Riding out the saddle donkey phenomenon

An old rancher once told me: “It’s better to get where you’re going on a slow horse than to go to the hospital on a fast horse.”

ridingatgeralds1Frankly, I avoid riding anything with ears that short.

In historical photos from Central Colorado  it is quite common to see images of people riding burros, or donkeys. It’s easy to guess that burros were the Toyota pickups of the day when veterinarians and emergency rooms were not so common, and when feed, especially in wintertime, was in short supply. Horses may have been the SUV of that time, and mules of course were something in between. Over time the horse and mule have almost fully supplanted the donkey in Western lore, and today we see few people riding burros, though that seems to be changing.

My interest in donkeys began with my involvement in pack-burro racing, Colorado’s only indigenous sport in which competitors race with their equine companions up mountain passes. Riding is not allowed in pack-burro racing, but I can tell you that one does not spend too much time looking at a burro from the ground before he begins to wonder how things look from the animal’s back.

One of my first experiences riding a burro was after a long training run with Curtis Imrie back in the early 1980s. We had in fact been out all day and were dead tired. With darkness falling a couple miles out from Curtis’ house, he turned to me and said “You ride, don’t you?” I hadn’t ridden any sort of equine in years, but I climbed aboard Moose and rode him back to Curtis’ house bareback and in the dark. The experience left an impression that never faded.

Today I enjoy riding my burros to gain a different perspective on the country that you can get from traveling a little higher off the ground and not having to pay attention to your footing. There’s also something soothing and therapeutic about the motion of the animal. In fact, we’ve used burro-riding to help with neurological development for my son Harrison, who at age 4 has his own saddle.

When I first got into pack-burro racing, one of the first things I realized I needed to buy was a packsaddle. I bought a Colorado Saddlery Burro Packsaddle for $175 in 1981, and it is the same one I’ve used in countless races over 27 years. I’ve also used it on a lot of training runs and pack trips on animals of various sizes. All the leather is still original and in good shape, and I don’t think a person can go wrong with one of these saddles for basic packing or pack-burro racing.

But finding a saddle for riding burros has been a different story. When I first started riding my donkeys it was purely bareback. Back then I didn’t really ride often enough to make buying a saddle worthwhile. Over time, however, I became more interested in my donks as riding animals. This interest has paralleled a growing national interest in what is known as “saddle donkeys” or “saddle donks,” and now we are seeing large-breed donkeys bred for this new equine industry. At this month’s National Western Stock Show there will be donkey-only riding events. There’s also a push for gear made specifically for mules and donkeys.

My first saddle was an old McClellan saddle that I found in the corner of a local saddle shop for $50 and had jury-rigged to make it easier and quicker to saddle up. In many respects, this was one of the best choices I made. It is interesting to note that the McClellan was designed for the narrower build of mid- to late-1800s military horses and mules, and would not fit many of today’s horses that have been bred for greater size. But it does come close to fitting modern donkeys. There are numerous ways to adjust its rigging. It is light and can double as a packsaddle. The “centerfire” (one girth) rigging works well on donkeys and keeps the cinch from bunching up on the armpit area. The downside is that a McClellan saddle is hard as a rock and not very comfortable to ride.

I went through a series of other saddles, some of which I bought, rode for a while, and then sold when I found them to be less than ideal. The problem with most of them was that the tree — which is literally the backbone of the saddle — was designed to fit modern horses’ backs, while the back of a donkey or mule is shaped quite differently.

These horse saddles included an Australian saddle, which in retrospect was way too big for donkeys with a quarterhorse tree, and also had too much padding between the seat and the animal. But this saddle was easy to sell by consignment at a saddle shop and I actually made money on that deal.

I parlayed that little windfall into a treeless saddle that was comfortable to ride, but it . . . well, it wasn’t really a saddle. While there are many people who sing the praises of treeless saddles because of the freedom of movement they may offer the animals, there are just as many people who say these saddles don’t offer enough support to disperse the rider’s weight over the animal’s back and off its spine. That said, I did once ride a donkey over Medano Pass to the Sand Dunes and back in this treeless saddle and we both survived.

I replaced the treeless with a synthetic Western saddle built for horses. This saddle was light, but the tree was still designed for a horse and I noticed it seemed to put me too far forward on the donkey. One day while riding at a trot on a very slight downhill, my donkey tripped and pitched forward, literally landing on his nose. I was launched forward and landed with my head and shoulder hitting the ground simultaneously (the hard head taking the brunt and saving the shoulder from certain injury). I could feel the animal starting to flip over on top of me so I rolled to get out of the way. He, meanwhile, scrambled to regain balance and bounced back up on his feet. Except for a couple of minor scratches, we both were unhurt. But the saddle had to go.

My most recent saddle has been a Steve Edwards Trail Rider Lite, and this saddle has by far been the best. Steve designed this saddle around mule bars that he also developed. According to Steve’s website, he based this mule bar design on the bars used in packsaddles. It’s light at just 18 pounds, and it has a horn.

I’ve had this saddle for a year now and have found my animals seem to move well under it, and it is comfortable for me as well. It doesn’t seem to slip in any direction and there is a close contact with the animal.

One problem in saddling burros and mules is that these animals generally have a less pronounced withers than a horse, and thus the saddle tends to slide forward, especially on a downhill.

Pack saddles usually come with a “britchin'” which is the rigging used to keep the saddle from sliding forward. While this type of rigging is the only way to go when packing a heavy load, some pack-burro racers instead use a crupper, which runs under the tail to keep the saddle from sliding forward.

While a crupper allows more freedom of movement in the rear end, and eliminates the chaffing that can be caused by a britchin’, some say it can put undue pressure under the tail at a point where a lot of nerve endings come together.

I’ve run a number of tests using both a crupper and a britchin’ and I’ve decided a britchin’ is the only way to go for packing heavy loads, and I also prefer a britchin’ on a riding saddle.

However, in pack-burro racing, when the animal must trot for very long distances and the burro is only carrying 33 pounds, it’s nearly impossible to get a britchin’ rigged exactly right so it doesn’t chaff the rear flanks or limit the range of motion. I’ve gone back to the crupper for training and racing, and have not noticed any ill effects. It is important that the crupper not be adjusted too tightly, and that it be made of good quality leather. The better ones are stuffed with flaxseed.

Recently, 65-year-old Custer County man died when he was reportedly thrown from a mule while riding near his home in the Antelope Valley area southeast of Westcliffe. While it’s been labeled a freak accident, this tragic accident is a reminder of the dangerous nature of riding equines whether it be a horse, mule or donkey.

I’ve been dumped half a dozen times, twice when donkeys have spooked at something. I’ve never been seriously hurt, though I have had my body and ego slightly bruised.

Despite these accidents, I still prefer riding a donkey because they rarely buck and are not as explosive as a horse or mule when they do so. Most importantly, they are generally not inclined to run away for great distances or bolt for home as will a horse. Generally, if spooked, a donkey will run a short distance, then turn back to see what scared it. I’ve found it’s usually best to just ride it out until the burro stops.

The resurgence of the donkey as a riding animal is due to its steadiness, dependability, personality, thriftiness, safety, and the improvement in animals and gear. It’s been fun to be along for the ride.

17 thoughts on “Riding out the saddle donkey phenomenon

  1. I enjoyed the well written story and have been down the same road and come to the same conclussions. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed reading your article.
    Recently I have also checked our the Steve Edwards Trail Rider Saddle and am strongly considering buying one soon. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  2. Great post, helps me a lot. I have a treeless, will check out the Steve Edwards. I enjoyed riding the Bob Marshal sports treeless when I was at the trainer’s.

    So fun to ride a donkey! I’m enjoying myself a ton.

  3. Dear Hal, what a great job you are doing promoting our favorite longears! We are getting ready to send our “baby” jennet, AMJR 1942 Sassafras AKA Sassy Assy to “college” at the Brad Cameron Mule Clinic being held at the University of TN @ Martin in Sept. 2009. We acquired Sassy from Linda Coffman, registrar of the American Mammoth Jackstock Registry when Sassy was 5 months old. Almost three years later she is now a strapping 15+hh and growing. She has the perfect demeanor for riding and we are thrilled to be putting her in Brad’s “colt starting” clinic. We will keep up with your adventures and we were very happy to “stumble” upon your site! Keep up the good work:-) Deb and the longears, Lake Nowhere Mule and Donkey Farm, Martin, TN

  4. Hal,
    I am enjoying the Hardscrabble Times. We are starting a longears trail riding club in Fremont County, and encourage anyone interested in joining to come on out. They can contact me at tourjee@peoplepc.com or 719-372-6776. All equines are welcome, but we have an emphasis on longears. We’d also welcome you to come to one of our meetings and give us a short presentation on pack burro racing! Please get in touch with me, I’d love to chat, if you have a few minutes in your busy schedule!

  5. Hello from Bob Jonasson in Carmel Valley,California.Does a Steve Edwards mule saddle really fit a mammoth donkey? I don’t want to make an expensive mistake.Mammoth donkeys are almost unavailable in California and thousands of miles of flying out of state is required to even look at one that might work for trail riding.So far my donkey breeder visits have had my flying to Montana,Minnesota,Texas,Arizona,New Mexico,Utah,Oklahoma,Colorado and soon to Tennessee.I also have flown to France 4 times to visit Asinerie d’Embazac a donkey milk bed and breakfast.I am also going to fly to Belgium to visit Asinerie Du Pays Des Collines another donkey milk farm.Marie has 98 jennets and 4 jacks.I do love donkey milk and I am actively promoting its production here.If your jennet has milk try it! Bob

    1. Bob, I have two large-standard donkeys and one that’s just barely mammoth size. Steve’s Trail Rider LIte fits them all great, especially with his matching saddle pad. My neighbor has a mule and she raves about how her Steve Edwards saddle fits her mule. If you have questions about the saddle I would suggest you contact Steve as he is always very helpful.

  6. When trail riding together with people riding horses, can the riding donkeys keep up the pace, or do they slow the group down?

    1. It all depends on the donkey. Some can and some can’t walk as fast as a horse. If the horse riders are doing a lot of trotting and cantering it’s less likely a donkey can keep up.


  8. I really enjoyed reading this article. I bought a tall standard donkey that I just love, he’s 8 and I’m trying to figure out why he bolts when I get on him. I guess his past training might be the reason so I’m back to groundwork and our relationship. If you have any training tips for a first ride on him (he has been trained to ride and drive I was told) I’d love to hear from you. Thanks Patsy in Port Orchard.

    1. Patsy, I have good luck training donkeys by spending an enormous amount of time ground-training them in the open before I attempt to ride them. You may try taking your donkey for some longer hikes on trails, back roads or wherever you have access. An hour or two every other day for several weeks should help burn off some energy and also help him develop a better sense of respect for you. You want him to be tired from one of these workouts and in a safe (for you and him), quiet place like an arena before you try to ride him. Also, cut out any grain, alfalfa or other hot feeds. And if he is a jack that’s another story altogether . . .

  9. It’s great to read about other folks enjoying riding their saddle donkeys. I have been doing so for about 10 years now and have had my troubles with saddle fit. I finally decided as you have that a proper fitting tree was the key to success. Below is an article I wrote for the Brayer magazine, July/August 2010 issue, published by the American Donkey and Mule Society. Unfortunately I am unable to include the accompanying pictures here.

    Donkey-Saddle Fit — My Success Story

    What does a well-fitting donkey saddle have in common with the Easter Bunny? They’re both very, very hard to find. But at least the saddle might exist, and so I tried very, very hard to find one, with no success. Next, I tried a variety of makeshifts — breechings, and cruppers, and back-cinches — none of which were adequate. I spend a lot of time training my donkey, Buddy, and I hoped that a well-fitting saddle might eliminate at least one of his excuses for not moving out nicely on cue.
    It made sense that a properly fitting tree was the key to solving my problems. So, I set about finding someone who would custom-fit a tree for donkeys, and then a good saddler to put some handsome leather on it — all for a reasonable price.
    The internet led me to custom saddletree maker Rod Nikkel (http://www.rodnikkel.com/) from Valleyview, Alberta, which is 350 miles northwest of Edmonton. Rod has written several papers describing the saddletrees he makes, why he puts them together the way he does, with different woods oriented for strength, and specifically how he makes a tree to fit a given animal. I was impressed and felt confident that this man knew what he was doing. And I was right!
    Rod and his wife Denise work together in their business. They gave expert advice on how to provide them with the data they needed, made the tree, and had it here (uncovered) for approval in less than two months after they started the project (Figure 1).
    The difference between the custom made tree and my old horse saddle is striking. The bars on the tree are closer together and the angle of the front of the bars is steeper. Most importantly I could see clearly that the tree had maximum contact with Buddy’s back. The workmanship of the tree is very impressive and no modifications were necessary. I sent it back to Rod and Denise, they put the rawhide cover on it (Figure 2) and sent it off to the saddler.
    Marlin’s Saddle Shop is in Douglas, Arizona, near the famous old Gadsden Hotel. Gerry Bohmfalk has been the owner since 1986, but the shop has been in the family since the 1950’s. Dr. Bohmfalk is a consultant on ranches in both the US and Mexico and in that work spends a lot of time on horseback. With his years of experience both in the saddle and in the shop, he is a good source of information about saddles. In less than a half hour in his shop, he patiently and with careful explanations guided me through all the saddle options and helped me choose the very saddle I wanted. Three weeks after my donkey-tree arrived in Douglas from Valleyview my new completely custom saddle was in Winneconne, Wisconsin.
    The properly fitting tree eliminates pressure points and keeps my handsome new saddle (Figure 3) in place and off Buddy’s spine. Hurray! My saddle is comfortable for both me and Buddy, surprisingly inexpensive, and the people in Alberta and Arizona who made it possible were a true pleasure to deal with.

  10. My name is Lori, I live in Washington State and I have owned mules and donkeys for 15 years…been a equine podiatrist for 12years now. To fit my donkeys and mules, I find it best to get a custom saddle. Every animal has a different structure and needs a special fit, especially since they are the ones doing all the work, they should be comfortable. Just because it says mule (or donkey) bars in the advertisement doesn’t mean it’ll fit properly. Crestridge Saddlery does a great job and Debra is there the whole way to make sure it fits and that you’re happy with it, she is very attentive. Also, Sharpe’s Saddlery is an amazing place to get some of the most beautiful saddles around. Crestridge saddles start at about $1800 and Sharpes starts off about $2500. With the custom saddles you can add what you need or want to it.
    You would want to be comfortable if you were the one doing all the work, I wonder sometimes why most folks don’t care what there animal is having to carry and how things fit. So many times I have seen others riding in saddles that pinch the whithers and then when you add a rider, it pushes down more on that spot….that’s gotta be uncomfortable, it hurts me just looking at it!. I’m sure if the human was the one doing the work they would appreciate a comfortable saddle to work in. A custom saddle will take any worries away. Also, when you have to sell an animal, I would make sure the person bought the saddle too…..if you really care about your animal you should do it for them.
    I hope that helps a bit, just thought I’d give you folks some other options.
    Happy Trails,
    Lori Spiker
    Snohomish, Wa

  11. I am really liking my burritos, riding is advancing with my older gelding and the jennet and four month old spotted baby girl are an added bonus. There are options too, the grown grays can be taught to pull and the baby just gives me her feet! Must work with both grays that are by the way about the same height as well as being the same color on giving up there feet. It is going well with them. Want more people to ride donkey as think there would be more events for us.

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