Packing Horses and Mules, by R.S.

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013

In today’s world most people will never pack an animal to move their goods from point A to point B. However it wasn’t that long ago that animal power was the primary land transport system. In a grid down scenario it may return if only briefly. I offer this article only as an introduction, or primer with a few “how to’s” and a few “how not to’s”. If only one piece of knowledge stays with you, it could be very beneficial.
 
Many of the things I will cover are the basic principles of packing.  Some of the knowledge may seem like small details and subtleties but these can be crucial to an uneventful trip. These are learned through experience, trial and error and thoughtful observation. Some of the skills and nuances are becoming things of the past as we as a society become too civilized. Most of the readers of this blog should understand how fragile our system has become. When the supply chain breaks down because of lack of fuel, goods and supplies if available won’t be distributed. Since most people do not have a one year supply of food on hand, options have to be considered. If there is an apple orchard only twenty miles away how will the apples be utilized? Want to trade for some? How are you going to bring them back? In your Bug Out Bag? Wagons may be put into service if available and someone has the knowledge to drive them. Packing a horse or mule, to my way of thinking, will be a better option for most people.

Pack animals can cover just about any terrain and make their way through obstacles that inhibit anything wide or not smooth enough for wheeled vehicles. They have been used though out history to connect, conquer and advance civilizations. The desire to move bigger quantities further distances led to an occupation that few think about today, “The Packer”.  It may prove valuable to at least be aware of the subject.

Saddles: The foundation of your packing equipment will depend on several key items. This includes what kind of animal you are packing, the type of cargo being transported and the availability of saddles or makeshift items to construct a saddle. This may boil down to something as simple as two bags draped over the animals back (which never works out very well). The saddles could be custom made with all the bells and whistles.

The Sawbuck: Used on horses, mules, burros and a variant on llamas and goats. Frames are generally made out of wood, oak for the crosses and something softer like pine or poplar for the bars. The bars are what rest on the animals back and are carved and shaped accordingly. Side loads are hung from the crosses with leather straps attached to the bags or panniers. In my opinion this is the best all-around saddle. It lends itself to almost any equipment and hitch.

The Decker: Very popular in the Rockies and used on horses and mules. Instead of wood crosses steel rods shaped in an upside down U in both the front and back are bolted to the bars. There are variations in shapes that help with different equipment and load scenarios. Hooks are often used on panniers to attach quickly to the saddle. A padded canvas “half breed” is incorporated with this saddle to cushion the animal from the load. It is basically a saddle pad that stays attached to the saddle. Thin pine boards in the bottom of the half breed help distribute weight across the rib cage. The basket and barrel hitches are used commonly with this saddle.

Riding saddles can be used in a variety of ways. Saddle panniers made to fit over riding saddles are quick and easy. Box and diamond hitches can be used without a problem here. A lash rope tied to the saddle horn and looped around the cantle can be tied into a basket hitch. Harder to find now, old military saddles like the McClellan can be reworked into serviceable rigs.

Saddle pads protect the animals back. Whatever you end up using should be kept clean. Caked up sweat, hair and mud will start to rub a sore in their backs. Keep the pads about three inches in front of the saddle so that it doesn’t slip back and allow the saddle bars to dig into the lower withers. Make sure that the pad is square and even before placing the saddle on. Then take your hand and push the pad up into the gullet of the saddle. This takes pressure off of the withers and will allow some air to circulate down the back bone.

Cinches should be kept clean. Wide cinches are best since they have more surface area. Narrow or old cinches that have cords broken only serve to cut the animal in half. If you want to see what getting kicked by a mule feels like, snug up a narrow dirty cinch on a cinch sore.

There are a variety of soft packs that are used on dogs and goats. Most of these hug the animal so care should be taken if hard and irregular items are placed in the packs.

Like your Bug Out Bag the saddle and rigging straps must fit the animal to work correctly and be comfortable. A breeching (or britchen) strap too low on the hind legs will inhibit movement and chaffs the skin. Same with the breast collar, by  placing it too high it can cut off the wind pipe. Saddle the animal and only snug the cinches at first. Let the pads compress and warm up especially when it’s cold. Tighten the cinches right before packing the animal. Done right, the horse or mule won’t become “cinchy”. One mule I used to pack could blow her belly up tighter than a steel drum. I would slowly take up the slack, maybe five times over ten minutes. Sometimes after loading her, the cinches would be loose and hanging down and we hadn’t gone anywhere yet. That was the way that mule preferred it. As long as the load was balanced she would go all day without a problem. Often at the end of the day all of my mules would come into the camp with their cinches swinging. They were working hard, sweating buckets and losing weight. It’s best if they stay snug but shows how balanced loads are key.

Hitches: Diamond, box, basket and barrel hitches are what are mostly used. There are many others and many variations. I have decided not to try to describe these. Some form of visual instruction is vital in my opinion. Pictures, videos or personal instruction will get you started on the right path. I will offer some tips learned from personal experience and observation of other professional packers. Often when watching someone else I learned what not to do!
-Lash ropes should be around 45 feet long and lead ropes 10 to 12 feet. Don’t short yourself.  1/2 inch to 5/8 inch diameter is good to work with. Cotton poly blends are nice, they don’t stretch as much as straight cotton. If cotton gets wet and freezes you are all done, you’ll need a saw to get any knots out. Manila is better in the cold and wet.
-Tie it right the first time. A living breathing animal is a huge variable in the equation. If the hitch is not right there will be a problem. It may be small and fixed quickly, or it could be quite a wreck.
-Don’t let excess rope dangle. Stumps, brush, logs, rocks and feet all have a way of “grabbin a-holt” of a loose rope.
-Any metal, such as cinch hooks, should not be in contact with the animal.
-Some people feed the lash rope through the spreader strap connecting the cinches. I don’t. If you have a wreck this can compound your problems. It’s harder to take the hitch off when your mule is standing knee deep in a creek with his load under his belly. During a wreck this strap is often broken any way.
-Always face the cinch hooks backwards so they don’t catch brush and branches.
-Always use the most effective and simplest hitch for that particular load. Don’t weave a spider web.

Loads: Amazing things have been moved with animals, grindstones, suspension bridge cables, timbers, wood cook stoves, eggs, guitars, gold and silver ore, generators and grandmas rocking chair. There are two main considerations here, the animals comfort and a balanced load. Without either one your load will be lost or the animal hurt. Now packing is one of those jobs where there are many ways to accomplish the end result. Endless arguments are made on the best way to pack a particular load. Do we split it in half? Box or basket hitch? Wouldn’t the diamond be better? In any event we can use some generalities in using the right tool for the right job.
-Canvas panniers: These are great for general purpose packing. Remember to place flat or soft items on the side going next to animal.
-Boxes or hard panniers: Use for canned goods, loose or heavy items. Provides protection to items like; eggs, pie, whisky bottles and Coleman lanterns.
-Slings: These are made of a sheet of canvas, maybe five feet long by two feet wide. At the top is attached a thin board with leather ears that the load hangs off of the saddle by. Two leather straps on the outside support the weight and wrap the canvas around the load. Great for duffle bags, hay bales, ice chests, cook boxes and the like. Quicker than having to manty some items up.
Manty: Basically a big canvas sheet wrapped or folded around smaller objects and tied up with half hitches to make a big duffle. It is used a lot with the decker pack saddle and the basket hitch.
-Top pack: This is gear placed over the animals back and onto each of the side loads. It’s usually lighter and softer than the rest of your load, like a bed roll. This can be shifted off center to help with balance.
-Pack covers are thrown over the tops of loads to help secure items and protect them from the elements. 6x8 or so is about right. Tuck the edges under the load and lash rope. This prevents tears, hang-ups and keeps the load secure.
-Load weights; Yes, I know that some of you He Men out there can carry a one hundred pound bug out bag, but for how many days in a row? See, this is why I like a pack mule; I’m not carrying the weight. Or if I do carry a pack, it’s a light one, allowing me freedom of movement. So, for day in day out traveling shoot for about 20% of body weight. As an example I would pack up to two hundred pounds on a standard to large size horse or mule. THIS INCLUDES THE WEIGHT OF THE SADDLE, ROPES AND PANNIERS ETC. We usually went for no more than one hundred and fifty pounds of cargo. Once the animals are in shape they can go like this a long time with an occasional day off.

To be efficient all voids are filled in making up the load. NO WASTED SPACE! A coffee pot for example would be filled with small items or maybe your coffee beans. Packing is an art and it is a 3-D puzzle. Now I have put together some unusual combinations, but a word of caution here, use common sense. Fuels such as gasoline should be completely sealed and checked. If it should leak out it will burn the animal’s skin and leave blisters. And don’t place it with your food items.

All sharp items such as axes, saws, shovels etc. should each be in a scabbard, sheath or wrapped securely. The front and back edges of loads should not come into contact with shoulders or hips. Tender raw spots will stop any travel plans. Baler twine or Para cord are used to tie up wrapped duffels or make quick repairs to saddles and rigging. Duct tape is one of the marvels of the world. Use it for taping over axes and shovels, repair holes in tarps, smooth over rough surfaces that might come into contact with the animal, keep buckles and hooks in place. Tape ice chest handles down to stop them from “knocking out a tune” while going down the trail. An ice chest on each side makes a great load but the handles banging and clacking gets old quickly and maybe you don’t want to attract attention with undo noise.

Balance is the key to packing a load so start with the saddle in the middle of the mules back. As an animal moves down the trail the load will rock back and forth. This is natural. If the load is balanced it will stay where it is supposed to, on the animal. Many people use scales to weigh out the cargo. This helps get close. When I worked as a packer we often would have contests to see who could come closest “by feel”. Picking up fifty to seventy five pound side loads, we could often get to within a pound or two. However, this alone will not mean that your load will balance. Is the majority of the weight high or low, inside or outside of the pack? Leverage plays a part here. After hanging your loads on the saddle, the packer rocks the load by pushing down on one side. Does it move equally side to side? Think of a teeter totter. Even if each side weighs the same they may not balance on the animal due to the weight distribution in the side loads. To correct this several things can be done. First check the ears or straps of the load hanging on the saddle. Are the loads hanging equidistant down each side? One may need to hang lower. Adjust up or down so the load rocks evenly. Items can be moved from one side to the other and the top pack can be moved off center to achieve balance. These should be small adjustments only. If the loads are really out of whack they need to be repacked. After starting your trip many loads will settle and items may shift. It is critical to pay attention and watch the loads as they rock back and forth as the animal moves. After you have started no one wants to repack. Adjustments can be made on the trail by using a “pack rock”. Take a fairly flat rock weighing a few pounds and shove it under the lash ropes on the outside of the pack. This adds weight and leverage to the lighter side.

Here are a few more considerations.
-Give your animals time to negotiate obstacles; they can handle the load better if not forced into going too fast.
-If your animals are tied in a string know that they have a pecking order. Some critters are best not tied to each other.
-Never tie your lead rope hard and fast to your saddle horn. If something doesn’t break you are likely to get pulled over. Take a dally if you need, and let go when necessary.
-Don’t use oversize saddle bags. I have seen this time and again. Thirty or forty pounds of dead weight over the horses’ kidneys is not doing him any favors. At this point pack the saddle correctly and walk yourself. An out of shape horse carrying too much weight first thing in the spring heading into the mountains will die. I’ve seen it.  
-The length of the lead rope should allow the animal to lower its head to the ground or get a drink but without any slack in it. Too much slack and one of the animals will step over it. A rope up between a horses’ hind legs is uncomfortable and they will let you know it. A front foot over the lead rope pulls that leg into the air and his head down when the leading animal takes off. It’s Hard to walk that way. And it always seems to cause rope burns.
-You may want to have a troublesome load on your lead mule where you can watch it easier.
-Learn how to tie a quick release knot and a bowline.
-There are many ways to tie animals together into a string and many arguments can be made for and against each. Never tie into the load of the leading mule. This would cause the load to be pulled off the animal. The majority of the time I tied the lead rope into a weak link on the saddle of the leading mule. Usually this was baler twine or Para cord. It can be tied into the back buck or ring of the saddle. Some make a “reach” from the top rigging rings to the back middle of the saddle. Then tie in a loop of baler twine or small diameter rope for the weak leak link. This kept the mule string together but allowed them to break apart and prevent catastrophe. Although there are situations calling for it, many horses and mules have been injured or even killed because they were tied hard and fast and one of the animals miss-stepped surged forward or pulled back at the wrong time. Steep switch backs and drop offs call for more attention when pulling a long string. One animal not staying in line and going around the wrong side of a tree always makes things exciting. Many packers use a bowline to tie the pack animals together. A better knot is a modified sheep shank. A loop of the lead rope is passed through the weak link and held with the remaining tail. Two half hitches are thrown over this with the rope leading back to the animal. This method stays tight and will always untie.
-Keep your animals hydrated. They need the water just like you do.

Horses, mules, llamas, dogs, goats and other four footed critters can be a huge help in logistical support. My experience deals with horses and mules but a lot of the principle methods hold true across the board. After an initial grid down disaster and a lack of fossil fuels, people may be forced to go back to real horse power. There are several good books on packing. I think one of the best is Horses, Hitches & Rocky Trails by Joe Back. A used copy should run you around ten bucks. His illustrations alone are worth the price.

Packing in the Rockies and Sierra Nevada wilderness areas has given me many fond memories. To ride a good horse, while leading a smart looking string of mules is satisfying.  Do it around a high country lake after the snow has melted in the spring and feel connected to the universe.


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