Photo courtesy of Robin Morris and Beau the Mule. She has been awarded several awards on the National Level for riding the most documented miles on her mule.
Well, after seeing that the tree in the saddle I was using on Coffee wasn't fitting the way I really wanted it to, I decided to make some changes to it. It was a full cover saddle with skirts, so I decided to just build the tree up with leather instead of making a whole different saddle with a new tree. It was a little harder because the seat was in place and I couldn't see down between the bars like you could with a bare tree, but I knew where to apply the leather to make it work for him.
I scratched up the bottom of the bars and started gluing leather where they weren't in contact with Coffee's back. What I was trying to do was have 100% bar contact except for the stirrup leather slots. So when I had a little more leather than I needed glued to the bottom of the bars, I started skiving the leather so it all flowed together like a normal bar would if it fit his back properly. It took a bit of time, but I finally got it just the way I wanted it, so I put the saddle back together.
I went out the next morning caught Coffee and saddled him up. The trail head for Mill Creek was about 3 miles from the house, so I thought I would just ride him up there and back and I could see how he acted with a 6 mile ride under his belt. I grabbed a stirrup, stepped up on him and headed out the driveway to get on the gravel road that would take me to the Trail Head. I only went about a 100 yards and I knew that something was really different with him; without me even asking, he broke into a slow trot. He trotted up the road for about 3/4 of a mile until I hit a 1/2 mile stretch of asphalt and I slowed him to a walk, I hate riding on asphalt.
Coffee was always a good mover, but I couldn't believe what was going on, I mean this guy was really moving out at a walk. We got off of the pavement and headed up the gravel road to the trail head. It was a bit steeper than part of the road we had just ridden, but you could tell he was really putting everything he had into it. When we got to the trail head, he didn't miss a beat...he just headed up the trail. Just a week before, I had helped to pack lumber up the canyon 9 miles to rebuild a Forest Service bridge so he knew the trail well. I wasn't planning on being gone very long, but I did have my handgun and a vest on so I thought, what the hell, I will just let him go a ways. We went up the trail about 5 miles and came to a nice meadow with lots of grass so I pulled him in, unsaddled him and put his hobbles on so he could eat. That was a real treat for my stock because our 5 acres consists of trees without grass, they were on hay all year long. He had never stopped once since I left home that morning.
After about 45 minutes I caught him up, saddled him and stepped aboard. He stood there looking up and down the trail toward home. I gave him a little leg to see which way he would head and, by God, he headed up the trail again, I stopped him, made a turn and headed down the trail. I just couldn't believe what he was doing and how he was acting. The trail was somewhat steep in places and I mean he was really picking them up and putting them down, way to fast to pull a string of loaded mules off of. My first thought was that what I did to his saddle couldn't make this much difference, but I didn't have any other explanation for the change in his traveling speed and his go-getter attitude. It took a bit, but then I noticed that he hadn't wiggled his skin once on the whole ride. Well, it wasn't just a one time thing; he was so much better to ride from then on and you could tell that he was much more comfortable.
We rode together for several more years and then I pulled a stunt that he just wouldn't forgive me for doing what I did. That's another story that I'm sure not proud of, but it all ended up ok. The part three of this story will really bring home the fact that if you are going to buy a saddle for your saddle mule you had better start with someone that understands mules and how their minds work and will do whatever it takes to make them comfortable.
Well, it's time to call it a day, as always this is Bob from Bitterroot Saddle Co. in Corvallis MT.