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Horse Packing

Your ticket to backcountry luxury

T.gif (911 bytes)aking a horse packtrip into the wilderness is something that appeals deeply to a lot of people, with good reason. For starters, pack stock allows you to carry a great deal more equipment, food, and drink than if you're backpacking. No need for a minimalist wilderness lifestyle, surviving on instant oatmeal and ramen noodles while huddling in a tent barely big enough to roll over in. To me, the height of luxury is enjoying a cold beverage while grilling steaks after a day of exploration deep in the wilderness. Fish are rising to the evening insect hatch in the river, and the ponies are contentedly grazing in the meadow. You’ve already been out for three days or so, long enough to shift gears from the harried pace of modern life back to the slower rhythms of nature, and all is right with your world, for the moment at least. Horse packing is so much more than just a means to such an end, though. For myself and most other practitioners of the art, travelling by packstring is a most worthwhile end in itself. You’re not just driving an RV to your campsite, you’re deeply involved with a process dating back to prehistory, interacting with and hopefully managing animals possessing their own minds, attuned to their needs and your own, and accessing some fantastic country in the process. Horse packing is one of those increasingly rare activities that remains largely unchanged from earlier times, and successfully practicing it is a deeply gratifying exercise in this modern age. The fact that it allows you to access some of the most remote and beautiful areas in the country, not surprisingly graced with some of the best fishing and hunting around, can very nearly be viewed as mere icing on the cake.

Of course, I realize that not too many people have their own pack and riding stock, and going on a packtrip means hiring an outfitter. For that matter, if I were to add up what I’ve spent on horses, tack, campLoaded packhorses equipment, veterinary care, feed and pasture, trucks, trailers, etc. over the years I'm not too sure I wouldn’t have been money ahead to have hired an outfitter myself….Like a lot of expensive hobbies, though, such retrospection is dangerous and best avoided, and it’s hard to place a dollar value on the experiences we’ve accumulated along the way. Even if (or perhaps particularly) if you’re going with an outfitter, though, I think having some understanding of what’s going on will add immensely to your enjoyment and that’s what this article is all about. And, if you’ve got or are thinking about getting some pack stock you’ll find the experience I’ve accumulated along a few thousand miles of trail a worthwhile addition to your knowledge base. Let’s establish right away that this article is not a comprehensive guide to horse packing, though. Numerous entire books have been written on the subject, and I’ll suggest a couple of the better ones, but horse packing isn’t really something that can be fully learned from a book. Some lessons just have to be picked up on the trail, literally, if you’re picking up and putting things back together after a packstring wreck, something that happens to everyone sooner or later. Usually sooner, I might add.

Of course, your odds of suffering the aforementioned wrecks as well as the myriad other problems you can encounter around horses or mules are greatly reduced if you’re using the right kind of animals. GenerallyPacking in for elk hunting, 11/03.  Not much snow, but Mercy, it was cold! speaking, a packstring is no place for a hot-blooded, high-strung, show or performance horse. Above all else, I look for a docile and calm disposition in pack stock. Then, of course, comes a sound running gear, meaning straight legs and good feet, a straight and relatively short back, prominent withers (the high point of the back at the base of the neck), and lastly a solid build with some size and strength. Breed is relatively unimportant, and most of my horses are carrying genes from at least two bloodlines. If you’re going with a reputable outfitter, you’ll no doubt find the bulk of their animals fit these characteristics, and they’re not going to put you on a bronc unless you’ve requested a spirited animal, or insulted and demeaned them and their stock as a bunch of dim-witted plugs. If so, you’re on your own…

We’ve not the time or space to get into a lengthy discussion of the relative merits of horses versus mules here, but I’ll throw out a few pros and cons flavored by my personal bias. The vast majority of professional packers use mules as pack stock, and some are even enamored of them as riding animals. Mule anatomy is slightly better for carrying loads over rough terrain, as is their personality. Horses are more prone to panic in a tough situation, while mules seem to have a better instinct for self-preservation and will rarely panic and injure themselves or you. Of course, they might kick your head off in the corral at home! At the risk of oversimplification, that is why most amateur packers use horses. There is no small amount of psychology involved in packing with either species, but to make an analogy if you need a bachelor’s degree in equine psychology to pack horses, you need a doctorate for mules. It’s said that a mule will wait twenty years for a chance to kick you, and won’t miss when that opportunity presents itself. Also, I’m told that many mules are difficult to shoe, no small matter if you do your own shoeing as I do. So, my personal bias runs toward using horses, although mule aficionados may vehemently disagree.

Now let’s take a look at the equipment used and mechanics of packing. There are basically two schools of packing based in large part on the two common types of packsaddles; sawbucks and Deckers. The sawbuck isSaudi, 26 years old as of 2000, but still part of the string. what most people think of as a packsaddle, the type you see in pictures of prospectors and mountain men. The bars (the sculpted horizontal pieces that lie against the animal’s back) are joined by a pair of hardwood crosspieces front and back that form an X and look like a sawbuck used for cutting firewood, hence the name. The Decker is a more recent development where the bars are joined by two steel hoops. Deckers wereBo, packhorse extraordinaire, wearing a Decker developed in the early part of the 1900’s and rapidly gained favor among packers during the early years of the US Forest Service in the mountains of Idaho and Montana. Numerous combinations and exceptions to the following techniques are common, but for the purposes of simplicity each type of packsaddle best lends itself to a particular style of packing.

Sawbucks are most commonly loaded with panniers, which are a box or bag with a pair of loops along the inside edge that are placed over the X of the sawbuck. Then, if desired or necessary, relatively lightweight but bulky items like sleeping bags are placed in a top pack laid across the saddle and tops of the panniers and secured to the animal with a diamond hitch (or one of an endless variety of other hitches). Deckers, on the other hand, were developed for use with manties. A manty is an assortment of gear tied up in a canvas tarp, with finished dimensions roughly the shape and size of a hay bale. One manty is slung on each side of the animal from sling ropes attached to the steel hoops of the Decker. Of course, you can put panniers on a Decker, or manties on a sawbuck, and I have often done so, but as a practical matter both lend themselves better to the packing styles they were originally intended for.

So, which style is better? Like a lot of things, that depends…. They both have advantages, and I use both Deckers and sawbucks, with a prejudice toward Deckers with mantied loads. Normally, the bulk of my gear is riding in manties, with one horse wearing a sawbuck and panniers. First, the pros & cons of Deckers: since the load is suspended from the points where the steel hoops contact the bars (or very close to that point), versus the X of the sawbuck, the center of gravity is lower and closer to the animals back. This has obvious advantages in how the loads ride. Also, Deckers have a canvas cover known as a half-breed that incorporates a wooden board along each side. The manties (or panniers, for that matter) lie against this pack board which better distributes the weight across the animal's ribs. Also, when the load rocks and shifts while travelling (which it will) it does so against the half-breed instead of directly against the animal’s skin. Plus, the rigging on a Decker is adjustable so you can change how far forward or back the cinch lies. This is a little-used feature, but if an animal develops cinch galls or sores on a trip (which if you are paying attention to the welfare of your stock shouldn’t happen) you can move the cinch back so that it doesn’t further aggravate the situation. Manties lend themselves to packing a much wider variety of odd shaped and bulky items, and generally speaking the weight of those items lies a bit lower than using panniers and a top pack. This reduces saddle shifting and slippage, and generally makes things easier on the pack animals. Also, as your trip proceeds and you consume your food items, the manties shrink in size as opposed to panniers which are pretty much a fixed size. In my viewpoint, the only real disadvantage to mantied loads is that the items in them are inaccessible without unloading and untying the manty, which is inconvenient to say the least along the trail. That is why I normally have one horse in the string wearing a sawbuck and panniers containing lunch items or anything else one might want along the way.

Aside from the ease of access to items in the pack, panniers do make packing somewhat simpler. If you don’t do a good job of tying up your manties (which isn’t really very difficult), you can leave your gear strewn along the trail. If you are using panniers, particularly the type with lids, it is impossible to lose things unless you have a major rodeo. Arranging the diverse items in a manty for optimal weight distribution requires a bit of experience, but with panniers you merely load ‘em up and only need concern yourself with keeping the weight even between the two sides. Most panniers aren’t all that big, though, roughly 18" X 22 " X 12", which is only about half the volume of a typical manty. So, if you’re using exclusively panniers you’re likely to run short of space and find you need to top pack, which immediately negates most of their advantages, in my opinion. Securing a top pack with a diamond hitch turns simple to complex, at least in comparison with slinging manties from a Decker, and the items in your panniers are no longer accessible without removing the top pack. An argument in defense of panniers and diamond hitched top packs espoused by some outfitters I know who regularly trail their strings through very steep and rough country, is that since the panniers do not hang down as low as mantied loads they won’t drag against the mountainside on the uphill side or hang up on trees when negotiating through thick timber. The diamond hitch consists of a rope laced aroundA double diamond hitch over panniers and a top pack the pack to form a net of sorts over the top pack and panniers, secured to a lash cinch under the animal’s belly, so everything is tied down not only to the saddle, but to the animal itself. Thus, the load can’t swing or bounce if the animal is lunging or having to jump over obstacles. I regularly trail my packstring through the same country they operate in, though, using mantied loads, and I’m not sure I completely buy that argument. Still, if you spend much time around other packers and want to fit in toward the upper end of pecking order you should know how to throw a diamond hitch, not to mention their many variations like one and two-man diamonds, and double diamonds, and squaw hitches, and box hitches, and so on. Frankly, I do not get too shook up over status, and while I know how to throw a diamond hitch I almost never do so.

Packing styles do reflect somewhat of a regional bias, however. Here in Montana and Idaho manties and Deckers are popular, although exceptions like the outfitters mentioned previously exist. In the southwestern states sawbucks and diamond hitches still predominate, as they do in some areas to the north like British Columbia. I’m told packstrings in many parts of that country need to negotiate lots of bogs and muskeg, and manties flop around too much, as well as drag in the mud if a horse gets mired. So, I am not trying to lay out my opinions as the thing for everyone, although I did not arrive at them overnight but rather through over of twenty years of packing experience. If your outfitter uses sawbucks and panniers I wouldn’t tell him he ought to go with Deckers, since he probably feels the same way about his opinions as I do about mine. Or maybe he just thinks diamond hitched loads look impressive, which they do, in which case feel free to rib him about being vain and tell him he could get loaded and on the trail in half the time using manties. I guarantee the subsequent conversation will be animated and interesting.

So, now you’ve got some calm horses and have accumulated some packsaddles and related gear and you’ve about got this packing thing down cold, right? Well, umm, no. Now we’re getting to the part that can’t be taught in books or articles like this one. This is where the psychology part is important. That animal at the back end of the string is not under your direct control, and so he’d better have the clear understanding that you rank above him in the pecking order and mischief will not be tolerated. Of course, anyone who’s done any amount of packing realizes that these mind games are not an exact science, and once in a while the system breaks down. In my experience, this most often occurs at the start of a trip, when all the stock is normally feeling a bit full of themselves and feel a misguided need to assert their independence. A couple of fifteen or twenty mile days under 180 or 200 pounds of gear with a mountain pass or two thrown in and ordinarily the level of cooperation will go way up. I’ll pass along just a couple of tips I’ve learned through bitter experience that can keep the stress levels down for all involved. Make sure those cinches are tight! Merely snug them when saddling, then walk the animal around a little and snug them again before loading. Then, check them again after the animal is loaded and you’ve walked them around a bit to see if the loads are riding even. I’ve got one horse that can balloon himself an unbelievable amount when you’re saddling him, and if you don’t tighten that cinch three times before you hit the trail his saddle will slip within a half mile, which usually results in a wreck and severe mood deterioration, something you can do without. Also, make sure you put horses that get along next to each other in the string. A packstring is no place for personality clashes! With my own stock, I have the best luck putting the dominant animal at the rear of the string where he can’t kick at any others. Horses aren’t too verbal, but they clearly communicate with each other and it can be kind of amusing to watch the others perk up and pick up the pace when the boss horse in the back lays back his ears and sends some equine insults forward. Of course, he happens to be a superb packhorse, which is what you want in the back of the string anyway. There’s kind of a crack-the-whip effect in a packstring and the animals toward the rear need to be agile and experienced to handle those switchbacks and stream crossings. Also, attach your animals to each other using a pigtail, which is a loop of breakable " manila tied into a rigging of unbreakable rope (I use 3/8" nylon) running from the upper cinch ring on each side up through the rear hoop or sawbuck. This pigtail is strong enough to secure your string to each other, but will break if you get in a jam, which is what you want. If you’re leading the string make sure you’ve got some extra pigtail rope in your saddlebags, because I don’t think I’ve ever been on a packtrip without breaking at least one pigtail.

Of course, this has been a very brief overview of packing, although if you are going with an outfitter it should be enough to increase your understanding of what’s going on and subsequently, your enjoyment of it, a good deal. If you want to do your own packing, I highly recommend you get the book "Packin’ In On Mules and Horses" by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown. Of the packing books I’ve got, I have learned the most from this one, and even if you never go on a packtrip you’ll find the wealth of backcountry and camping information it contains most worthwhile. It primarily espouses the Decker and manty style of packing that I favor, although it also covers packing with sawbucks. Another good book is "Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails" by Joe Back. While not nearly as extensive as the Elser/Brown book, it contains a lot of good information also. It leans a little more toward the pannier/sawbuck/diamond hitch school of thought.

So, the next thing to do is to get out there and go on a pack trip. Hire an outfitter (which we of course will be glad to arrange) or load up your own ponies and head out. Heading down the trail and looking back at the string, packs all riding even and straight, ranks well up on the list of things that bring joy to my heart and peg the satisfaction meter. It’s a direct connection to an earlier time, when people depended on pack animals for much more than recreation, and it works just as well now as it did then. There’s not too many things you can say that about.

See you on the trail.

 

 

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