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!

Electrolytes and Dehydration

When riding, driving, or packing your donkey or mule, the biggest enemy is dehydration. I give my mule 10 CC of electrolytes anytime I am riding a six to eight hour day. You can purchase a tube of electrolytes at any feed store. The electrolytes are given at the corner of the mouth. You can train your animal to open his mouth correctly for this procedure by practicing with a carrot at the corner of the mouth.

For heat dissipation and body cooling, at three miles an hour, your animal loses about 1.3 gallons of sweat per hour under moderate conditions. The salts/electrolytes sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium and calcium are also lost with this loss of fluid. These electrolytes are responsible for the transfer of water through cell membranes, for nerves to fire and muscles to contract. Large losses of electrolytes can result in several neuromuscular and systemic disturbances including muscle cramping, tying up, synchronous diaphragmatic flutter (thumps) and systemic alkaloids.

Your goal as the mule or donkey owner is to prevent electrolyte imbalance and dehydration in your animal through proper fluid and electrolyte replacement. The proper balance can greatly prolong reaching the point of fatigue and also decrease recovery time.

If you’re feeding a well-formulated diet, the chances are good that they’ve met the electrolyte needs of the lightly to moderately worked mule or donkey, under most conditions (always make plain salt available). Electrolyte availability can become a problem when the rate of loss exceeds the rate of replacement. If the mule or donkey sweats for a prolonged period of time, due to extreme weather conditions (high humidity, high heat), prolonged exercise (endurance type work), heavy work, transporting, or being trained, electrolyte needs will not always be met through their feed. For these mules and donkeys, electrolyte supplementation becomes necessary to maintain body functions at an optimum level and to increase water intake preventing dehydration. Electrolytes should not be given to a mule or donkey that is already dehydrated, except under the supervision of a veterinarian.

Saddle fitting for mules. Mule Training with Steve Edwards.

Does Your Saddle Really Fit Your Mule?

When I first starting riding I did like a lot of folks do. I found a used saddle that fit me and in my price range; cheap!!! I put that saddle on everything I rode. When it didn’t seem to fit I blamed it on the animal. Then I added pads or cut holes in pads. I cinched the saddle down real tight and went down the trail. If the saddle felt loose I would get off and tighten the cinch and go on my way. Usually the horse I would be riding would move around switching the tail, step side ways, jump ahead and kick, buck, run off, flip over, you name it, the horse tried it. I didn’t let those things bother me much; after all I was a COWBOY! It was always the horse’s fault, not mine or the saddle.

I started talking with my cowboy buddies and they convinced me that my saddle was too old and it was fine for older raw boned high wither horses but not for the modern horse. I went down to J.C. Penney’s and bought a brand new saddle. It had a new style tree in it. The tree was made of plastic and they guaranteed it for 5 years. The tree is the skeleton of the saddle made up of the bars, pommel, and cantle. (photo coming soon) A short time later we were working cattle and as I roped a 600 lb calf she hit the end of my rope and out popped the horn. That was not a good feeling to feel your saddle come apart under you. I took it back and they put in another tree. It happened again and the manufacturer said I was too tough on the saddle that it had not happened to anyone else. They reimbursed me and I bought a saddle with a wood tree covered in rawhide. (photo coming soon) This saddle served me well for a number of years riding horses.

I had lots of folks tell me that a mule would suit me better considering the rough country I rode and the things I was doing. Consequently I soon bought my first mule, Casper. Yes, I did like a lot of folks I put my “horse” saddle on my mule, jumped on and tried to treat him just like a horse. I added a lot of pads to get the saddle to FIT. I rode with a breast collar but not a britchen. (I wrote an article about using a britchen entitled Sitting on the Neck of My Mule.) Casper taught me a lot of things starting with going down hills. Without a britchen that saddle went forward real fast! At that time I didn’t know that a mule has a “V” shape shoulder and a horse has an “A” shape shoulder. When going uphill on a horse the saddle goes back, on a mule it moves forward going downhill. After getting Casper started in his training I started looking for other mules to train. Pretty soon I had a good little heard of mules on my outfit and they taught me a lot.

In 1986 I met Nick West and Delos Burk from Alberta. Each year they wintered in the valley they would come nearly every day to help around the ranch rather than play cards or shuffle board at the trailer park. They introduced me to their good friend Abe Ewert. Abe worked for the forest service and was a packer out of Vancouver, B.C. Abe had developed an adjustable pack saddle and wanted to design a set of bars to fit mules. We made back molds of the mules we had at the ranch and some others. We came up with a new bar. (photo coming soon) I have used that bar for over 20 years on my pack saddles.

Over the years I learned that a semi-quarter horse tree or a full quarter horse tree was not going to work on my mule. I approached several saddle makers asking questions, telling them I needed a saddle for a mule. I did not explain what I had discovered over the years about the differences between a mule and horse back. I presumed a saddle maker already knew the difference.

After a month of riding with my new saddle my mules started showing signs of discomfort; shaking their head going down hill, moving around when saddling, switching their tail or moving around when I got on. These were the same things I had problems with using a horse saddle.

I went to the saddle maker and questioned him about the type of tree he had used in my mule saddle. He said a semi-quarter horse tree. He assured me any problems I was having were not from the saddle. I asked if he had a tree the same as I had in my saddle that I could take and set on the backs of my mules to see the fit. We took that tree, placed it on the mules back and it rocked like a rocking horse. The saddle maker’s suggestion was to add pads and blankets. That made things worse, which started me looking closer at the trees.

Abe came by one day and we started discussing the problem I was having. Then it dawned on us that we had the right bars on the pack saddle. I started searching for a tree that had bars similar to the pack saddle. I looked at lots of tree manufacture’s bars. Nothing came close to the bar we used on the pack saddle.

By this time I had really studied mules and discovered some big differences between horses and mules:

  • First, the scapula (top of the shoulder blade moves up and down like a piston in an engine. Horse shoulders move forward and back.
  • Second, mule shoulders are V shaped and horse shoulders are A shaped.
  • Third, mules have fat pockets which they inherit from their daddy, the donkey. These fat pockets run on the top of the neck, across the top of the ribs and around the tail dock. A mule or donkey being fed high protein feed and not working may develop big ugly masses in theses areas. The 3rd and 4th rib area is where you can really see the difference. A horse saddle has a twist in it and tends to sit right on top of these ribs. This sores the mule.
  • Fourth, the kidneys are closer to the center of a mule than the center of a horse. If a tree is setting flat in the kidney area it may place undue pressure on the muscles in that area. This may cause discomfort or problems with the kidneys and hair wear on the hind quarters.

So think about your mule’s disposition and attitude. Is there a problem with the saddle you’re using?

Steve Edwards Mule Training

Sitting On the Neck of My Mule

When I first started riding mules, I would put the saddle on just like a horse, high on the wither with my chinch close to the front legs. Down the trail we went. I always rode with a loose cinch because I wanted my horse to have all the breathing power possible. I know how heavy I breathe when I go up those mountains on foot. (Walking hurts the price of good saddle mules.)

Guess what happened on the first down hill? Yep, you guessed it, over the head I went. The saddle went over the shoulders and on up the neck. I stayed on going over grabbing halters and ears, landing in front of the mule but on my feet.

I decided to tighten up the cinch and down the next hill I went. This time I turned sideways on the trail to keep from going over the neck.

One of my old cowboy buddies suggested I center-fire the saddle. That worked better, but not great. I fought that saddle the whole trip. It was miserable. I even made a crupper, put the saddle on and put the crupper under the tail. That mule went nuts! He was determined to buck me off. He didn’t like that thing rubbing on the softest part of his body.

That night I decided to talk to a saddle maker and get a britchen. The saddle maker and old friend suggested I use a britchen off one of my old harness. Now that started my quest for what makes Mr. Mule comfortable. I know what it’s like to have a sore back and a belt that’s too tight. I decided that’s how a mule feels when he is saddled up poorly. Horse saddles are not made to fit mules, and it does make a difference.

When I first started out I was not only using a britchen but I was using a horse saddle. The mule protested but I thought it was the mule’s fault. You know the mule has a bad reputation so everything he does is his fault right? Nope it’s our fault.

Now first I want to say the best you can do for your mule is to have a good fitting tree! Notice I didn’t say a good fitting saddle. You CANNOT TELL IF A SADDLE FITS UNTIL YOU SEE THE BARE TREE FIT. The tree is the Skeleton.

Next in importance is the britchen, which is what I want to talk about today. First let’s talk about what a britchen does not do. You do not use it to keep your saddle or cinch back ALL THE TIME you are in the saddle. The britchen is for stops and going down hills. This is when the saddle moves the most. This is what the britchen is designed to help with. When the britchen is tight all the time, it will rub hair off the hip in a short time. I have seen mules scalded in as little as half an hour. Do not adjust your britchen straight. This may look good but will pull hair quick because it does not fit the hip flush.

Looking At Different Ways of Fitting the Britchen

This picture shows how I see a lot of britchens fit. See the area at the top of the britchen strap? The hair is pushed up. This will start cutting hair just like a razor. Notice the space under the bottom of the britchen strap. This further confirms the pushing up of the hair at the top of britchen you see in the picture.

BritchenCutIn_small1

What should a good fit look like?

The Picture on the right shows the angle I prefer. Notice the angle of the strap. The whole strap is flush with the hip

BritchenFit_small1

Here I am pointing out the area where it you can position the britchen. Where to place the britchen depends on the size of your mule’s hips. You may have from three to as much as ten inches of adjustment.

BritchenPositions_small1

The wide strap that all the adjusting straps attach to at the top of the hip is called the hip safe. Set the hip safe just behind the of the croup at the top of the hip. Placing it there will help the hip safe to stay in place and not slide towards the saddle.

Adjustments – I may move my britchen up and down the hip sometimes twice in a three-hour time frame. This will help prevent wearing hair off the hip. Do consider the temperature. If your mule is hot and sweaty, hair will rub off much easier.

As you can see in this picture, should be able to place both of your hands between the britchen and the hip. The hair of the hip should just touch the back of your hand.

BritchenSlack_small1

Reasons to Use a Britchen Rather Than a Crupper

I can ride with a loose cinch. This will help the mule to have better lung capacity and to be a whole lot more comfortable. Each strap on the britchen will do its job to help keep the saddle in place.

The britchen will help keep your saddle from going forward. When adjusted properly, it will also help limit side-to-side movement.

The hip has more mass to help distribute the weight from the rider and saddle. This is an extra bonus when getting on and off.

You can adjust a britchen up and down the hip several inches where you can’t adjust a crupper at all. A crupper will wear the soft skin of the tail and sore it. (You would never use a crupper along with a packsaddle.)

I could go on and on, and at my clinics I address lots of questions on this subject. We hope to see you at one sometime soon!

Mule training with Steve Edwards - Picking up the foot.

Give Me Your Foot

Years ago when I did a lot of shoeing for others, I worked with every problem animal there was.  The biggest problem I had shoeing was the owners.  Whoops did I say that!  The problem was they would not pick up the hoof, clean and inspect it on a daily basis or at least every time they rode.  There is an old saying:  “No hoof, no mule”.  The reason I know this is, I would work with a mule and get him started in the right direction then show the owner and say, ” Now I want you to do this at least 4 times a week fifteen minutes a day.”  Fifteen minutes a day is not asking much.  Now 6 to 8 weeks later I would come out to shoe and the mule and I would have to spend time training again.  Folks would be upset when I would tack on an extra $30.00 to train the mule to pick up the foot or not to lean.  Training and shoeing are two different jobs.  Your farrier should walk up, ask for the foot, and go to shoeing.

I’ve stepped on lots of toes about now so let me explain.  Think about how you pick up your mule’s hoof.  Do you reach down and pick up the hoof by “pulling on it” rather than asking the mule to give it to you?  Have you allowed the mule to shift his weight so he can prepare to work with you?  When you are done do you drop the foot?  Does your mule lean on you when you pick up the hoof?  Let’s learn to do it right!

To make picking up your mule's foot a pleasant experience, start at the beginning - look for movement upon touch! - Steve EdwardsClick To Tweet

Now before I get started I want you to understand, any time you work with animals you have a chance of getting hurt or your animal getting hurt.  It is very important that you think things through before you start working with Mr. mule.  When you have fright you can have flight and fight.  When you start getting mad or Mr. mule gets mad you need to find a good place to quit.  Either start rubbing Mr. mule to calm him down or leave him to stand and think about things.  Standing is a great training tool; don’t shy away from using it.

Communicating From the Beginning

Let’s start at the beginning and see if we can make picking up the feet a pleasant experience.  To start you need an attainable goal.  Our final goal would be to have a mule that picks up all four feet and holds each up indefinitely without leaning.  The immediate goal would be to achieve any kind of movement upon touching the shoulder or hip button.  If your mule is young this will be a fast process, if your mule is older he has probably found lots of ways to get around this picking up the foot process.  Remember to always reward by rubbing the mule and use a quiet tone in your voice.  Say some thing nice and rub the mule at the same time.  Something like, good for you, good mule, keeps a positive attitude for you and Mr. mule.  Sorry words develop a sorry attitude.

This is how I start young mules that no one has spoiled.  Keep the lessons short, always stop on a good note, this is true any time you’re training or working with your mule.  At first Mr. Mule may do something you don’t like, for instance kick at you.  If you make it a big problem it will become exactly that.  Never kick him in the belly or hit him with a whip.  At first he may kick at the quirt.  This is not the time to kick him in the belly either.  You just stay consistent, keep taping, and as soon as Mr. mule moves, stop tapping and rub and love on your mule.  Remember; never make a big deal out of him kicking at you, just keep tapping.

STEP #1

I start at the left front leg, looking from the tail of the mule.  It’s also called the “near” front.  I ask the mule to pick up the hoof by pushing on the shoulder blade.  You can feel the sharpness of the bone at the middle of the shoulder.   (See photo on right.)

Watch the hoof carefully as you push on the shoulder blade. Look for the hoof  to get loose on the ground. As soon as it does, take the pressure off his shoulder.  Do this 3 times in a row.

Things To Do

  • Three times of any training starts your foundation.
  • Do this with each hoof you work with.
  • Be sure to do lots of rubbing.
  • Make a big deal out of the smallest thing you see Mr. Mule do right.

As you touch the shoulder blade say,  “give it to me.”   Mr. Mule will learn that when you touch the button (shoulder blade, hipbone), that’s the cue to pick up the foot .

Now that you have asked each foot to ‘think about giving’ now use a four-foot long quirt.  Rub the shoulder blade with your thumb and as you see the foot move tap the hoof with the quirt.  Look for the smallest attempt to work with you. As soon as you see it, take the pressure off the shoulder and stop tapping the hoof.

Things To Look For: At first the hoof will move a little.  As you work on it every day, Mr. Mule will start working with you.

Training Tip: A good training tip here is to keep feeling the esophagus.  Before you start your training rub and shake the esophagus.  See how it feels like a bowl of Jell-O?  This will tell you Mr. Mule is calm and has an understanding of what you are teaching.  Throughout the training if the esophagus tightens up, stop and rub and speak quietly to the mule.  When he softens up go back to work.

STEP #2

Use the quirt the same way as you did with the front feet.  Light taps increasing until he picks up the foot.  The back foot is usually more difficult than the front.

Ground work is more important than riding. - Steve EdwardsClick To Tweet

Things To Look for: On the back foot he may just take the weight off the foot.  That’s OK — this is a great place to stop.  When you are able to pick up the rear hoof, as he gives you the hoof bring the hoof to the front first then take it back.  This will get the back leg to relax and uncheck the hip.  Then take the leg back again and get your work done to the hoof or leg.  Everybody wants to hurry up and go riding.

Training Tip:  Groundwork is more important than riding.

Another problem is that folks drop the hoof after they are done.  You are teaching the mule to pull a way from you by first teaching the mule to get in a hurry by dropping the hoof. When you are done cleaning the hoof put your left hand on the hip and the right hand on the canon bone and set the foot down.  This training will be good when you need to care for the health of your mule.