The problems of managing a train of pack horses

A few years ago, a friend was contemplating a writing a book or story where the main character, an experienced trader, has to make a solo pack horse trip over unfamiliar terrain. He didn’t know anything about very difficult this would be, or anything about the challenges of pack horse trains. I freaked out and brain dumped — because there are so options for complications and drama.

First of all:

The Technology

Moving goods with pack horses is ancient technology, but that doesn’t mean it’s simple. Here’s your equipment:

  1. Pack saddles (may have a variety of chest and breech straps for stability) and saddle pads
  2. Ropes, pack cinches, and halters
  3. Waterproof tarps
  4. Containers for your goods — these can be bags, bundles, or specially-made panniers (boxes). Modern panniers are thick plastic.
  5. Hobbles (more about these later)
  6. Don’t forget your camping equipment!

Techniques for loading a pack horse will be different from culture to culture. What matters most is stability, reliability, and ease of assembly. In North America for the past century (at least), the standard has been the Diamond Hitch. This video shows you how to do it.

What about the horses?

How many horses you’ll need will depend on how far you’re going, how much you have to transport, and how many people are coming along on the trip.

A horse can carry about a third of its weight. Which sounds good, because horses are big, right? Well, generally, pack horses are small to medium size, probably 600-700 pounds. This means each horse can only carry about 200 pounds. You might have a big pack horse or two, which can carry 300 pounds, but you don’t want a pack train full of tall horses unless you have got a lot of help.

The weight each horse can carry also depends on the terrain. If it’s rough, you’ll want to pack them light (more on this later).

Remember, every morning, you have to catch the horses and pack them, then unpack them at night before setting up camp. It’s a hell of a lot of work.

But that doesn’t tell us how many horses we need. Here’s a hint: In addition to whatever you’re transporting, you have to carry your food, clothes, tent, and cooking equipment, probably a weapon of some kind, and grain for the horses unless you’re certain about the grazing opportunities along the trail. So count on one pack horse per person just for food and gear. This is before whatever you’re transporting.

So let’s say we have 600 pounds of trade goods to transport, and we have two people to manage the train. We need five pack horses (three for the goods and two for the food and gear), and two riding horses. That’s seven horses. A reasonable amount of work for two people. It’s fine, but it’s work.

Why a solo pack trip is the worst idea in the world

My friend was contemplating a solo pack trip for his main character. Okay. Also: ouch. There isn’t enough money in the world. That’s one hell of a lot of work for one person. Let’s assume they have 600 pounds of trade goods to move, which means five horses. Here’s what the day looks like:

  1. (dawn) Catch all five horses (hope they didn’t wander too far in the night)
  2. Cook, eat, and break camp
  3. Pack four horses (which means lifting and adjusting about 1000 lbs of saddles, goods, and equipment)
  4. Guide yourself down the trail, keeping track of four pack horses all the way,
  5. Find a camp with water and good grazing nearby
  6. Unpack four horses (lifting another 1000 pounds)
  7. Make camp, cook, eat, and sleep like the dead

So yes: a solo pack trip is the worse idea in the world. But it can be done. Here’s a video showing how to throw the Diamond Hitch solo:

Don’t sleep like the dead

Except you can’t sleep like the dead. even if you’re not worried about predators. At night, you’re always keeping one ear open for the bell you’ve put on your alpha mare, because the last thing you want is to wake up and 2 AM and not hear it. That means your horses didn’t like the local grazing, and have gone off in search of better eats. They could be five miles away by dawn — even if you’ve put them in hobbles to curtail their roaming.

Horses are perfectly able to run in hobbles, if they feel like it:

What kind of terrain are you on?

The weight and dimensions of the packs will depend on what kind of terrain you’re traveling over. On flat terrain and a wide trail, you can have big heavy packs, and stack them as high as three feet over the horse’s back.

On mountainous or heavily forested terrain you have to to keep your packs small and low, because you don’t want them shifting around going up and down slopes, or getting caught on branches.

Packing the horses lightly means you’ll need more pack horses. Which means longer packing time in the morning, and unpacking every night.

Never forget that horses have personalities

Let’s imagine you have an experienced pack train and you’ve made a lot of trips together. But because you have to carry more goods, or travel over unfamiliar or difficult terrain, you have to add new horses to your string. The horses are going to have strong some feelings about this.

Horses are highly social animals with a finely tuned sense of herd hierarchy. They have love/hate relationships with each other just like humans. One horse will insist on always following another, so your pack train will always walk in the same order. The horses like it that way.

Whenever you add new horses to an established herd, your horses have to readjust their social hierarchy. The horses are not going to be happy – not until a new equilibrium is reached. This could lead to some serious problems, with horses biting and kicking each other as they sort out the new order. Which could mean thrown packs, scattered and broken goods, and injured horses.

But we’ll hope that won’t happen, because you’ve got good pack horses, maybe a little old, which means you can’t load them up as much, but old, calm horses are much easier to deal with than young ones. Skittishness is the last thing you want in a pack horse.

The lead mare is your best friend

Mostly, your pack horses will be geldings, with a lead mare who bosses them all around. You’ll be riding a gelding. Your mare is the kind of horse all the other horses will follow. She’ll be a the head of the train and she’ll set the pace. .

If you really trust your lead pack mare, you don’t even have to lead it once you’re moving, as long as there’s a clear trail. The horses will follow and stay in line because horses desperately want to be together. Of course if their dynamics are shifting, this will be harder, and if something happens to panic the horses, they could scatter.

How far can you go?

How far you can get in a day completely depends on the weather, the terrain, and how fast the horses feel like going. Oh yes. Never forget they’re setting the pace.

If the horses haven’t been on this trail before, they’ll probably go slower than if they know the trail and are looking forward to grazing at the next camp. They’ll also probably say close together for safety.

If they’re familiar with the trail, and know it’s hard traveling with not much to eat at the end, they’ll be slow and reluctant, and the train will spread out. If they are on their way home, or know they’re going somewhere where the grazing is good, they’ll walk much faster, and the hungrier/greedier horses might try to push the hierarchy to get there first.

My favorite non-fiction books

Did you know we’re living in a golden age of non-fiction writing? It’s true: never have there been so many excellent books on so many diverse topics. Here are some of my favorites from the past few years. I’ve been meaning to do a run-down on this topic for a while, so there’s a lot!

I’ll try not to use the term “mind blowing” too many times (runaway enthusiasm is my drug of choice). But all of these books sincerely did.

A Cold Welcome: The Little Ice Age and Europe’s Encounter with North America, by Sam White

Early North American colonization attempts by Europeans were doomed by the colonizers’ poor knowledge of about climate science. They assumed that growing seasons in North America were analogous to those at the same latitude on the opposite side of the Atlantic, which it simply isn’t. This led to a lot of failed attempts and fascinatingly stupid disasters.

It also discusses the theory that the Little Ice Age is directly linked to the population crash of North and South American Indigenous people via intentional and unintentional genocide by European colonizers, which was a link I’d never heard before. The evidence holds up.

The Life and Death of Mary Wollstonecraft, by Claire Tomalin

This biography was extra-fascinating because the biographer has very little sympathy for her subject. Basically, she treats Mary Wollstonecraft like a massive trash fire. Which, sure, there’s a lot of evidence for her being a hot mess. What a life, though.

It also goes into depth about Mary Wollstonecraft’s involvement with the French Revolution. She went to Paris as a journalist at the beginning of the revolution and threw herself into it whole hot. She might have been a disaster but she had lots of guts.

Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley, by Charlotte Gordon

I read this right after the biography above, and it made a great pairing. Mary Shelley’s radical mother died giving birth to her. They never knew each other, but their lives were entwined nonetheless.

This dual biography that jumps from Mary to Mary, picking out influences and similarities between their lives. It’s simply wonderful. The biographer is sensitive to the domestic detail of both women’s lives, which is extremely relevant, because while they were rewriting our history, both women had to support their extended families financially, emotionally, and domestically.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

In the isolated Amur region of Siberia, poachers hunt tigers, and the tigers hunt them right back. This is the story of how tigers respond to human threat, taking revenge in ways that are simultaneously human and alien. We know cats are smart. This book show’s they’re also psychologically sophisticated. Cats know us well.

At points, while reading this book, I simply had to scream, “No way!” It’s brilliant.

Origins – How Earth’s History Shaped Human History, by Lewis Dartnell

It makes sense, right? Humans evolved in specific ecosystems, so climate, geography, geology all influence who and what humans are.

One of the most fascinating revelations here is the theory that the climatic variations of the Rift Valley, which fluctuated from wet to dry on a 50,000-year cycle, are the reason humans evolved to be smart and adaptable. And it also may mean we are uniquely suited to surviving or even thriving in conditions of climate change.

The Five, The Untold Stories of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold

Millions and millions of words have been written about Jack the Ripper. Movie, TV shows, comic books, you name it, but it’s all conjecture.

By contrast, there’s a lot of information about the five women he murdered, but their stories have never been told. Jack is the universal boogeyman, but let’s forget about him. In the past, these five woman have been faceless and near-nameless, but no more. What a brilliant book.

What I found especially fascinating (and terrifying) is the repeated illustration of fragility of women’s lives in the downward spiral of poverty. This has not changed.

Timefulness: How Thinking Like a Geologist Can Help Save the World, by Marcia Bjornerud

Okay, I’ll admit it. When I really want to relax, I read about geology. This book is about deep time – the unimaginable timescales of our planet, where we are not even a blip in the data.

Humans have trouble thinking long-term. Even five years is often too much for us. If we can start appreciating our temporal insignificance and plan for the future using more reasonable time frames, we have a chance of living to meet our future.

Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth’s Most Awesome Creatures, by Nick Pyenson

Before reading this book, I would have said that scientists know a lot about whales. After reading it, turns out we know almost nothing. But what we do know is amazing.

Also, I was blown away when the author, Nick Pyenson, describes discovering a wholly unknown whale organ never before recorded by science. It’s not a small organ, either!

Maybe this is the best book I’ve ever read? Yes, probably. Whales!

The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World, by Steve Brusatte

Of course I love dinosaurs. What’s special about this book is it’s new (published in 2018), so it’s as up-to-the-minute with the latest research. Or up to a couple years ago, at least.

The author is a young paleontologist and seems to have no sacred cows. He’s just as fascinated by dinosaur tracks as he is by huge fossil finds. Just as enthralled by ancient reptiles as he is by T-Rex and the gang.

But best of all, Steve Brusatte is a cracking writer. Gosh, it’s good.

Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years Women, Cloth, and Society in Early Times, by Elizabeth Wayland Barber

This book makes a superb argument for the importance of textiles in the development of human societies. It’s an area of history under-researched because of the assumed unimportance of women’s economic activities, and also because of the relatively few surviving artifacts in the historical record.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discover. Textiles were cutting edge science and technology, and its practitioners constantly innovated and adapted materials and techniques. A great book on an important topic. Also tons of fun.

The Brontes: Wild Genius on the Moors: The Story of a Literary Family, by Juliet Barker

A lot of what we think we know about the Brontës is untrue, a series of literary inventions concocted by their early biographers and by Charlotte herself. Those stories have been taken as gospel, but it turns out their lives weren’t as simple or as bleak and isolated as they would have had us believe.

Instead of taking the Brontë legends at face value, Juliet Barker actually goes to primary sources (imagine that!) to write a new biography of this fascinating family. It’s incredibly detailed and immensely readable.

Debt: The First 5,000 Years, by David Graeber

Finally, the book I recommend to everyone, always, as a worldbuilding primer, as an unfamiliar take on history, and for insights on human behavior.

David Graeber is an anthropologist, and he argues that the model of early human economic interaction standard to every econ textbook and taught in every 101-level course is, at best, a simple fantasy, and at worst, dumb as hell. Turns out, basic barter exists nowhere in the anthropological record. What does exist is much much more complicated, and has fascinating implications for our times.

How to use Bookmarks in Twitter

A few months ago, Twitter rolled out a new Bookmarks feature. It’s fantastic. I don’t know about you, but Twitter is where I’m getting most of my best research leads these days. Not just links, but nested threads by experts. It’s delightful, but hard to keep track of the gems. Bookmarks fixes this. The feature isn’t readily accessible on desktop yet, but there’s a work-around.

Setting a bookmark on mobile
1. Tap on the tweet to expand it.
2. At the bottom of the tweet, tap  , and choose Add Tweet to bookmarks.

Accessing bookmarks on mobile
1. Go to the Home screen.
2. Tap your user picture (upper left), and choose Bookmarks.

Desktop work-around
To set or access bookmarks on a desktop browser, you have to use the mobile version of the site. 

1. In the URL, insert an “m.” after the forward slashes (for example:, then press Enter.
2. Now you’re looking at the mobile version of the site, and the instructions above will work, except that your user picture will be on the top left.

Snazzy, right? This function is my new favorite thing.

Historical Geography reading list

This is a list of books I’m likely to mention in today’s Archaeology and Anthropology panel.

Historical Geography is the study of how a place changes over time, with a focus on human economic and cultural interaction.

  • The Fields Beneath, The History of One London Village, by Gillian Tindall
  • The Man Who Drew London, Wenceslaus Hollar in Reality and Imagination, by Gillian Tindall
  • London, The Biography by Peter Ackroyd
  • The Discovery of France: A Historical Geography From The Revolution To First World War, by Graham Robb
  • Landmarks, by Robert MacFarlane (about dialect terms for very specific geography throughout the UK)
  • The Revenge of Geography, What the map tells us about coming conflicts and the battle against fate, by Robert D. Kaplan
  • Jerusalem, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
  • Palmento: A Sicilian Wine Odyssey, by Robert V. Camuto
  • Barcelona, by Robert Hughes
  • The Accidental City: Improvising New Orleans, by Lawrence N. Powell

Scholarly texts:

  • Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World Economy, by Mike Davis
  • The Great Divergence: China, Europe and the Making of the Modern World Economy, Princeton University Press by Kenneth Pomerantz

Archaeology non-fiction:

  • Mesopotamia, The Invention of the City, by Gwendolyn Leick
  • Babylon: Mesopotamia and the Birth of Civilization, by Paul Kriwaczek
  • Britain Begins (very dry and factual) Barry Cunliffe