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February 06, 2005

Does Your Saddle Really Fit Your Mule?

by Steve Edwards
Queen Valley Mule Ranch

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. 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. 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. 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?

I hope this information has been helpful to you. Should you have questions please contact me at steve@muleranch.com

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 February 6, 2005 11:37 PM