Steve Edwards Most Popular Articles of 2017

Can you believe it folks, 2017 is coming to an end? And what a year it has been! This year has had its shares of ups and downs but has been full of blessings. After more than 35 years of being in the mule training business, I can’t help but be thankful for what I get to do day in and day out and that’s sharing with you all my knowledge to help with your mule or donkey.

This website is a great resource for you all and ya’ll are definitely taking advantage. From articles on The Difference Between a Mule Saddle and Horse Saddle to Establishing Leadership with Your Mule, you are bound to find the answers to your mule or donkey training questions. To reflect on 2017, my team went through and put together a list of the 10 most popular articles from our website during 2017. These are the articles that you found the most helpful in your journey. I’m just glad I got to be part of it.

Here are my most popular articles of 2017.


History: It Takes Time to Erase Things From the Past

I love to help mule people with problems. It’s why I do what I do. So when Barbara contacted me about saddle fit issues and tack questions, I was happy to help!

Buying The Right Saddle And Tack Set Up

The background is that her mule had been subjected to long rides using horse gear and the result was pretty clear. Not only was the mule unhappy, but white spots (scalds) had developed near the withers. Honestly, they were pretty darn big. Barbara had done some research and decided it might be best to buy my mule saddle as others had indicated to her that it solved a lot of problems. She was lucky enough to find a good deal on a used one!

Unfortunately, Barbara did not research quite enough so she only bought my saddle. The seller did not offer all the “attachments” so she did not initially purchase “the entire package” that I recommend. As is commonly done, she elected to tighten the front cinch on the saddle to keep it from moving and placed the saddle high on the whither. So without intending to, she actually made the problem worse.

Long story short, Barbara contacted me to talk about these white spots and the saddle, and we discussed the need to use the proper saddle pad, britchen, breast collar and double cinch system to stabilize the saddle. I can’t overemphasize the need to use this entire tack set up for the best possible results. My saddles are not meant to be “stand alone.” Without the saddle pad, britchen and breast collar and the double cinches (connected to prevent slipping) with the back the tighter of the two – the entire point is missed. If everything is properly applied, there is no need to crank down on the cinches or to overtighten any part of the tack. If everything is in place, the saddle is comfortably secure for the mule and the rider; over 40 years of the school of hard knocks has gotten me to this point.

What You Can Do About White Hairs

Now Barbara is a smart person and she loves her mule. So she did exactly as we discussed. She started using all of the parts of the tack package, and she asked questions galore so that she could get everything properly adjusted. Though delighted with the results, she did contact me one more time to say that there was “good sweat” everywhere but where the white spots were. Those areas were dry.

So here is the story. When a scald is severe, not only is there a lot of rubbing and friction, but there is long lasting (sometimes permanent) damage to the sweat glands in the skin. In Barbara’s case, some of the damage was inherited while part of it was her responsibility as she over tightened the front cinch in an attempt to keep the saddle still. Those white hairs and the damaged sweat glands will not go away overnight. And depending on how long the poor practices were in place, the mule may actually never be completely rid of the damage or scars from it. The mule’s tolerance of this kind of discomfort is a true testament to his character, by the way!

So what is Barbara to do? Well, she needs to stick to basics. Her mule should have a good diet, lots of turnout and properly adjusted and applied tack. While she can massage the skin areas, there is no magic “treatment” to grow sweat glands back. Lots of folks do see white hairs dissipate over time, but others may not. It all depends on the duration of the causative factors and the mule itself.

I can tell you that my personal observations have been that paint or spotted mules tend to scald more than the solid blacks or browns. I’m sure I don’t have enough data to conclusively say that, but I mention it just as a caution to paint mule owners.

Do Your Research When Selecting Mule Tack

The bottom line is this: Mules get their skeletal structure from the donkey daddy. We know this. We know that their walk results in a more vertical rather than lateral movement of the scapula. We know that they are “v” shaped in the shoulders rather than “A” shaped like a horse. So it should follow that horse tack is not going to be a good option for what is, in essence, a different creature. Finding a mule saddle, unfortunately, is not as easy as it might initially sound. I have run into a lot of saddle makers who advertise a “mule tree” and when you actually look at the tree, it is still a basic horse tree.

When selecting mule tack, please take the time to check it out completely. Ask questions. Ask for references. Find out if mule owners are actually happy with the saddle. It is so easy to research these days with the internet options available. But also, find out how to use the saddle to get the most bang for your buck. I could have saved Barbara a lot of trouble and additional frustration if we had talked about the entire “tack package” which is also stressed in the saddle videos.

Nobody wants to be told that they have to spend more money! And nobody wants to be scammed. But if you do your research and then follow the directions for use of my tack package, I think you will be happy with the result. I know your mule will be happy.

The Right Tack Makes All The Difference

I had a little mule at Equine Affaire one year. He was a little paint mule who was giving his rider some particular behaviors. The seminar presentation was on problem behaviors. He seemed like such a good “demo” mule as he was pushy, dancing and pulling from his person. She had him looking good – all cleaned up and in his show saddle when we started. As is usual, we start such presentations by asking the owner about their animal and then what they would like to fix. Not wanting to do any damage to her fancy saddle, I asked if she would mind if we took it off and put my trail lite and tack package on him for the demo. She agreed.

While I was talking to the audience about mule behaviors as I changed his tack, we started to witness a remarkable transformation. Once his saddle was off, he stood still. She had indicated that he was a little pain in the butt during tacking. I was up for the challenge. But from the time we took his saddle off, he was a perfect gentleman. I tossed my saddle pad and trail lite saddle on him – NOT ONE FLINCH. In fact, he even let out a sigh and a big yawn (much to the delight of the audience). I put on the two cinches, the britchen and the breast collar. He was like a statue. She asked me “what spell I cast on him?” Truth be told, he was standing still because the tack did not hurt him. He was standing still because as a mule, he knew what he needed and wanted, and this was it!

Now I will say that the little dickens ruined my presentation. I then had no problem behaviors to address. He was no longer dancing around the ring and he was not head butting or cinchy. He stood quietly and then just mosied around the ring on a loose line as if he owned it. His behavior problems were the result of annoying and painful tack. It is not always this simple, for certain, but in this case, a dramatic behavior makeover was done in the blink of an eye!

I am always happy to talk to you to help with any problem you are having. But let’s never forget basic things before we move on to the more difficult fixes. Each spring, check teeth, give necessary shots and worming, feed well, provide lots of fresh, clean water, gradually increase exercise and take care of feet. Use tack that fits the mule and you. I’m always here if you want to give me a holler!

Welcome Home – Make the Most of Your Mule’s Homecoming

Bringing a new mule home is a very exciting time. You have found “the one” and bringing him or her home to your barn should be perfect! But I hear time and time again from folks who struggle with the transition from the mule’s “old familiar home” to the new place – even when the new place seems to be filled with love and hopes for a great life together. So let me just give you a hand on that homecoming experience that just might make life all that you had hoped for.

Make Your Mule Comfortable and Show Him Who’s the Leader

Mules like what is dependable. They get comfortable with routine and they like it. Even if the circumstances are not necessarily the best, they are familiar and the mule knows what to expect. So when you take him for a ride to try him out or visit him in his old home, you are seeing him in an environment that he knows. When you take him out of that environment, he will not know what will happen next. If he cannot quickly identify a confident herd leader, he will take control for himself.

If you arrive home and unload him from the trailer then turn him out into a big pasture with some buddies, he will do just fine. The herd will adjust, leadership will be clear and life will go on. The problem is, you will not be part of that herd. If Mr. Mule has plenty of room to roam, buddies, and food – what does he need you for? Why should he come to you when you call. Why should he look forward to a ride?

Instead, this homecoming is a real opportunity for your relationship to begin. Let’s talk about setting you up for success and a great relationship.

The Beginning of a Great Relationship With Your Mule

Begin by setting up a relatively small area for your new mule. A 20X20 pen is fine. It doesn’t have to be big or fancy, but it needs to be handy. It should be secure and easily accessed so you can interact with your mule. Put some hay and clean water in there and escort your mule into his temporary home. Let him look it over and settle in a bit.

Here in this pen, over the next little while, you will bond with your mule. He will get groomed, fed, and taught what ground manners are expected. He will learn that you are the source of all comfort and contact. Here you can teach him that you are now the herd leader and that you will treat him well. There is plenty of time for Mr. Mule to meet the other equines. This is your time.

If your mule paws for food or has less than great manners, you can fix it here. You can take him out and go for walks. This gives you the activity to perfect his ground manners. If he is pushy or bold, use your come-a-long hitch and remind him how he should act. But then return him to his pen. You can also bring him out and tie him at the hitching post. You can groom and tack and give him a chance to see where and how these things will happen. You can lift his feet and make sure he will be good for the farrier. The possibilities are endless. But always return him to his pen during this introductory period.

How Long Do You Have to Confine Your Mule?

Well that is variable depending on how much time you can devote to your mule and also on the mule himself. I usually recommend at least 5 days but some will take more time. When your mule starts greeting you and shows you the manners you want to see, you can consider the next step. But he must understand that you are the source of all things good.

I talked to a woman who bought a mule a couple of years back. She had the mule for just a couple of weeks before taking her molly to a camp where the mule was housed in a small paddock and for a week’s stay. It was at this camp that she fell madly in love with her mule who had been ok at home, but really seemed to blossom under her care at the camp. She tells me that she “accidentally” did exactly what I recommend. She was the source of everything for that mule and spent a lot of time with her during their vacation week, tending to the details of leading, feeding, tacking and more. I had to laugh at that but she went on to say that while she had not found me and my work at that time, that she could sure see that I was right on the mark when it comes to bonding with your mule! Her reports were backed up with tons of great photos that documented the transition of their relationship during that week.

For those who have trouble catching their mules or who say that their mules don’t act the same when they bring them home, I ask that you give this a try. It is not too late if your mule is already out with the others or is hard to catch. These relationships are ever changing. The same woman that I mentioned above trailers to trail ride. Over the past year, her mule has learned that when the truck is hitched to the trailer, she will get to go with her person to trail ride. The mule, seeing the trailer parked in the loading zone, runs to the gate and waits there until she is permitted to load herself into the trailer! Now that is a trail riding buddy!

Take the Time to Build a Relationship With Your Mule

I believe that mules feel your intent. If you invest in the partnership right up front, I think you will get a response that you will enjoy. You are not being hard on your mule by not turning him out right away – you are saying “I am your person and you can count on me”. Giving him the structure and security is a valuable step in forming your relationship. When he sees you after this introductory period, he will come to you.

Finally, we have our animals for a reason. So take the time to handle him and spend time with him each and every day, even if the time is only brief. I do not recommend that any equine be permitted to run to his or her food, blowing by the humans. Personally, I like everyone standing quietly and patiently as I feed. I expect to be able to retrieve any of my animals from the pasture and I expect manners and easy interactions. If it is time for the vet or farrier, I don’t like a fight. Standing quietly and picking up feet when asked is taught and expected. Everybody, including Mr. Mule, benefits from this!

When you are preparing for the homecoming of a new mule or if you need to work with your less than mannerly mule, feel free to give me a holler or visit my website at I am happy to help. There is no devotion like what a mule can give you! So set yourself up to enjoy it fully.

Foundation Training and Trailer Loading

You’ve got a mule or donkey, and every once in a blue moon you need to load ‘Ole Fluffy up into a trailer. You don’t own a trailer yourself, so how are you going to get your buddy ready to load up when the time comes?

This is quite a problem for a lot of folks out there. The natural question to ask is, “Well, do I need to have a friend bring a trailer over every couple months to keep my mule trained on trailer loading?”

If trailer loading is a real problem for you, please check out my instructional video that is all about this very important topic

That question is certainly understandable and I wouldn’t be surprised if folks out there were actually doing that exact thing. Trailer desensitization is not the problem. The problem is foundation training. You need to lead that animal forward into the trailer. Well, you also need to lead her forward over a bridge, forward under an overpass and forward over other obstacles. What you need to learn to do is properly communicate with your donkey from the ground and then from the saddle.

Ask. Tell. Demand.

Foundation Training is how you communicate with your mule through your hands, through the lead rope and to the halter. We do not start with the halter when we do foundational training. It is imperative that we start with the come-along hitch and the come-along rope. The come-along rope is a 28’ waxed rope that is modeled around the nose and pole (behind the ears) of the mule. We want the mule to go backward, forward and move each individual foot separately when asked to move that particular foot.

There are three simple commands: Ask, Tell, Demand. First, I’m going to bump, which means I’m asking. Next, I’m going to bump bump, which is telling. Then, if the mule hasn’t yet done what I asked, I am going to rapid fire my lead rope which puts a lot of discomfort to the donkey’s nose and pull, that’s demanding. The palm of my hand is always pointing down. By pointing down I can roll my wrist, which is what I mean when I say bump.

We have to remember that mules and donkeys care more about their nose than they do their mouth. As we bump the rope, it communicates to the nose first, underneath the chin second and behind the pole third. It gives the mule the opportunity to go with the easier touch – nose. A heavier touch underneath the chin, a lot of nerves. And then behind the pole and there are a lot of nerves there. As a matter of fact, this is why a lot of mules or donkeys will rear because of the level of discomfort when we pull at the pole.

Working with your mule on the side of a mountain and going into a canyon is where real school happens. You start thinking there has to be a better way. That’s why I developed Ask, Tell, Demand; it becomes easy to get the animal to respond with respect with very little work on my part.

Don’t Pull Me!

The donkey has been saying all the time “don’t pull me,” but you don’t realize that you keep pulling on the rope rather than bumping on the rope. In essence, you’re teaching the donkey to brace against you. You’re teaching him to get stronger in all five major neck muscles.

So not only have we taught Mr. Mule not to go forward because of pulling or because of improper adjustment… we’ve also taught them to say “no.” They’re always willing to say no if they perceive there is a problem.

Going back to them pulling back – this is a very small flight because of fright. They’re thinking, “I don’t want to go forward. It looks scary. I am going to flight (pull back) to keep myself from getting in harm’s way.” That right there is the difference between the mule and the horse. The donkey side of the mule perceives the problem and doesn’t want to chance it by moving forward.

Now that we have the mechanical squared away, i.e. the halter, we can set up a program for how to teach them to go forward and to do it under stress.

The “Go Forward” Program or Loading ‘Ole Fluffy Up Into A Trailer

The first thing we’re going to do is be on the left side of the mule, the near side. Looking from the back of the donkey, on the left side is the near side, the right side is the off side. So we are standing with approximately 3’ of rope from the bottom of the halter to my right hand. My left hand will carry the extra rope. The palm of my hands are always pointing down. By pointing down I can roll my wrist, which is what I mean when I say bump. If I pull on the rope going between my thumb and my forefinger that’s what teaches him to brace. If I bump that means the rope goes underneath my little finger and underneath my hands. The position of your hands is very important.

First pick a straight place – from here to a telephone pole. I say we’re going straight. Not to the right not to the left. If he looks to the left I bump his nose. If he hesitates and pulls back a little, I as the herd leader, keep going forward, do not look back and I bump with my hand and say, “We are going forward, IF you want to stay here it will be painful for you.” So Mr. Mule then says, “Okay, this is an uncomfortable spot,” and he will go forward.

We will do everything in 3s, 6s, 9s and 12s, that is imperative for foundation. So today I’m going 3 times to the telephone post. Go to it then away from it. Go to it then away from it. Go to it then away from it. Then I quit. We tend to overdo it as trainers and communicators. When he does good we want to do a bunch more – but you’ve got to stop right there. Today, I do 3, every day for a week. A week later if the foundation is correct, do 6; do 6 every day for a week.

So the next time I do 9 every day for a week. The next week, I do 12. Now that I’ve done 12, I have setup a foundation. Now I can go to making figure 8s.

Making Figure 8s A Part Of Training

I will pick a place and say to the donkey, “Every time I go past this place, this bush, that will be one.” So I make a figure 8 in 25’ and then come back to the bush, that’s 1. After I’ve done 3 coming back to the bush, I now have the first 3 of my foundation and I am done. Increase the number of figure 8s you do each week, the same as you did for going straight.

After figure 8s and going straight, I now take a piece of plywood and lay it flat on the ground. I first walk counter clockwise, that’s teaching the left brain. Then I go clockwise, that’s teaching the right brain. We have to consider this when we start building a foundation of something scary on the ground – one half of the mule at a time. Since they do not have the cranial lobe that tells the right side what the left side is doing and back, it is imperative that we teach one half at a time. So when I go around my piece of plywood counter clockwise (left eye), clockwise (right eye) three times, I am done. The next time I train, I take those three and add three more and now I have six. The next time I train, I will do those six + three more and now I have nine. Next time, I will go to 12.

Now I take my flat piece of plywood and put 4 old car tires underneath it and teach my donkey to step up on it. Remember, you just changed where that piece of plywood was. They will always ask questions, “Why did that plywood move? Why is it different here, over in another spot?” So when you have elevated it, do it again in 3, 6, 9, 12.

As you progress always turn into the plywood, never away from it. NEVER turn away from a perceived problem – always turn toward it. When you turn away even for a split second, they got what they wanted and they will build on it.

As we progress, we have to remember desensitizing does not work. What do you mean it doesn’t work? I go up and down the street! How many deer have you got so you can desensitize them for when a deer pops up? What about a turkey? Or an elk? You cannot desensitize. What you need to learn to do is properly communicate from the ground, and then the saddle. You cannot change what God has put in that animal – flight and fright. There is not a bit or halter in the world that will keep him from running.

Realizing these animals we have trained on, they have to listen to us at the end of the lead rope or from the saddle, and just because they hear, see or smell something – they have to learn by cue what we have built as a foundation – do this or don’t do this. We do it by cues.

Yes, the information I have given you is time consuming – remember this is over six months. Foundations are built over six months. Make the decision – is a visit to the emergency room better, or is taking your time with your mule having a good foundation better? You have to consider that.

I will leave it at that for today.

Be sure to check out my full length instructional video, Trailer Loading, for more direction on this very important topic

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.


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.

Hear From A Real Life Rancher Using Steve Edwards Saddles

Explore Steve’s Mule and Donkey Saddles