Queen Valley Mule Ranch Saddle Review
This is a review of how my Queen Valley Mule Ranch (QVM) Trail Lite saddle performed after I rode it 7 months and 2,300 miles from North Carolina to Idaho.
I may be calling this a “review” but it’s more like one of those destruction tests where they beat the hell out of whatever they’re testing and report on what’s left at the end.
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!
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
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
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 designed for the piston action mule shoulder movement.
While some saddle manufacturers 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.
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. By unsupported, I mean no chase vehicle or support team is accompanying me. It’s just me, the mules, the open road and the folks I meet on my trip.
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.
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.
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.
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 long 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. When the stitching unravels prematurely on a piece of gear, as has happened, I can mention that, too.
Sometimes manufacturers give me equipment. In that case, I’ll say it was given to me when I review it.
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 set to leave 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
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.
The first thing I thought when I swung into 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.
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 and then sleeping under a poncho at night. During my trip, this saddle never slept in a tack room.
How it Held Up
Despite the hard use, the saddle has held up 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
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
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 into 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 losing 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 the back cool down – helped reduce the scalds. Cooler fall weather eliminated them altogether.
Comfortable for the mule rating: 5/5
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 help 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 (shorter bars and bar shape that may not be ideal for mules in hard work come to mind) that made me pass them up in favor of a better suited, slightly heavier saddle.
Lightweight rating: 4/5
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.
It’s turning into a fancy world. Look at the TV truck ads and the announcer tells you all about the tailgate that turns into a step ladder and, hey, lookie here, the backup camera that makes your trailer disappear! All for just $85,000.
Whatever happened to the base model with crank-up windows?
The 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 conchos 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.
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.
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:
- 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 into 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 been made in inexpensive saddles and wonderful trips have been done on gold platters. And the other way around.
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.
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.
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.
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!
Get A Free Copy of my New Photo Book 19 Million Mule Steps
I’ve just published a photo book about the journey and I’d like to give you a FREE copy. It’s called 19 Million Mule Steps and contains 134 pages of photos, sketches, pictures of my Queen Valley Mule Ranch saddle on the trail, and musings about the nomadic life with two mules. Read on to see how you can download a free copy.
Here are some of the illustrations from 19 Million Mule Steps you’ll enjoy.
Download Your Free Copy of 19 Million Mules Steps
- Queen Valley Mule Ranch Trail Lite saddle (the model I reviewed)
- Queen Valley Mule Ranch (maker of the QVM line of saddles)
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 led 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 Mondo Hoof Boot Review
Check out the Big Grand Daddy of hoof boot reports.
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).