APPROPRIATE TACK AND FIT FOR HORSES, MULES & DONKEYS
By Marlene Quiring, Ponoka, Alberta, Canada
WHY BE CONCERNED ABOUT TACK FIT?
Fitting the right tack to the right animal is important for several reasons.
# 1, ECONOMICS - Simply put, using correctly fitted and positioned tack directly affects our pocketbooks. If you have enough knowledge to put the right kind of equipment on the right animal for the right use, you will save yourself hundreds of dollars in tack and useless gimmicks that end up hanging on your tack room walls or collecting dust in the corner. And you will select and fit the right animal to the right job. Putting animals to work in circumstances and conditions that they are not suited for and expecting them to work in tack that doesn’t fit, will shorten their usefulness to you and can become a financial burden.
# 2, PERFORMANCE - You will get better performance out of your animal if you have taken the time to fit the tack to that animal. There is no doubt that the horse, mule or donkey that is not limited by ill-fitting tack, will outperform one that is limited and/or hurting from tack that is not fitted or positioned correctly for their conformation.
# 3, SAFETY - Your animal’s well-being and comfort will directly affect your personal comfort and also your degree of safety in working that animal. If your mount is not comfortable with the working gear that he if forced to accept, he will not be an attentive, thinking animal that will respond as well to your cues or be as aware of any outside dangers that might threaten his or your safety. Ultimately, an animal that is in distress from ill-fitting tack may decide to buck, bolt or exhibit other undesirable behaviors.
GROWTH & MATURITY
It’s important to understand that the saddle you fit to your equine’s back today may not fit so well when changes happen to that animal such as maturity or conditioning which can vary from one season to the next. You will be wise to constantly monitor your animal’s back to check for signs that your tack may need adjusting.
A warning to those of you who insist on riding 2 year old horses, and even worse 2 or 3 year old mules and donkeys. A two-year-old horse cannot stand up to any amount of heavy riding. His body is still growing, cartilage is changing into bone, and muscles are strengthening. In my opinion, riding a 2-year-old mule or donkey is a crime. Permanent damage can result to the animal’s frame that can limit the usefulness of that animal and shorten his working life. Many mules don’t fully mature until 6 or later, so don’t punish their bodies by riding them hard at a young age. It would be more reasonable to ride horses lightly as 3 year olds and mules and donkeys at 4 and 5. It will pay off in the end by having a critter that will last for you. Because of the changes that will occur during these ages, expect that fitting a saddle to a young animal will take many adjustments as they mature.
CONFORMATION RELATIVE TO SADDLE FIT
Years ago, when only riding horses, long mountain trips often left my horse with cinch sores and/or hot swollen spots, which sometimes left white hairs. Arena riding and pleasure riding didn’t usually give me any clues that my saddle fit or saddling position was causing my horse grief; but riding in the mountains told another story. When I started riding mules, saddle fitting became even more of a problem and forced me to search for answers. Some things I figured out the hard way, but mostly I’ve been able to learn from others, especially from Tim Barton, who is a retired College teacher in Equine Anatomy and longtime horse and mule man. Tim also operates an exclusive mountain retreat www.outpostatwardenrock.com that is only accessible by team and wagon or saddle animal. For most of his life he has worked with mules and horses and had to keep them happy and sound in order to pack, drive and ride in rough conditions. I owe much of what I have learned about fitting and positioning tack to this man.
In order to understand how to fit tack you need to first become a student of conformation, particularly the differences in backs from one equine to another. Prepare to ‘’see’’ the obvious, perhaps for the very first time! Most of us understand that a mule’s back is generally different than a horse’s back, but what you will find is that there is no ‘’standard’’ back for mule, donkey or horse – each is an individual with individual needs. Some horses have wide flat backs that are more commonly seen on mules and some mules have backs with high withers and quite a bit of belly [a definite concave curve or dip in the middle of the back]. Therefore it is incorrect to assume that any one saddle will fit any equine. It’s simply impossible!
When you begin to really look at backs you will be able to discern the differences. Backs can be long, short, wide, narrow, flat or with lots of belly. It’s not uncommon to see a back that has some deviation [curves left or right] of the spine. Some animals may have one leg shorter than the other which can affect overall balance and require compensation when fitting tack. A shoulder can be uneven, whether born that way, from injury or an unbalanced rider. Corrections must be made in the riding and help is also needed from the tack to balance out the saddle. Leveling the saddle or the pad with shimming can help the shoulder that is low. If we ride lopsided whether due to an injury or sloppiness; we will affect the balance and eventually the conformation of our animal. So, again, the first step towards understanding good tack fit is to take the time to really study equine conformation and develop your eye to see the difference!
You will begin to realize that you cannot assume that any one saddle can possibly fit all the different back structures. In the case of mules, it is misleading to rely on a saddle advertised as having ‘’mule bars’’ as being the answer for your mule. We now know that not all mules have the same back conformation so it is not fair to think that a ‘’mule’’ saddle will fit most any mule any more than it is to assume that any regular saddle will fit any horse. For example, a 14 hh saddle mule and 16 hh draft mule will likely have very different backs, but too few riders take that into consideration. How would you perform if you had to work in someone else’s uniform if that person was a totally different size and shape than you? Think about it!
Once you have a better eye to see how the conformation differs in individual backs, find a saddle shop that will let you look at their bare trees to further develop your eye. Aim at learning to see which trees might best fit which backs. A good fit will make contact throughout the length and width of the bar, as compared to only spots of the bar making contact with the animal’s back, causing localized pressure spots. Also watch that the bare tree does not ever sit on the mule’s spine.
A mule tree does not automatically fit a mule back. Some mules need horse trees and vice versa. A very flat backed horse may need what many call a mule tree. So don’t get mislead into thinking that a certain tree WILL fit a certain animal. This is where you have to see for yourself which tree will fit the best. After that you or your saddle maker may need to start modifying a tree that has the closest bare fit. Modifying a bare tree is much easier but you can also modify the tree in a saddle. It is a more work, but well worth the effort.
SADDLE POSITIONING & RIDING TOO FAR FORWARD
Tim Barton, college instructor in equine anatomy and outfitter and packer of mules and horses for over 50 years, states that ‘’ 95% of the people I see do not set their saddles or pack saddles far enough back on their animal. The tree must be away from the animal’s shoulder blade so as not to interfere with the animal’s natural movement. When you ride or pack with your saddle too far ahead you are jamming the front of your saddle tree into your animal’s shoulder. This will make them sore and it will seriously limit their ability to work for you.
Once you understand the importance of analyzing the different back structures you may begin to realize the importance of properly positioning your saddle so that you are not limiting the performance of your animal by your tack.
For those who are fearful of not riding over their mule’s ‘’center of balance.’’ We know that in order for an animal to move to his optimum ability, we ourselves have to ride him in a ‘’balanced’’ position, meaning having our weight evenly distributed from side to side and front to back. Your weight directly over the center of the mule doesn’t affect his balance when he’s standing still, but it certainly does affect his balance as soon as he moves.
Different people for different reasons and with different meanings often loosely use the term ‘’center of balance.’’ There is a ‘’center of mass’’ that moves as we move back and forth on top of the animal. Most of us work hard to get our mule or horse light on the front end and working off their hindquarters. If we have most of our weight on our mule’s front end, his center of mass is also forward so how does that easily enable him to develop lightness on his front end? If we move our weight back off of his front end and more in the center, we will give our mule a mechanical advantage! We ask our mule to be light on his front end but we are riding with our weight too far forward. If we move our weight back we make it easier for him to lift up his front end and get his rear end underneath him. The muscles that lift the front end are located in the loin and hip of the mule so by riding ‘’balanced’’ on his back and moving his center of mass back, we enable him to move his front end much easier.
Unfortunately, the trend today is to ride our animals with the saddle sitting on top of the shoulders. This was not always so. If you look back at pictures of horseback riders throughout history, they are sitting in the middle of their mount’s backs, not up on the withers! When we ride too far forward, we are literally forcing our animal to speed up as he fights to keep his balance by moving his center of mass further back. Riding with the saddle well forward originated in horse racing, because this ‘’out of balance’’ saddle placement literally forced the horse to speed up! This still works because our racetracks are short, but for long distances the horse will tire quickly because of being out of balance. Competitive, endurance, and trail riders will find they will tire their horses much sooner when they set their saddles too far ahead.
A saddle that fits well when your mule is standing will not necessarily fit as well once the animal starts moving. This is because when the animal turns left or right, he shortens the side of his body he is turning into. When you put your saddle too far forward on your mule, this becomes even more of an issue because you are asking your saddle to sit and fit on the animal’s moving shoulder blade!
Another comment that is often heard is that if we have our saddle too far back we will ‘’hurt the kidneys.’’ Your animal’s kidneys are a suspended organ well protected by layers of muscle and bone. They are not next to the surface of his loin, but lay deep within his body cavity. You can definitely sore the surface of the loin muscles with a tree that is too long or digs in at the back, but you are not directly hurting his kidneys.
When we ride with our saddle too far forward, what we are doing is riding our animal’s shoulder blades or scapula. The wither should not be used as an anchor for the saddle. If you have a good look at your equines back, you will discover in all likelihood that his back dips down directly behind his withers and then rises uphill to his loins. This is a downhill back conformation and 95% of our equines are built along this line.
Even those breeds that are known for good withers, often still have downhill backs. Most people are very surprised to realize this as we have been taught to believe that if the withers on an animal are higher than or at least level with the loins, that we have a level back.
So now we know that in all likelihood, we are trying to ride a mule or horse with a downhill back. Guess what our saddle will naturally want to do? Gravity will make our saddles seek the low spot! Some folks refer to this as the ‘’sweet spot.’’ This is only a position affected by gravity and would only be a correct position if the conformation of our animal were correct. If you want to enable your animal to move to the best of his ability, You will position the front edge of your saddletree to at least 2’’ behind the back edge of your mule’s shoulder blade when his front leg is in full extension.
Some saddles have an inch or so of leather in front of the edge of the tree so don’t get fooled by the leather, its where the front of your tree is that counts. Some mules require that the front edge of the tree sit up to 4’’ behind the end of their shoulder blade as that’s how much their shoulder blade moves!
If you’re not convinced that your saddle should stay off of your mule’s shoulder blade, try this little example. Set your saddle without a pad so that the front of the tree is on top of your mule’s shoulder blade. This is where most of us want to saddle anyway. Stick your fingers under the front edge of the tree and next to the top back edges of your mule’s blade. Have someone put just a little pressure on the front of the saddle by pushing down on the horn. I bet you will say ‘’ouch.’’ Think about your entire weight in the saddle and how this must feel to your mule’s shoulder. Not only that but then you expect your mule to comfortably move his shoulder blade every time you ask him to walk, trot, lope or perform a maneuver. With the mule especially being a self-preserver, he will react in some way or another! At the very least, he will become short- strided.
You can also experiment to check how far back your mule’s shoulder blade moves when he strides out. Have your friend pick up the front leg of your mule and pull it ahead. With your finger on the end of your mule’s shoulder blade at the stand still, note how much it moves back when his leg is pulled ahead. This is the same movement that happens when he strides out and this gives you a good idea of how much room you need to leave to allow for no interference with the front of the tree.
Now more good saddles are being built with flared bars which allow for easier movement of the shoulder blades. This allows for some shoulder relief when the saddle is placed up on the wither, but even better is to also move your saddle back and also relieve some of the weight bearing on your mount’s moving shoulder blade. Tree bars should also have some flare at the back of the tree to make sure the saddle will not dig into the loins.
Gaited horses and mules often have sloping shoulders that literally push the saddle back if allowed. Watch the Saddle Seat riders and see where they set their saddles. They don’t ride the shoulder blades but sit in the center of their horse’s back. They do NOT want to interfere with their horse’s shoulder as to do so would inhibit the horse’s ability to move out. There are some horses that are not exactly built to ride because they have such sloping shoulders that the saddle would need to sit on their loin to get away from their shoulder!
SIGNS OF POOR SADDLE FIT:
• White spots, dry spots, swelling, back or loin soreness. Check after the ride, an hour or two later and the next day!
• Steps away from the saddle, pins ears, try's to bite, or is cold-backed
• Becomes short- strided
• Excessively tail switching
• Stumbling when ridden [ can also be from poor trimming or shoeing, exhaustion or too much forward weight]
• Acts grouchy under saddle
• Saddle rocks even when cinched tight
• Saddle rides too far ahead or too far back
• Gullet touches the withers Saddle won’t stay centered
• Saddle pops up in the back or tips down in the front
• Rumpled hairs under the saddle
• Movement causing loss of hair over the loins or any other area
Several of these problems can be occurring at the same time and may require several different adjustments. Always check the tree to make sure IT is not causing problems because of inferior workmanship. Many factory made saddles are not necessarily symmetrical and this can cause saddle-fitting problems.
White hairs happen when the blood supply to a localized area is diminished. There is a breakdown of connective tissue between the skin caused by too much weight or pressure. White hairs are not always the sign of poor saddle fit. They can also occur by having too much saddle movement, front and back or too heavy a load. Pulling your out of condition animal out of the pasture and using them hard can also cause white hairs or you can scald your animal’s back by using a pad that does not wick away moisture.
If you already have white hairs where your saddle sits, one of the above scenarios may have happened or your saddle may not fit properly or a combination of the above. If the white spots are on his shoulders, you are likely riding with your saddle too far forward and the tree is creating too much pressure on a small area. If the white hairs are further along the back, you have had pressure spots from the tree or experienced other problems.
It is of great importance to find a saddle that fits your animal well, but after that you must also make sure that the saddle fits you! Chose a seat design that is comfortable for you; us women and some men need a seat that is not too wide or round and has room for our thighs. You must choose a saddle that has the proper seat length for your body, too long and you sit too far back behind the stirrups. A balanced rider should sit in the center of the saddle, over the stirrups, and not against the cantle. Riding with proper equitation is essential and works along with a good fitting saddle.
SADDLE TREE FIT
Specialty saddles, barrel racing, cutting, reining, roping, etc. are designed to accommodate the movement required for a particular discipline of riding. They may exert more pressure in certain areas, which is tolerable to the animal for short periods of time. For example a reining saddle is designed to really flare in the front of the tree and flatten out at the back to allow for more freedom of movement of the spinal column. However taking a reining saddle and expecting it to work well for trail riding is much like us wearing running shoes to go mountain climbing or wearing high heels to run in. You must pick the right equipment for the right job.
Since falling in love with mules, I have always been on the lookout for any articles or information on fitting saddles to their backs. Looking back I am rather disappointed at the well-meaning but mostly inaccurate information that is available for mule or donkey owners on saddle fit. Most articles I have found completely miss the point that the bars of the tree of the saddle must fit the animal’s back completely. They glance over the importance of finding a good fit to start with and dwell mostly on how to secure that supposedly ‘’one saddle fits all’’ on with cinches, cruppers, breast collars and britchens! Now don’t get me wrong, all these pieces of equipment have their place but not to make an ill-fitting saddle stick to that which it wasn’t designed to fit!
Horses, mules and donkeys all have different back structures and muscling so if not fitted properly a tree will dig in some areas and not even touch in others. The twist is the shape of the tree that accommodates the change in angle from the wither to the loin. The belly of the tree describes how much rock is in the middle. The width of the tree is how far apart the bars are set. The length of the bars must also be considered for each animal, as having the bars too long will interfere with the hip movement. Watch so that the front edge and back edge of the bars have enough flare so as not to create any digging in at the edges.
Unfortunately, all trees are not created symmetrical [even from side to side] and there are saddles around whose trees may be twisted, warped or broken. When working with a bare tree, make sure you thoroughly check it out for uniformity from side to side, balance, and check to make sure the horn is centered. If your tree is defective, it needs to be fixed if possible or replaced.
A saddle tree that is designed for a horse often does not fit many mules and will be even less likely to fit a donkey. The bars need to be designed to evenly distribute the weight of the rider. Mules and donkeys generally have much flatter backs than a horse so most horse trees will have too much ‘’belly’’ in the center of the tree. When you have too much belly only the center of the tree sits on the mule’s back. This creates a rocking effect in the saddle and localized pressure at this point, even when cinched up tight.
Ideally the tree must be the same shape as the animal’s back. Bridging occurs when the front of the saddle and the back of the saddle are connecting with the animal’s back but the middle of the tree is not. This can sometimes be hard to see on a finished saddle but is very obvious with a bare tree. This happens a lot when people ride with their saddles up on the withers, creating a large pocket between the front and back of the tree, resulting in a very small weight distribution area and great pain and discomfort to your critter. Fitting a saddle tree to your mule’s back without a pad is the best way to check for fit. It is extremely HARD to do if you try to access the fit with a pad already in place! You must also be sure that you fit the tree so that it is not sitting on the shoulder blade and leaves adequate room for full shoulder movement.
IN THE PHOTO ABOVE, THE BLACK TAPE UNDER THE FRONT OF THE TREE MARKS THE END OF THE MULE'S SHOULDER BLADE , standing still. This is typically where many want to set their saddles. You can see that the front of the tree is RIGHT ON TOP OF THE SHOULDER BLADE, NOT IDEAL, for sure!
IN THIS PHOTO THE FRONT OF THE BARE TREE HAS BEEN MOVED TO JUST BEHIND THE SHOULDER BLADE...BETTER, but should actually be moved a couple of inches more to allow for when the mule strides out when moving.
Often, the saddle sizes available in retail tack shops are very limited and the actual sizes of the trees are rarely marked. Tree manufacturers often size their trees differently so a ‘’semi-quarter horse tree’’ or ‘’a mule tree’’ can sometimes vary in dimensions from one company to another. This needs to be taken into consideration when trying to fit a bare tree or a saddle to your equine of choice.
When fitting a saddle, check so that the gullet, which is the open area under the front of the saddletree, sits well above your animal’s backbone when your weight is in the saddle. You should be able to easily insert several fingers in the space. At no time should any part of your saddle EVER exert any pressure on your animal’s spine! Some saddle trees have the bars attached too close to each other and do not leave enough width to avoid pressure on the spine especially for mountain or performance riding when the back of the saddle will move some even with a tight back cinch.
Something to remember when saddling is to always ‘’ pocket the gullet.’’ That means that when you place your saddle on your animal, before cinching up, insert your left hand under the saddle pad over the withers and lift it up so that it does not touch the withers at all. Besides preventing irritation and rubbing at the withers this pocket allows air to get into your animals back.
If you find a saddle that seems to sit securely on your animal’s back and looks to be a good fit you can check it out further by saddling up without the saddle pad and put a rider’s weight in the saddle. By running your hand under the saddle and feeling for the fit, you will get a fair idea of how it is fitting your animal.
If the saddle appears to fit, use a thin pad and try it out on a ride that is long enough that your animal should have worked up a good sweat. Depending on his condition, if he’s fit, it might take many hours, if he’s not a short ride might do. Riding on a hot day for a shorter time can achieve the same results.
When you remove your saddle, look at your animal’s back and the underside of the pad. If there is an even sweat pattern that mimics the size and shape of the tree on both sides of his back with no dry spots you likely have a good fit! If you find small dry spots the size of a quarter, unlike what you might think, you have a problem, your saddle is not fitting. The smaller the dry spots the worse the pressure points. Larger ones are better! A small dry spot only means the pressure is really concentrated in a small area. In other words the bars of the saddletree are not distributing your weight evenly throughout your animals back, but are centered on very small portions of the back. This is not a good scenario and must be corrected to avoid damage to the back and unnecessary pain. If you are a heavyweight rider you are further exaggerating the problem.
MODIFYING TREE OR SADDLE FIT
If your pocket book can handle it and you know of a good saddle maker that is willing to listen to what you want, a saddle built with a custom tree modified to fit your mule, horse or donkey can be a valuable investment. However, armed with sufficient knowledge it is quite possible to find a less expensive saddle that is close to fitting your animal and making the modifications necessary to obtain a better fit.
Some saddles can be modified as long as the tree is not too narrow and the bars not too long for a particular back. If they are you must look for a different saddle.
If your saddle tree is a raleigh [plastic] tree, you can grind down areas with a grinder or rasp or fill in areas with Bondo, which is a plastic filler used to fill in dents and scratches in automobile bodies. If your tree is a rawhide tree, [covered in skin] you cannot grind it down in any way, but you can glue or tack extra leather to it to modify its shape. Remember ‘’You cannot change the fit of a tree if it is too narrow ‘’!
AGAIN, THE FRONT OF THE BARE [ PLASTIC] TREE IS SITTING RIGHT UP ON THE SHOULDER BLADE...OUCH! You can see how the front edge of the tree even digs into the scapula. Imagine once you add a rider's weight! This tree is also bridging, that is only connecting front and back, where it is telling us it will really ''dig in'' once weight is applied. A very bad fitting tree = a very bad fitting saddle. But how, do you know this once all covered with leather and sitting on a saddle pad? That's why it's so important to really pay attention to saddle fit.
NOW THE TREE IS MOVED BACK TO A BETTER POSITION. Even though the bars of the tree seem to fit reasonably well along the mules back, what you can't see from this photo is the bars are only connecting to the mule's back along the outside edges, making the surface weight distribution area very tiny. The angle of this tree is too steep for the mule.
If you are in a situation where your saddle must be used on more than one animal, then you have to look at ways to attain the change you want in individual blanketing or padding for each animal. It is not the best, but if careful attention is paid to precision and position, modifying a pad for each individual equine to best make that saddle usable is possible short term.
English saddles can have their panels re-stuffed to better fit your animal’s back. Unfortunately, often there is not enough leather in the panel and when it is re-stuffed you can end up with a very narrow panel which is not desirable. Most Australian saddles have panels that can be successfully re-stuffed to change their shape.
If your saddle is bridging, you can cut shims out of felt that will fill in the area of your tree that is not connecting with your mule’s back. If your saddletree has too much rock in it [too much belly in the tree] you may have to pad up the front and the back of your saddle to make it fit. Make sure these pieces of felt have no sharp corners and will join in smoothly to the rest of the pad. You will want to use a thin pad and built on to it with the felt shims and glue them into position [a spray adhesive works great or attach Velcro] and then keep this pad for the particular animal you have designed it for.
Slapping on extra saddle pads is not the answer! If you are in a bind, and need to make a saddle fit to get you through a situation, you can take a Navajo type saddle blanket and carefully fold it to fill in the areas that need extra padding. You do want to be careful of your folds as they can create their own pressure spots after a while. You must also make sure that you always place your saddle pad in the correct position so that your modifications are effective and not harmful instead!
An alternative to adding shims onto a pad would be to purchase a good thick felt pad and use a side grinder to grind down the pad in the necessary places.
Expecting an animal to pack you around with an ill-fitting saddle would be like strapping a poorly fitting backpack on your back or wearing an ill-fitting pair of boots and going for a hike. Try it sometime and you will really take a second look at your gear for fit!
LEVELLING THE SADDLE
Besides making sure that your saddle is shaped to fit your mule’s back and that you are setting your saddle out of the way of his shoulder blade movement, you need to check and make sure that the saddle in now BALANCED OR LEVELLED.
Balancing or leveling your saddle will most likely be necessary because once you move your saddle back to accommodate the movement of your mule’s shoulder blade, your saddle may be tipping ahead if your animal has a downhill back.
UNBALANCED SADDLE ON DOWNHILL BACK: the dotted line is running parallel to the ground, but the solid line is following the skirt of the saddle, which runs downhill which is no surprise since the animal has a downhill back. MANY equines have downhill backs.
As most mules and horses have downhill conformation, we have to learn how to level our saddle so as to ride in a balanced position. Each saddle and mule will be different. I have an old Eamor saddle that is built so that even when I ride my down-hilled- back mule, the saddle sits level and I do not have to lift up the front end in order to ride balanced. With other saddles I have had to lift up the front end with shims or I end up being tipped ahead. If only the seat of the saddle is leveled and not the actual bars of the tree, you will still have a saddle that wants to move ahead [gravity will force it to seek the low spot] unless it is secured with a tight back cinch. It took me many years of riding with sore knees and hips before I learned now simple it could be to fix a balance problem.
Besides the obvious feeling of being thrown ahead you will know if your saddle needs lifting on the front end if you look at the line of your skirting and it is not straight but runs downhill. After a while, you will be able to tell just by looking at the saddle whether it is sitting level or not.
The easiest way to level your saddle, besides modifying the actual saddle tree is to add felt shims to the front end of your saddle until it sits level. Depending on individual backs, the thickness will vary from animal to animal. Always make sure that the edges of the shim taper off to blend with the regular pad so as not to create a pressure spot. A thin felt or wool pad underneath the shims should be sufficient if your tree fits well. Extra saddle pads will not fix the problem. Adding pads to a saddle changes the angles and fit of the tree, front and back. A Navajo saddle blanket folded up so that is it thicker in front will do the job if in a bind. Take care that the folds are carefully layered so they do not create pressure spots.
Too many pads cannot fix a bad fitting saddle and may aggravate the situation. Too thin a pad will not give any cushioning and will not absorb sweat properly. Wool is still one of the best materials with felt pads being a good second choice. Synthetic pads are not recommended because they do not wick away moisture but trap it instead and can cause scalding. Saddle pads must be kept free from dirt and mud, which can irritate the skin causing chaffing and sores.
Experimentation with each animal and their saddle fit is necessary. Once that horse or mule has his tack fitting to him, it should stay with him and not be switched around with another animal. Backs do change somewhat with conditioning and outside forces. Keep that in mind also when fitting your tack. Always be watching for signs of change that then require you to make adjustments in padding and tack.
SADDLE RIGGING & HOW TO KEEP YOUR SADDLE IN POSITION
The tree should not sit on any moving parts of the animal, thus the rigging must accommodate your animal’s build so that the tree does not interfere with the motion of the shoulder.
There are several riggings available. If you drop a line from the center of your pommel [from the side] and the center of the plate or ring is directly in line with the center of your pommel then that is a full rigging. This rigging is used on cutting and roping saddles, where bursts of speed and a lot of strain is put on the tree for a short time.
A full ‘’double’’ rigging means that there is a back cinch which is crucial for security for performance events and for mountain trail riders. A snug back cinch stabilizes the saddle and allows for some play in the front cinch. By a snug or tight back cinch, I mean a cinch that is pulled up as tight as your front cinch when preparing for a mountainous ride. You should be able to fit the flat of your hand under the back cinch but just barely.
It's a little hard to tell because of the stirrup up on the horn, but this looks to be a full double rigged saddle. It has a rig plate with an optional position. Neoprene cinches have their place, but I prefer a string, preferably mohair cinch and the same for the back cinch. But this placement of cinches is good and shows that back cinch catching the mules belly and is very ''snug.'' The keeper strap between the two cinches doesn't show, but it is there and not hanging loose!
A 7/8 rigged saddle will have the front cinch an inch further back from a full rigged position and a ¾ rigged saddle will be 1 ½ ‘’ back from that. These two positions are generally used in most of the pleasure type saddles. A 5/8 to center fire rigging places the cinch back toward the middle of the animal’s barrel, which is seen in old style saddles but rarely used today. Have a good look at the rigging on your saddle and make sure that your rigging is appropriate for your animals build.
Your goal is to have saddle rigging that allows your front cinch to sit well back on the girth area and not be rubbing in the elbow. Horses require 3’’- 4’’ of space between the cinch and their elbow, mules can require up to 5’’ - 6 ‘’ of room. This is necessary because most mules have more elbow movement that a horse and thus need the extra space. Unfortunately, too many horse and mules are ridden with their front cinches digging into their elbows and ‘’cinch sores’’ are regarded as normal.
This clearly shows by the sweat line left by the front cinch, where the cinch should set. You can see the scarring that was the result of this mule being ridden by his previous owner with the cinch much too close to his elbow. These scars would easily open up and bleed when someone else would saddle him with the saddle and cinch too far forward.
There really is no good reason for cinch- soring an animal. Contrary to what some think, most mules and horses actually require a full or 7/8 rigging once the saddle is moved off of their shoulders. Often a full rigging is blamed for cinch soring an animal and many mule folks want a ¾ or even a center fire rigging to get away from this. In reality, when you set your saddle so the tree is several inches back from the end of your mule’s shoulder blade, a full or 7/8 rigging will still leave ample clearance room for your mule’s elbow. If you need a ¾ or a center fire rigging to do this, you are likely riding with your saddle too far ahead. A full double rigging will also stabilize your saddle much better than a 7/8, ¾, or center fire because the front and back cinches can be spread further apart.
Mounting your animal from an elevated position is a good idea as it’s much easier on their back and keeps the saddle from being pulled out of its proper position. This also keeps the hairs on their back from being pulled back and forth by the disturbance of a rider mounting on one side, especially if they have difficulty.
FRONT & BACK CINCHES
For pleasure, trail and mountain riding we advocate changing the back cinch to a cotton or mohair string cinch. Leather is slippery and often too narrow [which can cut] while the string cinch is wide and has much more grab to it. We move our back cinch from the rib cage to the back of the roll of the belly without getting into the flank area. It is necessary to lengthen out the hobble strap [the leather strap connecting front and back cinch] and often we have to buy or make a longer one.
When cinching up your back cinch tight for the first time, you need to desensitize your mount first to the new pressure. Because the cinch is behind the curve of the belly, once tightened, it will keep your saddle from moving ahead into the animal’s shoulder blades. Turn your animal loose in a pen with no rider and push them through the transitions both ways until they take no notice of the tight back cinch. Some might want to buck; many don’t care, but its best to do this for the first few times before you mount up.
A nicely positioned mohair back cinch, catching the mule's belly which uses gravity to help keep your saddle from sliding ahead. With a good fitting saddle and this back cinch, I've ridden mountain trails without a cruper or britching.
Riding with a back cinch that is loose does no good at all. Riding with a snug back cinch secures the position of your saddle and also keeps it from scooting back and forth across your animal’s spine. Some folks think that it is uncomfortable for the animal to wear a tight back cinch, but we have had nothing but better rides because of it.
There are situations where you want the back cinch on the ribs of your mount. This is the case with ropers who know how important a tight back cinch is but besides needing a wide cinch for better impact absorption, the cinch has to be on the horse or mule’s rib cage so as to distribute the force when the cow or bull hits the end of the rope. If you had the back cinch on the soft part of the horse or mule’s belly the sudden impact could knock the wind out of him and he would not be a happy camper! However for pleasure and trail riding, it becomes beneficial to wear the back cinch behind the belly roll for greater stability.
The secret to cinching up with double cinches is this: The rib cage of the equine could be compared to the shape of a football that tapers in on the ends. Because of this natural slope of the rib cage, if you tighten up the front cinch first, the front cinch will seek the low spot, which in this case will end up right against the mule’s elbow. This is not what you want! Therefore, do up the front cinch but only secure it enough to keep the saddle on should the mule move, then do up the back cinch and do it up snug in the proper position. After moving the mule around a bit, retighten both cinches, but always the back cinch first. When you tighten the back cinch first, it secures the saddle and will prevent the saddle [and the rigging] from being pulled ahead when you go to retighten the front cinch. This really works!
There are different materials available for cinches. Neoprene, cotton or mohair string cinches, felt cinches and so on. Each can be useful put into the right working situation. It’s your job to pick the cinch that works best for the kind of riding you do. Cinches should not cause cinch sores if they fitted and positioned correctly and of good quality.
BREASTCOLLARS, BRITCHENS AND CRUPERS
A breast collar is helpful in stabilizing your saddle especially for mountain and trail riding. In fact, if you had a cinch break, you would be best to ride with a tight back cinch and a breast collar and you would have very little problems finishing your ride. A breast collar that is not adjusted properly is useless and can cause sores instead. The rule of thumb is that your breast collar should be tight enough so that you can stick your hand in the front of it and by pulling ahead, can get only about 2’’ of slack. If it is too loose, it cannot do its job and instead may end up dropping over the point of the shoulder and causing rubs, sores or a bursitis. It’s not uncommon to see ill-adjusted breast collars on the trail. There are various shapes of breast collars available and some will work for one animal but not the other. Make sure that the breast collar you use on your horse or mule sets above the point of his shoulder but not so high that it cuts off his wind. Each critter will require personal attention to fitting according to their build.
A lot of people who ride mules advocate riding them with a britchen or a crupper. There can be situations where one or the other can be helpful, but if your saddle fits well and you use your back cinch and breast collar properly, some mules do just fine without them even for mountain trail riding. There’s a time and a place for them, but they do not have to be an automatic part of a mule or donkey’s gear. Too many people think that if their saddle moves or rocks, a britchen or a crupper is the answer instead of having a good look at how their saddle fits in the first place!
If you do find that a britchen is helpful to your saddling situation, make sure that you have it adjusted properly. Often riders get their britchen dropped too low on the hindquarters of the mule. It should set about four inches below your mule’s pin-bone [see diagram]. Any lower and there is too much leg movement that results in burns and rubs.
It will also restrict your mule’s leg movement if it is tightened in a position that is too low. Adjusted properly, you should be able to comfortably slide the flat of your hand between the britchen and the animal.
There are different ways to attach the britchen to the saddle. If the britchen is attached to the rear cinch ring and to the back rigging ring [the ring on the saddle], it will not only hold back the tree but will also hold back the back cinch so that it functions by putting pressure against the roll of the belly and stops the tree from moving ahead. Some attach to the front cinch ring which then helps hold the front cinch out of the elbow. Try what works for you best. The straps that run down from the top of the britchen carrier should be adjustable in order to maintain the britchen seat, which should ride approximately 4 ‘’ below the pin bone.
The crupper is favored by some people as a lightweight piece of equipment that maintains the position of the saddle but it doesn’t have the ability to hold the back cinch back and a britchen does. The section of the crupper that goes under the mule’s tail must be of a soft and supple material or it will cause sores. Be careful of crupper pieces that are filled with foam as it becomes hard and brittle after time.
PACK SADDLE FIT
Packsaddle fit should be no different than fitting a saddle tree; in fact it should be much easier as the bare tree can be checked for fit without blankets or pads at any time. All that has been previously written regarding fitting a saddle tree applies to fitting a pack saddle.
If you purchase a wooden sawbuck saddle then you must rasp the wood to fit your animal’s back. Again you must be sure that the width of the tree fits your animal and that the angle is correct. Good pack animals always have their own individually fitted saddles.
By now, you should realize that the shape of the tree should mirror the shape of the pack animal back, with no pressure points but even distribution throughout the bars. Unfortunately, people don’t always consider this and will use any packsaddle on any animal not understanding that without individual fitting, they limit the animal’s ability to work by forcing it to accept an ill-fitting saddle. Behavioral problems with a pack animal are often directly linked to bad fitting tack.
It is also easier to make sure that the packsaddle is set far enough back so that the front edge of the tree is out of the way of the animal’s front shoulder. This is especially important because when he turns, he will shorten the side of himself that he is turning into, so there must be allowance for no interference from the tree.
Here we see an adjustable[ angles] pack saddle, with wooden bars. This was called a pack saddle for mules.....but as you can see these bars are MUCH TOO FLAT for this mule! This pack saddle DID actually fit one of our mules, but not this one. The name of the mule it fit went with the saddle. Besides this saddle being placed too far ahead, it would take a lot of rasping and adding on, to make the bars fit this mule. Better to find a saddle tree with some belly in it for starters.
The packsaddle pad should be at least 1’’ thick of a good material and of a larger size than a regular saddle blanket. The pad needs to give more protection from objects being carried and should have long enough sides so that your front and back cinch rings set on the pad and not against the animal’s hide. Many packers make their own packsaddle blankets, as large enough pads are not always easy to find.
The cinches on a pack saddle should be wide so as to distribute the pressure. Different areas of the country use different riggings. We like a double rigging with the back cinch placed way back so that it fits behind the belly of the animal. We ride our saddle mules with the back cinch in the same position. With a little desensitizing, it doesn’t take long for the animals to get use to a tight back cinch in this area.
SADDLE FIT FOR DONKEYS
There has been very little attention paid to fitting saddle trees to donkey backs. As with packsaddles or saddletree fitting, once again, all of the same principles apply as previously written.
When you study a donkey’s back, you will notice the differences as compared to a horse. Imagine that saddle that fits your horse being strapped on to your donkey and expecting it to be comfortable for your donkey! The saddle will likely only ‘’touch down’’ on a few pressure points and the rest of it will sit up in space. These pressure points will cause your donkey discomfort as instead of your weight being distributed evenly over the surface of the ‘’bars’’ it will be concentrated in one or two spots, sometimes on a few square inches, likely on each side of the middle of his back. Imagine yourself having to carry around 150 pounds of weight, 75 pounds of pressure on 2 square inches on each side! Are you getting the picture? Every wonder why your donkey wants to buck when you ride him too long or ask him to lope?
If your only choice for now it to get by with a ‘’horse’’ saddle on your donkey, the only advice that I can give you is to place that saddle on your donkey’s back without pad and really evaluate it for fit. While doing this remember to have that saddle sit back far enough. The # 1 problem with most riders is setting their saddles too far ahead on their equines back. Put that saddle back where it belongs, not up on their ears! The bars of the tree should sit behind your donkey’s shoulder blade. Determine where the bars of the saddle are touching and where they are not. Then make the adjustments in your tree or in your padding to compensate for the lack of fit of the saddle as described previously.
BITS AND BRIDLES
The most basic bit to start your animal in is a snaffle bit. Halters and bosals are often used but at some point you will want to advance your animal into a bit. If your mule or donkey has never had their teeth checked by a qualified equine dentist you should first consider doing this so that wolf teeth are extracted, retained caps and sharp points on the molars are removed and any other problems attended to. A painful mouth can cause serious training problems so it is necessary in all equines to rule out dental problems before asking them to carry a bit.
Snaffle bits come in all sizes and widths and it’s important to have a good look at you animal’s mouth as they may have a high or low palate or a fat tongue or lips; all of which will affect how comfortable they are with different bits. You need to be aware that a snaffle bit is one that has no leverage whatsoever [in other words it does not have a shank, no matter how short]. It works on the lips, corners of the mouth, bars and tongue.
A direct pull on the rein results in a direct pressure on the side of the mouth. This is the easiest communication for the animal to understand and all the basics of good reining skills will start here.
A snaffle bit may be an O ring, a D ring, an egg- butt or a full cheek snaffle. It may be broken in the middle, or three pieces, or a solid piece. The narrower the bit the more severe it is. Always keep in mind that the bit is only as severe as the hands that are on the other end! The bit should hang in the mouth at the correct height. The bit does not need to apply pressure at the corners of the mouth; this should happen only when rein pressure is applied. The width of the bit must also be considered. If the bit is too narrow it will pinch the corners of the mouth, if too wide, the side to side movement can cause sores.
According to most Breed Show rules, a curb bit is technically defined as any bit that has shanks, no matter how short or long the shanks are. So even if the mouthpiece is broken, straight or has a port, if there is any sort of leverage attainable with the bit, it is classified as a curb bit for show ring purposes and should be ridden with one hand as compared to the two hands allowed with a snaffle bit. If you plan to do any showing with your animal, make sure you check out the rules and regulations applicable to that show or organization.
Unlike the snaffle bit that works on direct pressure, a curb or shanked bit works on leverage. It puts pressure on the bars, tongue, poll and in the chin groove by the action of the curb or chin strap. This must be adjusted properly in order for this bit to act properly. Too tight and pressure will be there all the time and the animal will become numb to it, too loose and it will never be activated. The rule of thumb is that you should be able to insert 2 fingers vertically between the strap and your animals chin. This does not apply when using a snaffle bit; then the chin strap is adjusted so the rings of the bit cannot slide into the animal’s mouth. A curb bit is only for those animals that are already doing everything correctly with a snaffle bit, as once you move to the curb bit, you lose your ability for good lateral correction.
This side to side control is essential in horses and even more so in donkeys and mules who have stronger and often shorter necks and really like to ‘’brace’’ against pressure. It is always good to go back to a snaffle bit when teaching something new to your animals so that you are not giving them mixed signals with a shanked bit. Animals that need retraining should also be put back in a snaffle. It is only through the give and take direct action that is activated with a snaffle bit or halter that you can really teach your animal to be supple and soft in the head, poll and neck and giving to the bit. The constant pressures exerted by a curb bit in untrained hands will result in what’s referred to as a ‘’hard-mouthed animal.’’ The animal has become desensitized to the constant pressure and abuse and becomes non-responsive to further pressures. He has learned to ignore the pain and discomfort. It’s called survival and mules and donkeys are especially good at it!
The bit is often over relied upon to solve all problems when in fact it is only one aid that needs to be combined with educated hands. Weight, seat, voice and leg aids are sometimes neglected in communicating with your longears and many of us need to use these aids more and our hands less!
In fitting a bridle to your mule or donkey keep in mind that they generally have a larger head and thicker jowl than a horse and usually require a longer brow band and a longer throatlatch to fit them comfortably. You may need to order those pieces separately. Be careful if you intend to use a ‘’one eared bridle’’ as here too you must be very careful that the ear opening is large enough to comfortably accommodate your friend’s large ear. Brow band bridles are usually easier to put on and fit.
Reins can be of your choice, just make sure they really are long enough and of good strength. I prefer reins with some weight to them as they aid in developing a good feel for your animal’s mouth. Your specific riding interests will determine whether you use split reins or one continuous rein. Reins that tie into the bit are much more reliable than ones attached with a screw.
Use common sense when tacking up your animals, If they are distressed, sore, grumpy, unwilling or displaying other unwanted behavior, first have a real good long look at the tack you are using. The only way they can ‘’speak’’ to us is by their actions, so listen to what they are saying by their attitude under saddle, packsaddle or harness. If you take the time to learn how to properly fit tack to your animals, you will be rewarded with safer, happier and more efficient partners that can do their jobs without unnecessary discomfort, interference or pain. You owe them that!
Marlene is a long time mule lover, having raised mules for many years. Her enjoyment of them included a journey into sensible tack fitting. She can be reached at email@example.com
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