MULE CROSSING: Fitting Tack Equipment

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By Meredith Hodges

Whether riding or driving, the comfort and fit of your tack and equipment is an important consideration if you wish to get the best performance from your equine. Any piece of equipment that does not correctly fit your equine can cause less than optimum performance.

Consider, for instance, the bridle, which is such an important communication device. Do not select a harsh bit for control. Control comes from logical and sequential practices during training and not from force. The bit should be comfortable and be fitted correctly to facilitate good communication from your hands to the corners of your equine’s mouth. The bit should also be a comfortable width, leaving a half-inch from the hinge on both sides of his mouth. If the bit is placed too high or too low in the animal’s mouth, his fussing while he tries to get comfortable will override his ability to receive clear communication from your hands. NOTE: Be sure the chin chain on a curb bit lies flat and allows for two fingers to fit easily between the chain and his jaw.

All parts of the bridle must fit correctly. For instance, most mules have a broader forehead than does the horse, and therefore must have a larger browband fitted so the ears do not get pinched or rubbed sore. The throatlatch must be adjusted so that it gives the mule plenty of room for flexion without cutting off his air supply. The blinders on a harness bridle also need to be set and bent properly to do their job without chafing the eyes. When one thing is out of place on a unit of equipment it will usually negatively influence other parts of the same unit, and in training, these seemingly insignificant maladjustments can cause resistant behavior in your animal. In the case of an ill-fitting bridle, he might continually open his mouth, bob or shake his head or just subtly refuse to go on the bit. Minimizing discomfort and distraction allows the equine to more easily receive and process communication.

Although the mule is a tough and durable animal, there are places on his body where his skin is particularly sensitive and easily chafed, so when fitting a harness or saddle you must pay special attention to these parts of his body. The collar on a harness, for example, needs to fit snugly and smoothly in front of the shoulders, allowing your hand to slip easily between the collar and the base of your mule’s throat and chest. A collar that is either too tight or too loose can rub and cause soreness, inhibiting maximum performance. When improperly adjusted, a breast collar harness can also cause rubbing at the points of the shoulders.

The girth area on your equine is particularly sensitive. The surcingle or girth on the harness or saddle should be placed four inches behind your animal’s forearm where the barrel starts to swell, and not over the sensitive area directly behind the forearm. A crupper should be used to keep the saddle from slipping forward and taking the girth with it forward into this sensitive area directly behind the forearm. Placement of the surcingle (with or without harness attached) is important, but you also need to pay attention to the material out of which the harness surcingle or girth is made and its condition. Soft leather usually causes no problem, but if the leather is dirty or stiff, or if a material other than leather is used, some kind of padding may be needed for optimum comfort. String girths work well with saddles when they are kept clean and are made from cotton or a cotton blend, but nylon and other man-made materials can often cause chafing, so be careful about what kind of material is used for the girth on your harness or saddle. This may also be true in the case of the breeching and the crupper. The cleanliness, correct adjustment and comfort of the harness, saddle and other equipment can actually be a matter of safety for both you and your animal.

Generally speaking, the most common piece of potentially abusive equipment used on mules is the saddle. Riders may be using an ill-fitting saddle and not even realize it because their actual riding time is usually minimal, so the obvious saddle sores that would signify a problem don’t have time to develop. The animal exhibiting behavior that may be labeled as “stubborn” or “ornery” is often simply trying to communicate his discomfort, so taking the time to evaluate these behaviors with reference to equipment can help to produce more positive results. Remember that equines, like people, come in a variety of shapes and sizes, so there is no universal bridle, saddle or harness that will automatically fit your equine any more than there is one size and shape of clothing that will correctly and comfortably fit all people.

In the past, saddles were constructed to accommodate the physiques of the horses of that time. Over the years, as training programs for mules have evolved and begun to correctly build muscle for equine activities. Saddle makers have also evolved, and now specialize in the construction of saddles that are tailored to the physical differences of individual equines. Saddle trees are now made with different widths and lengths of the bars in the tree, and even different materials are being used to make the trees, allowing for more flexibility and a better fit. Since the mule is structurally different from any horse, it is even more important to carefully consider your choice of saddle for your mule.  Saddle makers now make custom saddles with specially designed trees with “mule bars,” but these are not standard and should be fitted to the conformation of the individual mule, with consideration given to the activity for which he will be used. Although they may appear more comfortable, beware of saddles with trees that may be too flexible, as they do not offer the solid foundation to support an unbalanced rider on a poorly conditioned animal. Often, a saddle can be found that will closely fit your animal, and can be made to fit even better with the addition of extra and/or specialized pads, breast collars, breeching or cruppers. However, with extended use, you may find that these simple modifications are inadequate. An equine’s shape will change with physical conditioning and, as the level of performance is increased, it becomes increasingly more important to have equipment that fits properly, affords comfort and lends support.

If equines are to perform to the best of their ability, we need to work them in the best-fitting, most comfortable equipment during each activity. At the same time, we ourselves need to ride in a saddle that works with our own physical structure in the seat, has the correct placement of the stirrups and so on. Getting one saddle to fit both you and your mule can seem like an impossible task, but a good custom saddle maker can certainly help. Ideally, a saddle should meet the individual needs of both the animal and the rider so you can work unobstructed as a team.

Taking the time and effort to find comfortable, proper fitting and supportive tack and equipment will help you get the best results from yourself and your equine and will mean a more pleasurable experience for both of you.

To learn more about Meredith Hodges and her comprehensive all-breed equine training program, visit LuckyThreeRanch.com or call 1-800-816-7566. Check out her children’s website at JasperTheMule.com. Also, find Meredith on FacebookYouTube and Twitter.

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