Over the past 40 years I have been riding, driving, and packing mules. I have packed freight back into the mountains. The freight can be fence posts, concrete, or equipment for various needs. To make a long story short, I have worked mules for a living and I have had fun with them as well. My main thought in writing this article is to address conformation of mules, but I also want you to get a sense of how and why I have spent over the past 40 years giving thought to “Why Does My Mule Do That?”
How Do You Know If Your Mule Is Comfortable?
Mr. Mule will show me in a variety of ways if he is a happy camper. Shaking his head going down a hill, running down hills, ringing his tail, bucking when I try to saddle him plus many more signs will tell me that he may be having some comfort issues. There are others, but these are some of the more common.
Going back to the pack saddle: I learned a lot about mules being comfortable by going back to the structure and principles of the pack saddle. I would look at sweat patterns. I would try different blankets and/or pads. I would carve on the old wood saw buc. Do you get the idea? Over the past 40 years, I have tried a lot of different things to make my mule comfortable and functional in his job.
In 1981, I met a Canadian by the name of Abe Hewart. Abe came down and spent the winter with me. His goal was to design a pack saddle with adjustable arches and floating bars. We used cottonwood to start with on the bars. We would get a start and then go and try it out. We did this over a course of 3 years. Over these years I began riding more mules. I would say to my saddle maker, “Put the rigging plates here” or “Cut the skirt rounded” and so on. I probably made scores of changes to the riding saddle over this time. Every time I would ride a quarter horse type mule, gaited mule, or draft mule, I would learn something different about the stride.
“What Tree Are We Puting in my Saddles?”
One day I asked my saddle maker “What tree are we putting in my saddles”? His reply was, “Semi-Quarter horse bars”. After looking at that bar sitting on the backs of several mules backs, I would say that it was a fair fit. The only problem or concern seemed to be the twist that the horse bars needed to go around the horse wither. That twist put pressure on the fat pocket of the mule which would put pressure on the 6th and 7th rib. I also noted that while the shoulder action of the horse was in a front to back arch, the shoulder action of the mule is much more vertical. It is more like a piston going up and down. This means that if the bars were too close to the shoulder, horse bars could actually “stab” in behind the scapula of the mule.
As described above, the scapula action on a horse runs horizontal but vertical on the mule. This means that when the mule shakes his head during downhill runs or the like, he may be telling you that the bar of a horse saddle is going in behind the scapula and causing discomfort.
As we thought the situation over, we remembered that we had a well-designed bar for the pack saddle. With the pack saddle being adjustable, I found the angle of the bars that was consistent with every mule I packed and I took that bar to a tree maker and said, “Make my riding saddle trees with this bar and this angle”. That was back in 1983.
Fitting a Saddle for Your Mule
Now I can spend a lot of time talking about the details of what I have learned from the mules by working and playing with them on my ranch. I can also tell you that lot of saddle companies have the customer take a wire and place it in four locations on the mule or donkey and make tracings or take measurements. They then try to fit a saddle for the mule. But this does not work very well for several reasons.
First, let’s consider this. If I measure your mule in January while he is sitting around getting fat and not being used and then I measure him again in July after you have been using him daily, we are surely going to have different measurements. What we want is a saddle that will fit all the time.
Secondly, horse saddle makers need to understand the “shoulder action” of the mule as opposed to a horse. No matter how well that saddle seems to sit on the mule, if the bars do not give clearance to the vertical movement of the mule’s shoulder, there can be discomfort.
A short story I’m going to tell you is about lady had a custom saddle made for $3,500.00. That mule died about 5 months later. Since she had the saddle made only for that mule, she tried it on several other mules, but there were many problems she encountered and she could not use that saddle again. Even if she had shoulder clearance, the tree was not one that could be used by other animals.
The Right Saddle Fit is Only the Beginning
I want you mule and donkey people to understand that saddle fit is not the only problem that will create mental and physical problems with your mule or donkey. Something as simple as floating the teeth every year and a checkup with a chiropractor will confirm other mental and physical needs of your mule. But saddle fit is often a big contributor to problems.
I hesitate to call my saddle a “Mule saddle” because, since about 2004, almost every saddle maker out there says they have a mule saddle. My questions to each of them are, “How many pack mules (working mules) has this mule bar been on?” and “How many saddle mules have this mule bar been on”? I ask these questions to see if it really will be consistent for all uses for the mule and donkey. Also pivotal for a good multi-use mule saddle is that the skirting must be designed to fit all conformations – draft, quarter, gaited, donkey, etc.
Disposition and Conformation Problems
Conformation is a major problem in saddle stability and general endurance. The downhill hip creates the biggest problem when it comes to saddles not staying in place and having the potential to slide forward. The downhill hip conformation is most common in the quarter horse and draft more than any other breed. You will see that the hip is higher than the wither. If I made a tree for this animal or any other mule with this problem, the front of the bar would be 4” thick in the front. My tree bars fit the back just fine for all the mules and donkeys because I use the bone structure, not muscle mass as the supporting guide.
Remember, a mule can drop 100 lbs. in one weekend on a long trail ride. So over the years, I have tried many things to help the few mules that have this conformation problem. We now have a pad that makes up the difference in the wither area. Long story short, when buying a mule, disposition is the first consideration, and a close second is conformation.
A Horse Saddle Is Not Meant for a Mule
Please do not think a pad can make your horse saddle fit a mule. I have shared in many articles and clinics how the problems with bars and skirting of saddles made for horses can cause problems for mules. Padding up a horse saddle for a mule is not a good choice.
There are a lot of great saddle makers that are certainly craftsmen and some people don’t mind spending a lot of money for a piece of artwork. To my way of thinking, it’s important to know how a mule moves and thinks to make Mr. mule comfortable! And a comfortable mule is a better behaved mule.
I want you to know that my saddle makers can do artwork as well. My saddles are designed for hard work. They can accommodate work like dragging calves to the fire, flipping an elk over, dragging firewood to the fire. The saddles are also very comfortable for long hours of work or pleasure. I have designed saddles that weigh 18 pounds and up to 48 pounds. I try to keep my prices for my American made saddles so that everyone can have the right saddle for their mule or donkey. I encourage you to call and write with your questions.
Our saddles are designed for the mule and donkey by the mule and donkey. We are not a saddle making a company; we are a working Cow and Mule Ranch. We know by hard work that our saddles will fit every mule and every donkey. We have hundreds of saddles over the United States and throughout the world.