Over the past 35 years, I have been asked that question quite a few times. Back in the beginning, I just said “I sure do” and we went from there. After building 100's of saddles and quite a few saddles for mules including one for my personal saddle mule, I have a much different answer for people then I did back in the day. I have much more knowledge about saddle tree fit than I did 35 years ago and… Coffee, my saddle mule, probably opened the door and my mind to a totally different way of looking at what I always tried to do, but was pretty much clueless on how to get the job done. Really, mules are nothing but a horse with long ears and a somewhat different brain when it comes to processing things. Now when people ask me if I make Mule Saddles, I politely explain to them that there really isn't such a thing. There are only saddles that fit properly on the animal you are making the custom saddle for. Just because a saddle has a Crupper Dee or Britchen Dee's or Mule Bars on it doesn't make it a mule saddle.
So when I see maker ads, websites or go to a mule show and makers are saying that they make mule saddles, the first thing that comes to mind is that this person doesn't have a clue and I know that he is going to only hit a home run about 30% of the time. Mules are like horses, they all have different builds. I build saddles for horses that have mule backs and for mules that have horse’s backs. So for the customers sake, I really hate to see them get sucked into something that has less than a 50% chance of working out for them and their mule.
Back to Coffee, my saddle mule. I bought him from a Guy that raised mules and some good Quarter Horses. He was a mid-sized John Mule about 7 years old. He was gentle, good minded and solid as a rock to ride in the backcountry. He loved to do what I call 4-wheeling; he just loved to go cross country, I never found anything he wouldn't do if I asked him to do it including jumping off a 5 ft. high cliff into a bog that was about 8 ft. wide and pretty deep. I had been through it years before when I was guiding in the Bob Marshal Wilderness on a good horse so I knew it could be done. I never would of ask him to do it but, I was in kind of a bad situation so we went for it. It was almost dark and no way around it without backtracking for quite a few miles. We rode up to the edge and I let him look it over, then I just gave him a little leg pressure, he just started to gather his legs up and we were airborne. When we landed he was up to about a foot above his belly in fairly thick mud. He never even moved for about 5 seconds and then just started walking or swimming through the mud towards the other side, got to solid ground shook the mud off and was ready to head for camp.
The guy I was with was on a horse and managed to get it done, but let me tell you it wasn't pretty!!! The only thing that Coffee did was he was always wiggling his skin like they do when a big fly lands on their backs. I didn't think to much about it for about a year, I check my stock every time I pull their saddles to see if he was sore anyplace and never was. I had a tree in the shop that was the same as what I was riding him in, so I grabbed it one day and walked out to the pasture and called him, he would always come right to me. Another reason that I figured that the saddle wasn't a problem for him. Well I put it on his back and squared him up with his head in a normal riding position and started to look it over. It didn't fit him like I hoped it would but it wasn't too bad. I would say that it fit him about 80-85% which means in good saddle makers terms, that with a good pad I could ride him 15-20 miles a day for 4-5 days in a row and probably not make him sore.
Well as usual, the way I write and tell stories it always takes me longer to finish a story than I think it will. I will start the second half tomorrow and if you mule riders have had your interests perked, then stay tuned for the second half because there will be some interesting info. in it.
-For now this is Bob from Bitterroot Saddle Co in Corvallis MT.