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.

Hear From A Real Life Rancher Using Steve Edwards Saddles

Explore Steve’s Mule and Donkey 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.

Steve Edwards Mule Training and Mule Riding

Get Your Mule Ready to Ride

Many of my mule friends and clients are what I fondly call “weekend riders”. They work all week long and then load their mules into a trailer and go off to join friends for a trail ride. It is relaxing, fun, and scenic. It is why many of us own mules and horses. So let me spend a few minutes talking about being ready for the ride.

Mr. Mule Goes Trail Riding

Mules and horses have bones and muscles the same as we do. If not exercised, they become “flabby” just like a person does. If not used, they can lose strength and stamina. And if not gradually conditioned for exercise tolerance, your mule can become sore and unhappy – just like you! So what can we do to ready our mule and horses for our trail riding season? Let’s look at some basics.

The Diet Owners Need to Consider for their Mules

We need to start out by making sure our animals get the proper diet for the activity that we will be asking them to do. Sometimes, I see fat mules – ones that have been fed as if they are exercising even when they are not. The other extreme is that mules will be thin, perhaps because they have not had nutritious feed, even for a sedentary life. So we need to take a look at our mule and get an idea of what kind of shape he is in.

Mules are generally easy keepers. If their teeth are cared for yearly and they get good turnout, they likely need quality forage as the largest part of their diets. They do not need the “complete feeds” that horses often get in pellet form. Instead, I usually recommend that they get oats in a feedbag before exercise to give them energy, but they do not need other sweet feeds or the like. If you are concerned about your hay and it’s nutritional value, hay testing is available and you can supplement accordingly.

Your Mule is Craving an Exercise Program

Once we determine feed, we need to start an exercise program that is gradual and progressive. It is not wise to pull your mule out of a winter pasture and head out on a mountainous 20 mile ride if he has not been ridden all winter.

Instead, you can even begin by exercising your mule in a round pen. Take the opportunity to refresh his response to the bit and familiarity with tack. Then start riding easier tracks for 30-60 minutes a few times a week and then increase the time and the difficulty. Your mule will become more ready for longer more strenuous rides using this technique. And by not stressing him, you will avoid bouts of colic, tying up, and generalized soreness. You may have to be prepared to decline a big ride early on in the year if you don’t get the opportunity to get your mule or yourself ready. There is no ride that is worth risking your equine’s well being or your own.

If you are lucky enough to live in a climate where you can ride all year around, you may not have the issue of conditioning the mule for the ride. Perhaps you have been riding regularly all year. In such cases, you should just make sure that you don’t change what you are asking of your mule dramatically in a sudden fashion.

Most back yard mules are not ready to take on the Grand Canyon. But if you ride your mules in mountains and hot weather routinely, you may not have as much preparation required as someone who only rides seasonally or occasionally.

Healthcare for Your Mule and What You Need to Consider

Another part of getting your mule ready to ride is to update his general healthcare. Make sure he has his shots. Rabies and tetanus are pretty routine in all areas of the country and they combat common, preventable conditions. Your vet will also recommend other vaccines that are commonly needed in your area.

Make sure you tend to your mule’s teeth. I suggest that they be floated annually unless otherwise recommended by your veterinarian. Your mule’s teeth must be in good shape not only for eating, but also to facilitate good responsiveness and tolerance of the bit you use.

It’s Gotta Be the Shoes

Shoes are also something to consider. Depending on the terrain and the condition of your mule’s feet along with preferences that you may have, you will need to be certain that trims are adequate, shoes or boots are used if you want or need them, and that your mule is not lame. Mules can still abscess, have thrush, or founder. They tend to be very stoic so a good evaluation and assessment of their soundness is always a valuable practice.

Other Considerations for the Mule Owner

Other considerations may include using electrolytes for long or strenuous rides; having water from home along with you if you travel, taking some hay from home for long trips, and having a first aid kit and rescue boot should you need it.

One of my students likes to keep a “ride log”. She jots down dates of rides, approximate distance and terrain and makes sure that she “builds” a good foundation for those big rides. Since she only gets to ride in the spring, summer, and fall, she starts building up again each year in the spring and works towards some very aggressive and long rides in the late fall. Heck, there are even trail riding apps for your phone that allow you to generate a map of where you have ridden complete with distance, elevation changes, and a map of the route.

So have some fun getting your mule ready for the terrain and enjoy every moment you have with your friend!

As always, feel free to give me a holler if I can offer any other suggestions to you. I’d absolutely love to share pictures of you and your buddy on the trail so feel free to send them to me, steve@muleranch.com and I’ll share them on my Facebook Page and here on MuleRanch.com.

Why Clinics are Vital for Participants and Clinicians

I have written a lot of articles over the years, but I received more feedback on my article discussing insurance than many others. I sincerely appreciate everyone’s concern for us with this problem. As a professional, I want to protect my clients and friends as well as my family. That being said, some folks have expressed their beliefs that they are fully covered for various perils, animal and otherwise. So let me help explore this just a bit more before we move on.

You Need to Cover Yourself

The first and most basic lesson is that homeowners insurance may not cover the damage to property or lives that might happen with equines – not just mules and donkeys. It is also important to be clear that state laws, regardless of the intent or wording, will not guarantee that you cannot or will not be sued and potentially lose your assets and life’s savings should someone elect to submit a claim or make an allegation. I personally have served as an expert witness in several cases. None of my cases have gone to court. We have won the case before they got that far.

It seems to me that no one seems to want to acknowledge that mistakes can be made by people, by horses, by mules, and by donkeys. It is the very nature of life. In addition, you do not necessarily have to do anything “wrong” to be sued. When folks have expectations that cannot be reconciled with what actually happens, they can choose resort to legal action for satisfaction. Some people are more likely to do so than others. But regardless of blame or circumstances, I strongly encourage you to review your homeowner’s coverage sooner rather than later and discuss the scope of the coverage with your agent in detail. When you can, get a written opinion from him or her on various “what ifs” and store those opinions with your policy.

Why Training Is So Dear to Me

I love to offer communication symposiums and clinics. Seeing people and mules “speaking the same language” is a beautiful experience. Doing these clinics all over the United States is lots of fun for me for several reasons. First, I love to see so many people enjoying the outdoors with mules. It seems they are better bred these days for saddle and driving work, and many “baby boomers” find comfort and security in the easy going and consistent ways of a mule. I never thought I would be traveling throughout United States and around the world doing mule communication clinics, but I am grateful that it is so.

Second, over the years I have designed saddles, tack, bits, and DVDs to help people and their mules. This is an important part of what I feel I have to offer to my audiences and clinic participants as well as their mules. My passion stems back to my childhood but my parents did not know anything about western life. (They divorced in 1963. My dad was mentally ill.) But when I would see a mule having “mechanical problems” I would change their bit to my bit, their saddle to my saddle. I was inspired and rewarded by seeing dramatic changes in the mules and the riders with my tack. This is still true today!

Improving the Experience Improves the Safety

I have spent time building on those original experiences, and my success is the main reason I started selling saddles, videos, bridles, bits, and other assorted tack. It is great to see my clients when they realize that many behavior or functional problems can be corrected with just a change of tack which results in comfort for their long ear partner. I no sooner change the tack and it is almost as if the mule sighs and whispers, “oh, finally, they understand my issues!”

The next question comes from the owner who says, “Where can I get that saddle or bit or tack?” It is particularly rewarding for me to be able to offer a good working saddle with all the “trimmings” for a reasonable price. Now I have fancy saddles and such, too. But I have not forgotten the budget conscious rider who cannot justify spending thousands on tack. I will say that it is a very good feeling to hear from people all around the world when they write back to say how much they like the saddles and tack I sell – and how much difference it made for their mule or donkey.

I Don’t Want to Quit Doing Mule Clinics

My point here is that I don’t want to quit doing mule training clinics and I hope for the same success and satisfaction for other mule trainers. But I must offer a word of advice to you, the mule rider and to the new up-and-coming clinicians: make sure you have insurance that covers what you do! If you’re a professional trainer, one of the main areas for your focus is to assure that you cover your clients well.

If you are a mule or donkey owner, you would want to cover someone if they got hurt by your mule and donkey. You would also want to have coverage if your mule or donkey did property damage. I love the Bible verse, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you” but we all still have to do the right thing!

If you check out my website you will see that I do have some clinics lined up. In setting these opportunities up, I have been a lot more selective about venues, I have specified more about liability issues, and I have become more cautious about participant coverage, property concerns, etc. In other words, I am “picky”! That is not because I am difficult – it is because I care about all parties concerned and as the clinician, that is my job

You Make This Worth Doing

Once again thanks for your concern and feedback on my article. Thank you for your e-mails and your phone calls. Mule and donkey people are special folks because you often display the same qualities that you enjoy from your animals – patience, curiosity, good nature, and common sense! If I can be of any help to you, please contact me at steve@muleranch.com or give me a holler at 602-999-6853.

How to Fit Your Mule or Donkey Saddle

Over the past 35 years I have been riding, driving, and packing mules. We have been packing freight back in the mountains; the freight was anything from fence posts to concrete, and other equipment of various needs. So to make a long story short, I have worked mules for a living and have had fun with them as well.

I find that if my mule is uncomfortable, he will show me in a variety of ways. Shaking his head going down a hill, running down hills, ringing his tail when I try to saddle him, and I could go on and on with a lot of other signs of problems.

Going back to the pack saddle, packing is where I learned a lot about mules being comfortable. I would look at sweat patterns, I would try different blankets, I would carve on the old wood saw buck…as you can see, I have tried a lot of different things.

In 1981, I had a Canadian by the name of Abe Hewart come down and spend the winter with me. His goal was to design a pack saddle with adjustable arches and floating bars. We used wood to start with on the bars and then we would go try it out. We did this over a course of 3 years. Over those years I began riding more mules. I would say to my saddle maker, “put the rigging plates here…cut the skirt rounded…” In addition to those, I’m sure there were 100 other changes I made to the saddle. Every time I would ride a quarter mule, gated mule, or draft mule, I would learn something different about the stride. One day I asked my saddle maker, “What tree are we putting in my saddles?” His answer was, “Semi-Quarter horse bars.” After looking at that bar setting on several mules backs, it was a fair fit. Except for the twist that the horse bars needed to go around the wither. That twist put pressure upon the fat pocket which would put pressure on the 6th and 7th ribs of the mules. I also found that the front of the bar of the horse was not tipped up, in other words the scapula on a mule goes up and down. The scapula on a horse runs horizontal. So the reason for the shaking head was that the bar was digging into the scapula. Considering the situation, I thought of the well-designed bar we had made for my pack saddle. I took that bar to a tree maker and said, “Make my trees with this bar.” That was back in 1983.

Now I can spend a lot of time talking about the details from what I have learned from the mules from working and playing on this ranch. One thing I did learn was that taking a wire measurement and taking a form and fitting it to my mule and then sending it to my saddle maker did not work. Let’s look at it like this: If I measure my mule in January while he is sitting around, not being used and getting fat, when I measure him again in July, we are surely going to have a different measurement. There was a lady that had a custom saddle made for $3500.00. The mule it was made for 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.

I want mule and donkey people to understand that saddle fit is not the only problem that will create mental and physical problems with your donkey. Something as simple as floating the teeth every year and a check-up with a chiropractor will confirm the mental and physical needs of your mule. 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 art work. I want you to know that my saddle makers can do art work as well. But my saddles are designed for hard work, dragging calves to the fire, flipping an elk over, dragging firewood to the fire, and so-on. The saddles are also very comfortable for long hours on the trail. I have designed saddles that weigh from 18 pounds 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. Here is my website. www.MuleRanch.com or email me at Steve@MuleRanch.com

Our saddles are designed for the mule and donkey by the mule and donkey. We are not a saddle-making 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 through-out the world.

Happy Trails to all you mule and donkey folk!