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October 28, 2004

Sitting On The Neck of My Mule

by Steve Edwards
Queen Valley Mule Ranch

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.

Lets look at different ways of fitting the britchen

BritchenCutIn-01.jpg

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?

BritchenFit-02.jpg

This picture shows the angle I prefer. Notice the angle of the strap. The whole strap is flush with the hip




BritchenPositions-03.jpg

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 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.

BritchenSlack-04.jpg

As you can see in this picture, you 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!

Steve Edwards


Steve Edwards trains mules and donkeys and educates humans about how to communicate with them by offering clinics, apprenticeships and specialized training programs. Queen Valley Mule Ranch is a college for mules and their human companions owned and operated by long-time Arizona residents, Steve and Susan Edwards.

We also sell all the basic equipment used on mules for riding, packing and driving along with instructional videos on various mule training topics created by our own Steve Edwards. Queen Valley Mule Ranch is a great facility, located southeast of Phoenix, Arizona in the Sonoran desert, with a fantastic view of the Superstition Mountains.

Steve can be reached at steve@muleranch.com or (602)-999-6853.

Posted by Guest Contributor at October 28, 2004 05:30 PM

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