How to Measure Your Mule or Donkey for Bit Size

Let’s talk about how to measure your mule or donkey for the correct bit size.

What we’re going to do is take the mule and we’re gonna rub on him a little bit. We’re going to rub on the gums a little bit and then on the other side. Notice how he opens up his mouth. When he does, I’m going to rub on that bar then put my rope in there. I have a knot on the other side… I am going to measure the side without the knot after he gets quiet and then take that measurement.

This meal is about 16 hands hight and has a nice head.

Looking at our measurement, he’s going to be right around five and a quarter inches. You could go five and a half inches. I don’t really like the bit sitting completely against the lifts. Notice how the fat lipped they can, you saw her up pretty easily. So you could even use a five and a half inch on this bit, and this mule will do fine, but that’s how you measure for a bit what you do.

Be sure to check out Bits — Everything You Need to Know.

The Difference Between Mule Tack and Horse Tack

Maybe you have always wanted a horse or you used to have a horse and would like to get another equine. Lately, you’ve been hearing a lot about mules and the idea of owning a mule intrigues you. After doing some research about mules, you decide you want one, so you buy the mule of your dreams.

You have a lot of horse tack in your barn and figure you can use it on your mule. Horses and mules are related, they’re both equines. Why not? I’m here to tell you why that’s a bad idea if you love your mule.

Mules and Horses Are Different. Period.

Yes, mules are bred from horses and donkeys, but they are more like a donkey than a horse. Mules and horses are structurally different, which is why there’s a difference between mule tack and horse tack.

Mules have the skeletal structure of a donkey. Their shoulders are configured like a V, they carry their weight low and often have a larger belly. The withers in a mule may be visible, but if they are present, they’re only good for the lateral stability of the saddle.

The shoulders of a horse, on the other hand, are configured like an A. They carry their weight high and the withers support the saddle.

When a horse walks, his scapulae swing laterally. On the other hand, a donkey and mule have a vertical movement of the scapulae. The scapulae needs to have free and unimpaired movement. Hence the reason for different tack.

Krystèle Bodet with her mule, Vauban, wearing Steve Edwards pack and saddle gear in France. She has trained with horses as well but has learned that you can’t use the same tack and equipment on a horse as you do with a mule.

This is the Mule Tack You Need for Riding Your Mule

When I share this information at my live clinics, I hear this from folks: “Steve, I have been riding without a breaching for years and never had a problem.” “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 all the correct mule tack.

Here is a list of mule tack I tell every client who asks, “Steve, I’m going to get one of your saddles. What do I need for the whole setup?”

  • Saddle
  • Saddle Pad
  • 2 Cinches
  • Breast Collar
  • Breeching
  • Split Reins
  • Stirrups or Tapaderos
  • Beta Bridle & Reins or Headstall

Because of the way the mule’s bone structure is, it’s imperative that mules and donkeys use a breeching, a leather strapping that attaches to the top of the saddle to keep it from moving forward and backward. The two cinches that attach to the sides of the saddle keep it from moving from side to side.  

The saddle pad has to fit the conformation of the mule and donkey which helps the mule to sweat under the saddle, cushioning, cooling and lubricating his back to help prevent soreness and hot spots. No square skirted saddle pads!

We communicate to the mule or donkey through the bit and bridle. The bit and bridle must be designed according to the structure of the mule’s head.

Do I Need to Use All That Mule Tack?

You could ride bareback, but why? Some people think if you’re going for a short ride, you don’t need a breeching, but you do.

There are no shortcuts. Don’t assume your mule is okay. Don’t believe that your mule, donkey, or tack is the exception.

Every time you ride, you need to use everything in the list above. The list provided is what you need. Period.

Horse Tack Required for Riding

The tack store is full of specialty items that help you ride. All of this equipment can be intimidating for a seasoned rider, let alone a beginning rider who just wants to know which items are necessary for riding and which ones aren’t.

The specific horse tack you need varies depending on your level of experience, your horse’s level of training, and the riding disciplines you want to do with him.

The average horse rider uses this basic tack:

  • Saddle
  • Saddle Pad
  • Girth
  • Bridle with Reins

The saddle sits on the horse’s back, on top of the saddle pad, secured by the girths. The bridle and reins go on the horse’s head and helps you direct the horse the way you want him to go.

Once you have the basics down and know the riding style you prefer, there is a wide variety of tack you can try until you find what works best for you. Breast collars, back girths, tie-downs, martingales, and decorative tack all have different uses, and your trainer or an experienced horse person can help you decide what you need.

Why do Mules and Horses Have Different Tack Needs?

Because there are different ways to communicate with mules and horses, different tack is required for each of them. Now I already talked about the fact that a mule’s scapula moves up and down, while a horse’s scapula moves back and forth, that mules and horses have different shaped shoulders, they carry their weight differently, and their withers present differently.

White mule in a field at sunset
One way to spot the difference between a mule and a horse is by looking at their shoulders. In this photo you can see how the mule’s shoulders are configured like an “V” where the horse’s shoulders are configured like an “A”. Mule’s also carry their weight low and often have a sizeable belly.

Another thing that is different in mules and horses is their spines. Look at a mule’s back near the rear of the spine and you’ll see three bones sticking up. That’s right where your saddle sits. A saddle is made of hard leather, when the spine rubs against the leather, it can cause something called a fistula – it’s not a good thing for your mule. So mule saddles need the skirting separated in the rear to make room for the unique shape of the mule’s spine.

A horse’s spine is different. When looking at the rear of a horse saddle where it sits on a horse’s back, you’ll notice the skirting is leather-bound which binds the two sides of the saddle together in the middle. Skirting on a horse saddle can be bound together. That’s fine for a horse.

The structure of the mule’s palet is completely different from a horse. Their nose is longer, their mouth has nuanced differences from a horse. Because of this, the Mule Rider’s Martingale or a Trail Rider are the bits that work best for communicating with your mule.

Maybe you’ve heard all this before. Good! But I don’t think you can hear this enough. That’s why I repeat this information as often as I can because I care about mules and donkeys. I want them to be cared for and rode properly; I don’t want them to be in pain.

Listen to your mule. Take the time to make the mule and donkey your friends.

I’m Here to Help

If you are thinking about using your old horse tack on your mule or are in the market for new mule tack, I hope this advice helps you. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Happy Trails to you!

Teach Your Mule to Stand Still While Mouning

Teach Your Mule to Stand Still While Mounting

One of the great things about owning a mule, besides the companionship, is that you can go trail riding with it. There is nothing like hitting the trails with your equine. In fact, as you are reading this you may already be thinking about the next trail you want to explore with your mule. It’s exciting!

But before you even start the ride, you need to be able to mount your mule. It may be easier said than done, but with the right training, you can teach your mule to stand still while you mount. In this article, I will break down the steps you need to take to accomplish this.

Rider holding the mule steady
Having your mule stand still while you try to mount will take some practice but with the correct training, you will be mounting your mule safely and with ease.

Getting Ready to Ride Your Mule

When you are getting ready to ride your mule, the first thing you do is put the saddle on, you’ve got the halter on and the mule tied someplace. Once the saddle is on and you’ve moved him around and he’s quiet, then put the bridle on and then look at getting on yourself.

Once the cinches are all in place and everything is snug, you can start. And that’s done in three steps.

  1. Tighten the cinch a little bit. Move the mule off.
  2. Tighten up the cinch a little bit more. Move the mule off again.
  3. Then, tighten the cinch a third time. Move the mule off.

Reason I say that is the majority of mules are moving off because we tend to overtighten the cinches all at one time. We try to get the cinches as tight as we can. But now the mule is just wanting to get some pressure off of them. So they go to moving.

If we tighten the cinches up in three stages and not just with the mule or donkey standing still, then you can go to the next stage.

Get Your Mule to Stand Quietly

I take my reins in my left hand with the left rein a little snugger then the right rein, that will tip the mule’s nose toward me. Notice I said tip the nose only. What that’s doing, that’s getting the mule to see me with its left brain. Just tipping the nose a little bit will help him to be in his right thinking, correctly using his left brain. Now, my right hand takes a hold of the saddle horn and I give it a shake. The mule will then know I’m putting my foot in the stirrup and climbing in the saddle.

Now, how do we get there? Each one of those is a trick: tipping the nose, left brain – look at me, taking the saddle horn and shaking it – feet stand still.

Women mounted on a mule that is standing still
After the right amount of training, your mule will learn to keep their feet to stand still allowing you to prepare to mount.

Three steps to train your mule to stand still before you climb on

So, this is what I do to get them to stand still while I’m climbing on.

Number 1: I take both reins in my left hand snug, with my left hand on the horn, my right hand on the cantle and I violently shake the saddle and the mule. I mean I try to knock him off his feet. Mules want to control their feet. He then will stop and brace himself. When he braces himself, now he’s learned to not move a foot when you shake the saddle. Once that’s done, I give him a pet, let him relax a minute.

And when I say relax, I mean when the mule’s head comes down. They are not relaxed when the head is elevated. When I see the head come down just a little bit, it doesn’t have to be much, I give him another pet and then take the reins and walk off about 20 feet.

Number 2: I take hold of the reins with my left hand again, snug not tight, just snug where you can barely feel the nose. I take hold of the horn and the reins with my left hand and the cantle in my right hand. Once again, I try and shake the mule violently. This time he’s not going to move as much, he will try to catch his balance as soon as possible.

Once he has done that, I’m going to loosen the reins, I’m going to give him a pet, I’m going to watch for the head to come down and I’m going to watch for relaxation. Once that’s done, I take the reins and walk the mule off again.

Number 3: This time is the easy step of only shaking the horn and only taking the left rein snug in my hand with the right rein being a little loose. I shake the horn. The mule should stand still immediately.

Properly Mount Your Mule

Now, this is important. Use a mounting block or put the mule or donkey down in a low place where you can mount fairly easy.

Women about to mount a still mule with Steve Edwards overseeing
Once you trained your mule to keep it’s feet still, it’s time to mount your mule. Start by finding a low place where you can mount your mule easily or use a mounting block.

Proper mounting is the mule’s mane in my left hand with the reins, my right hand on the horn, then I put my left leg into the stirrup and I stand up in the stirrup, stand straight up. I do not swing my leg over the mule. I’ll stand there to the count of five. I will then swing my leg over and sit there to the count of five with my right leg hanging, then I will put my foot in the stirrup.

The problem as to why mules move off is because as soon as we get in the saddle, we immediately start riding. We do not want to do that. When you get in the saddle, set there. Loose reins tell the mule to stand still and quiet.

When you pick up the reins, the mule is to give you a simple elevation of the head, which says, “all right, I’m listening.” And then you go off to the right or to the left, you back up or you go forward. Try to change that up by using each one of those directions at different times.

So that is basically the foundation of how to get him to stand still and why a mule moves off.

You are building a foundation

Now when we do this, remember we’ve got to do steps to build a foundation of three, six, nine, 12. So, that day we use the three steps and the mule did fairly good. A couple of days or even a week later, we do those three and then we add three more. Now we have six. A couple of days later, we do those six plus three more. Now we’ve done nine. A few days later, we do those nine and add three more. Now we’ve done 12.

The big thing is four to six hours a week is a lot of training and it needs to be spread out over a month’s time frame.

What’s very important to understand is you build a foundation in six months. Six months, not thirty days. Nobody should ever take their mule or donkey to a trainer and expect them to have a good foundation in only 30 days. Six months builds a foundation. So, when you’re getting your mule to stand still, remember they have probably been doing that for several years. So that’s what you need to do for a foundation.

Six Reasons Mules Move When You Want to Get On

Why does the mule move when you try to get on? I’ll give you six reasons.

  1. We didn’t cue them to stand still.
  2. When we got on, we moved the mule off right away. We did that, not the mules.
  3. The third reason is mechanical. Are the teeth floated? This is extremely important.
  4. Is the saddle setting in the correct place? Because if the saddle is setting on top of the scapula, the mule is going to want to move in order to get comfortable and try to get that saddle off of his scapula.
  5. You must ride with a breaching. Flat ground, hilly ground, whatever, because in a matter of minutes the saddle is going to want to move forward.
  6. This is imperative, make sure that back cinch is tight, the front cinch is loose. That’s usually the final thing that creates a problem for the mule to move off.

Notice everything here is our conditioning of the mule, things that we did to get the mule to do what he’s doing, mostly to try to protect himself.

Steve Edwards training how to mount the mule correctly
When mounting a mule for the first time, it will take you many attempts before your mule learns to stand still and you feel safe enough to mount. This is all part of conditioning your mule.

Is It How You Get On Every Time?

You may be asking, is this what I need to do every time I want to ride my mule? Yes, every time you get on, you’re going to do these things.

Number 1: Have the left rein snug where you can just touch the mule’s nose when it looks at you.

Number 2: You’re going to take your right hand and you’re going to shake the saddle horn. Those are your cues. Okay, mule, stand still I’m climbing on.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not grab the back of the cantle and the horn to get on. That’s a good way to make that saddle roll. And second part, absolutely put the mule in a low spot where you can climb on or use a stepping ladder to climb up. Don’t just try to throw your foot in the stirrup and climb on. The majority of us are too fat and we can’t get on correctly.

Number 3: Your left hand is holding the reins and the mane, your right hand is on the horn, then I put my left foot into the stirrup and I stand up in the stirrup, straight up, for the count of five.

Number 4: I will then swing my leg over, sit there to the count of five, then put my right foot in the stirrup.

Steve Edwards mounting a mule
If you follow all the steps in this article, it’s only a matter of time before your mule is trained to stand still allowing you to mount him, just like Steve Edwards is demonstrating in this picture.

I use every one of these steps. They must be followed explicitly if you want to get on your mule and communicate clearly and crisply with him.

You are ready to ride.

Happy trails!

Hoof Care: Does My Mule Need Shoes?

When it comes to your mule’s care, the hoof is something that easily gets forgotten. Many people think that just because their mule’s hoof isn’t cracked or they see how hard it looks that their mule doesn’t need shoes. I’m going to stop you right there – this is wrong thinking. Your mule needs shoes to keep their hooves protected and healthy.

Just imagine going outside without shoes and having to walk on gravel. You won’t last very long. This is what your mule is doing when not wearing shoes, but weighing 400 or 600 pounds puts a lot more pressure on their feet. They need those shoes to protect their hooves.

Proper Alignment

Everyone knows the front end of your car needs to be in alignment to work properly. You keep your shocks in good shape and the right amount of air pressure in your tires. You take care of the tires and you have a lot smoother ride going down the road. It is the same with a mule or donkey.

I am going to say 95% of the mules I see are not being cared for properly. Look how crooked their legs are, look how hawked they are. This is a hypothetical figure for sure, but it’s based on what I see out there. A lot of that comes from their donkey parent, BUT if you trim, balance, and put shoes on them, you will have a lot straighter animal.

Alignment of Mule Hoof

When you look at your mule or donkey’s hoof, you see the frog is V-shaped. It points to the center of the hoof. If you see one side wider than the other off the frog, your hoof is crooked. That means you don’t have correct alignment. This is where corrective shoeing brings the hoof wall into place.

I do want to mention that during the winter when there is snow and mud you don’t have to keep shoes on your mule; they will suck off those shoes. But you have to remember when the hoof goes down, it expands. When it comes off the ground it contracts. What contracts more than anything else? The heel.

The Coffin Bone and Frog Work Together

The coffin bone is connected to the frog. When the coffin bone is staying straight, the rest of the surrounding hoof needs to stay even. To put it another way, you have the hoof – if you have one inch on one side of the frog and two inches on the other, then the hoof is crooked. The frog needs to sit in the center of the hoof. If you see one part of the hoof grow out, it needs to be trimmed off, so the hoof stays round.

Mule hoofs that are centered

The back hoof is rounded. The front hoof is pointier. Everything needs to be flush and pointing straight up and down.

The Wild Donkey and Mule Argument

People use the argument that the wild donkeys and mules are doing fine. It’s the natural way for rocks to chip away at the hooves. But these people are not in the field seeing what I see. Those wild donkeys and mules are not doing fine. They have horrible hoof care, hooves grown out in all directions. A lot of these animals are crippled, folks.

Please don’t use this argument to say your mule doesn’t need shoes. Trim your mules and donkey’s hooves. When you are in heavy rocks or riding on gravel trails, put shoes on so the gravel doesn’t go into the white line and you get a separation of the lamina.

Take care of your mule’s foot and he will take care of you.

I’m Here to Help

If you have a question about your mule or donkey hooves, please call or email me. Send me those hoof pictures and I will help you get them back in alignment, making your riding experience more comfortable for the animals and safer for you.

Bunny the Mule

Finding the Right Saddle Position

One of the joys of working with mule owners is helping them find comfort in and for their animals. I especially love it when it’s a brand new mule owner who wants to reach that place of comfort and safety working with their own animal.

It was my pleasure to help Scott, a long-time horse owner, make his first mule experience a good one. His mule, Bunny, is three-years-old and 14 hands high. His mom is a Tennessee Walker.

Scott's new mule Bunny

Getting the Saddle Right

Scott was excited to get my saddle on Bunny. His excitement came through in his text to me.

“Got my saddle today, did not have time to clean him up but my saddle fit great. This is the first time he has ever had a real saddle on. I love it!”

Bunny's Saddle too far forward

Being the teacher, I offered to check the saddle through pictures. The first picture showed the saddle was too far forward. I was pleased to hear that Scott knew this too. He had not added the britchen yet and planned to give Bunny a bath before sending pictures of him fully tacked.

Starting a New Mule Right

Many people ask if they should start with a young mule or get an experienced mule. I always say it is not about the age of a mule, but their disposition. Bunny seems to have a great disposition.

Scott wanted a young mule so he could start him off right and he picked one with a great disposition. He has been asking for advice and pointers – I am so glad he has! As a seasoned horseman, Scott understood he had to work with his mule differently. That has set him on a path of leading his mule to be safe for the rider and comfortable in his tack.

Bunny on the Trails

For Bunny’s first trail ride, Scott ponied him while wearing his tack, all except the britchen. And he pulled the saddle back off Bunny’s shoulders.

Hobbling Bunny the Mule

During breaks, Scott chose to put hobbles on Bunny. He stood perfectly. What a great looking mule!

Scott's Son Spencer riding Bunny the new mule

Later, Scott and his son Spencer started riding Bunny. His whole family loves the comfort of the saddle. Most importantly, Bunny is comfortable with the 28″ cinch in the front, snug in front, and a 30″ cinch on the rear, tighter in back.

Scott sent me a text to say, “I love my saddle from you, it is real nice. I’m going to order another soon.”

If you want to follow Scott and Bunny on their journey, you can follow them on Instagram.

I’m Here to Help

It has been my pleasure to help Scott on his path of owning his first mule. I love working with first-time mule owners and mule owners who’ve owned mules for years, helping them find comfort and safety with their mules.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Happy Trails!

Latigos: Using Nylon or Leather for Your Cinch Straps

Often, I get questions on using billets versus latigos with my saddles. Which is better for holding a saddle in place? And what material should you use – nylon or leather? In this article, I will answer those questions and explain why you should use nylon latigos instead of billets.

Why Use Latigos?

My saddles have D-rings placed in the correct locations to balance the saddle. This makes it more comfortable for the mule. You add a latigo (pronounced lat-i-goe) to each D-ring, two on the front and two on the rear. This helps the saddle stay in place. The latigos are for adjusting your front cinch and rear cinch so they keep the correct tightness on the saddle. This helps when you are getting on and off the saddle and to adjust as you are going down the trail.

With many other saddle brands, you use the front D-ring in full position, ¾ position, or center-fire position. My front D-rings are placed different from that because the front cinch is in a different area on a mule. This area is very sensitive for the mule because of the donkey side of its breeding. In order to place the cinch right to not bother the mule, the latigo strap must come off the D-ring down to the cinch.

That is the purpose of the latigo, it helps make the cinch tight enough and allows for adjustment.

This adjustment ability is important when you go down the trail. Most people tighten the cinches as tight as possible while the mule or donkey is standing still. Then as they go down the trail, the mule or donkey starts shrinking, releasing air from the lungs and stomach, and the cinches become too loose. So, you need to have long enough latigos to keep adjusting the cinches as your mule releases that air. This is like keeping the right amount of air in your tires, so your vehicle rides on the road correctly.

Should You Use Nylon or Leather Latigos?

There is a whole new world of products out there. That’s why it is imperative to look at overall safety and comfort – safety for us and comfort for the animal – when considering what material to use. The leather latigo is what I had used for years, but it is not as strong as nylon. That’s why our car’s seat belts are made from nylon instead of leather.

The strength of the nylon latigos is phenomenal compared to leather. When you fold the leather you stress it, making light cracks in the leather. This happens every time you fold or bend the leather. Eventually, the leather will break. Nylon doesn’t break from repeated bending and folding.

The leather also binds up when wet. So, when it’s wet, we pull harder and the leather binds up and makes the mule uncomfortable. That’s when they blow air in their lungs to keep you from pulling anymore. They use the air in their lungs to keep the cinches a little more comfortable for them. Then as they release that air, the cinches become loose.

The important thing to remember is that this poor behavior is our fault, not the mule or donkey’s fault.

The mule and donkey will blow air into their lungs to keep you from doing them harm by over tightening the cinches. People tend to overtighten the cinch because the saddle is not made correctly, or they use wool pads which are slick causing the saddle to slide off easily. That is why I developed my own latigos and pad that keeps the saddle in place.

I use nylon for the strength at 650 psi per square inch compared to leather at 250 psi per square inch. But I don’t use nylon just for the strength. When nylon gets wet it is very smooth. When you tighten the nylon up it becomes like a pulley on the top D-ring and another pulley on the bottom D-ring. It is very smooth and easy to tighten it up.

I also like how easy nylon latigos are to clean. After you remove them from the D-rings, you just throw them in the washer with your jeans and they clean right up. No oil to mess with like when cleaning leather.

Should You Use Billets with Cinches?

No. My saddles do not come with billets. The billet goes on the rear D-ring and is typically 2 inches wide and 21 inches long. It’s a strap with six holes in it. Many people will hook the tongue of the rear cinch into a hole on the billet before going down the trail.

The downside of most horsemen is they tend to not tighten the back cinch at all. They have it hang loose. Then they notice lots of white hairs in the scapula area. This is caused by wool pads and over tightening the front cinch while not using the back cinch at all.

As they ride down the trail like this, the rear of the saddle bobs up and down with their body because of the way mules walk. The mule becomes uncomfortable because the saddle continues moving forward and banging onto the scapula. The scapula goes up and down, much like the pistons in a car. So, when you tighten the front cinch, you are restricting the muscle mass and the tendons used to walk.

On a mule and donkey, it is imperative that the back cinch be the tightest and the front be snug to accommodate the A-shaped shoulders. This is the opposite of a horse because of the way a horse’s shoulder is V-shaped. That is why the saddle moves forward on the mule or donkey making it necessary to keep the rear cinch the tightest. When you keep the rear cinch tight as it should be, you don’t need a billet.

The Problem with Other Saddles

You’ll find that most saddles only have one latigo because people don’t want to go to the other side and adjust it. The problem is, if your cinch is not even on each side then your saddle will move towards the side that is pulling on it the most. This makes the saddle rest unevenly and causes your mule stress.

My saddle uses four latigos to evenly balance your saddle and keep your cinches in place. Most folks are too lazy to help the mule out and they wonder why their saddle moves so much. A lot of it has to do with billets on a saddle. Latigos are almost four feet long and work properly to hold the cinches in place. They adjust evenly and smoothly. Billets are only 21 inches long and cannot evenly balance the cinch since there are only six-hole sizes to choose.

Steve Edwards Mule Saddles

I spent years with mules and have learned what they need. It is mighty important to know you do not put billets on my saddles. Your saddle won’t work right, and your animal will be uncomfortable. My saddle design is completely different from everyone else’s. My mule tree is mine, no one else uses it. It is the Steve Edwards Tree and Saddle.

I have designed the saddle with the four D-rings in the proper location to be used with my latigos. They come in brown or black nylon.

If you have any questions on latigos or anything about mules and donkeys, give me a call. I am here to help you and your animal work together in comfort and safety.

Problems Installing A Halter

What is a Rope Halter Used For?

Proper ground foundation training for your mule or donkey is imperative. The first step is the come-a-long rope, and a fully adjustable rope halter is the second step in training your mule or donkey. It’s a refined way to teach the mule how to go left, go right, backup, and stop. What I mean by refined is communication with your mule that is precise or exact.

A properly adjusted rope halter has big knots in it, one on each side of the nose, two fingers up from the nostril. When you ask your mule to go left or right, stop, or backup, you put pressure on the knots on the halter with the lead rope.

Get your mule to back up using a halter

To train your mule to back up, you’re going to start by putting constant pressure on the halter with the lead rope pointing to your chest. The mule is starting to get uncomfortable and is trying to figure out what it can do to get this pressure off his nose.

Well, at first, he will try to stick his nose up in the air, then he will try to take his nose to the right and to the left, but the constant pressure from your hand to the lead rope pointing at your chest says to the mule, “you need to think about this.”

Pretty soon the mule thinks, “if I put my nose up, I can’t take the pressure off, if I take my nose to the right or to the left, I can’t take the pressure off, what happens if I drop my head?”

When he drops his head, he takes the pressure off his nose, and that’s the mule’s first step to understanding when both knots are on the nose and a small amount of pressure is there that the mule, the donkey needs to back up.

So, when he drops his head the pressure comes off the nose, you relax your lead rope for the count of 5, then you put pressure back on the lead rope again. The mule is thinking, “ok if I try to go up or down, right or left I don’t get anywhere, but if I drop my head, you let go of the lead rope and I will be comfortable.”

So, he tries that. He drops his head, nothing happens. You still have constant pressure on the lead rope. Then the mule all of a sudden moves a foot backwards. When he does that, immediately release the lead rope. Now, the mule knows that going right, going left, sticking the nose up creates more discomfort.

Dropping the head helps, but moving his feet takes the pressure off. Now you go ahead and add the pressure again with your lead rope. The mule thinks, “ok, I know how to get this. I’ll move my foot.” The pressure of the lead rope is still on.

He’s thinking, “wait a minute. I moved my foot and you didn’t let go, so what happens if I move another foot?” Another foot moves, and you release the pressure on the lead rope.

Pretty soon the mule starts seeing that as soon as he feels a slight amount of pressure on his nose with the right and left knot, the mule needs to go backwards. As he goes backwards, pretty soon the knots release, he gets back to his comfort zone. You’re taking the mule’s thoughts of comfortable, uncomfortable, and you are teaching him that if he responds correctly to the halter, you will release him.

What to look for in a rope halter

What you want to look for is an adjustable rope halter. Most of the store-bought halters have been really tightened to work where the manufacturer feels they work on the majority of equine. Unfortunately, those knots are not in the correct place to have crisp, clean communication with your mule or donkey.

Can you buy those halters and adjust them? Yes, you can, but it’s a lot of work to soften the knots. You must put them in a 5-gallon bucket of fabric softener overnight, then take pliers and a Phillips screwdriver to work the knots loose. It’s taken me two-three hours to loosen up knots and re-adjust them.

That’s why I designed my halters so that they are easy to adjust.

What about a nylon halter?

Nylon halters are not ok. They’re a big wide band. The mule can brace against it, the donkey can push through it. Everybody thinks about the short-term basis and doesn’t see what the mule or the donkey is doing.

Mules and donkeys will stick their nose out and put pressure against the nylon halter, tighten all five major neck muscles, and try to take control of the situation that way. Or they’ll elevate the head, trying to take control of the situation that way.

Their life is comfortable, uncomfortable. Their life is flight because of fright. They are trying to find some way to get comfortable, and with the wide nylon halter they’ll eventually see that they can get away with pulling you and taking you mule skiing. Unfortunately, when they jerk you around, you add a chain to the halter and that chain then hits the nerves under the chin. We kill the nerves when we add a chain to the halter.

If you’re going to show your mule or donkey, the judges don’t like rope halters in the show ring. My suggestion is to use a nylon or leather halter, for a short time it’s ok. As quickly as possible after showing them, get them back into the rope halter to keep them foundationally trained.

Why do you insist on rope halters?

The reason I insist on my rope halter is because it allows me to have cleaner, crisper communication with my mule or donkey – better than any other kind of halter. The problem with the other halters, they’re not adjusted correctly, and you end up teaching the animal to brace and fight you. Whereas mine can be very easily adjusted.

The knots on the nose and the rope on the bottom of the chin touch nerves – those nerves are very sensitive. The rope touching the nerves will get the animal to react quicker. This crisp, clean communication with a properly adjusted rope halter helps the animal to be more comfortable and more relaxed quicker than with your commercially accepted halter.

Start Training a Young Mule With a Halter

I like to start training with a halter on a young mule when they come out of the sack. That’s basically when they stand up for the first time, they’re getting their first colostrum.

Right after that I take a hay string and put a come-a-long hitch on them and I move their nose a teeny bit to the right and to the left, down and back and around for just a few seconds. I take it off and I let the colt go back to spending time with his mother.

I’ll come back, oh, maybe an hour or two later, I’ll catch the colt, I’ll rub him all around, I’ll put the come-a-long string on him again. This time I’ll add a little bit more communication with him.

By the time they’re six months old and ready for weaning, they have an idea of what to do. It’s crucial, the sooner you get your hands on them and do simple halter training, the better your animal is going to be.

The mama lets you touch her baby?

The mama is a horse, mules cannot have a baby, they are missing a chromosome. If she’s a good mother, she’ll allow you to touch the colt anywhere. It’s called imprinting. That’s extremely important for baby mules.

I’ve taken some of these babies and gone in with my jeans and long sleeve shirt and take them out of the sack the minute they’re born, help them up, and get them moving around. I try and put as much of that smell on me all over my clothes, hands and gloves. I take the mother and rub on her nose. That’s a whole other subject. Yes, they usually will accept it extremely well.

How to put a halter on your young mule

Young Fluffy should be easy to catch. Oh boy, he should be willing to come to you without a treat, to be petted and rubbed on. If they are concerned about the halter, then you’re going to have to go through some steps to prepare them for the halter. There’s a whole other mega subject to get into for training for halter and come-a-long work.

To help ease him into trusting the halter, you want to bunch it up like it’s a brush, so fold it up. If you can pet him all over, then take and use the halter to rub around him, around his legs, around his head so he thinks the halter is just part of getting rubbed down and petted on. Start rubbing on his shoulders, just like you would with a brush. Do that on the right side for three minutes and then on the left side for three minutes. You’re done for the day.

Two days later, go back, and do the exact same thing – six minutes of brushing on the right side, then six minutes of brushing on the left side. If he shows you any resistance, you have to stop, and that’s okay. Stop. Wait a couple days, then go back and start again with three minutes on one side and three minutes on the other.

Once you can do a day of three minutes on each side with no problems, do six minutes on each side a couple days later. A couple days after that, move to nine, wait a couple days, then move to 12 minutes. If he gets antsy and you can’t finish, start over again.

Now, over the course of the week or so that you’re doing this, let out a little bit of the rope. Not a lot, just a little bit at a time. Probably not any on the first day… Take your time, let him get used to ‘the brush,’ then as you sense he is comfortable, start letting it out.

By the end of the 12 minutes on both the right and left, you are at a good place to go ahead and start trying to put the halter on with something he’s become familiar with. Brush him with it until he starts relaxing and saying, “Ok, I’m happy with this.” When he starts to relax, then go ahead and put it on.

See, mules are very sensitive about their nose. Some mules or donkeys you can move fast with, some you better go slower. Every step, every move is a picture so that the mule sees that it’s not going to eat him, and he won’t be quite so sensitive on his nose.

Whether you brush him for a few days with his halter or for a month, it depends on the mule. Always remember when the mule’s head elevates, it means he has a concern. When the mule’s head is down, that means he’s not concerned with the problem. When the mule’s ears are nice and quiet and relaxed, that mule is saying, “everything you’re doing is okay.” But when the mule’s ears are stiff, he’s concerned, it means you’re going too fast, slow down.

You have to see the countenance of the mule to see how you’re doing. How you’re doing is told by the mule’s ears, the mule’s head, the relaxation.

Once the halter is on, should I start training?

The halter is your second phase of training. The first phase of training is the come-a-long rope, it builds your foundation. I don’t usually introduce the halter into my training process until the third month. We do want to use the rope halter at the same time as the come-a-long rope to be able to tie the animal to a hitching rail.

Training an Older Mule With a Rope Halter

The very first thing I do with any mule of any age, is I put my come-a-long rope on him, and I start my ground foundation. My ground foundation tells me everything I need to know. It gives me an idea of how much the mule respects me on the ground, how much the mule respects the lead rope, how much the mule respects the halter.

How long do I use the rope halter?

I don’t use any other halter but the rope halter for almost everything. There is another type of rope halter I use when the mule is more refined in his communication. It has a braided noseband and I would use that.

When I go someplace new, like a stable or on a trail ride or something like that, I always use my come-a-long rope to start with as a quick tune-up, then I go from there to my rope halter, then from there I go into my braided noseband.

Here’s the problem. Everybody thinks once Mr. Mule is trained, he’s going to stay trained in every situation. When you ride on a new trail or when you go to a new stable, you got a good opportunity for a wreck. So, I always use my come-a-long rope to help me communicate crisper and cleaner and to remind the mule about his foundation training.

You will want to take a few minutes in a new place to remind your mule of his foundation training. If your foundation training is correct, then in just a matter of minutes the mule gets a hold of it.

The problem is, when it comes down to these mules, flight because of fright is there. There’s no amount of training that’s going to take that away. You need to control the situation and that is done with the come-a-long rope, it’s done with the rope halter, then the bit. The bit is going to depend on the situation. I always, when I’m in a new place, use the Muleriders Martingale and I go from there.

I’m always going back to what I call a tune-up. When I would go to the World Championships, in preparation, I would get there a couple days ahead of time. I would let the mule see all the new sights and sounds, all the new smells, then I would do ground communication. When the mule started relaxing, the mule started being consistent, then I would go to my other steps.

Again, just because they’re trained, doesn’t mean that a new situation doesn’t create some new possibilities of problems. They are at the bottom of the food chain, so everything to them is a predator. They are aware of that all the time. So, you should be, also.

It sounds like a lot of work, but let me just point this out. Before I get ready to go on a long trip, I get my vehicle and my trailer prepped. I check the air in the tires, I check the oil, I make sure my brakes are right, I clean my air filter. I make sure everything is mechanically ready before I go out on the road.

This mule is no different. When I take it to a new place, I need to have the communication capabilities to be able to make sure the mule understands that he needs to stay under control. And away you go from there.

With mules, it’s a simple tune-up: Do you remember? Do you remember? Do you remember? Why do you want to climb on a mule when he’s upset? Why not take care of it on the ground first? Make sure everything’s alright, do your tune-up. Everything’s cool? Alright, now climb on. As your mule progresses, the more he gets to understanding things, the quicker the tune-up gets done.

What else do I need in addition to the rope halter?

You’ll need a lead rope; you might need a couple of them. A lead rope is going to depend on what type of work you’re doing. Your lead rope can conceivably be only six-foot-long for just the average leading around. Or it could be 20-foot-long if you’re ponying the animal.

A come-a-long rope is the other thing you need. The come-a-long rope will get you cleaner, crisper communication with your mule.

Training exercises with a come-a-long rope

I can do foundation training with a lead rope and I can do it with my rope halter. But if I’m not getting crisp, clean communication right off the bat with the rope halter, I’m going to stop with the rope halter and I’m going to go directly to my come-a-long rope.

With a lead rope you can train your mule to stop, go right, go left, and back up. I do not lunge my animals. That’s kind of a senseless measure to them. They don’t understand being on the end of a lead rope, going around in circles. That’s called lunging. I don’t mess with lunging.

You can use a lead rope for tune-ups, but sometimes it doesn’t work as crisp and clean. Again, if they’re responding well with the rope halter, that’s good, you don’t have to go to the come-a-long rope, just have it ready.

Should the same person always train the mule?

As long as everybody is doing the same thing, which really doesn’t happen, sure! It’s really best when you’re building a foundation for the same person to do it for the first six months because different people are going to have different ways of communicating the same thing. One’s going to move their hands a little bit different, another’s going to be quicker, someone else isn’t going to be so quick.

My suggestion for the first six months is to have one person do all the foundation training. After Mr. Mule has foundation training down, another person can now be a part of the training, after learning the training technique of the first trainer, and then progress from there.

I’m Here to Help

If you are training a mule, I hope this advice will help you. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Happy Trails!

The Importance of Conditioning for Mules and Donkeys

A common question we get at Queen Valley Mule Ranch is when can a young mule be ridden or used for packing and driving? It’s exciting to break a mule, but how do you know when to start? This question was echoed recently when a customer asked:

Is my Molly too young for me to be riding? She’s just 3, she was being rode before I got her. I’ve trail rode her 3 times, and been driving her, saddle and unsaddled. I use all the tack I got from you; the martingale is great and she’s getting a nice headset- I love it. Somebody on a mule page on Facebook said no mule should be rode till after 3 years old. What do you think?

There is a difference between being physically ready to ride and being mentally ready. Let’s look at both issues.

When is a Mule Physically Ready to Carry Weight?

Mules and donkeys are a favorite for carrying heavy loads as they can work harder and smarter than most horses. But to make sure your mule doesn’t have leg foundering issues later in life you must be certain the leg joints have closed before adding weight.

The leg joints on a mule close at three years of age. The only way to be certain they have closed is to have your vet ultrasound their knees. Once the leg joints have closed, your mule is ready to bear weight. But it doesn’t stop there. You must also look at your mule’s temperament to see if he’s ready mentally.

When is a Mule Mentally Ready to Carry Weight?

Before trying to mount a mule, you should have a solid six months of foundation training. Mules will follow a strong leader and can be very easy going if you make instructions black and white. They will not follow you if are inconsistent in your directions.

Foundation training should start at two and a half years of age to prepare the mule for working once the leg joints have closed. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be working with your mule sooner. Your colt will benefit from being handled properly from birth. Instill good manners early and your mule will be loyal and hard working for decades.

Develop Good Behaviors Early

Stop any bad behaviors before they start. Don’t allow your colt to bite, kick, or push you. Handle your young mule for small training sessions, 15 minutes at a time, then let it rest to play or nurse. You can train once a day or several sessions a day.

Keep your young mule calm and offer plenty of praise, but not treats. I often say training is the reward, not treats. A rub on the back or haunches and kind words will go a lot further in bonding with your animal than trying to bribe him with treats, which could lead to demanding behaviors.

Getting Ready to Ride, Pack, or Drive Your Mule

Once you have laid a solid foundation, built trust with your mule, and have confirmed the leg joints are closed, you can ride your mule. Continue giving consistent directions and praise to your mule and he will be loyal to you.

I’m Here to Help

I can’t say enough about the fact that most problems with mules can be changed with proper foundation training. If you have any questions about your mule’s leg joints closing or any behaviors, send me an email or give me a call. I am here to help you and your mule work together.

Q&A Should I Pony A Shy Mule?

I love hearing from all the mule and donkey owners around the world – and there are a lot of you. Pretty often I get questions from you that I’m happy to answer – love helping mules and owners. Here’s a question that I recently received, along with my answer.

A Question on Ponying

Is ponying a shy mule advisable as part of training?

How To Pony A Shy Mule

Ponying is when you saddle up a well-trained mule that has been ridden quite a bit, connect a mule in training to the saddled mule with a come-a-long rope, and then going for a ride.

Sure, it’s a good idea to pony a mule as part of training. The mule that is being trained learns to get along with another mule, how to follow, and how to walk on a trail and enjoy it.

I’m Here to Help

If you are training a mule, I hope this advice will help you, as well. Just remember, it all starts by building a foundation with your mule.

As always, you can give me a call or send me an email, including photos and videos, about any questions you have about mules and donkeys.

Mule Bits – Everything You Need to Know

If you’re here, chances are you already know if there is a particular mule bit or donkey bit you should be using or if there are differences between bits for horses and bits for mules / donkeys.

But first, what is a bit? It is important to understand what you’re actually going to be using on your animal.

Bits are made of metal or synthetic material. You place the bit in the mouth to assist in your communication with your animal. When talking about a mule bit, there are several things owners need to be aware of in order to use the right bit, for the right time, and the right function.

The bit extends from one side of the bar to the other and rests on the bars of the mouth, in a Molly (mare mule) between the incisors and the molars where there are no teeth; in a John mule has a canine tooth between incisors and the molars. The bit is held on the head by a bridle and the bridle has reins attached to it.

In this article you are going to learn everything you need to know in order to select the right bit for your mule.

Donkey owner? Good news! Everything we cover in this article applies to you, too!

Early Days of the Mule Bit

The bit didn’t always exist. Riders of early domesticated equines probably used some type of bit-less headgear made of sinew, bone, horn, hard wood, leather or rope. Because the earliest headgear was made of materials that didn’t hold up over time, no one can really say which came first—the bitted or the bit-less bridle.

Bits Found Before Christ

Now, without getting too deep into the history, there is evidence of the use of bits in ancient Kazakhstan, dating way back to 3500-3000 BC. There is also evidence of bit wear on horses’ teeth found in the Ukraine from 4000 BC. Lastly, antler cheek pieces used as toggles for rope, hide, or sinew mouthpieces have been found at sites on the Black Sea.

Metal bits came about possibly in the Near East between 1300 and 1200 BC and were originally made of bronze. Plain and jointed mouth pieces appeared at the same time, often with highly ornamented cheekpieces—one thing that hasn’t changed, we like our bits to be lookers!

Modern Bits

In modern times, nickel was a favored material until about 1940, when stainless steel largely replaced it.

Copper, aurigan (copper alloy) and sweet iron (cold rolled steel) are incorporated into some bits to encourage salivation in the mouth of the animal which, in turn, encourages a softer mouth and relaxed jaw.

Why mention any of this?

Because it underscores that as early as we find people domesticating equines and riding them, there has been a quest to gain maximum control. But what the mule owner needs to know is that it isn’t control the bit provides you—it is communication.

You cannot control these animals. You can communicate with them and make their life comfortable or uncomfortable. The belief that you can control an animal much larger than you is a farce. The bit gives communication and that communication works side by side with your training.

Bits can be incredibly effective—they can also be damaging, or even destroy your mule’s mouth. You need to have a good understanding of what bit you need to use for what work.

Using A Bit to Communicate with Your Mule or Donkey

It’s natural to think that if you’re going to work with an equine, you’re going to work with a bit. They almost go hand-in-hand.

Well, as mentioned above, you’re going to want to communicate with your mule or donkey—it goes without saying, but these animals do not understand anything you’re saying to them. When we say, “Oh, that’s good, Fluffy,” or “Come on now, girl, let’s get going,” they don’t understand a darn thing. All they know is comfortable and uncomfortable.

Over time, with good communication and strong training, your mule or donkey will begin to pick up on small words like whoa, come gee, come haw, and back up. The animal can start to associate these words with the communication they receive through the bit.

It’s not that they necessarily know what the words mean; what they start thinking is it’s going to be more comfortable for them to make a turn or stop with a verbal command rather than you picking up the reins… the reins mean they’re going to be uncomfortable.

Your primary communication for things like stop here, go there, go right, go left and back up come through the bit. Just like a vehicle going downhill, unless you are tapping the brakes, the vehicle is going to go faster and faster. The same principle applies with the mule and the donkey. Unless you are using your reins to communicate to the bit, they’re going to do their own thing, which means it is essential to use the correct bit for the correct application so you get maximum communication.

Different Types of Mule Bits

When you walk into any tack store you’re going to see a wall of at least a hundred different types of bits. Most of the time folks are going to be selecting a bit for looks. One bit may be pretty or have a nice design. Hey, sharp looking tack is great, but you want to be one of the owners who selects a bit because you understand the its communication, application, and health implications.


The hackamore is used on the mule’s nose. There are a variety of hackamores from the Bosal to the mechanical hackamore.

The Bosal is basically all rawhide wrapped around a rawhide core and comes in a variety of weights and thicknesses.

The mechanical hackamore is to be used only with leg communication, 80% with your legs, 20% with your hands. Since mules care more about their nose than their mouth, you want to focus the majority of your communication using the nose—not your hands—and only enlist your hands when necessary. They are very sensitive about their nose and too much activity around that sensitive area can really upset them.

Gag Bits

Another bit you’ll see is the gag bit which communicates to the nose, up into the mouth, with a chain underneath the chin.

There are a variety of gag bits, anywhere from a simple rope or even a steel bar going across the nose. The BIG problem is mules care more about their nose and less about their mouth, so when the nose starts getting sore from the combination of nose, mouth, and chain under the chin, the mule and donkey will go into a runaway mode from all the pain.

The downside of the gag bit is that you have a chain on the bottom of the bit which is supposed to communicate to the nerves of the chin. Unfortunately, many mules and donkeys actually wind up having dead nerves there because of riders getting heavy hands while using a gag bit. The gag bit can very easily slide up into the mouth pretty deep, literally causing the mule to smile – big time! That bit can also cut the tongue.

Correctional Mouthpieces

The correctional mouthpiece moves a lot and pivots at four points: on the outside, at the right, at the left, and inside at the port (right and left).

The bits I choose to use, the correctional mouthpiece, I find communicates best to the mule and the donkey. This style of bit is used by all the professional trainers, world champions of both horses and mules.

This is a Bosal made for me by Nic West.

The Two Mule Bits of Choice for Riding

I’ve narrowed down my choice to two: The Mule Rider’s Martingale double twisted wire O-ring snaffle bit and my correctional mouthpiece, The Trail Rider. These two bits work the best for communicating with the mule.

Folks, I never thought I’d be in the bit business, but over the years not having a bit that respects the needs of the mule or donkey, I had to design one. I design my bit so that it tips a little forward to communicate more crisply and more cleanly with the palate. The bits I’ve designed are manufactured by Reinsman. You’ll find a lot of manufactures of bits, many from Pakistan and other countries; while it may look like a bit is a bit, the bit won’t work correctly for the mule and, over time, you’ll find it will rust easily.

Occasionally I will use a Bosal or a mechanical hackamore, but my animal would have to be very refined to use these bits. I have many other bits that are now only wall hangers – that’s all they’re really good for now that I know what I know.

It sure can be frustrating taking a pretty bit or a bit that you really liked and putting it away for good, but, friend, do it for the sake of the animal. Say, “The past is the past, I’m free at last.” The good Lord forgives us for so many things and moves on—we can forgive ourselves for using poor bitting solutions and also move on.

Different Bits for Different Activity — Use the Proper Mule Bit

Not all bits are the same. There are training bits and finished bits, there are driving bits and riding bits. You are going to use a different bit for different activities. For instance, when training for driving, you’re going to be using a double twisted wire full-cheek driving bit. With the long lines you have a lot more leverage that you must take into account with the bit you use.

When the mule is finished, you want to move from the training bit to a finished bit. I use my Liverpool Bit, a reversible straight mouth plated steel loose-cheek bit. This bit is for a finished animal and you are no longer developing much tongue communication, you are developing bar and sides-of-the-mouth communication.

If you’re starting to train a colt, you want to use the Mule Rider’s Martingale, not a finished bit. This bit-bridle combination keeps the animal’s nose on the vertical and keeps their head down so you can focus on communication.

So different bits for training, different bits for driving.

The point here is DO NOT assume that you can use the same bit for one activity as you do another. When you are riding a finished animal, you want the correct bit—The Trail Riding bit. When you are training for driving, you want the correct bit—the Driving Bit.

Using Horse Bits for Mules or Mule Bits for Horses

Here is what we need the equine world to understand:


It has been thought for so long that an equine is an equine is an equine. Not true. The good Lord made these animals different from one another and we have a responsibility to respect the differences that they have been given.

You cannot use a horse saddle on a mule because the bone structure is different. The mule gets his bone structure from his daddy, the donkey.

Likewise, you cannot use a horse bit on a mule or donkey because the palate is completely different from a horse. Their nose is longer, their mouth has nuanced differences from a horse so using a horse bit on a mule will 1) prevent you from having the communication you need and 2) damage the mule’s ability to understand you at best, and destroy their mouth at worst.

Common Mistakes Made with Bits

There are four common mistakes people will make with bits and their mules.

Making the Bit Do the Work

The first mistake is making the bit do all the work. In other words, they end up pulling on the bit rather than making small motions with their hands. They’ll end up with their hands clean over by their pelvis when the hands should never go past the horn.

Using Horse Bits

The second mistake is using a horse bit on a mule, expecting the bit to work.

Maybe the bit will work for a while, but after a short time the mule is going to have had enough of the bit and he’s going to put his tongue over the top of the bit and take off running… and you won’t be able to stop him.

Making the Mule Take the Bit A Certain Way

The third mistake is the most common mistake made with bits. Folks will force the mule to take the bit the way they want the mule to take the bit.

You’ll find most people will create one wrinkle and two wrinkles on the corners of the mule’s mouth because their great-grandaddy said to do it that way, or because the old guy next door—who has been a horseman all his life—does it that way.

If you really want to refine a mule, let the mule pick up the bit, pack it, and show you where he likes it—and that’s where you adjust the bit.

Properly Balancing the Teeth

The fourth and final common mistake is a MAJOR one: The mule’s teeth are not properly balanced.

Before you begin riding, before you put the bit in their mouth, you should have a veterinarian or a dentist out to balance the teeth. Get the TMJ correct, get the incisors correct. When the mule’s mouth is correct, no sharp points, he will be a lot happier. That is the key thing: happiness.

Once the teeth are balanced, i.e., aligned, continue to have the teeth balanced every year after that. Maybe some vets will say “oh, you don’t need to do that,” but you better because mules and donkeys grind their feed, they do not chew it.

Because of how they grind their teeth, their front teeth (incisors) take a bit of feed and as the tongue helps it go back, the teeth on the side and the top will grind the feed. What happens is they end up getting points on their teeth or their TMJs. The teeth hang up, the mule starts gapping his mouth because he’s super uncomfortable and you have a lot of problems that will develop.

Lateral Flexions with Mules

When turning, you’ll see a lot of horsemen bend the mule’s neck back to where the nose almost touches the knee, it’s called lateral flexions. By doing this, the mule’s neck muscles are strengthening. One day you will want to go to the right and the mule will want to go to the left—he will tighten all his very strong neck muscles and away he goes.

I do not do lateral flexions.

Disengaging the Mule’s Hindquarters

Also, I do not disengage the hindquarters. Disengaging the hindquarters is where you pick up on one rein and you have the hindquarter come around and eventually the mule stops. It may work for a while, but pretty soon the mule will figure out the best way to get comfortable.

I had the opportunity to work with an attorney for an accident where a lady was told to pick up on one rein to do a one rein stop, which disengages the hindquarters. The mule will go in a circle and eventually stop.

Well, in this case, the mule didn’t do that.

The mule ran through his shoulder and the lady ended up hitting the ground, receiving a major concussion, and had to be helicoptered to receive medical attention.

This technique is a horse technique not meant for the mule.

Why Disengaging the Hindquarters Doesn’t Work for Mules and Donkeys

Think about it this way. You’re riding a mule down into the Grand Canyon, 1,000 feet down on the left and rock straight up and down on the right. If you’re packing five mules, how is it that you will be able to go around in a circle to stop them by disengaging the hindquarters?

It comes time when a lot of horse trainers have started taking to being mule trainers and they’re bringing over this technique of disengaging the hindquarters.

And boy, does it look really good when you’re out there on flat ground.

Unfortunately, my client who hit the ground in the story above wound up on the ground because of these horse techniques. It may look good, but for her it didn’t feel good having to be helicoptered off the side of a mountain.

Lateral flexions and disengaging the hindquarters will only look good and work for a short time, but when you need to stop all of a sudden, you won’t be able to stop them, it won’t work.

Bad Bits You Want to Avoid

There are some sorry bits out there and the worst one, by far, will look like a chainsaw blade on one side and rounded on the other. A lot of people call them ‘mule bits’ but they ain’t no mule bit. It is a horrible bit to use on a mule or donkey.

Another bit that folks will use is called a sliding gag bit. There are several manufacturers of these bits. They are meant to communicate with the nose, the mouth, and underneath the chin.

No longer a bit I use, this is a light port mule / donkey bit that is part of my collection.

These bits put the mule or donkey in pain and those animals get so tired of it that they start to just flat out runaway. Folks want to know why their animal is running away and I point right to that bit.

If you have a bit that is communicating to the nose, the mouth, and the chin, you better not be using it because the time is coming where you won’t be able to stop Mr. Mule and you’ll pay for it with, at best a few sore spots and at worst, your life.

Using the Same Bits for Mules and Donkeys

As mentioned above, the mule gets so much of his structure from his daddy, the donkey. Because of this you can use a mule saddle—my saddle, a Steve Edwards saddle—on a donkey.

In the same way, I use the same bits for mules and donkeys. They share the same mouth structure and require the same communication.

I have designed my own bits because I just could not find bits that communicated to the palate of the mule and donkey. My bits are as follows:

  • Mule Rider’s Martingale: This is a snaffle bit complete with bridle, head stall, and reins. This is what I use for starting colts under three years, it places the correct amount of pressure on the tongue during training, more info here.
  • Trail Riding Bit: This is a finished bit used for animals that are finished and require refined communication. This is for when you’re communicating 80% with your legs and 20% with your hands and removes pressure from the tongue, more info here.
    Driving Bit: This is a training bit and can be used as a correctional bit; the full-cheek gives you extra leverage to keep you from pulling the bit through the mouth, more info here.
  • The Liverpool Bit: This is a finished driving bit and is not to be used for training, more info here.
  • Mechanical Hackamore: This is a wonderful communication tool that goes across the nose and underneath the chin. You start by placing it two fingers above the nostril and as you progress you move up to three fingers below the cheekbone and approximately three fingers below the corner of the mouth. This is not a bit, but does give you communication, more info here.

While you can use these bits on a mule or a donkey, there is another component to be aware of: mouth size. The average standard or saddle mule and the average donkey all use a five-and-a-quarter-inch bit. When you start talking about draft mules, you can increase to a five-and-a-half-inch bit. The overall value is to get the right bit for the animal, rather than try to force one on the animal that might do more harm than good.

Incorporating Bits Into Your Training

It’s easy to get excited about saddling a mule and get to riding, and it’s easy to get excited about introducing a bit as well. It is imperative that you first do your ground work with a rope halter.

Mules and donkeys care about their nose more than anything else—start all groundwork with the come-a-long rope and the rope halter. You want to see the mule or donkey start to bend easy and soften all fiver major neck muscles.

After this foundation ground training, you will go from the rope halter and come-a-long rope into the snaffle bit, which is the Mule Rider’s Martingale.

From the Mule Rider’s Martingale and snaffle bit, you will move into a finished bit, The Trail Riding Bit.

But getting back to foundation training, you want to spend about six months, training 4-6 hours a week to build a good foundation and then, before you know it, you’ll start riding and boy will it be awesome!

Ripped Tongues and Sore Mouths

It is important to note that when you start training your mule or donkey for riding, you want to use the snaffle bit, not the smooth snaffle bit. Everybody thinks if they use a smooth snaffle bit it will be easier on the animal.

Wrong answer.

I have seen more ripped and torn tongues and more sore mouths because people will tend to pull with the smooth snaffle bit. Mules and donkeys care more about their nose than they do their mouths, so many owners end up pulling hard on the bit, hurting the animals.

Introducing the Snaffle Bit

The snaffle bit is not an everyday use bit. This bit is used to fix a problem or to start training a young mule or donkey. It is very easy to stretch out the mouth if you use a snaffle bit because it communicates to the tongue, the bars of the mouth, and the corners of the mouth.

The double-twisted wire snaffle bit is meant to communicate with the entire tongue, and if you get heavy handed, the continual pushing on the tongue will be very stressful for the animal. In addition, even if you’re using a smooth snaffle bit—which you shouldn’t—that big can still cut the tongue.

When you introduce the snaffle bit you want to avoid having the bit do all the work. What I mean by that is you want to allow the bit to work in conjunction with your hands. The mule or donkey will have the bit in their mouth, trying to find a way to be comfortable. When they finally find a comfortable place, you want to allow the bit to work, rather than using drastic movements, trying to force it to work.

Start with Small Steps

Training with a bit starts with small steps. You have your reins in both hands, using direct reining communication. At this point, both hands are part of communicating to the snaffle bit. You have a lot of power in your hands.

It’s easy to want the animal to make a right turn and then move our hands in a big fashion to the right.

Nope. Wrong.

What we want is to start with just seeing the nose move toward the right. Once we get the nose, then the neck, then the shoulder, then the feet and eventually from the feet, front and rear, we will make our turn.

It’s a progression and it starts with the bit. Making the bit work is a giant move with our hands. Allowing the bit to work is just slight communication to get the nose to turn.

See the difference?

Fixing Problems with the Snaffle Bit

The snaffle bit is for training young colts and is to be used short-term. When I say short-term, I mean six months of foundational training, four to six hours a week max! That’s all you need.

These animals have a brain about the size of a walnut and they can only take in so much information. Most people will wind up overdoing the training, exhausting the animal and themselves.

I say work in steps of 3, 6, 9, 12.

Today I get the nose to tip to the right three times, the nose to tip to the left three times—now I’m done for the day.

Small steps like this eventually build a solid foundation.

Moving to A Finished Bit

After training or making corrections, introduce the finished bit. I use my finished riding bit, The Trail Riding Bit.

The Trail Riding Bit is a finished bit used with mules that are finished.

The finished bit has six-inch shanks on the right and left side, compared to the snaffle bit which has O-rings on each side. The purpose of the shank is not so you can have leverage, but it’s so you can ask the mule to stop, turn, and back up very easily. This finished bit is meant to mainly be used when riding one-handed. If you must communicate using direct reining, you can use two hands for a short time.

The finished bit has a port that goes up over the top of the tongue, so you are no longer communicating with the tongue. This port now communicates to the roof of the mouth, your communication is more refined, and life is a whole lot easier on your mule.

Hand Communication

It’s easy to experience problems and blame them on the bit, when in actuality, the problems are originating from our hands. We make mistakes pulling, don’t get the results we want, and blame it on the bit, or the mule.

That’s the key word there, we PULLED rather than just turning our wrists.

You want your hands in direct training position:

  • Looking down at the pommel of the saddle
  • Hands should be as wide as the pommel
  • Both hands in a “holding an ice cream cone” position

When you make your turn, slowly your right hand twists the bit—you move your right hand from the ice cream cone position to your palm facing down and your knuckles are up.

Continuing, the right hand moves to the right, the left hand, which is still in the ice cream cone position, goes with the right hand. As the right hand moves to the right, the left hand goes with it because it’s connected to the reins, but my left hand only goes as far as the horn.

Why only as far as the horn?

If your left hand goes past the horn, now you’re pulling the mule, now you’re pulling the donkey. Their response will be to brace all five of their major neck muscles to protect themselves. You feel the resistance, but it’s not because they are fighting you, it is because they have an instinct to protect themselves. They are trying to keep you from making them uncomfortable.

Bit communication is less about the bit and how it is designed, and more about direct hand communication for the desired command.

Before You Get In the Saddle

Be patient during groundwork. That’s the most important thing. Go from groundwork into the saddle. If they’re not being good and responsive on the ground, then do not go into the saddle.

Additional Tack and Equipment to Go With the Bit

Selecting the correct bit for your application is half the challenge. The other half is completing the tack to ensure the bit works as needed. You are going to need a few more pieces for the Ole Fluffy puzzle.

  • Saddle designed for a mule (not a mule saddle: a Steve Edwards saddle).
  • Britchen—not a crupper.
  •  Reins
  • Bridle

If you’re going to be starting with the Mule Rider’s Martingale, it will come with the reins, the bridle, and an instructional video.

If you are ready for a finished bit, The Trail Riding Bit comes by itself. You will have a decision to make on whether to go with an all leather bridle or whether to go with a beta bridle. You’ll also have the same choice for your reins—all leather or beta?

Leather has the traditional look that a lot of folks want. You’ll want to maintain the leather, keep it oiled, and invest a lot of work in cleaning. Beta, on the other hand, is much stronger than leather, is easy to clean, and looks great!

Ultimately, the material you choose is going to be your preference for what you want to look at. Both are good-looking materials. Regardless of which you choose, if you go with QVMR bridle and reins, both materials will have QVMR Conchos that provides a really nice look.

Which Bit to Ride With Today

I pretty much always ride with the same bit. You won’t find me changing the bit from ride to ride.

However, I do not put the bit on in the same way everyday.

I loosen up the bridal when I take it off. When the bridle is loose it is a lot easier to remove and the mule won’t be so ear shy.

After loosening up the bridle like this, when I put it on, it’s two holes below where I usually adjust it. After I put it on, I let the mule stand there and chew on the bit, pick it up, put it down, and move it around. When he is comfortable, I’ll adjust it where he keeps it. Sometimes it’s the second hole up, sometimes it’s the first hole up on the bridle.

Which Bit to Drive With Today

I drive with the Liverpool bit when the mule is finished. I train with the double twisted wire full cheek driving bit when I’m training.

Riding With Two Hands Versus One Hand

The most common question folks will ask about bits is, “Which bit should I use?”

The short answer is if you’re training, use the double twisted wire snaffle bit. If you’re mule is finished, you want to use the Trail Riding Bit.

However, the long answer is important to know so you don’t destroy the mouth of your mule.

If you are riding with both hands on the reins, you are using direct communication. If you’re using direct communication and you’re using a finished bit, i.e. my Trail Riding Bit, two hands will be putting too much pressure on the bit—this finished bit is meant to be used one-handed.

For those who are using two hands, why are you using two hands? Is it because the mule won’t turn? Is it because the mule won’t stop?

If you’re having communication issues and the mule isn’t responding, then you need to be using the Mule Rider’s Martingale. The double snaffle bit will give you cleaner communication.

The Unfortunate Side of Riding with Two Hands

Unfortunately, most people ride with two hands all the time, just like their hands are on a car’s steering wheel or bicycle handlebars. Two hands on the steering wheel and on the handlebars is the safe way to drive a car or ride a bike, but it is too much pressure for the mule.

It’s all over the internet, people riding with two hands. If you look at any photo of a rider with two hands on the reins, photos from Facebook or Instagram, you’ll see the mule’s head is up and his nose is sticking out.

The mule lifts his head up to try and get away from the pressure you’re putting on the reins.

The mule’s nose is out to keep you from pulling on him.

Folks just don’t know what they’re doing to their animal. An owner will have a real nice animal and they’ll even say, “He was a really nice animal when I first bought him. He was doing everything I wanted. Now, he’s not doing that any more.”

Folks, you’re going to make mistakes and it’s okay. Keep learning, make adjustments, and leave the past in the past. If you watched some of my training from 10 years ago, then watch my training today, you’ll see I do some things differently.


Because I learned from the mule. I listened to him. I saw that there was a better way to do things and I did what was best for him.

A lot of problems have developed in recent years because more and more folks are coming to mules and donkeys from the horse world and they’re bringing their horse knowledge with them. You cannot train mules and donkeys like horses. I cannot use horse tack on mules. You cannot ride the mule or donkey like you ride a horse.

You want to eventually get to a point where you are riding, communicating 80% with your legs and 20% with your hands. That should be your goal.

If you need to go to a double snaffle bit to make some corrections, do so. Make your corrections, get your communication clean, and get back to the finished bit.

When Not to Use A Bit

You should always use a bit any time you are riding. Anytime you are on the ground, you want to use a properly adjusted rope halter. If you’re teaching something new, use a come-a-long rope.

Your come-a-long rope will always give you the ability to communicate when the mule’s stress comes on.

Same thing with the Mule Rider’s Martingale.

When there is a lot of stress, for instance, when the mule is going to a new venue where they will be shown and they want to see all the new animals around them. This is the time they will stick their nose out and throw their head up in the air.

The communication that comes with the come-a-long rope or the Mule Rider’s Martingale allows you to foundation train them and get them back to their right mind again.

Still Have Questions About Your Bit?

There is a lot of misinformation out there about bits, and you want to do what’s best for your animal. You want to avoid mistakes as much as possible. If you have any questions, you can always give me a call. I want to help the mule, the donkey, and most of all I want to help you. I want you to experience the best your animal has to offer.

Bits are a very popular topic on my live stream events as well. You can catch all my past live streams at the link below.

Happy Trails!