Packing with Horses

Horse packing do's and don'ts from an expert


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Do's and don'ts of horse packing

Note from Chuck Olsen (website author): John has agreed to write some tips for people who want to pack with horses. He has lots of experience and has been packing in the Rocky Mountains for several years. He also has some trail descriptions on the Colorado page, check it out.
Thanks John.

By John Nicholson
1. Plan your trip in detail. Forest rangers are an excellent source of information and you can get maps from them for a couple of bucks. Trails Illustrated puts out great maps and they are kept fairly current. Let people know (including the rangers) where you are going and when you expect to be there. I had a near death experience on the Continental Divide Trail near Wolf Creek Pass in 1990 and only because we were overdue at our check point was I able to get out and to the hospital.

2. Get yourself and your animals in proper shape. Prior to moving to Colorado I worked my flatland Texas animals for 4 hours every day for three weeks getting them ready. If possible once you bring them up here let them have 2-3 days to become somewhat adjusted to the altitude. When you start off if you have to climb up to the trail take it slow with lots of stops so that they have a chance to blow. Never push your horses until you are certain that they have totally acclimated to the altitude. If the forest rangers discover YOUR horse dead on the trail you are responsible to haul it out! You will know when your animals get their "second wind" so take it easy until then. On our second trip up here we found three dead horses on the trail that had just gotten in from Indiana. When you stop for a break get off of your horse and loosen the cinch and remove your saddle pack. Carry something that they can drink out of as I have seen horses that had not had water in three days refuse to drink from a small cold stream for the first week. I don't understand it either!

3. Get a large ripstop fly (Campmore sells great ones and you will need one anyway) and put everything you intend to take with you on top of it. Separate out into a couple of piles what will be on your pack animal and what will go with you on your animal. Now figure out what you need to take versus what you HAVE to take. Weigh both loads. Your pack animal other than the pack saddle should not carry much more than 150 pounds which includes feed and a small salt block. You can start adding to the pile (or taking away from it) until you reach the magic number. Record the weight on all items as it will make it easier to balance the load when you begin packing. Repack all food items in ziplock bags as they will be small and weigh less. We also pack socks and undies in ziplocks also as you can expect it to rain every day - even if for only 5 minutes. We normally put 25 lbs of feed to each pannier and then scoop it out in equal amounts each day - so carry a scoop or coffee cup for this purpose. Your loads (pack and your horse) must balance so I highly recommend that you buy a scale for that purpose. If you are ever in a hailstorm on the side of a mountain that is a sheer drop and the pack on the 4th animal back slips underneath his belly you will understand why the load must be balanced. You balance your riding horse load because it makes your horse uncomfortable if it ain't. Avoid those oversized behind the saddle packs unless you are going to store just large light gear in them. Horn packs work very well and I recommend them. If you simply are unable to balance the load then revert to the tried and true method called a "Packers Rock." Find a flat stone that weighs about right and tuck it under the ropes on the light side. Thought by professionals to be ultimate sign of the beginner - but it works when nothing else will.

Horse Shoes - Here is a trick I learned from my farrier. The first year we began packing in Colorado we had our horses "hot shoed" by the farrier. After he sized the shoes he applied a little dollop of carbolum (spelling?) about the size of a dime and 1/4 tall to the toe and both heels of each shoe. He said that the shoes would last longer and that the horses would have better traction. He also pointed out that they would leave a distinctive track in the event one came up missing. He took a metal punch and scratched the horses name on each shoe along with what foot the shoe was on. We put the shoes on at least a week before a ride so if there is a problem with one we find out before we get out in the boondocks. I pull the shoes after each ride in the mountains. These special shoes look as new as they did when I first put them on in 1988 and we have covered many miles in that time. Something you might consider. We always carry one "Easy Boot" with us in the event a shoe is lost.

Picket hobbles - we carry two picket hobbles with us and two picket ropes 23 feet long. We use 3/4 inch cotton rope for this. The rope is large enough and cotton is soft enough to prevent most rope burns. A good picket pin can be made from a piece of steel rebar (used for concrete construction) with a large washer welded to the top with another welded 5 inches below it with a strong swivel in between the washers. Then you just clip the end of the picket rope to the pin and attach your horse with the picket hobble to a foreleg. Even with sparse grass it will take an animal most of the night to eat the circle. We put two horses out and tie one to a rope between trees. Train your horse to use a picket hobble at home. Most of them can figure it out in an hour of less. Once you have to rigged up walk your animal out until he hits the end of the line and then slowly walk him in a circle until he gets the idea that he cannot go any further. Some people use a heavy log that the horse cannot drag rather than a picket pin. The idea is to train the horse not to even try to pull a picket pin because they can unless you drive one 5 feet in the ground!

Regular hobbles- the hobble was designed to prevent a horse from wandering far off and keep him from running. Hobbles slow my horses down maybe 1/2 mile an hour once they learn the game and you should hear them laugh when they are running away. Tie them up or picket hobble them and they will be there in the morning.
Hobbles can be useful when you are loading a "move around" horse and when teaching ground tying to a pack or other animal. I have also seen trainers use them when teaching a newbie animal to stand still when someone is mounting. Hobbles can be store bought or homemade. Store bought ones, if you are going to pack them should be light. I have had good luck with the small braded leather ones but my favorite set were made from the top 10 inches from a gunny sack. I feed bran with every meal so these are readily available. Just cut off the top 10-12 inches of the sack and twist it to where you have a loop on each end. This is your hobble. It does not weigh anything and will not hurt your horse if you have a spook. If you are teaching a horse to gound tie just run the lead down under the hobble to a ground stake in front of and below and slightly in front of the animal's head. A few hours of this will teach all but the confirmed outlaws to stand.

Horse bells. Most folks would question clipping a bell to their horses halter at night, but I highly recommend it. For our first two trips to Colorado we rented pack horses from a local outfitter. Both years they got loose for one stupid reason of other. We lost two days looking for horses that turned out to be no more than half a mile from camp. Had we belled them we would have found them in no time. Note: escaping horses in strange places ALWAYS go back in the direction they came from. Hope that will save some of you a little time.

If you get caught in a bad storm which can happen in any month in the mountains get your large tarp out first. We use it as a mantee (pack cover) so it is always on top and easy to get to. Get into the trees and get the tarp up and gather all the firewood you can quickly get your hands on. What is coming down on you most likely began as rain, turned to sleet or hail (don't be surprised if you see 6 inches of the stuff in 5 minutes) and then possibly snow. You are wet and cold and in more danger than you might imagine. Due to the fact is rains almost every day in the mountains there is a very good chance that the firewood will be damp or just pain soaked. Two things will always start any fire - a candle or a well dried out corncob that has been soaked in paraffin wax. Look for it in any grocery store where they have the canning supplies. I have used up 3 lbs of the commercial fire starters without success in these conditions. Once you have a fire going unsaddle your animals, stow your gear under the tarp and pitch your sleeping bags on top of your saddle pads. You will smell like a horse but you won't wick all of your body heat into the cold ground. We always sleep on them anyway even in our tents unless the weather is very nice. If someone is freezing remove all of their and your clothes and get into a sleeping bag with them. Your body heat could save a life.

Some thoughts on CREATURE COMFORTS, By: John Nicholson
(Read this as; statements by other folks, then John's answer and tips)

1. "I don't like to rough it, I want a hot shower and I am not going to sleep on the ground".

First let me state that one of the several advantages of horse packing is that you don't have to rough it. A horse packer that does not eat and sleep better than any backpacker is not worth the title. A pack animal can carry with ease a large tent that you can stand up in, a warm and comfortable sleeping bag, a cot and a roll up table along with stools to sit on. You can play cards at night with lighting from a Coleman lantern and listen to music from a radio. For those that have not experienced the joy and ease of using a solar shower at the end of the day are in for a real treat. All you do is fill it with water (it is a plastic bag with a nozzle) and place it on a rock facing the sun. In a couple of hours the water will be very hot! When packing we always take a two day supply of that freeze dried junk that would be used only in the event of an emergency. We pack real food - frozen steaks, potatoes for baking, pork chops, hamburger meat, salad fixings, eggs and lots of bacon and sausage along with the canned goods and assorted beverages of our choice. Since a pack animal can carry as much as 175 lbs for a short trip of 10-12 miles and 150 lbs for a long haul of up to 20 - 25 miles in a day the possibilities for comfort are unlimited. If you overload a bit and keep the first day short you and your animals are going to consume 18-20 lbs of what you are carrying the first day (assuming 2 riders and one pack horse) as you feed your stock and yourselves.
Real living is sitting atop a mountain 75 miles from the nearest civilization eating a 3 inch rib eye cooked over an aspen fire with all the trimmings along with a bottle of good red wine!

2. "Packing is to complicated and technical. I would rather spend my morning riding rather than trying to fit a pack on a horse".

Actually is isn't. If you are simply doing a camping/fishing type load it is very simple. You only really need to learn to tie one type hitch - the double diamond (my favorite) the one man diamond or the squaw. I can teach anyone how to do it in five minutes and two people can saddle and load a full pack in less than ten minutes.
One of the keys is just being organized. Prior to the trip you determine what you have to take and what it all weighs. Divide the load by 2. The amount that is left over (remember the weight limits) is for your food and luxury items. For an example I almost always pack my LL Bean hammock, several fishing rods and a large camera bag. Food goes into those heavy canvas bank money bags separated into breakfast, lunches and dinner. This avoids lots of hunting and confusion. Trail snacks go into your pockets or horn bags on your saddle. Frozen grub goes into a thinsilate collapsible cooler. Meat that is frozen and then double wrapped in newspaper will stay frozen for up to five days and then keep for a couple of days more. Eggs are kept nestled in the grain in the bottom of the panniers in their cartons.

3. "So what is the big advantage of horse packing"?

In a word or two - freedom and distance. You are only limited by the amount of food you can pack. If grass is good and you don't push your animals (take a day off every so often to fish and smell the roses) you can skip or severely limit the horse feed. Unlike those that are tied to a base camp you can easily make a one way 100+ mile trip in a week and see things and go places that otherwise you would not. Plus you don't have to see the same thing twice - going and coming.


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