Why Does My Saddle Go Forward?

Over the past 40 years I have been riding, driving, and packing mules. I have packed freight back into the mountains. The freight can be fence posts, concrete, or equipment for various needs. To make a long story short, I have worked mules for a living and I have had fun with them as well. My main thought in writing this article is to address conformation of mules, but I also want you to get a sense of how and why I have spent over the past 40 years giving thought to “Why Does My Mule Do That?”

How Do You Know If Your Mule Is Comfortable?

Mr. Mule will show me in a variety of ways if he is a happy camper. Shaking his head going down a hill, running down hills, ringing his tail, bucking when I try to saddle him plus many more signs will tell me that he may be having some comfort issues. There are others, but these are some of the more common.

Going back to the pack saddle: I learned a lot about mules being comfortable by going back to the structure and principles of the pack saddle. I would look at sweat patterns. I would try different blankets and/or pads. I would carve on the old wood saw buc. Do you get the idea? Over the past 40 years, I have tried a lot of different things to make my mule comfortable and functional in his job.

In 1981, I met a Canadian by the name of Abe Hewart. Abe came down and spent the winter with me. His goal was to design a pack saddle with adjustable arches and floating bars. We used cottonwood to start with on the bars. We would get a start and then go and try it out. We did this over a course of 3 years. Over these years I began riding more mules. I would say to my saddle maker, “Put the rigging plates here” or “Cut the skirt rounded” and so on. I probably made scores of changes to the riding saddle over this time. Every time I would ride a quarter horse type mule, gaited mule, or draft mule, I would learn something different about the stride.

“What Tree Are We Puting in my Saddles?”

One day I asked my saddle maker “What tree are we putting in my saddles”? His reply was, “Semi-Quarter horse bars”. After looking at that bar sitting on the backs of several mules backs, I would say that it was a fair fit. The only problem or concern seemed to be the twist that the horse bars needed to go around the horse wither. That twist put pressure on the fat pocket of the mule which would put pressure on the 6th and 7th rib. I also noted that while the shoulder action of the horse was in a front to back arch, the shoulder action of the mule is much more vertical. It is more like a piston going up and down. This means that if the bars were too close to the shoulder, horse bars could actually “stab” in behind the scapula of the mule.

As described above, the scapula action on a horse runs horizontal but vertical on the mule. This means that when the mule shakes his head during downhill runs or the like, he may be telling you that the bar of a horse saddle is going in behind the scapula and causing discomfort.

As we thought the situation over, we remembered that we had a well-designed bar for the pack saddle. With the pack saddle being adjustable, I found the angle of the bars that was consistent with every mule I packed and I took that bar to a tree maker and said, “Make my riding saddle trees with this bar and this angle”. That was back in 1983.

Fitting a Saddle for Your Mule

Now I can spend a lot of time talking about the details of what I have learned from the mules by working and playing with them on my ranch. I can also tell you that lot of saddle companies have the customer take a wire and place it in four locations on the mule or donkey and make tracings or take measurements. They then try to fit a saddle for the mule. But this does not work very well for several reasons.

First, let’s consider this. If I measure your mule in January while he is sitting around getting fat and not being used and then I measure him again in July after you have been using him daily, we are surely going to have different measurements. What we want is a saddle that will fit all the time.

Secondly, horse saddle makers need to understand the “shoulder action” of the mule as opposed to a horse. No matter how well that saddle seems to sit on the mule, if the bars do not give clearance to the vertical movement of the mule’s shoulder, there can be discomfort.

A short story I’m going to tell you is about lady had a custom saddle made for $3,500.00. That mule died about 5 months later. Since she had the saddle made only for that mule, she tried it on several other mules, but there were many problems she encountered and she could not use that saddle again. Even if she had shoulder clearance, the tree was not one that could be used by other animals.

The Right Saddle Fit is Only the Beginning

I want you mule and donkey people to understand that saddle fit is not the only problem that will create mental and physical problems with your mule or donkey. Something as simple as floating the teeth every year and a checkup with a chiropractor will confirm other mental and physical needs of your mule. But saddle fit is often a big contributor to problems.

I hesitate to call my saddle a “Mule saddle” because, since about 2004, almost every saddle maker out there says they have a mule saddle. My questions to each of them are, “How many pack mules (working mules) has this mule bar been on?” and “How many saddle mules have this mule bar been on”? I ask these questions to see if it really will be consistent for all uses for the mule and donkey. Also pivotal for a good multi-use mule saddle is that the skirting must be designed to fit all conformations – draft, quarter, gaited, donkey, etc.

Disposition and Conformation Problems

Conformation is a major problem in saddle stability and general endurance. The downhill hip creates the biggest problem when it comes to saddles not staying in place and having the potential to slide forward. The downhill hip conformation is most common in the quarter horse and draft more than any other breed. You will see that the hip is higher than the wither. If I made a tree for this animal or any other mule with this problem, the front of the bar would be 4” thick in the front. My tree bars fit the back just fine for all the mules and donkeys because I use the bone structure, not muscle mass as the supporting guide.

Remember, a mule can drop 100 lbs. in one weekend on a long trail ride. So over the years, I have tried many things to help the few mules that have this conformation problem. We now have a pad that makes up the difference in the wither area. Long story short, when buying a mule, disposition is the first consideration, and a close second is conformation.

A Horse Saddle Is Not Meant for a Mule

Please do not think a pad can make your horse saddle fit a mule. I have shared in many articles and clinics how the problems with bars and skirting of saddles made for horses can cause problems for mules. Padding up a horse saddle for a mule is not a good choice.

There are a lot of great saddle makers that are certainly craftsmen and some people don’t mind spending a lot of money for a piece of artwork. To my way of thinking, it’s important to know how a mule moves and thinks to make Mr. mule comfortable! And a comfortable mule is a better behaved mule.

I want you to know that my saddle makers can do artwork as well. My saddles are designed for hard work. They can accommodate work like dragging calves to the fire, flipping an elk over, dragging firewood to the fire. The saddles are also very comfortable for long hours of work or pleasure. I have designed saddles that weigh 18 pounds and up to 48 pounds. I try to keep my prices for my American made saddles so that everyone can have the right saddle for their mule or donkey. I encourage you to call and write with your questions.

Our saddles are designed for the mule and donkey by the mule and donkey. We are not a saddle making a company; we are a working Cow and Mule Ranch. We know by hard work that our saddles will fit every mule and every donkey. We have hundreds of saddles over the United States and throughout the world.

The Skinny on Mule and Donkey Hoof Care – Contracted Heels

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

Nothing could be further from the truth.

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

What Is A Contracted Heel?

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

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

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

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

How Does This Happen?

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

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

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

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

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

The Consequences

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

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

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

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

An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure

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

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

The Skinny on Mule and Donkey Hoof Care – Cracks

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

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

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

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

Talking Mule and Donkey Hoof Cracks

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

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

Examples of the adjustments I am talking about might include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quarter Cracks

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

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

Cracks Related to an Abscess

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

Cracks Related to Delayed Trims

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

Treatment of Cracks

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

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

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

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

Graveling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

steve edwards visit to israel featured image

My Visit To Israel – To Train Mules!

My life for the past few years has been training mules and donkeys. I love the work. It is exhilarating and exciting. I am especially pleased to see the good breeding that has become evident.

During a presentation at the San Tan Expo here in Arizona 3 years ago, I met a man named John. John was a novice equestrian and what I liked about John was that he was honest and a realist. He was not trying to put on a show or tell me how good of a cowboy he was but, but instead said, “Steve I need help.”

Steve, Would You Come to Israel?

John needed help with his draft mule. And not being a small man himself, I tackled “the big boys” and got the job done. Then one day not long after meeting John, I received an email from him telling me that I would be hearing from a man from Israel by the name of Yoav Be-er. John told me that he had worked with Yoav’s father-in-law in Tel Aviv. John told me I would feel right at home with Yoav and his family who wanted me to come to Israel to help with mules. He said Yoav could promise that I would be safe in Israel. In this day and age, with all that is going on in the world and the Middle East, that is always a concern.

I did receive an email from Yoav. It said “Steve, would you come to Israel?” I replied that I would surely go anywhere to train mules and donkeys and help better people with their communication with these fine animals. So we started making arrangements. He wanted to know if I wanted to see Israel. Of course, I did! I read about it in the Bible and have also seen pictures in books and on the internet. We also talked about the logistics of the training – how many mules could be scheduled for my program? I told him I limit my sizes to 10 mules, 12 at the max to do justice to both the rider and the mule. It is my belief that a teacher/trainer should not have over 12 animals so everyone can have some personal attention.

We talked at length about what I wanted to see and do while visiting. I told him I would like to bring my wife of 48 years, Susan, he said, “Wonderful!” I told him I wanted to a few see the Christian places and again I reiterated I want to see the real Israel. I was eager to see the lands and the places where Jesus walked.

The Trip to Israel

We made arrangements flying into Tel Aviv from San Francisco. Now I must say that at one time, I would joke with people and say, “I don’t fly” but the Bible says “Lo, I am with you always”. And of course I twisted the scriptures there but it was always a joke I used. I just hate not having control of what I’m driving (i.e. flying). It was 14 hours from San Francisco to Tel Aviv. Most the time people relaxed on the flight or used the little TV sets in front of us. We enjoyed some good meals on the plane and it was amazing how time flew by. When we arrived in Tel Aviv we were really excited to think we were here in Israel. I was surprised that the airport was not very busy at 8:00 at night. We went through customs without much fanfare. We just needed to answer a couple questions. I wasn’t exactly dressed like a mule rider with my hat and boots and all. I was dressed more like somebody that just got up out of bed. I was wearing my sweats and a T-shirt and tennis shoes. So I might not have been what Yoav expected, but he found me at the gate and introduced himself.

I wasn’t exactly dressed like a mule rider with my hat and boots and all. I was dressed more like somebody that just got up out of bed. I was wearing my sweats and a T-shirt and tennis shoes. So I might not have been what Yoav expected, but he found me at the gate and introduced himself.

The airport was one beautiful building! There were incredible artwork and statues representing Israel all throughout the airport. But now here I am meeting Yoav for the first time. Yoav is a small framed man about my height of 5’ 6” but not an ounce of fat anywhere on his frame. Over the next couple weeks, I would come to know why he was so lean, but for now, I just soaked up his excitement. He was smiling ear-to-ear and gave me a great big hug as he said, “Welcome to Israel!” He made me feel like family and I loved the excitement on his face. He grabbed my luggage and away we went.

It Didn’t Take Long To Hit It Off

We left the terminal building and his excitement spilled over as we found his car which was borrowed from his father-in-law. In Israel, a wounded veteran gets a new car of his choice every three years, so he had to sell his and it sold quickly, necessitating the loan from his father-in-law. My wife, Susan, climbed in the back seat and I settled into the front seat with Yoav. I could not help but notice that he just could not quit smiling as he said, “I cannot believe you are here!” Speaking in broken English and Hebrew, I listened to him as he said, “This is like a dream for me”.

It was an hour and a half to his hometown which was the village of Sharona. The questions kept coming! Yoav was asking about Arizona, my Ranch, how long I’ve been with mules and donkeys, and questions about training, saddles, bridles, and tack. He asked all the usual questions you would here from a mule or donkey enthusiasts. Time just flew by. I was amazed at how the highways look so much like ours. We were traveling by night so I could not see what the terrain was like or the countryside but I was so excited because it was almost like it was in Southern California in some ways.

Feeling Like Part of the Family

Yoav built his home. He has 4 lovely children. Interestingly, he asked me to not share pictures of his family as they have concerns like we do right here in the United States with predators and I won’t go into any more on that topic. His home was a ranch style house. I Cyprus wood siding and high vaulted ceilings with pine looking cabinets and walls with tile floors. Yoav built his home on land in the family since 1950 the farm is currently his father’s. According to Jewish customs and laws, the oldest will inherit the family estate. Yoav’s father is still alive and a shepherd of goats and sheep on a beautiful farm.

Yoav’s wife, Sharon, met us at the door with lots of excitement. The kids were wide-eyed and excited I was a little surprised because of the late hour, the excitement was all over their faces. Yoav had originally said to me, “Steve, we will put you in a nice bed and breakfast down the street from our farm”. But Susan and I said we would rather stay at their home if possible. Yoav said, “But Steve, we have 4 kids!” Our reply was “Wonderful! We want to feel like part of the family”.

The Real Israel

I can’t wait to share with you more pictures of Israel and I do mean the real Israel! Israel is full of religion. We saw so much and fully understand why people visit Jerusalem, Galilee, and other areas. We met and talked with many people who live in Israel (not tour guides!) and we heard about Jesus and where He walked and heard of His life. We saw the Jordan River and the lake where Jesus walked on water. We walked the streets of Jerusalem and saw farms and countryside. It was amazingly and deeply spiritual for us.

I can tell you that this was an exciting trip. I’ve been to Brazil twice and I’ve been to Egypt and of course Canada and Mexico. But this was so very special – to get to see where my Savior walked and lived.

I will tell you more about my visit in future articles. For now, happy trails and don’t forget to give me a holler if I can help you in any way.

Establishing Leadership With Your Mule

Mules can have a mind of their own, if you let them. As I always said, if you want Mr. Mule to follow you it is imperative that you know how to lead him. Establishing leadership is crucial if you want your mule to understand and execute what you want.

Here are a few videos that will help you in your mule training and establish leadership.

What’s the Difference Between a Mule Saddle and a Horse Saddle?

Before I share with you information about a mule saddle and how it is different from a horse saddle, it is imperative that you understand the difference between a donkey, a horse and a mule.

The Difference Between A Donkey, A Horse And A Mule

Now the donkey and the horse are pretty easy. Their skeletal structure and bodies are their own, but a mule is a hybrid. He has the skeletal structure of the donkey but many body features of the horse. This makes for some challenges in having a good saddle fit.

Pivotal in selecting a saddle is the basic concept that the shoulders of a horse are configured like an “A”. They carry their weight high and the withers support the saddle. A mule, on the other hand, has the skeletal structure of a donkey. So his shoulders are configured like a “V”. They carry their weight low and often have a sizeable belly. The withers in a mule may be visible, but they are good only for the lateral stability of the saddle if they are present.

Additionally, the horse has a lateral swing of his scapulae when he walks. A donkey and mule, on the other hand, have a much more vertical movement of the scapulae. They are like pistons on a car. This is important because we need to give that scapula free and unimpaired movement. If our saddle interferes, it will make for an unhappy long ear!

Measuring Muscle Mass Or Weight When Selecting Your Saddle

Just one more thing before we actually talk saddles and that is that measuring muscle mass or weight in selecting a saddle can be misleading. If you measure in early spring after a long cold winter off, you will get a dramatically different measurement then you will get mid summer after weeks of work. This is challenging for any equine owner, but in the case of a mule saddle, I can accommodate. I don’t measure weight or muscle and I am still able to fit most mules, whether slender, gaited, draft, fat, or whatever.

Now I know you are asking, “Steve, how is that possible?” Let me explain.

Fitting a Saddle With The Packsaddle Tree

I start out by using a tree that is based on the design of the packsaddle tree. Packsaddles are designed to allow the animal to carry a lot of weight in a balanced and secure way. They sit closer to the spine than horse trees and are stable on the donkey rib structure. They also sit well out of the way of the scapulae that are moving up and down as the mule walks. So I took this packsaddle tree to a saddle tree maker and we built our saddle around that model. By having the tree sit closer to the spine, on top of the rib cage, that has a sweet spot for the saddle tree, the weight and shape of the animal factors only minimally. This saddle fits most mules.

Features Of A Good Mule Saddle

For the mule’s comfort, I do not sew my skirts together or create any bulk near the back bone. Many saddles have ridges or structures that are directly under where the rider places his weight. My saddle is smooth and clean in this area so there are no pressure points.

Other features of a good mule saddle should include rider comfort. I made a nice supportive cantle that is buckaroo in style and will give good support after hours in the saddle. The horn is metal and is encapsulated into the pommel of the saddle for stability (not just attached with a screw). Riders feel secure in a comfortable seat whether it is a padded model or not.

Other features of my saddle are rounded skirts – both front and back. This allows for good clearance of the hip and shoulder. Rigging plates are also strategically placed between 7/8 and 3/4 with the rear ring moved about 7/8 inch forward to permit the rear cinch to be snugged up as it should be.

A Saddle Designed For The Mule

My saddle is designed to be used with a britchen and breast collar and two cinches with the rear cinch being the more snug of the two. By using the entire set up that I have designed, the mule has the benefit of:

  • 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 the more snug of the two but neither need to be “cranked down”
  • The rider is secure in the saddle
  • The saddle will “fit” the mule any time of the year and fits the vast majority of mules.

Steve Edwards’ Queen Valley Mule Ranch Saddles

Sunrise in Israel

Susan and I arrived in Sharona, the home of Yoav and Sharon Be-er, somewhere around 11:30 at night. We were so excited! I was looking forward to my first morning in Israel so I could hardly sleep!

Sharona is in the heart of a farming area known for its agriculture and livestock. Yoav’s father is a shepherd, he farms sheep and goats. All of the family homes are on the same property so he is not far away from where we are staying. It is all situated on the top of a glorious mountain. You can see by the photos that the landscape is lovely. There are a few buildings that can be seen from the back door of the home but generally there are lots and lots of fields. My first cup of coffee was enjoyed while I was sitting on the hitching rail.

The hitching rail is a very unique wood. Wood is not plentiful and has to be imported so most buildings have concrete walls. The coffee mugs are clear glass and one helps himself to a spoonful of coffee to which you add hot water. This peace and quiet was so lovely. I just breathed in the air and felt grateful for this opportunity.

In contrast to the quiet farm lands, there are sections of Israel that are bustling. Homes are being built and businesses are popping up and growing. The people are very diverse. Yoav’s father is an avid horseman who rides three to five times a week around his farm and village. He particularly enjoys evening rides which can be a little longer. He likes to ride Arabs, noting that he enjoys their stamina and athleticism. He is a skilled rider and watching him is like poetry.

Yoav, on the other hand, has his mule which he raised. His quarter horse mare was bred to a mammoth Jack from the US. The jack was purchased by a mule man and rancher named David (you will hear me talk more about David and his mammoth jack along with the awesome mules we trained). Yoav’s mule is very well “put together” and is a wonderful example of how good breeding makes for the right kind of mule. You have heard me say on many occasions that I have been disappointed in much of the breeding practice I have seen.

Yoav spent a lot of time with his mule right from birth. I believe he saw this animal as part of his “therapy” as he was wounded in the Lebanon war and lost his left leg from the knee down during a battle. He has found peace and joy in his mule.

As I observed and started my training sessions in Israel, I found many of the same “problem areas” that I have seen here at home and in other countries. Communication problems are at the top of the list. It is common for the training to center around working from the saddle down instead of from the feet up. Most folks want to hurry up and get in the saddle. The problem is that this practice can get you out of the saddle in the wrong way (aka “BUCKED OFF!”). It is so critical that we build a FOUNDATION for our mules and a foundation starts on the ground. Essential first steps include training your mule to come to you willingly seeing you as his leader and to pick up all four feet with ease. This is the start of solid communication. This is the start of building a foundation that will not let you down. If you establish good communication on the ground, the rest becomes so much easier.

It was clear to me immediately that Yoav’s mule liked spending time with him. The picture shows his kind eye and sense his good disposition. Disposition is everything. I was excited to start working with him and others.

We spent the first full day recuperating from our 20 hour flight and 5 hour drive. We enjoyed Yoav’s home. He built it himself and even had his own sawmill to cut Cypress for the exterior. The framework of the house is steel. Wood is very scarce and expensive. Interestingly, every new home or building in Israel must, by law, have a bomb shelter. Yoav’s home was no exception.

On our second day in Israel we went for a drive through the countryside. The views are not much different from a drive down any American road. Yoav was our “tour guide” and did most of the driving. We enjoyed the quiet countryside and then the busy areas where there were markets and businesses. We enjoyed seeing the markets that offered fresh vegetables, fish, and lamb. Many of the roads were cobblestone in the busier areas. We went to a restaurant on one occasion that was in a small Mediterranean Sea town called Arco. We could see the port, the water, and boats. There is a picture of Susan and Yoav on one of the cobblestone roads.

Yoav’s home was our “base camp” for all that we did in Israel. We enjoyed the family life and we wanted to see and experience “the real Israel”. As our visit went on, we visited a blacksmith shop, a knife shop, and spent time learning of a sharing system called “kibuts”.  It was in the kibuts that we trained mules and people – so stay tuned for more articles on Israel. I will tell you all that I can about this incredible journey!

I Want To See “The Real Israel”

In my conversations with Yoav before traveling to Israel, he asked me what I might like to see. We would not be training mules the entire time and this was a glorious opportunity for Susan and me. Just as there are places here in Arizona that people traditionally visit, there are places in Israel that tourists enjoy. But I did not even have to think about his question. I immediately replied that I wanted to see “the real Israel”. I wanted to see Jerusalem, Galilee, and Lake Galilee. I wanted to see places that I have read about in the Bible. I wanted to walk the countryside as Jesus did. I wanted to meet the people and learn the culture.

My Trip to Israel

One of the things I wanted to do while in Israel was to buy a good handmade knife. Yoav told me that several of his friends loved to do blacksmithing work and as you can see in the pictures, the young knife maker and I crafted exactly what I wanted. My wife. Susan, took the pictures you see. She spent the time in an air conditioned bus that was converted into a kitchen. There she read and stayed cool while we enjoyed talking while we worked. The blacksmith listened to my stories about ranching, hunting, and packing in the US and he told me tales of blacksmithing and how the art is gradually becoming rarer.

We had a late lunch of grilled fish and vegetables that day. The vegetables there were always fresh and the bread was made daily. Most of the Israeli men that I met were very lean. It was the combination of the type of work they do and their diets I am sure. While we were enjoying our day, we got a phone call from Yoav’s father. He told us that Yoav’s mule had gotten into the high carbohydrate sheep and goat feed and told him he should get right home. My knife maker said to go ahead – he would finish the knife. We headed back to Yoav’s home.

The trip back to the farm was about an hour and a half. I asked Yoav if he had some banamine to relax the muscles around the intestines. I keep it around my ranch at all times. There is a common myth that mules don’t colic. My advice: DON’T YOU BELIEVE IT. While it might be rarer in mules, it surely does happen. They are equines and subject to much of the same maladies as any equine. I have worked with some very knowledgeable vets and I have ranched a good part of my life, and I have learned that things can happen. There are lots of good books and DVD’s to guide you and I encourage education. Then when you do have problems, you are better prepared.

When we arrived back at Yoav’s, we checked the mule out. We watched his breathing, checked his heart rate, and checked his respiratory rate and rhythm. We also checked his urine and his manure and watched for any rolling or side-biting. Everything looked normal and stayed normal, thankfully. We ended up not having to give banamine or take any other emergency steps, but we watched for 3-4 hours to be sure. We were both very grateful.

Visiting the Dead Sea and Masada

Over the next few days, we traveled around the area and saw the farming and agriculture operations. We took two vehicles. Yoav drove the first car. We called in the “man car” and Yoav’s wife drove the second car which Susan called the “girl car”.

Yoav loves to work with steel and fabricating. You will see a place in these pictures that supplies hydroponically grown vegetables. It is a family owned and operated business. Yoav helped construct the buildings for this business. It took nearly 2 years to build it up to where it is today.

We also traveled to the Dead Sea. It is the home of the Dead Sea Scrolls showing the historical accuracy of the Bible. You can see the Dead Sea on the horizon and Saudi Arabia on the far side. One of the things I wanted to do while there was float in the Dead Sea and take the healing mud from the Sea bed and rub it on our skins. The water is salt water and salt is harvested from this body of water.

We also asked to see the ruins of Masada on top of the mountain. The siege of Masada was one of the final events in the first Jewish-Roman War which took place for 73 to 74 BC on a large hilltop in current-day Israel. Masada is one of the most exciting and frequently toured places in Israel and relates a story of perseverance and power, faith and surrender, ambitions, and a tragic end. Masada is a place where battles were waged with rocks and flaming arrows as well as battles of human spirit.

Masada is situated on the top of a mountain with steep sides and a flat top like a parapet overlooking the desert panorama to the west and the Dead Sea to the east. The story of the site shows the courage of the defenders of Masada and their battle against the conquering Romans. It is fascinating history and you can read more here.

Masada has so much history. A king built one of his castles there along with an impressive city on the top of the mountain where it sat impenetrable. If you read about Masada, you will see that the Romans managed to build a road to the city and could then access it with their chariots and solders. The story of the city tells that when the Romans did come through the gates of Masada, everyone was already dead. They had committed suicide rather than have the Roman army take over and make slaves of them. Being on top of that mountain was absolutely incredible. The views of the Dead Sea and all of the mountain range circling Masada was truly amazing.

On our first night in the area, we stayed at a hotel (elder hostel) which was very simple. There were lots of young people there – students studying in Israel. It was common to take a two hour journey up a switchback on rough and rocky trails to be on top of the mountain for the sunrise. During the trek which was done in the dark, people relied on head lamps and flashlights and there were so many people it was easy enough for us. My wife and Yoav’s wife and kids went along. One of the children was only 4 so the hike was challenging. It took us hours – but was well worth the effort. Yoav stayed behind as the hike was too difficult for a man with a prosthetic leg. Now I must say there was a tram that would go to the top and back, but we chose to make the walk and take the tram back down. There was also a museum where we watched a movie on the area and the city and viewed artifacts and displays.

And So It Begins…. Training Mules in Israel

Last month, I shared some photos of my trip to Israel. I surely feel blessed to have the opportunity to see new places and to travel. Once I had a bit of time to be a tourist, it was time to get down to business and start helping the people there with their mules. Now I do a pretty fair job of speaking Spanish and I regularly speak in English, but I don’t speak Hebrew. So when I met the mules I would be working with and learned that they were born in Israel, I also learned that their owners spoke Hebrew to them. This would be interesting!

In a nutshell, we now have an American mule man speaking English to some Israelis who do not speak very good English. But we did have interpreters there to help. So we moved onward. I listened to the folks tell me what they had done with their mules. They told me that they had seen me on YouTube and I was fascinated with their interest and willingness to learn.

Addressing the Mule Myths

One of their biggest concerns raised early on in our session was that they had heard that mules will “get even with you” when you least expect it. Now this is a common myth and I told them so. But I stressed that mules are very intelligent and they don’t appreciate a fool. But they are also forgiving and tolerant. I pretty much chalk up the “get even” story as an old wives tale but I did say that if the mule is consistently abused or treated badly, one might expect some bad behavior. I also spent a lot of time talking about how to move around a mule’s back feet as well as how to handle them.

Another concern was that the mules were so strong that they might “drag them around”. I assured all of my new friends that we would be spending some time on leading manners. They sighed with relief.

They also had questions about feeding, general care, bitting, equipment, and more. These were all questions that I usually hear at any presentation or clinic that I do. So it became clear to me that the Israeli mule owners had the same questions and concerns as folks I have worked with in the smallest of US farm towns or the biggest of Brazilian cities. Mule owners all have the same questions and concerns. So I brushed off my “ask, tell, demand” speech and my talk on comfortable vs. uncomfortable as a general motivation.

Communicating With Your Mule

I spent time explaining that the first thing I want to teach my mule is respect for the halter. I showed them the come along hitch and explained how it can communicate with the nose and the pole – but most importantly, the soft part of the nose. After all, a mule cares more about his nose than his mouth. So those horse trainers don’t have a lot of success training a mule with the pressure and release mouth work. While stressing this, I incorporated ask (small amount of pressure), tell (more pressure on the nose) and demand (a good tug on the nose with that rope) and reinforced the idea of a comfortable nose vs. an uncomfortable nose. It is always fun to do the demonstration of the come along because the results are dramatic.

Now the come along also involves the lower part of the jaw and the pole making it a perfect tool to ready the mule for working with the headstall and bit. But most importantly, the come along teaches the mule to respect the halter. So once he sees he is most comfortable standing still and not pulling on the rope, he will stand still no matter what is going on around him. I can yell, wave a tarp, make noises and more. Make no mistake here – I am not desensitizing my mule – I am training him to respect and honor the halter. There is a difference. And I can teach him this in just about 15 to 20 minutes. He will not drag me around any more – that is for certain.

I stressed the importance for consistency and practice. There was surely a lot of interest in the come along because of the fast results. It was fun to see the mules that dragged their owners into the arena all standing nicely in such a short time! So we moved quickly onto graduating into a well adjusted rope halter as the next step. I explained that many horse trainers use the rope halters incorrectly. The knots are often in the wrong place and the halter loose where it should not be.

I explained to the Israelis that in America, many of my students are mature women. In such cases, I like to use the rope halter and the come along in combination at times – until the mule is minding well. I also stressed that the rope halter must be properly applied and fitted. We did a lot of work on that topic.

I explained that as the mule progresses and wants to stand still consistently, it is time to teach Mr. Mule to pick his feet up. I have done lots of articles and DVDs on this training process. Basically, I teach the mule to stand still and quiet on 3 legs using the button on the scapula and the button on the hip to cue him to pick up the foot, Notice I use the word “cue”. Remember, mules know how to pick their up their feet. They just need to know when to do it and do it quietly when I ask them to do so (i.e. touching the button on the scapula). I have included pictures of a 72 year old Israeli cowboy. This was his first experience with a mule. He borrowed it from a guy who said stay away from the back feet! He said, “ don’t get behind him or he’ll kick you”. As you can see, the mule’s leg is laying across the thigh of Uri (the man) and his hands are out in the air. He was quite a showman. But this is what I believe we should be doing in training. It’s not as important to get in the saddle as it is to get the groundwork squared away. What happens if you should happen to fall off or something goes wrong and you have to be down around the feet? We do not need to hurry to get into the saddle.

I recalled for them that when I was a young boy, we would throw the mule on the ground get them to submit and then climb on or we would strap them to a snubbing post, blindfold him and then get on. That was great when I was 20 years old but now I’m 67 and I want to be smarter! Again it’s not important to climb in the saddle quickly – why not build a good foundation on the ground? Pick up the feet, turn on the fore hand, turn on the hind quarters, pick up the feet and teach your mule about comfort.

3 Days of Training

We had a total of 3 days to train 12 mules and 12 inexperienced equine enthusiasts. These guys ranged in age from 35 years old to 85! I explained to them that while I can climb on a mule and ride it with just a couple hours of work, I will have pushed and rushed only to show the steps of how fast it can be done. It will make me look skilled but the mule doesn’t know what the heck happened. So during our training sessions, we worked with the mule for a bit – until we were sure that both mule and handler had a good grasp on the lesson. Then we would let the mule be and go sit under the Olive Tree for a while and visit. Then we would work a little more.

The training Clinic was done at a kibbutz. This is a community of people working together. Our host was an Israeli named Yuri who loves working around livestock. He has some horses and did some training of other folks horses in the area. Yuri was in his mid-forties and was a pretty good hand. He and his friends sure wanted to learn how to train mules. He had raised three very good mules from his good mares and David’s Mammoth .

I took great care to explain the idea of a mule “clinic” – what they saw happening in just a few hours or days generally takes 6-12 months to teach the mule well. In order to give your mule a foundation and help him enjoy a lifetime of good skills, it takes more than a two or three day clinic. It takes consistent practice over weeks and months. Fair, consistent, honest work is needed. There is clinic time devoted to helping you plan to do just that. Problems may take even longer. I have produced several DVDs to reinforce foundation training and basic lessons and I do clinics all over the United States and the world. It is an incredible privilege for me and I want to help any mule owner who wants to learn.

So if you would like to host a clinic or know of someone who would, please have them give me a Holler. I’ll go anywhere to help folks better understand and communicate with her mules and donkeys.

White hairs on mule's back from saddle scaring

White Hairs, Rub Marks, and Bald Spots

Are you noticing white hairs showing up on your mule? Maybe they’re currently just rub marks and maybe they’ve developed all the way into bald spots.

If you’ve noticed your tack leaving marks that are starting to change the complexion of your mule’s hair, this article is for you.

What do white hairs, rub marks and bald spots mean?

You just had a great ride on your mule. You tackled big hills, hopped some rocks, and enjoyed long dirt roads and wooded trails for hours. Back at camp, you are exhausted. Your backside tells you that you have been in the saddle for a long time today, but regardless it was a great day. As you unpack your mule, you find a rub (with lost hair) from your britchen and you have two distinct white patches near the front D-rings of your saddle and a lesser area near the tree in the front. Your first thought is, “I just spent a lot on this mule gear and now it rubs my mule’s hair off and leaves white spots?”

HOLD THE PHONE! Let’s look at reasons for what happened and once we know the causes, we can plan for prevention.

Now it is true that a tack that does not fit well can cause both white hairs and lost hair. No two ways about it. Both represent areas of friction and pressure. However, I must also tell you that you can have a really good fit with your tack and still have these things happen. Yes, you read that correctly – bad things can still happen if you don’t apply the tack correctly or use it as directed.

The Britchen and Lost Hair

As you know, it is important for the britchen to follow the curve of the hip. Exactly where you place the britchen depends on the size of your mule’s hips but it must follow the curve of the hip. The hip safe should rest just behind the croup, and the straps must let the britchen fall into place. Once in place and attached, you should be able to put both hands between the britchen and the hip and feel your mule’s hair on the back of your hands.

Whether you place your britchen high or low on the hip depends on what you plan to do. In the ride described, it would be fine to have the britchen “high” for the long, level dirt roads or wooded trails that were gently rolling. But for those big hills and rocks, you will want to drop your britchen so the mule can “sit on it” while moving over dramatically changing terrain.

White Hairs

Remember that the purpose of the britchen is to work with your breast collar to keep your saddle in one place. I like a britchen so much more than a crupper because it distributes the rider’s weight so much better, can be adjusted easily, and is meant for this purpose. It will keep your saddle from sliding forward, and if properly used, can also help keep your saddle from moving side to side.

As useful as it is, a britchen must be adjusted for this purpose and should have a position change every couple of hours. If it is really hot and humid, this can become critical. Hot, sweaty mules will lose hair more rapidly than cool, dry mules. So pay attention to your time and the condition of your mule. If he begins to sweat, you will want to plan your changes more frequently.

A britchen is a good choice for your mule, but kindly remember to adjust it periodically. The hotter your mule gets, the more easily hair will be lost. And the more your riding conditions change, the more adjustments will be needed. It is usually safe to plan on adjusting your britchen, even if just a little, every couple of hours.

White Hairs

While white hairs can certainly signal ill fitting tack, they can actually appear even if the tack is a good fit. Here are two reasons why:

  1. You do not apply the tack properly
  2. You allow your mule to overheat.

Let’s look first at proper application. You are all aware that I endorse the use of my tack package as a unit: non-slip saddle pad, my mule saddle, breast collar, britchen, and front and rear cinch. As a package, this tack promotes keeping your saddle (and you) put! People tend not to understand the mechanics and they will over tighten the front cinch.

If you over-tighten the front cinch, you are creating a massive pressure point on the front of the tree and at the front D ring. It would be like pulling a shoelace tight down by the toes but not as much for the rest of the eyelets. There would be a pressure point – a place where the pressure is more than on the rest of the mule AND where it will cause discomfort. If you add to that scenario a mule that is hot, you will get the potential for a scald. It is very important to use the package correctly. The front cinch only needs to be slightly snugged up. The rear cinch is the tighter of the two – but neither needs to be “cranked down.”

With my no-slip pad, the top of the pad decron interfacing with the saddle fleece will feel like velcro. The combination of materials is why the saddle stays in place. The combination of the breast collar and the britchen all work together to keep your saddle secure.

A Sweaty Mule

The other thing I mentioned was that if your mule overheats, you are more likely to see scolds that result in white hairs. You can tell if your mule is hot by watching his ears. Look at the base of his ears near the skull. If he is sweating there and up a ½ inch or so of his ears, he is starting to overheat. It is time for a break.

When you take a break, remember to give your mule a break too! Loosen his tack, lift the rear of the saddle and pad up so his back can cool off (the sweat will evaporate with the ventilation and help him cool) and allow him to get a drink and rest. You can adjust your britchen at this time as well. If it is hot, you will need more breaks and so will he. If it is early in your riding season or you have not ridden trails of a certain difficulty for some time, breaks will be important as your mule gets into shape. But the long and short of it is this: if you feel warm and sweaty and your behind is stiff, imagine what the mule is feeling! There is no tack on earth that will not cause some kind of pressure if improperly used or used for too long without breaks.

On a side note, there is some hope for those white hairs and lost hair. Most of the time, lost hair will grow back. In the old days, muleskinners used to put urine on these areas to toughen it up! Mouthwash was another home remedy. Nowadays, common sense and using a good tack as it should be, along with consideration for the animal can prevent a lot. Most of those white hairs will grow out if you make the necessary adjustments.

You are not the first person to ride a little too long without a rest, to pull that front cinch a little too tight, or to leave your britchen in one spot for too long. The good news is that it is generally correctable and once you understand how to assess your mule for overheating, it gets easier to prevent these issues.

Remember to use the entire Queen Valley package to ride your mule, and remember to rest him and make adjustments as needed. The result will be a happier mule and a happier rider! As always, feel free to give me a holler with any questions.