Horses with Jobs: Pack Horses
By Margaret Evans
Job Description: These sturdy horses and mules carry gear and supplies, usually in panniers or sidebags, typically across rugged terrain.
“I love wilderness travel and have spent a fair bit of time trundling around the backcountry,” says author and explorer Tania Millen of Terrace, BC. “Being able to do that on horses – meshing my love of both wilderness and horses – is very special for me. Trusting a horse with my life when travelling across deep rivers or bog, or simply due to the distance we’re located from amenities and assistance, is also very different from any other riding experience I’ve had. I feel that my horses and I form unique relationships that are very different from relationships formed with performance horses. We live together and work together as a team for days on end in wild country, and have to trust each other to make good decisions that have both of our interests and safety in mind.”
Because they work and live together as a team in the back country, Tania Millen and her horses form trusting relationships, and rely on each other to keep them both safe. Photo: Dale Russell
She said that the qualities of an ideal pack horse include a combination of temperament, character, physical attributes, and skills. Ideally, their temperament is one that is stoic and unflappable, a horse that is willing, has a lot of “try” but with strong self-preservation as well. They need to be herd oriented (so they don’t want to wander off), but not so insecurely herd-bound that they’re fixated on their buddies. They need to be happy to follow and not intimidate the riding horse.
But all pack horses come with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies.
“Molly was a shorter, skookum mare who would pack absolutely anything, anywhere,” says Millen. “She was really confident and was a lead horse as well. But I always packed her when we headed for home because she was in such a hurry, she’d out-walk all the other horses. She walked 24 kilometres over a pass through a snow storm in four hours as a lead horse once when she figured out we were heading for home. The usual rate of travel is four km/hour so she was really smoking and it was very tiring for the other horses. She was relegated to pack horse duties for the rest of that trip. She’s now owned by a beginner trail rider, and is semi-retired from longer trips.”
Related: Horses with Jobs: Barge Horses
Attributes on a good pack horse’s resume include a combination of character, temperament, physical qualities, and skills. Beyond the basics, each pack horse comes with unique personality traits. Photo: Tania Millen
She said that pack horses have to lead very well, through anything, without dragging or following too closely to the horse in front. As for all backcountry horses, they have to hobble, tie, and trailer well.
“Pack horses may wear a muzzle during travel, so they don’t continually snatch grass (and pull the rider’s arms off), or stop altogether (if they’re travelling loose). As for packing, there are many different ways of using saddles, gear, and tying on loads. They need to be comfortable with whatever method is being used. That may include wearing a crupper (under their tail), having a tight back girth behind the bulge in their stomach, and carrying hard-sided boxes that make a racket when they bang into trees and prevent the horse from seeing behind. Outfitter horses need additional skills so that they’re comfortable with guns going off and packing dead animals. Any horse can be a pack horse with suitable training, and it’s a great way to give less experienced horses miles in the backcountry.”
Molly would pack absolutely anything, anywhere, and when heading for home she’d out-walk all the other horses. Photo: Tania Millen
Millen said that in the country where she travels, she needs her horses to have large solid hooves, heavier bone, short strong backs with withers (so the saddle doesn’t roll), and heavier muscles but not so muscle-bound that they can’t travel all day.
“I prefer 15 to 16 hand animals so they’re tall enough to cross deep rivers without losing their footing, but short enough that I can pack them easily and reach up to tie knots. As for skills, they need to be easy keepers with a high tolerance for changing feed, nasty flies, long tiring days, difficult footing (mud, bog, deep water crossings, steep up and down), and a fair bit of hanging around with nothing to do.”
Main photo: A pack horse must be comfortable with whatever method is used for packing, and anything that needs to be carried. Photo: Andrew McKean