Horse packing can be one of the most enjoyable experiences in life or a wild rodeo in the wilderness. Your horse packing experience will be based primarily on three things. Your packing knowledge, quality of your pack gear and how well trained your pack animals are.
Unfortunately, every experienced packer has lost pack animals, rolled a pack animal down steep hills, had pack saddles and loads slip to the side, had horses step off trails, been kicked, stepped on by horses, had wrecks in steep terrain on narrow trails and unexpectedly met other pack strings and wildlife on narrow trails in steep rough terrain.
Horse packing can be very dangerous depending on the terrain and how well trained your pack animals are. You might want to use some of the packing tips below that you are confident that you can safely apply without causing injury to people or pack animals.
For legal reasons I have to include the following disclaimer reference equipment items sold and horse packing tips. All equine activities are inherently dangerous. Nothing in these "Packing Tips" will hold Pack Saddle Shop (Pack and Wall Tent Shop Inc.), or any of their successors or assignees as responsible or liable for injury, disease, illness or death using Pack Saddle Shop (Pack and Wall Tent Shop, Inc.), equipment, recommendations or packing tips.
The horse packing tips below are primarily for beginners and covers topics not explained in most packing books. The packing tips are not in any order of priority.
- Loading pack animals
- Buying a pack horse
- Maintenance of pack saddles
- Packing out elk quarters
- Packing a problem horse
- Packing out meat in rough terrain
- Marking a trail
- Encountering other packing strings
- Horse packing on dangerous trails
- Herd bound pack horses
- Break away strings
- Leading a pack string
- High lining and ground tying
- Packing tents and stoves
- Pack horse behavior & Inexperienced Pack horses
- Packing and predators
- Australian packer tips
HORSE PACKING TIPS NOT CATEGORIZED
We all had a “first” packing trip and experienced packers have learned some hard lessons. Hopefully, these packing tips will help you avoid some hard lessons and make your packing trips more enjoyable and safe.
If you have a good horse packing tip email me and I will include it next time I update the packing tips.
I prefer inserts with lids. Inserts with lids helps hold the shape of the insert at the top of the insert. Also, the lid acts as a shelf when loading the top of the pannier, ie, frame legs, etc. Equally important, inserts with lids also are excellent containers to store your kitchen items in to prevent rodents eating your food.
Hobbling a horse Don’t think hobbling a horse will keep it close to your camp. A horse can travel at least 1 mph in normal hobbles. One time I saw an infamous horse, Rosie, with hobbles on rear up, and hop on her back legs going from point A to point B. Some horses can run like a jack rabbit with hobbles on. Unfortunately, I have one. A horse running for a distance with hobbles will have abrasions around the hobble area. Additionally, if you have hobbles with chains, there is a good probability the chain links will eventually come undone/break when the horse runs. If you have to keep a horse close to camp to eat grass - use a pegging/single leg hobble on its front leg and tie its rope low to a tree. Train your horses with pegging hobbles at home to prevent a horse from over reacting when the rope binds on the back leg which will cause a rope burn.
Water before hobbling. When horse packing NEVER hobble before watering. Not do this and you may kill your entire pack string. Thirsty horses must be watered first before they walk off from camp. If horses drink in a creek and get their hind foot over the hobbles they can trip and drown. This is a first priority and should never be forgotten. (G. Hogan Australian Packer)
Cow Bells If you turn all your horses loose with hobbles on I suggest you have a cowbell on the normal lead horse. At times, you will not be able to observe your horses and the horses can “hobble off” at least at 1mph. Or, the horses could run with their hobble on and possibly break the hobbles. A cowbell will allow you to determine when the horses are starting to leave the immediate area. On one hunting trip in the Wilderness we were eating dinner and the hobbled horses wanted to share our food so I flicked several pebbles at them and the horses left. When I was washing the pots and pans, my hunting partner, asked, “Where are the horses?” After a 7 mile walk back to the base camp that evening, I found the horses. Fortunately, the horses stopped to eat at the base camp and didn’t continue on to the horse trailer – another 11 miles. That night, I slept with a pack pad to cover my legs and a horse blanket to cover my chest, on a very cold night. I now have a cowbell on my hobbled horses when I’m not watching them.
Riding Bareback With a Halter The next day I rode my grulla, Buddy, back to my hunting camp. I rode Buddy bareback, with a halter and hay twine for my reins leading the other 2 horses. Several outfitters and guides saw me on the trail, which is quite steep and narrow at times, and commented on how Buddy was very well trained. I ride all my horses bareback with a halter during the summer so they are trained for bareback riding. It might be wise to also ride your horses bareback in case your horses “hobble off”.
Pack Pads. Some people try to save money and use a riding saddle pad on a pack saddle. Don't! The pack pad is larger and thicker and was specifically designed for pack saddles.
Training Pack Horses to Accept a Crupper reduces the risk of a wreck when a lead rope gets caught under a pack horse's tail. (L. Batty)
Practice dragging a rope. When horse packing some horses become spooked if a rope or something is dragging behind them. Remember horses are prey animals, are always ready to run, very observant and always looking for something that could eat them. Practice dragging a rope from the pack saddle at home. I have seen horses start bucking when it steps on a dragging rope. Eventually, when you are totally confident with your horse, practice having a pannier only hang by one strap. If you pack long enough, sometime you will have ropes dragging behind your horse and panniers hanging by only one strap. If there is going to be a problem when this occurs , it is best to find out at home and train the horse before you go packing. A frightened horse is very dangerous to you. Practice the dragging rope or pannier by one strap only if you know you can control the horse. If the horse gets out of control, let go of the lead rope immediately and let whatever is going to happen, happen. You can always get another horse, but an injury to you means you might not work for a while, walk for awhile, or whatever. No horse is worth getting hurt over and you shouldn't own a wild horse anyway.
Renting horses for horse packing is an option if you don’t have the land or inclination to have horses., If you rent horses ask how old each horse is and how many pack trips its been on and if it has ever packed out meat. Insure you get experienced horses - you don’t have the time to train horses or be involved in a rodeo on your hunting trip.
Reduce possibility of cinch gall by washing the salt accumulation out of the cinch area each time you ride or pack. ( Nancy Lane )
Crossing Water You will invariably cross many small streams in the trail, creeks and possibly rivers. Insure you train your horses to cross small streams without jumping which causes broken breakaway strings or packs to slip. Fording a large stream should be practiced before your pack trip. Insure if you cross a large stream or river there are no unseen, large boulders at your fording site.
Crossing Streams With Soft Bottoms Some creeks have soft bottoms that will cause a horses legs to sink in a foot or more. Even a good water horse will lunge and start jumping when the soft bottom is encountered. When horse packing out meat, etc, it is best to have one person lead the horse to the stream and start it across while another person is on the other side to catch the lead rope as the horse crosses the stream. Trying to lead the horse while it is lunging and jumping across the stream can be very dangerous because these soft bottom streams are normally in gullies, very steep and rugged terrain.
Packing battery operated items. I had a friend who had a battery operated tooth brush turn on when he was horse packing in to his camp. The pack horse didn't like the noise or the vibration or noise and the rodeo was on. You might want to take the batteries out of any battery operated item you plan to take on your pack trip.
Old stump/root holes are very dangerous and not easily seen as most are 1-2 feet in diameter. A horse will sink up to the chest if it accidentally steps in one of these rotten root holes. A good horse will stay calm, gather itself, and slowly raise himself. A horse can easily break a leg in these holes so be very observant going off trails.
Decker versus Saw Buck pack saddles I prefer Deckers as they have half breeds with one inch thick felt and wooden side boards to protect the pack animal when packing. Additionally, if a pack animal with a Saw Buck rolls down a hill when packing the wooden crutches on a Saw Buck are normally broken. And you now have a pack saddle that is useless on your pack trip.
Quarter Breeds A quarter breed is a piece of canvas, with appropriate slits for decker rings, that protects and helps keep clean the half breed and pack saddle.
Lash Cinches When you put a lash cinch on panniers or manties you prevent the pannier/manty from sliding back on the horse’s side when panniers/manties hit a tree or rock. Consequently, when using a lash cinch the pannier/manty hits a tree, there is no give, and hitting a tree/rock will jar the horse and possibly force it off a narrow trail.
Using a Lash Cinch A lash cinch is a cinch with a hook on one end and rope attached to the other cinch end. Some people use a lash cinch to secure a top pack or also secure manties. Throw the rope over the top pack and place the cinch under the horse. Run the rope through the lash cinch hook. Pull up hard on rope to tighten around horses stomach and then tie a diamond hitch. Attach excess rope to pack saddle securely. Some inexperienced horses will buck if they unexpectedly step on a dangling lash cinch rope.
Top Packs are commonly used on pack saddles. However, top packs raise the center of gravity on the pack saddle which causes more rocking. Top packs need to be low, compact and as secure as possible. Check your pack and cinch more often when using a top pack. Higher top packs increases the likelihood the pack saddle will rock and slip to one side possibly causing a wreck. Use a lash cinch if necessary to keep a top pack secure so it will not shift. There is an old horse packing saying, " If you need to use a top pack, you also need another horse."
Saddle Panniers are more likely to cause the saddle to slip to one side than pack panniers on a pack saddle. If you use saddle panniers purchase the models that have belly straps to make them more secure.
Breeching and Breast Collar. I would strongly encourage you to buy a good saddle breeching and breast collar if you are going to do much horse packing with saddle panniers. Especially if you go up and down hills. The breeching will prevent the saddle cinch from slipping forward while going downhill. When riding a horse/mule sometimes you can feel when the saddle has slipped forward and dismount and make the necessary correction. However, on a pack animal you will not immediately know when the saddle cinch has slipped forward. A saddle cinch that slips forward on a pack animal will cause a significant cinch gall that will require weeks to heal before you can use your horse/mule again. Click saddle breeching if want to look at the saddle breeching and breast collar I have for sale.
Extra Horse Shoes. When I plan on going on a horse packing trip or hunting I save the horseshoes when my horses are shod. I keep these extra shoes at my camp. If a horse loses a shoe, I already have a shoe that is shaped for its hoof and I put the horse shoe nails through the holes that are currently in the horse hoof.
Feed and Water Many people incorrectly assume there will be grass and water basically anywhere in the back country or Wilderness areas. Unfortunately, many Wilderness areas have little grass and water is mainly in lower areas. Contact the Forest Service for info on grass and water in the area you plan on packing in. I always take alfalfa cubes on my pack trips using Utah Panniers to insure my horses receive sufficient food/nutrition. If using alfalfa cubes, always start feeding alfalfa cubes 4-5 days prior to pack trip in small amounts and gradually increase amount each day. A working pack horse requires 15-20 pounds of alfalfa cubes per day, less is okay if you supplement with available grass. Feeding a horse a full ration of alfalfa cubes with no transition could cause your horse to colic and die.
Cinch Length I prefer a 28” pack cinch as it provides more adjustment. Your horse will lose weight during packing and a shorter cinch provides more adjustment. On occasions, when I go on 2-3 week pack trips I have had to adjust my rigging straps to get a tight pack cinch due to my horses losing weight.
Leather Punch. Always pack a leather punch to make any adjustments on your pack saddle. I usually also take a 3’ piece of 1” wide leather to replace any broken straps if a wreck occurs.
Conway Buckle, Nail and a Rock. If you have a strap that breaks, a quick temporary repair is to use a nail and a rock to make a hole on each side of the broken strap. Then use a conway buckle to connect the two straps.
Adjusting Pack String Speed. You must slow down at obstacles such as when crossing streams, logs, sharp turns etc. Do not let your riding horse return to normal speed until the last packhorse crosses the obstacle. Otherwise, you will have an accordion affect, with the rear pack animals negotiating the obstacle too quickly possibly causing a wreck or breaking breakaway strings.
Check Pack String. When horse packing turn around often and check your pack string to insure there are no problems. A good time to check your pack string is when you go around corners and curves as you can see the side of the pack saddles, pack and pad. On a hot day, when the horse is losing weight, and is sweaty, a pad can slip back when going up hill and you will not be able to readily observe it unless going around a curve on a trail.
Adjusting Pack Rigging I like to have 1-2 fingers looseness at the breast collar and rear britching.
- If you adjust the breast collar too tight your horse will continually have too much pressure on its throat.
- If you adjust the brit chin too tight the brit chin will rub the hair off and eventually cause an abrasion. (brit chin - breeching)
- Adjust the pack rigging so the rigging rings are on the decker wood side boards
- In exceptionally steep country, I adjust my rear brit chin tighter to keep the packsaddle from going too far forward.
Breeching - Galling An improperly adjusted pack saddle will gall a horse. The breeching is the most likely area where you will gall your horse. I recommend you check your horse for an improperly fitted pack saddle every 1/2 - 1 hour during the first day of your pack trip. If the breeching and breast collar is improperly fitted the hair will be worn off. After the hair is worn off, then the horses' hide will be warn down causing sores/galls.
Flank Cinch on Riding Horse I recommend the flank cinch be no looser than one finger. A horse kicking at flies with a loose flank cinch could possibly get their hoof stuck between their stomach and cinch causing a serious problem.
Felt Pack Pad versus Fleece Pack Pad. Sometimes a rough felt pack pad will wear hair off a horse's back during long pack trips. Kodell fleece with a canvas top is better for the horse, but are harder to keep clean. However, felt pads are best for pack animals with poor withers because the felt pad does not shift to one side as easily as kodell fleece pads.
Fly Spray. If you have a horse that over reacts to fly bites I recommend you take fly spray on your pack trip. Especially, if you are on steep dangerous trails. There are some types of fly spray that will supposedly work up to two weeks. You don’t need a packhorse or a riding horse, bucking on a narrow trail in the back country.
Horse Conditioning. If you are going on a long strenuous horse packing adventure insure you start conditioning your horse early. A friend once took his horses on a very strenuous week pack trip without any prior conditioning. One of the horses got so tired it just laid down with the pack on. The horse had more sense than my friend.
Training a Pack string to Stay In Line. The most difficulty in leading a pack string is the start before you get to the narrow trail, which normally forces horses to stay in line. To train the pack string, have 1 – 2 helper’s walk along the side of the pack string at home to make the horses stay in line. Once a new pack string gains experience on the trail it learns to stay in line and there are fewer problems. In 2004, I was at a wilderness trail head and a person asked me to help him get his pack string to the trail head about 1/4 mile from camp. We had 2 wrecks in route because of one new horse in the string. The new horse was constantly trying to pass and went on the opposite side of a small tree than the other pack horses. Later it got excited and got his leg over his lead rope, reared up and then fell down. The horse was struggling and thrashing on the ground so I cut the lead rope and fortunately didn't get injured by this wild ass horse. The last time I saw them they were okay and heading into the Seven Devils Wilderness. Practice leading your pack string at home to avoid problems and possibly injury to you and your horses.
Preventing Cinch Gall. Move the cinch forward and backward daily on your riding horse. Moving cinch daily will help prevent cinch gall on long pack trips.
Electric Fences in the Back Country. I use an electric fence powered by 4 D cells batteries. I do not like to keep my horse’s high lined for 2-3 weeks hunting/pack trips. The key to an adequately powered electric fence is a good ground. I also use the same white “electric rope” with 6-7 wire filaments at home as I do in the Wilderness. My horses have a healthy respect for the “electric rope” and don’t normally go close to it even when I have the power off. I keep 1 or more horse’s high lined at night.
Holding Onto a Horses’ Tail One time I was packing out an elk with Ed, a good friend, in such steep and brushy terrain you could not ride to where the elk was quartered. On the way up the mountain, Ed became very tired and decided to hold onto his packhorse’s tail to pull him up the hill. Fortunately, Ed didn’t get the dog shit kicked out of him. Unfortunately, Diamond, the pack horse wanted to go up the hill quickly and Ed couldn’t maintain the pace. I don’t recommend you hold onto a horses tail unless you practice this at home so you won’t possibly get kicked silly.
Turning a Horse Loose When Packing Out Elk After Ed couldn’t keep up the pace holding onto Diamond’s tail he decided to turn his horses loose which included the one I was leading. The horse I had been leading took off running up the hill and the race was on with the other horse. I quickly followed. I found Diamond about halfway up the mountain. The pack had slipped to the side and Diamond was so tired she was about to fall down. I was trying to hold Diamond’s neck up and started yelling to a German, another person in our hunting party, for assistance. The German arrived who didn’t speak very much English, but we finally got the elk quarters off without having Diamond roll down the mountain. Meanwhile, the horse I had been leading had run all the way back to our camp. Bruce, my father-in-law, tried to catch her but with no success. Bruce put a bucket of water in front of the packhorse to entice her. The horse immediately reared up as Bruce was about to grab the halter, knocking Bruce backwards. Fortunately, the packhorse missed Bruce on the way down. You have probably figured out the name of this wild horse – Rosie! The friend I was with, Ed was the person that knowingly bought this wild horse. Rosie taught me many lessons of what I don’t want in a horse.
Turning Loose a GOOD Horse While Packing Out Elk In rough country, crossing big logs, it is almost impossible to keep a breakaway string on a second pack animal. The lead pack horse may have to jump a log that will break a breakaway string. I turn Solider, the big appaloosa with the big white blanket on my web site, loose when I pack out elk on foot. Soldier leads the way out slowly, stopping periodically for rests while I’m leading out the other horse. Soldier, remembers the way we came in, zigzagging between hogbacks because the blow downs prevent going straight up one hogback. It is a pleasure to pack out elk with Soldier. It is doubtful I will every own another horse with so much “horse sense”. As you have probably surmised, Soldier is smarter than I am.
Tying Your Horse to a Tree. In 1985, my friend Ed tied Rosie to an alder sapling while he was preparing to load elk quarters on Rosie. Rosie reared up and off went Rosie with the sapling. Rosie was gone all day and returned to camp about 10pm. Naturally, she couldn’t be caught. The next day the chase was on. Six of us had her cornered up against what was almost a vertical hillside. Rosie turned into a mountain goat as we watched her escape up the mountain side. She was finally caught on her way to the trail head when an Outfitter met her on the trail.
Packing Out Elk While on Foot If you and a friend are leading your pack horses don’t let the trail horse get too close to the lead horse. Some trail horses like to be so close they almost have their nose on the rump of the lead horse. Some trial horses will warn the trail horse with a half kick. One time, packing out elk with a friend, Diamond was too close and the lead horse I was leading kicked Diamond so hard in the head that her eyes rolled up in her head and almost went down. You guessed it – Rosie strikes again. Horses like Rosie are very dangerous to people and horses and should not be used in packing. I thought I was getting rid of Rosie when I sold her. For some reason Ed always had me handle Rosie when we were packing out together. Fortunately, Ed sold Rosie, she was 30 years old – and she was still as cantankerous at 30 as when I bought her when she was a tame 15-year-old packhorse from the old horse trader.
Meeting game animal on the trail You might meet a moose or a “big bear” that won’t get off the trail. Moose will occasionally run through a pack string. I have a friend who had a moose run through his experienced pack string and one of his pack animals panicked and it jumped off a cliff trail. Unfortunately the horse didn’t survive the fall.
Bees and Horses There is a reduced possibility of going near a bee hive on a well used trail. The danger of encountering bee hives is when you go cross country. When you are marking a trail to pack out an elk be very observant of bees in the area and the possibility of bee hives. While horse packing, if you ever encounter bees hives the only solution is to try and keep the pack string going quickly forward until you are out of the area. Expect to have broken break away strings and packs that need to be reloaded/adjusted.
- Selecting the correct tent when packing in with horses depends on several factors.
- When moving camp often, Pyramid Tents are often used as they are easy to take down and set up due its one pole set up system.
- Stationary camp. I prefer a wall tent as it is normally larger, provides more head room and more usable space due to its 5' side walls.
- Spike tents are another alternative if you move frequently. . The spike tent has few frame poles and weighs less than a comparable size wall tent. It is much more comfortable to be in than a pyramid tent as my spike tents have 4' walls and a 3 pole roof support system that provides good head room.
Take Medical kits for you and your pack animals It is very easy to get an infection from small cuts and punctures. Antibiotics come in handy in the Wilderness when your small cut or puncture becomes infected. Penicillin for horses/mules can be purchased at any good tack/hardware store along with the syringes. I also take colic medicine.
Make a detailed check list for all items you need on your pack trip. I update my list annually to insure I don’t forget items.
Check trails in advance before going on new trails. Call the nearest Forest Service to determine condition of trail and when was it cleared last. There are many trails not cleared annually by the Forest Service.
US Forest Service: Horse Sense Packing Lightly on Your National Forest pamphlet R1-02-47. Horse person's Creed: "When I ride out of the mountains I'll leave only hoof prints, take only photographs...and all the extra garbage I can pack out!"
Hopefully, these horse packing tips will help you avoid rodeos and injuries. Rich