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.