I spent the summer of 2017 riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains with my partner Rich and three horses called Pinto, Pepper and Numero. I’ve been posting information about the trip online, as well as my trail diary, for anyone with an interest in the journey or backcountry horsemanship more generally. All previous entries on this subject can be found here.
I was warned before we set off that the majority of long distance journeys by horse fail due to problems with the pack horse. Certainly it’s true that this is an aspect of horsemanship that is rarely explored and mastered, at least in the UK, and I found relatively little information about it readily accessible. So here is a brief explainer for anyone who might be interested.
Firstly: the equipment. You need a pack saddle, of which there are several types. The key ones being the crossbuck or sawbuck, which looks like two wooden “X”s attached to the saddle bars, and the Decker saddle, which has metal hoops attached to the saddle bars. Custom Pack Rigging in Canada are extremely well regarded, and do modern versions of these classics – the most important innovation being that they are adjustable and have swinging bars, so they will fit almost any animal. (Tim Cope has even had one on a camel.)
The saddle will then require to be secured with a cinch and latigos (which, for British readers, is the Western equivalent of a girth and the straps that attach it to the saddle). The cinch – we used a wide mohair cinch with two metal rings, but there are alternative methods of rigging – is dropped under the horse’s belly, and secured on the left side a little further back than a normal girth/cinch on a riding horse. The basic latigo knot is called the Texas T, and is not something we use in English-style riding, so find a quick instructional video here.
Unless you are travelling on very flat ground, and with very light packs, you will also require a system to prevent the loaded saddle from slipping forwards or back once you are moving. One might use a breast-band combined with a crupper, but cruppers can irritate the delicate skin around a horse’s tail. We used a harness (with a soft breast-collar and breeching), of which the front section is fed under the neck and attached in two places at the front; the rear section is fed under the tail, so that it rests upon the backs of the thighs, before being attached in two places at the back.
When the whole contraption is removed from the horse, it can appear a rather daunting mass of buckles and straps, but its not too difficult to cope with after a bit of practise.
Care should be taken so that no metal elements are pressing against the horse’s skin, and there should be room for a fist to be passed between the breast collar and the breast, and between the breeching and the buttock. Care should also be taken to ensure that the saddle is sitting straight along the spine. Here’s a rather grubby Numero getting kitted out:
Next, it’s time to add the cargo. People use pack animals to carry all sorts of awkward objects (the best I’ve seen being these mules carrying lengths of pipe taller than they are), but let’s assume you’ll be using panniers. By far the most important thing at this stage is to ensure that the two side packs weigh the same. A horse is much happier carrying a heavy, balanced load than a light, uneven one. So: carry a small set of handheld scales. Do NOT hold a pack in each hand and think, ‘that seems about right.’ After twenty miles, even the smallest difference will cause serious problems: causing the saddle to slip or twist, unbalancing the horse and generally being a real pain in the neck.
Then, attach each pannier in a timely fashion, so the horse isn’t standing around weighed down on one side and not on the other for too long. Our panniers were simply hung by a rope over the T-shaped bracket on the top of the saddle.
A horse shouldn’t be asked to carry too heavy a load. In theory, the rule is that horses shouldn’t carry more than a fifth of their own weight; in reality, you definitely want to cut that figure down – as far as you can. The thru-hiking truism, that it’s not the miles that’ll kill you but the kilos, applies just as much to a pack animal as it does to a backpacker.
So: familiarise yourself with ultralight hiking philosophy, but do take it with a pinch of salt. When working with horses you’re more likely to break stuff, and to break yourself, and you need to be prepared for that. A ‘rain skirt’ made of a bin bag instead of waterproof trousers simply isn’t going to cut it when you are running after escapees through a forest in an electrical storm. Anything flimsy will tear the first time you get dragged under a low branch, and then you’ll be stuck. So be realistic.
We aimed to keep the weight on our pack horse down to around 45kg (100lb), which is around half of our horses’ hypothetical maximums. In practice, the panniers weighted more than this in the days after we had stocked up on supplies, but that was our target. And, unless you are travelling with a draught horse, it should be yours too.
Next: adding the top pack. This wasn’t always necessary when we were low on consumables, but generally we used a soft, collapsible sports bag which draped over the T-bars and secured it using a strap with a metal ratchet buckle.
As a rule, you should keep the heaviest items at the bottom of the panniers and put the lightest items in the top pack, to help the horse’s balance. Once, knowing we were heading into an area with little grazing, we carried several flakes of hay, wrapped in a tarp, as a top pack, and that worked well. It was light but awkward, and provided them with enough forage to keep them occupied for one night on rocky ground.
Now for the fiddly bit: tying the lash cinch.
Basically, a lash cinch is a long rope attached to a short cinch/girth with a hook on the end. You tie it around the pack saddle and cargo to secure it and stop it from slipping/bouncing around too much as the horse moves.
We were using a simple set-up using solid panniers, and I don’t believe in making things more complicated that they need to be, so I decided to opt for the box hitch. It’s fairly easy to learn. Here’s a brief video explainer – but essentially it goes like this:
- Throw the hook/cinch end under the horse, so that the hook faces back. I like to tie the lash cinch on the near side (left side of the horse).
- Standing on the far side (at the horse’s right shoulder) one person feeds a loop over the horse’s back, which the second person hooks the cinch onto. Pull it all tight like a belt.
- Make an overhand loop in the rope, and allow the loose end to drop to the ground. Expand this loop until it can fit around the pannier. This action is not unlike tying a string around a parcel.
- The loose end of rope should have been trapped behind the loop, which you now pull tight. When the end of the rope is pulled upwards, it should act to slightly lift the pannier away from the horse’s sides.
- Keeping the rope taut (as tight as you can – if it’s loose it will all be for naught), feed the loose end over to the person on the other side.
- Repeat the overhand loop/parcel knot on the near side. Pull taut.
- Tie it off above the pannier. Zac suggested we use the packers’ knot to do so; I immediately forgot it and improvised my own – the main thing is, it should be secure and yet simple to untie. Daisy chain any left-over rope.
It’s very satisfying to tie well, once you’ve mastered the technique. Here’s the finished hitch:
True Western mountain men swear by the far-more-complex diamond hitch, or worse, the double diamond hitch. If you are packing awkwardly shaped cargo then that is definitely the method for you. Good luck.
Finally: handling the pack horse. The most important point to make is that you should never tie a pack horse to your riding horse. If it falls down a cliff, for example, it will almost certainly drag both you and your riding horse with it. Or it might trip on rocky ground, and be dragged for a few steps, which would not be a pleasant experience at all.
At the most, you might dally the lead rope once or twice around the horn of your saddle – although even that is quite tricky to undo in a panic, when it is pulled taut by a panicking horse on the other end. It also presents an excellent way of getting a hand caught up in a loop and badly injured.
A better approach is to lead in-hand, with the rope always kept in the hand on the side nearest the horse. If you don’t stay vigilant about this, the rope might swipe you out of the saddle if the led horse slips or spooks.
Better still, then, is to let the pack horse go loose. This is by far the best method of travel, and saves a huge amount of bother, irritation and potential danger. It does require a certain amount of trust: we didn’t dare attempt it for the first five days, in case one of our number made an immediate disappearing act. But, in practice, if only one horse is loose then 9 times out of 10, he will keep faithfully to your heels, and never let the other horses out of eyeshot. (1 time out of 10, he will get stuck in a lush patch of grass and ignore all pleas until you lose your nerve and run back for him – but you might have stronger nerves than me).
Using this method, the pack horse soon learns to take responsibility for his own safety – avoiding low branches/narrow bottlenecks, finding his own routes through river crossings and rocky or slippy sections. He’ll also get the opportunity to determine his own pace (rather than be dragged along or held up by your riding horse) and graze and water himself as he pleases. Plus, your hands are free for map reading, taking photos, and so on. It’s much more pleasant for everyone.
Here’s Pepper going freestyle at 12,000ft near Kokomo Pass.