When I first started riding I did like a lot of folks do, I found a used saddle that fit me and was 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 its tail, step sideways, 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. At least that’s what I thought.
It took me years to really understand the difference between a mule and a horse. I had to think about the mule’s disposition and attitude when finding the right saddle. It was a journey, but well worth it. Here’s how I finally got to understand it all.
Buying a Saddle with a New Style Tree
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 withered 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 five years. The saddle tree is the skeleton of the saddle, made up of the bars, pommel, and cantle.
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 – it had not happened to anyone else. They reimbursed me and I bought a saddle with a wood tree covered in rawhide. This saddle served me well for a number of years.
Riding My First Mule with My Horse Saddle
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 lots 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 in my outfit and they taught me a lot.
Designing a New Bar for Mule Pack Saddles
In 1986, I met Nick West and Delos Burk from Alberta. Each year they wintered in the valley and they would come nearly every day to help around the ranch rather than play cards or shuffleboard 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. I have used that bar for over 20 years in my pack saddles.
Saddlemaker’s Idea of a Mule Saddle
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 saddlemakers, asking questions and 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’s back. I presumed a saddlemaker already knew the difference.
After a month of riding with my new saddle, my mules started showing signs of discomfort: shaking their heads going down hill, moving around when saddling, switching their tails, or moving around when I got on. These were the same things I had problems with using a horse saddle.
I went to the saddlemaker 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 saddlemaker’s suggestion was to add pads and blankets. That made things worse, which led me to take a closer look at the tree.
Taking a Closer Look at the Pack Saddle Bars
Abe came by one day and we started discussing the problem I was having. 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 a lot of different tree manufacturer’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 which is the 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 are 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 doing much work may develop big, ugly masses in these areas. The third and fourth 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 causes the mule pain.
- 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 hindquarters.
By understanding these differences, I designed a saddle that’s comfortable for mules and donkeys. When your animal is comfortable, you will have a smoother and safer ride.
I’m Here to Help
Think about your mule’s disposition and attitude. Is there a problem with the saddle you’re using? If it’s a horse saddle on your mule, I can pretty much guarantee at some point you will have problems. I’m speaking from experience.
If you have questions about your mule’s attitude when saddled, call or email me your questions along with photos and videos of your animal. I am here to help you and your animal find the safest ride possible.