Queen Valley Ranch Mule Saddle Review

The first one I bought was stolen. The second one I rode 2,200 miles from North Carolina to Idaho. No, I’m not talking about my mule. I’m talking about my Queen Valley Ranch mule saddle.

My Queen Valley Mule Ranch saddle on Cracker after traveling 1,400 miles from Lenoir, North Carolina to Hyannis, Nebraska. It would travel another 800 miles to Idaho for a total of 2,200 miles on the road.

In this post I’m going to give you an update of how my Queen Valley Mule Ranch (QVM for short) saddle held up on my 2,200 mile ride from North Carolina to Hailey, Idaho.

Trek of the QVM (Lenoir, North Carolina to Hailey, Idaho)

This report is long. It winds all over the road like a switch back trail ride. But it’ll give you a great idea of what to look for in a saddle – and how mine’s worked out for mules Brick, Cracker and me.

I may be calling this a “review” but it’s more like one of those destruction tests where they beat the hell out of what ever they’re testing and report on what’s left at the end.

Cracker executing the spontaneous saddle crash test (Brandenurg, Kentucky)

Even if you’re not in the market for a new saddle, I think you’ll enjoy this story. Hang on matey. This is gonna be a long trail ride!

Saddle Specs

The QVM is a lightweight mule saddle for trail riding and light ranch work. Built on a fiberglass tree, the seat is leather and the skirting and fenders are Cordura.

  • Size: 15″
  • 7/8 rigged
  • Stainless steel hardware
  • Weight: 18 lb
  • Prices: $1,080 plus shipping
  • Country of Origin: USA

But First We Have to Talk Mule Saddles

Until I knew better, I thought a horse saddle would fit a mule. In some cases, for a while, it might. Maybe. For a short while. Fact is, anatomically, mules are different from horses in 2 ways.

  • Straighter back: a mule has a straighter back then a horse. That means the bars, the two pieces under the saddle need to be straighter. Most saddles for horses have bars that are more curved – like a rocking chair rocker – than would be optimal for a mule’s back.
  • Up and down shoulder movement (mule) – vs – back and forth movement (horse): look closely at a mule walking and you’ll see the shoulders in the withers pump up and down like pistons. A horse’s shoulders moves with a more back-and -forth movement. A mule saddle is designed to accommodate this more vertical movement.

Sure, you can ride a mule in a horse saddle. I’ve done it. For hundreds of miles. But looking back on it, I put a lot of needless white hair on my mule’s back with maybe a dose of discomfort thrown in for bad measure. This wouldn’t have been the case with a better fitting saddle.

Be kind to your mule. She’ll pay you back big time. A comfortable mule is a pleasant mule.

What I Was Looking for in a Mule Saddle

4 things I was looking for in a saddle. This would be the same for a horse saddle.

  • Comfortable for the mule
  • Lightweight
  • Economical
  • Simple

Comfortable for the Mule

This is a no brainer. By “comfortable for the mule”, I mean it fits your mule. I’ve already explained what, technically, that means – straighter bars and designed for the piston action mule shoulder movement.

While some saddle manufactures might say they build a mule saddle, make sure it’s really a mule saddle. A saddle with straight bars doesn’t necessarily make it a mule saddle.

Lightweight

I try to have my animals – saddle and pack – carry as little weight as possible.

The weight adds up fast. I weigh 155 pounds. Add clothes, boots, wallet, hat, belt, photo of my wife Julia and I’m at 165. Add in a 20 pound saddle plus 15 pounds of saddle pad, breastplate and breaching and 155 pound me ends up being 200 pounds on my animal’s back. And that’s before the sandwich, water bottle, camera and foul weather gear.

A general rule of thumb is a mule can carry 25% of its weight. That means my 850 pound mule Cracker is about right carrying 200 pounds. Yes, mules can carry way more weight for short distances. But remember, I like to ride long distances so to reduce fatigue and the chance of saddle sores, I try to minimize my animal’s load.

Sure I could ride a 16 hand horse and load him down with a 45 pound roping saddle. But a 14.2 to 15 hand animal – the height I prefer – is much better suited to the long distance, unsupported riding I do.

Economical

I’d rather spend my money on leather than silver conchoes, fancy carving, turquoise inlays and jealousy inducing brand names. You can buy a lot of grain with the money you saved not buying that $3,500 saddle.

Simple

I’m a blue shirt and khaki guy. Some days I wish I was more Rhinestone Cowboy but I’m not. I like my gear simple – unadorned, rugged, stripped down, good looking and humble. You know, just like me.

Other

You’ll notice I don’t list “Comfortable” in my list. I rate personal comfort after the other 4 priorities. I’ve found most saddles I’ve ridden in plenty comfortable. Way more important than your comfort is the animal’s comfort.

Full Disclosure

From time to time, I do write-ups on the gear I use like the hoof boots Julia and I used on our month and a half mule trip from North Carolina and back. (You can read the Hoof Boot Report right here.)

I don’t have sponsors or advertisers. I pay for my trips out of my own pocket. If folks want to make a donation as I pass through their lives, I’m happy to accept. I make sure to pass these gifts ahead up the road. Mojo works that way.

Not being “bought” by the companies whose gear I use relieves me of the pressure of having to say nice things about them. If a piece of equipment craps out on me prematurely, I can say it’s a piece of junk. If the stitching unravels prematurely on a piece of gear, I can mention that, too.

If I review gear that was given to me by the manufacture – as happens on occasion – I’m clear about that.

So let me give you a bit of background on the QVM saddle and how it came in to my possession.

Rough Start, Smooth Break-in

I bought my QVM saddle and a pad to go with it direct from Steve Edwards of QVM in January 2019. A few days later, the UPS driver ignored the “Signature Required” instruction and negligently left the saddle in front of our gate on an empty rural road.

It was stolen.

In an epic feat of corporate foot dragging, UPS dragged out the claim for months. Three months later, with UPS still not having reimbursed him, Steve shipped me a replacement saddle. The replacement saddle arrived April 4, two days before I was to set of on my Mules West ramble. (Note: as of August 14, 2019, UPS had still not settled with Steve on the mis-delivered saddle.)

Full Disclosure: in addition to the saddle, Steve included the following supplies for my Mules West voyage free of charge:

  • 2 girths (front and back
  • breastplate
  • breaching
Cracker fitted for the first time with his new QVM saddle and accessories. I ride with my saddle bags slung over the saddle instead of behind it. This takes the weight off the mule’s/horse’s kidney and loins and transfers it over the saddle’s bars. The red packet on the cantle is my tent. I now store it on my pack saddle to further reduce the amount of weight Cracker has to carry. (Caldwell County, North Carolina)

On April 5, the day after I got it, I took the saddle for a 10 mile ride. All went well.

The next day, April 6, I saddled Cracker with my new QVM saddle and started riding from North Carolina toward Idaho.

First Impression

The first thing I thought when I swung in to my new saddle was, “wow, this thing is snug. Snug in a good way. Snug and comfortable.”

I’m 5′ 7″ and weigh 155 pounds. Until I got the QVM, I was used to riding in my 15″ Abetta. That saddle was also very comfortable but I always felt like I was swimming around in it a bit. The new QVM saddle held me better.

I think it’s because the pommel and cantle on the QVM are more upright than my old Abetta.

The seat was as comfortable as my old Abetta, which is saying a lot. The break in period was very short – a matter of days. Long term, the padded seat has proven comfortable on those 8 hour days in the saddle.

Yes, from time to time, some cowboy riding in a hard seated saddle will look over and sniff, “I see you’ve got a padded seat.” I say, “yup” and don’t ask him if he replaced his pick-up driver seat with a board.

Don’t Do This

Did you catch how I said I put the new saddle on my mule Cracker April 5 and set off on my journey April 6? In terms of breaking in a saddle for a long distance voyage, this is a terrible way to do it. For an animal to go from wearing a new saddle zero hours per day to 8 hours a day is a proven recipe for saddle sores both on the animal’s back and girth area.

The good news is that the month prior to my departure, I’d been riding Cracker a few times per week in my old Abetta saddle. So his back was used to having a saddle on it.

I started my voyage slowly. The first week I rode 5 days and covered 60 miles. I walked some and rode some, doing my best to keep Cracker’s back from developing saddle sores. Due to the constant back and forth motion incurred during a ride of thousands of miles even the best fitting saddle will eventually rub a back sore. Walking helps reduce the chance of that happening.

The saddle after the first 2 months on the road.

Wear and Tear After 2,200 Miles in the Saddle

In most saddle reviews, the reviewer takes the saddle out for a spin. Snaps some heroic looking photos fording creeks and winding along a mountain trail. Snaps some photos. Then puts the saddle back on the rack and goes back to the saddle she usually rides in.

And that’s plenty good. I love heroic shots and post as many of them as I can.

Still, I thought you’d enjoy seeing what a new saddle looks like after over 2,000 hard miles on the trail. By “hard” I mean traveling all day then sleeping under a poncho at night. Since I’ve owned it, this saddle has never slept in a tack room.

I try to cover my gear at night, especially in heavy dew, frost or snow. Here, my camp on a frosty morning. The saddle is on the left, my beloved bivy bag, where I’ve spent the night, is on the right. (Sweetwater Station, Wyoming)
Okay, if the whiskey and companionship are good, some nights I forget to throw a poncho over my saddle. This is what I find come morning.
Freezing rain in Wyoming
Idaho snow

Despite the hard use, the saddle has held up really well. The most worn places are:

  • bottom of the fender where the fabric rubs against the mule’s side
  • a bit of stain worn off the seat where the saddle bags have rubbed the leather
  • miscellaneous scratches from me being its owner
The bottom of the worn fender. It can’t be seen while riding because it faces the animal’s flank. It would probably take a few more thousand miles of riding before this became a real issue – in which case you’d just reinforce it or replace the fender).

It’s fair to say these are just normal wear and tear. Nothing structural.

How the Saddle Performed on the Big 4

Earlier I told you about the 4 things I was looking for in a saddle. They were:

  • Comfortable for the mule
  • Lightweight
  • Economical
  • Simple

Here’s how the QVM saddle rated.

Comfortable for the mule: This was the most important criteria for me. It’s also the hardest to judge. You can measure cost and weight but comfort to a non-speaking critter?

In an ideal world, your mule would swing her head around at you and say, “can you get me a saddle with wider bars? This one feels sorta tight across the shoulders.” But it’s not a Disney world so we have to look for clues if our saddle is comfortable for our animal.

I used the QVM on both my mules though predominantly on Cracker. After riding it through 10 states, I have to say it agrees with my mules. Not that there wen’t issues.

I did run in to one issue particular to long distance riding (by that I mean continuous trips over 1,000 miles). Traveling through the Illinois summer heat, I noticed that Cracker was loosing patches of hair under the saddle: a dime-sized patch on the right side, and a quarter sized patch on the left side. They were directly below where I sat on the saddle.

They didn’t look like saddle sores. There was no pus or exposed flesh. The hair had just fallen out.

I called Steve at QVM for advice. After looking at photos I emailed him, he said these we scalds, spots where the skin and hair had overheated under the saddle.

He advised me to dismount every hour, loosen the girths and lift the back of the saddle to allow fresh air to cool and dry the hot spots. He also sent me a thicker saddle pad to compensate for the longer than average time I was spending in the saddle.

It worked. Aerating the back and the thicker pad – along with removing the saddle every 3 hours to let he back cool down – helped reduce the scalds. Cooler fall weather eliminated them altogether.

Comfortable for the mule rating: 5/5

Lightweight: The QVM saddle, minus saddle pad, weighs 18 pounds. A fiberglass tree, nylon billets and replacing leather with Cordura on the fenders and skirts cuts helps reduce weight.

While 18 pounds is considered moderately light for a western saddle, it’s no flyweight like a McClellan or synthetic English saddle. Thing is, those lighter options have drawbacks that made me pass them up in favor if a better suited, slightly heavier saddle (shorter bars and bar shape that may not be ideal for mules in hard work come to mind).

Lightweight rating: 4/5

Economical: Everyone wants the most leather and latigo for their buck, including me. But good dead cow skin costs dollars. And sewing the pieces together so they survive the long haul costs more money.

When I weigh what I paid for the saddle ($1,080 plus shipping) against what the saddle has delivered I’m very happy. When I project the purchase price ahead over the many more years I plan to use the saddle, I think it’s a great value.

Economical: 5/5

Simple: It’s turning in to a fancy world. Look at the TV truck ads and the announcer tells you all about the tailgate the turns in to a step ladder and, hey, lookie here, the back up camera that makes your trailer disappear! All for just $65,000.

What ever happened to the base model with crank up windows?

Same goes for saddles. Swirly saddle tooling doesn’t make my mule spook less at passing semis. Much as I’d like to think so, 16 ounces of 92.5% sterling silver conchoes stuck all over my saddle don’t make people mistake me for Clint Eastwood. Based on scrap value, they would add $236.07 to the price of the saddle.

No. Just give me a frill-free saddle that fits my mule. The QVM delivers. It’s an elegantly plain saddle with just enough tooling to keep the khaki clad man inside me smiling.

The concho toward the rear of the skirting. The ring at 4 o’clock is for securing the breaching.

Yes, it has 6 mule head conchos on it. No, I won’t be prying them off with a screwdriver to melt them down. They’re not silver.

Simple: 5/5

Things I Would Have Liked

At the risk of sounding like a complainy pants, there are 2 things I would have liked to see on the saddle:

  • stirrups
  • attachment rings on the back of the cantle

Stirrups: not a big deal but a saddle without stirrups – even a $10 pair – looks sorta amputated to me.

I also get that stirrups are a personal choice. It probably doesn’t make sense for a saddle maker to include a cheap pair only to have the new owner ditch them like those crummy zinc-plated bits they include with piss-died bridles.

I ended up fitting my QVM with a pair of $15 plastic stirrups I robbed off my Abetta. They’ve worked great.

Attachment rings on the back of the cantle: this also falls in to the “It Would Be Nice” category. While the saddle has a good set of latigos on the top of the saddle skirt, just below the cantle, it would be nice to have a set of rings on the back of the cantle itself. It’s the perfect place to lash that raincoat. Why not just add 2 rings and make it possible?

I may just do that.

Closing Thought: It’s Not About the Saddle

Now I’m going to spin the conversation 180 degrees and say this – there’s no magic behind what brand saddle you buy.

As long as it fits your mount and you, you’re good to go. Wonderful trips have done in inexpensive saddles and wonderful trips have been done on gold platters. And vice versa.

To take this to an extreme, I rode a free, 100 year old McClellan saddle on my first mule voyage across America. The bars were too short and the gullet too narrow for my mule. But with some careful tweaking – and lots of walking – it got me 3,500 miles from Atlantic to Pacific oceans.

Arriving at the Pacific Ocean with Woody, Maggie and my McClellan saddle after 13 months on the road. You can read the account of that voyage in the “Too Proud to Ride a Cow” book. Download the Kindle version here.

As a less extreme example, the Abetta saddles Julia and I used on our 6 week ride from North Carolina to Virginia and back worked well enough. Julia jokes that one day she’s going to write a post called “How’s That Cheap Plastic Saddle Working Out?” about the experience on her ConsideringAnimals.com blog.

Julia and I at the Happy Valley Fiddler’s Convention on our 2018 mule ramble. The saddles we’re sitting in cost about half of the QVM I’m reviewing.

The thing to remember is that the saddle is only the start. Just as important as the saddle is you, the owner. It’s tempting to kit out your mount with the finest, best reviewed saddle you can find. But in my experience, that’s not what counts.

What counts is butt-in-the-saddle time. I’ve ridden my new saddle over 2,000 miles in the past 6 months. How often do I think of it? Almost never.

Instead, I think of all the people it’s carried me to, from the Chicken Slat Man to the Turtle Lady. I think of how Wyoming sage brush country smells after the rain and the rush of getting a police escort across the Ohio River.

Closer to home, I dream of future rides with Julia, from farm rambles with Snookie to trail rides at nearby Love Valley.

Little of this has to do with my saddle’s price or how many stars it got in its online reviews. Sure, you can buy the $3,500 saddle. But you have to earn the next 3,500 memories.

Here’s to many great memories – and a bit of misadventure – on whatever saddle or trail you ride!

Happy Adventuring.

Bernie Harberts / currently Alpine, Wyoming

Links

I mentioned owning an Abetta saddle in this review. The only reason I didn’t use it on my current Mules West ramble is that the bars were designed for a horse’s, not a mule’s, back. This could have lead to trouble on a really long voyage. Still, it’s been a solid saddle and worth a mention. Julia continues to use hers almost daily on her Haflinger Pickle.

The Abetta Pathfinder model we used on our 2018 mule ramble.

The Mondo Hoof Boot Report

Did you think riding a saddle 2,000 miles to review it was your kind of over the top? Then check out the Big Grand Daddy of hoof boot reports.

The Hoof Boot Report: the bonkers thorough, drag them through the mud and sew them up with dental floss, look at hoof boots.

This is where Julia and I spent 6 weeks on the road with 3 mules and 3 different brands of hoof boots and told you how it all worked out. Aside from being about equine hoof wear, it’s a hell of an entertaining read with some beautiful Smokey Mountain scenery thrown in.

It doesn’t matter that our focus was on how these boots performed on mules. It applies equally to our 64 chromosome friends (horses).

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