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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

Buying a mule with Steve Edwards

So You Want to Buy A Mule?

One day you’re reading through the ads and you see her.  She’s just what you’re looking for.  Beautiful.  Look at all that color!

You decide to make a phone call.  The feller on the other end says that she does everything and to come on down and take a look. “I’ll take $1500 for her”, he tells you. You jump in the truck thinking, “Boy!  I’m gonna own a mule!”  When you get there the mule is all saddled up, ready to go.  The trader starts telling you all about the mule.  He gets on and rides and then offers for you to ride.  You’re excited.  You ride around a little.  Maybe you notice that the mule won’t go just where you want or you have to pull him around.  That’s OK; she’s cheap, and a pretty mule, so you decide to take her home.

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When you get home you put her in the corral because it’s late.  It’s late because it took three hours to load this great mule!  Now you feed your mule and say good night.

The next morning, you go out and walk in the corral and that great-deal-mule won’t come near you.  Two hours  later, and with the help of the neighbors, you catch the “great deal.”  Now you are leading the mule to the hitch rail and you are wishing that you had a tractor to lead with.  While she’s tied at the hitch rail, you go to brush the great deal and she tries to kick your head off. The problems with this “great deal” go on and on.

Now this is just one little story out of hundreds that we have heard over the years.  Lots of folks have thoughts on what a broke saddle mule is suppose to look like.  I like what Ben Tennison said in one of his articles, “My favorite color is broke.”  “Broke” is the old cowboy term for “trained”, or as I have seen it on most outfits, half trained.  I want to share with you some of the things you can look for in a mule that rides, drives and packs.

Help Buying A Mule – What to Look For and What Matters Most

First, let’s look at a saddle mule.  “Disposition” is everything for any mule.  If your potential mule won’t work with you and doesn’t like people, don’t go any farther.  As you are looking at the mule, allow  the owner to go into the corral to get the mule.  If the mule is already saddled, this always throws up a red flag to me.  The mule could be lots of things: drugged, hard to catch, bad to saddle and full of lots of other spoiled habits.  What I would like to see is for the mule to be in the corral and meet you and the owner at the gate.  Watch to see if the mule turns and faces the owner or turns to go the other way.

Now, as he halters the mule, you want to see the mule put her nose in the halter.   As the owner leads the mule, it’s good to see the mule lead easily with slack in the lead rope, following rather then dragging.

While brushing, I like to see the mule stand quietly, enjoying the brushing and the conversation.  Yes, conversation!  Mules like it when you talk in a nice quiet voice.  Yes, their vocabulary is limited to a few words they were taught in their foundation training; “get over”, “give me the foot”, “gee”, “ha”, “whoa”, etc.  The most important word they need to know is WHOA!  Whoa means a complete stop; no other movement, just stand still and quiet and wait.

As the owner picks up all the feet, at no time should the mule lean on him or pull away.  Have the owner take a hammer and tap on each hoof.  Miss Mule should stand still and quiet the whole time.  All the while, watch the ears and the tail.  The ears should be still and not stiff, the tail should  hang quietly — not switching or sucked up.

How to Buy A Riding Mule

At this point, it’s time for saddling.  You are watching to see that as the owner is saddling, the mule stands quietly.  Now it’s time for the bridle.  As the bridle is put on, the ears can be easily moved into place.  If they have to unbuckle the bridle, the mule may have ear-shying problems.  This can be a big problem.  I have found that this is a hole in training that is time consuming to fix.  It is also the start of other problems that are going to surface later on  when you are not expecting it.  Note the bit: how does the mule respond to it?  Does she neck rein or do you need to plow rein to turn?

Now you are ready to watch the owner  ride. I’m never impressed when someone jumps them out into a run or a lope (canter).  I want to see the mule stand still to get on, waiting to see what the rider is going to ask of her. That could be step to the right two steps, or to the left five steps, or a quiet back up or back five steps, then walk off quietly.

If the mule is saddled ask the owner to remove the saddle.  Look at the mule’s back.  If you see white spots, she has had an improper saddle on.  Folks try and fit a horse saddle on a mule and they hurt the mule’s back.  The bigger the white spots, the more the problems.  Look for any old scars on the mule and ask questions about the scars.

Here is the problem with a poorly fitted saddle: a mule doesn’t like pain and the wrong saddle is like boots that don’t fit; soon your feet will get sore.  There are a lot of mules bobbing their heads going down a little hill, and by doing this, they are telling you that the saddle is hurting their back and one day they will get tired of telling you and they  will buck you off!  Now they’ll have your attention!  Other saddle fit problems are evident when the mule is walking short and choppy,  jumping around, or even kicking the saddle out of your hands.

Have the owner lead the mule back to her corral and turn her loose.  Visit with the owner and listen to the stories about the mule.  Ask where he got the mule, how long he’s had the mule and why is he selling the mule.  Note the mule’s attitude while she is standing in the corral.  Now take the mule back to the hitching post and have him saddle the mule.  The whole time a mule is being saddled, observe the mule’s disposition.  The ears need to be loose and moving around quietly.  The tail must be hanging loose and not tight.

If the owner has a britchen, note how goosey she is and the crupper the same.  If the owner doesn’t us a crupper or britchen ask why.  I have seen lots of mules that, when you slide the crupper under the tail or the britchen down, they go to kicking at you or they are very goosey.  If he doesn’t have a britchen or crupper ask  him to tie a rope to the horn, go the long way around, then slide the rope under the tail and around the hips.  This will show you how goosey  the mule is.  Now for the bit, watch  for its ability to work with the mule.  When they get on the mule does he stand still and patiently?  Ask him to back first.  Note the ease of the backup: did he work off the bit, or the rider’s legs or both?  Next ask him to ride him in a figure 8. Is the rider having to pull on the rein to get the mule to turn, or is the mule light on the bit?  Watch to see if the mule responds to leg cues.  Spend as much time as it takes to do all of the above on the first visit.

Now at this time I suggest you  tell the owner you’re going to think about it.  Go home and do a lot of thinking.  If you’re interested in the mule, set up an appointment.  This time, set up a pre-purchase exam by your veterinarian, then revisit and go through the steps again.  You are buying this mule to relax on your time off, so take your time.  When you take your mule home, spend a lot of time on the ground.  This will help the mule get used to you. Take her out as much as possible,  lead her around, tie her to the mule trailer or anywhere else.  This teaches the mule that their job is not to just stand around in their corral and eat and drink all day.

How to Buy A Driving Mule

So we know what to look for in a riding mule. You know you want to see: disposition, conformation, training.  We need to look for these same traits in the driving mule.  I start by asking how the mule was started.  What type of training has he had?  I want to know about the foundation work.

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As an example, we start all our driving mules without blinders.  The reason is that Mr. Mule wants to know everything going on around him.  He is much happier when he can see everything that is happening around him.  Did he start learning to drive by first pulling poles, tires, etc.?  How long was his training before the first drive?  Thirty days will give a good foundation.  (I would never consider him trained in only thirty days.)  Did he start single or as a team?  Can he drive single and/or double?

Now let’s look at Mr. Mule’s disposition.  When buying a mule, start at the corral.  How easy is he to catch? The very best mule will walk up to you.  I like to see the mule drop his head and tip the nose toward me to put the nose into halter.  While leading him to be groomed, how attentive is the mule to the owner?  He should follow willingly, not be pulled.  The mule should stand quietly as he is being groomed.  He should be able to have his feet and legs worked with ease.  Before you hook him to a wagon, I would like to see the mule dry drive, (without a wagon) pulling a tire or pole or just walking quietly behind him.  While putting the harness on, Mr. Mule needs to be quiet, but a little shifting of weight is OK.  He should not be bothered by the different parts of the harness touching him.

Be specific when you ask about driving.  Ask if the mule drives single, double or both.  How do you want to drive Mr. Mule?  Just because someone says ‘he drives’ doesn’t mean single and double!

Let’s take a minute and look at single driving harness.  Here at the ranch, we like single harness with a collar rather than breast harness.  We believe that the mule can pull with more ease and will be more apt to enjoy the drive.

When being hooked to the wagon Mr. Mule needs to wait for every move the teamster will ask for.  A well-trained team will walk quietly and step over the pole and stand quietly while the teamster hooks them up.

When climbing in the wagon and holding onto the lines, Mr. Mule needs to stand still and quietly while waiting for the teamster to pick up on the lines.  At this point the mule should not start to move — not until the driver asks for either a backup, come gee (right) or come haw (left), etc.  As Mr. Mule starts out, his head position should go straight, not to the right or the left.  When you come to the gate going out to the street, does the mule wait on the driver, or he is impatiently ready to go as soon as the gate opens?  This is a taught trait and not the fault of the mule.  This is the driver’s fault.  This teaches the mule impatience.  Does the driver have to slap the mule with the lines?  This is “only in the movies”, as Bud Brown would say.  Instead when you ‘pick up on’ the lines and youspeak to the mule. The mule, if he has a good foundation, will go the way he is asked.

Now the real test!  The road is a very dangerous place.  Just being on the road with all kinds of vehicles and folks who are all in a hurry is bad enough.  With a vehicle, you have bumpers.  But with a wagon, the mule has the driver and he needs to be very experienced!  This can be a fun time but it is very difficult; it is a hard test with the traffic flying by and lots of noise.  Watch the ears and tail; Mr. Mule will tell you what he is thinking. The tail should hang quiet and not be switching.  If it is switching, he is upset.  Hanging quiet, he is at ease. The ears will be flopping if he is at total ease and straight up if he is questioning something.  The ears will be straight up and stiff when he is mad.

Folks, before you get in to the expense of driving, do your homework.  Read, go to clinics, buy videos, take classes and most importantly, drive a lot with an experienced driver.

As you observe the way different mules respond to the above test, you will begin to have a genuine insight as to what it takes to make a good mule.  Driving is great family fun if it is done safely.

How to Buy A Packing Mule

So we have covered riding and driving.  I cannot emphasize disposition enough. This means that the mule must be a willing friend; willing to go where you go and willing to do what you ask.  A big quiet brown eye, not snorting when you come around, anxious to see you when you come to the gate. In short a willing nature.

I prefer a medium bone conformation. The head coming straight up out of the shoulder, the longer the ear, the better. Nice round hips and a good wither would be a bonus.  I’m 5’ 6″, so packing a 16 hand mule is sure tough.  I prefer 14.2 hands to pack.

Lots of folks think that a pack mule doesn’t need to know much.  I look at packing as a level of knowledge and foundation the mule needs to know before he becomes a good saddle mule.  We believe in lots of training aids.  We tie to our trailers, we front leg hobble, and we use hitching posts and hot walkers.  These all teach the mule patience.  These days, mules think their job is to stand in a corral. When you take them out of the corral they paw, jump in the air, or move around a lot.  Tying them out helps them under stand the need to be happy anywhere you ask them to go or stay.

In lots of packing books, the author suggests to “make everything tight so nothing rattles and scares the mule”.  As part of our training program, we put tin cans and any thing else that would rattle in the boxes so we can sack him out.  How about the day you open a stick of gum and this little noise scares Mr. Mule?

I use packing as final sacking and preparation for riding.  I figure that pack boxes won’t jump like I will when the new mule hits a tree or a saguaro cactus.  An experienced pack mule will know to step to the side and go around those things; that pack box could have been my leg hitting the tree or cactus!

A good pack mule should stand still while you are packing him.  The pack bags and boxes are bright orange but this should not be a problem as mules are color-blind.  This packing is good foundation training that will help Mr. Mule get adjusted to weight and noise.

Opening a tarp and pulling it over the pack outfit will sure blow a mule’s mind if he has not been sacked out.  Notice we use a plastic tarp to pull over the mule.  We take a foot away at the same time with a scotch hobble.  This teaches the mule to give to the new pressure of giving to his leg.  A few times of this and he will learn that he can’t take his leg away.  You will be training him to accept the tarp and give his leg at the same time.  This is essential training to prepare for easy shoeing and foot care.

The lash rope flying over the back of Mr. Pack Mule can be tough, especially when the lash slaps him on the belly.  By the time you get the 40-ft. rope tied, you have trusted Mr. Pack Mule with your life.  You have been under his belly, around his back legs and moving around the off side (right side).  Yes it is a very good mule to just handle the loading part!

While the leg is tied up, you can practice with the lash rope.  We place the mule in training in a string with a good mule for the lead.  I tie the mule I’m training to the good mule and we head down the trail for an hour or two.  We string five mules together to pack our freight to camps.  Mr. Mule gets a lot of trail miles this way.

The first time out with a new pack mule can be quite exciting.  The mule may have done great up to this point, then the sorry beggar thinks that he is a boat anchor.  This is where good halter training comes into play.  I start all my mules with come-along hitch, or as some call it, a nerve line.  This goes around the nose and up over the pole.  When Mr. Mule sets back in the string, he’ll only do it once or twice before his foundation will come back to him.  He remembers to lead with out any problem.  I have a low opinion of mule halters with chains that go on the noise or under the chin.  I think that if he has a good foundation, Mr. Mule will lead with just a rope halter.  Mr. Mule likes his nose and you will get a softer mule if you don’t hurt it.

It is very important for the pack mule be in good physical condition.  Packing dead weight is tough on the animal.  Don’t just take him out one day and put a pack outfit on his back.  He needs to be conditioned.  Use a hot walker if you have one available.  Lead him behind your riding animal for a few days.

Let’s take a quick review of the things you want to look for when buying a mule to ride, drive, or pack:

  1. Good disposition
  2. Conformation
  3. Easy to catch
  4. Stands quietly for grooming and mounting
  5. communicates with voice ,hands ,legs ,seat
  6. Leads well
  7. Gets along with equine in the back of him and in the front
  8. Medium to heavy bone structure
  9. trailers well
  10. good to shoe
  11. Good physical condition

We know that buying and maintaining a mule is expensive.  By following the guidelines we have laid out in the last three articles, we trust you will truly be purchasing “a friend for life”.

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