Mule’s Or Donkey’s Teeth Matter

Fred asked about floating teeth and if that led to the biting behavior. Floating the teeth has nothing to do with biting behaviors. It does influence how well the mule tolerates a bit. Now teeth do play an important role in behavior and the overall health of the animal. Abscessed or broken teeth or teeth with sharp points will cause the mule to have difficulty eating and may lead to him giving you trouble. Floating the teeth of the young mule that Fred described would not solve his biting problem; though he should have the vet check Ole’ Fluffy’s teeth routinely when he comes for annual shots.

Ask, Tell, Demand

Through all of this, I want Fred to understand that all interactions with his mules follow the Ask, Tell, Demand pattern. This is the same between animals in the pasture. Either you or the mule are going to be herd leader. It’s up to us to make sure it’s not Mr. Mule. Here’s how it goes among the equines themselves.

ASK – The lead mare pins her ears and asks Mr. Mule to get out of her space.

TELL – The mule does not get out of her space. The lead mare then pins her ears and swishes her tail.

DEMAND – The mule keeps coming, so now the lead mare spins and kicks. If she connects, that generally gets the job done.

The fact is Mr. Mule will use his body to communicate with you. If he can push into you and make you move out of his way, he is herd leader. If you don’t allow him into your space (ask, tell, demand) and you insist that he is the one not moving his feet, you are herd leader. That is not being mean.

Owning a mule or donkey is not a democracy. For everyone who thinks that they should offer the mule choices or give him breaks for good behavior – you are actually causing the mule to be more uncomfortable. He likes direction, black and white, and ease. He is inherently lazy and if you are a good herd leader, he knows you will take care of him and he will not test you. But plant that seed of doubt and he starts thinking, “Oh my! I better take control here.”

How To Treat Feeding Time

Other behaviors often revolve around feeding time. I was helping some folks who had Percherons that were causing some pretty big injuries, like broken toes. It seems that the folks were bringing out buckets of feed and the horses were charging in and being very physical in order to grab the grain. Thinking this through should lead you to preparing feed in a separate area and then allowing the horses access to a trough or bucket. A human holding food is nothing more than a target for an equine who wants that grub.

Your Next Steps

Phew! I have covered a lot of ground in answer to Fred’s questions – but I want to save him a trip to the emergency room and I want him to avoid creating the Ass from Hell. He is doing no favors for his mules or himself by continuing his current plan. My response to Fred is simply this.

  1. You have to be herd leader. You must be confident and consistent.
  2. You have to learn more about communication with your animals. They aren’t people and they aren’t dogs. Something like my Ground Foundation & Communication kit will help you establish that open and meaningful line of communication.
  3. Treats have no place in mule training. The mule may want them, but he does not “value” them. And if he can get treats from you on his terms, he is showing you how much smarter he is.
  4. You are not being unkind or mean by insisting that your mule keep a respectable distance from you and by insisting that he not “mouth” you or frisk you for treats. It’s all part of being the leader. The leader controls the food. The leader moves the feet. The leader controls behavior. That leader must be you

You will be surprised how much sweeter your mule becomes once he feels he can depend on you to look out for him. He likes structure and rules. He feels insecure and unsure of himself when he has to question what should be done.

Fred, you have started to make your mule an “ass from hell.” But the good news is that it’s not too late! Get that foundation kit and spend 4-6 hours a week for 30 days training your mule; you won’t believe how different your life with a youngster can be. Kudos to you for seeking advice – now it’s time to get to work!

Proper Breast Collar Placement – Breast Collar for Mules and Donkeys

Correct breast collar placement for a mule or donkey? It’s a question that comes my way several times a year and it’s one that mule and donkey owners definitely need a specific answer to.

Basics of Mule and Donkey Movement

Mules and donkeys are very lateral when they’re walking. Every time their shoulder hits the breast collar, the breast collar is telling the saddle, “stay here.”

The problem is that mules are v-shaped in their shoulders. Why does that matter? The shoulder shape on the mule and donkey is the exact opposite of the shape you’ll find on a horse. If you choose to use a horse breast collar which attaches to the rings on the saddle or a pulling collar (which is the worst) that attaches to the pommel, it is going to pull the saddle forward. Anything that’s attached hard and fast will pull your saddle forward.

Are horses different from mules and donkeys? You betcha! Horse trainers might mean well trying to train a mule or a donkey, but you want to work with someone who understands HOW mules and donkeys are different from horses and how to communicate with them based on those differences. A horse saddle may be able to sit on a mule or donkey, but you’ll never get the best out of that mule or donkey because the horse saddle is causing them excruciating pain.

And in the same way, a horse breast collar may ‘fit’ on a mule or donkey, but in an effort to repurpose your tack or save a few dollars, you will be damaging your animal and holding yourself back from getting the best out of Ole Fluffy.

A Breast Collar for A Mule or A Donkey

For the longest time, folks didn’t realize the differences between a breast collar on a horse and a breast collar on a mule. Just like they thought an equine saddle is an equine saddle. The mule and donkey would be in pain, the owner would just think that the animal was stubborn and go on using improper equipment.

I never got into the mule and donkey world thinking I would develop a breast collar, but when I realized the difference in movement between a horse and a mule, I had to do something.

No breast collar existed which would compensate for the unique movement of the mule or donkey. So I could either continue to hurt the animal and have the saddle keep pulling forward or I could create something that showed my animals I cared about them – not to mention, get the most out of them.

My breast collar is attached to the pommel, but if you look closely you’ll see that it actually isn’t ‘attached’ to anything. Instead, I have a small strap attached around the horn and the breast collar actually slides through that strap. As the mule moves, the breast collar moves back and forth. It gives to accommodate the movement of the animal.

Front view of breast collar pummel strap

The 28-inch pummel strap goes through the pummel to create an X.

Front view of the pummel strap with adjusting strap inserted

You can see the breast collar adjustment strap running through the pummel strap. you can pull on either side of the adjustment strap without the saddle moving.

Pummel strap top view

Another angle of the pummel strap creating a X for the adjusting strap to go through.

 

 

The only time my breast collar is going to pull on the saddle is if I’m dragging a calf to the fire or going up a hill. If you’re using a pulling collar, you want it to fit right alongside the shape of the neck. If you use a flat one, it’s going to inhibit the shoulder. If you use one that goes over to the d-rings it will also inhibit the shoulders.

How to Tell If My Mule or Donkey Is In Pain – Short Strides

Watch your mule. When he gets tired of the pain and pressure from an incorrect breast collar (or saddle, for that matter), he’ll start short-striding. He will get all up underneath himself in the front end. Short striding means a mule’s front legs are working harder than their hindquarters. They’re trying to get away from the pressure of the breast collar because it is bumping their shoulders. Rather then stretching their legs out full-length (like you want them to), they will come up short stride. Instead of an 18-inch stride, they will restrict their movement to a 9-inch stride.

Proper Placement of A Breast Collar On A Mule or Donkey

One of my clients, Cheryl, sent in three photos of her mule wearing my breast collar. In the photos, she has the collar attached directly to the pommel. The pommel is the front of the saddle below the horn.

example of incorrect breast strap page

You can see that the breast collar adjusting strap is incorrectly running through the pummel.

Breast collar strap incorrectly running over the pummel

You can see the adjusting strap incorrectly running OVER the pummel in this picture.

Another wide angle view of the incorrect breast collar placement.

 

There is a strap that is 28-inches long called a pommel strap, that is supposed to go around the pommel and the breast collar goes through that strap. By going through the pommel strap, the breast collar is able to move easily. In the photo, Cheryl isn’t using the pommel strap so the breast collar is constantly pulling on the saddle, making the saddle go forward. In addition, she doesn’t have a rear cinch on her saddle (always ride with two cinches, tight in the back, loose in the front). Without a rear cinch, or a britchen, the saddle will move forward and the breast collar is not going to work correctly.

As mentioned, the breast collar – my breast collar – should be connected to the pommel with the pommel strap that comes supplied with the breast collar. I attach the pommel strap first to the pommel, which creates an X. Take that strap through the hole in the pommel, come back around to the top of the pommel on the right-hand side of the horn, then cross and go under the pommel again, and finally come across the top of the pommel. That is what makes the X – a simple loopty loop.

Once the X is created with the pommel strap, take the long strap from the breast collar and go through the 28-inch strap. Finally, buckle on the right-hand side.

Mule and Donkey Rear Cinch

As mentioned above, in the images Cheryl sent in, she does not have a rear cinch on her saddle. Not only is the saddle going to ride forward which is inconvenient for Cheryl, but it will cause the saddle to hit the mule’s scapula as well as the sixth and seventh rib. Inconvenient for the rider, hell for the animal. Unlike a horse, the mule needs to have two cinches, loose in the front and tight in the back. Horses are different than mules and donkeys. Their needs are different than mules and donkeys. Treating a mule or donkey like a horse will destroy an otherwise awesome animal.

Sure, everything will ‘look good’ and the animal will appear to be doing fine, but a year from now you’ll see the mule begin tripping and showing signs of strong discomfort.

Finer Details of A Breast Collar and Final Thoughts

On the breast collar, each part has a name:

  • The 28-inch piece is called a pommel strap.
  • The strap goes between the mule’s legs and hooks to the front cinch is simply called a cinch snap.
  • Coming up from the cinch snap is the breastplate. This is the bigger, wider piece that’s somewhat V-shaped on the bottom and round on the top. It’s attached to a ring.
  • The two straps that go up on both sides are called neck straps, right and left neck strap.
  • The adjusting strap is the one that comes from the right neck strap, through the pommel strap, and then into the left neck strap.

That’s a lot of information about breast collars. The most important thing to take away from everything above is this: mules and donkeys are different than  horses. Treat a mule like a horse and you’ll have an animal that is unhappy and will eventually sustain serious injury. Treat a mule or donkey like a mule or donkey and you’ll have a lifelong friend who will do whatever you ask them to do.

You can find my breast collar here on my website. No matter what you buy, make sure it’s designed for the mule and donkey and does not sit fixed to the pommel. You want it to have give so it can move with the animal.

If you have any other questions about breast collars or anything related to the mule or donkey, give me a holler, 602-999-6853.