The Long Riders' Guild

The key to equestrian travel, the Pack Horse

by Basha O'Reilly

I have already warned of the difficulty of finding a good ‘road horse’.  Finding a good pack horse is even harder!

After having completed his incredible 18,000 mile solo equestrian journey around the entire perimeter of the Australian continent, Long Rider Steve Nott made this apt observation about one of the most commonly misunderstood aspects of equestrian travel, the necessity of using a pack horse.

“Hollywood would have us believe the erstwhile western hero can travel for weeks on end, all the while covering hundreds of miles with just his saddle bags and a blanket. All too often when night arrives the cinematic rider has mysteriously produced a coffee pot, frying pan and enough food to fabricate a hearty evening meal. In fact even a brief list of camp necessities, let alone the food, soon makes it apparent one needs a pack horse and pack saddle,” Nott warned other travellers.

In his book, ”Horses,” English Long Rider Roger Pocock lamented that scholars had neglected to appreciate the historical importance of the pack horse.

“While chariots and cavalry were mainly engaged in killing civilization, the unobtrusive pack pony did almost as much as the ship in spreading culture along the channels of commerce.”

In an effort to understand the pack horse, let us begin by realizing that one shouldn’t compare dogs and horses. The former will admire his master almost to the point of slavishness. The pack horse, on the other hand, keeps his honour by maintaining a degree of detachment. While you can easily command a dog to kneel, there is about horses a personality that reacts to true feelings and remembers poor treatment. Such a singular animal should never be degraded to the status of a drudge.

Thus, it is imperative that the pack horse be treated with great respect, as because his burden is greater than the road horse, the maintenance of his trust is of even more concern to the Long Rider

Nevertheless, since much of the modern world suffers from collective equestrian amnesia, amateur travellers routinely abuse these valuable animals. Such people forget that this is not a four-legged rental truck or some hair-covered soulless contrivance designed to be over burdened then cruelly used. This is a highly intelligent animal whose ability to assist you must never be exploited.

The Long Rider who lives with his horse twenty-four hours a day, and takes time to study him, will soon notice that there are no dumb horses as is falsely claimed. Pack horses remember cruel treatment, never forget beatings and can sense when someone approaches with malicious intent. Thus your actions are all the more important to the pack horse, as he is not the recipient of the small acts of tenderness which the road horse receives during the course of a normal day.

Regardless if your journey takes you to Patagonia or Pakistan, the play of the pack horse’s ears, the attitude of his body, how he carries his tail, the way he moves during the course of a day’s travel are all indicators of his state of well being. Experience teaches you if he is melancholy or mistrusting. You will learn his weaknesses and his character faults. You will discover how far you can push his patience.

Training a pack horse to neck rein prior to your departure is time well spent, as you will be able to control both animals with a minimum amount of effort and no wearisome pulling on the lead rope. A well trained pack horse should be able to follow your road horse like a faithful shadow, keeping close to you, all the while he neither crowds the road horse or crashes the pack saddle painfully into your leg. It takes time, and plenty of patience, to train both horses to travel so effectively and quietly.

Sergeant Robert Seney’s mounted career stretched from the last days of the horse soldiers to the age of the modern Long Riders. He was a member of the US cavalry, who later worked as a professional packer. Upon retiring he mounted his grey gelding, Trooper, and accompanied by a sturdy pack horse, made six journeys through the continental United States. Sergeant Seney, last of the American Cavalry Long Riders, died in 2001 but not before his combined travels through all 48 states exceeded 24,000 miles in the saddle.

Often a bay, many times a brown, occasionally a black, his colour isn’t as important as the strength of his legs and toughness of his feet. Regardless of what colour he is, a pack horse must stand quietly, behave sensibly, load easily and follow loyally.

In addition to his strength he must be patient, docile, gentle, free of vicious habits and be a paragon of common sense. In addition to his regular duties, a good pack horse should also be broken to ride and able to perform that role in case of an emergency.

Young horses are never suitable for packing. Their bones have not fully developed and they generally lack the emotional maturity required for such a responsibility. Mature horses between the ages of seven to twelve generally work best.

Because you are required to lift the pack saddle and panniers off his back twice a day, you should avoid purchasing a tall pack horse. A large horse is not only more difficult to pack, he may have trouble negotiating his way through trees and over obstacles. A shorter animal is easier to saddle. Fifteen hands is adequate and anything over sixteen hands increases your work twice a day.

You must never forget that your pack horse works twice as hard as your road horse. This is because the moveable live weight of the Long Rider does not bear down as harshly as the crushing dead weight of the pack saddle. The weight on the road horse is always moving. The weight on the pack horse is fixed and unrelenting.

Thus, in terms of overall effect, fifty pounds of live weight on a riding horse equals one hundred pounds of dead weight on a pack horse.

Because of this, it is easy to overburden your pack horse. Just because he can stand up under the load, doesn’t give you the right to overload him.

Pack and road horses cannot work equally if they are not similar in size, enjoy a complimentary temperament, posses the same basic strength and have an equal pace.

Remember, your own balance and safety in the saddle depends on having a pack horse who is an eager, helpful and happy partner. Never match a fast road horse alongside a wearisome, obstinate pack horse determined to drag you out of the saddle. Like your road horse, your pack horse should have a long, smooth, mile eating gait. Thus they should not only be closely matched in size but in gait too. Otherwise every day’s travel becomes a plague wherein your right arm is tugged out of joint, the lead rope burns your hands when it is yanked backwards, or you are pulled out of the saddle when the pack horse balks.

Larger horses not only require more feed, they tempt the Long Rider to carry more weight. Often excessively large horses, though emotionally willing, cannot maintain the pace of a lighter, faster road horse. Thus, while strength is essential in a pack horse, he must also possess enough speed and stamina to match the everyday pace set by the fast walking road horse, as it is the slower horse who will set the pace.

There are countless people who prefer to use mules as pack animals. The arguments, both pro and con for mules, are many, long standing, and are often based on subjective personal experience or opinion. As Long Riders our focus should be on the journey, not the species. What works is what counts.

Furthermore, mules are not available in many parts of the world, and when encountered, often cost more than a similar sized horse.

However, certain factors can be relied upon.

The mule is the off-spring of a donkey stud and an equine mare. The size of the mule depends upon the breed of the dam. For example, if a Belgian mare is bred, the resultant mule is exceptionally large. Thus mules, like horses, vary in size based upon their parentage. Once again, the same basic requirements of size, speed and strength which you look for in a pack horse should likewise be applied to any potential pack mule.

Because of their hybrid vigour mules are less susceptible to colic, withstand hot weather well and enjoy a reputation for being hardy eaters. Their hooves are hard and they enjoy a well-founded reputation for being extremely sure footed. Also of importance is the fact that a mule can carry a heavier load than a similar sized horse. Unlike a horse, who generally retains a degree of independence, a mule is more apt to be a follower, which is why large number of these animals are traditionally used in large military caravans. Because of their sterility, they are not distracted by mares in heat. However, they form strong emotional attachments to the bell mare who traditionally leads the caravan.

Offsetting these positive traits are several negative ones. They can balk, refusing to move forward. Mules are known to be vicious kickers, being able to strike out in any direction, even sideways. Such kicks have been known to severely injure or kill people, so extreme caution is required. They are also more prone to bite and are generally less tolerant of dogs than horses are. 

By incorporating a pack animal into your travel plans you are able to extend your geographic possibilities and reinforce your emotional and financial independence. Yet most first time travellers are tempted to overload their pack horse. Thus the basic law of equestrian travel still applies, whether you are using a pack horse or not. The more you know the less you need. However, if you need it, then put it on your pack horse, don’t overburden your road horse

Also, never consider your pack horse as an inferior member of your expedition. It is your duty to cherish and take care of this special animal. After all, who will carry your expedition through thick and thin as this horse will?

In 1855 Francis Galton made a critically important observation in his classic book, “The Art of Travel.”

“The art of good packing is to not overload the pack horse, to balance the pack boxes accurately and to secure the load so that it does not slip. Up to 120 pounds of cargo, a pack horse keeps pace with a mounted man, swims rivers, crosses swamps, penetrates bush, climbs mountains.”

This law of common sense still held sway at the dawning of the 20th century when the American cavalry cautioned, “In general, the pack loads accompanying a combat column should not exceed twenty-five percent of the weight of the pack animal which, for small mules and horses, would mean a maximum pay load of about one hundred and thirty pounds. One hundred pounds is considered an average load. This is a general rule and the load must be varied to meet the condition of trails and the condition of the individual animal.”

"Triumph" a British Army pack-horse in 1914, epitomises the perfect type of pack-horse.

By the time the Second World War rolled around, the laws of good packing were so pervasive that even the United States Marine Corps warned, “Pack animals must not be overloaded.”

My husband eagerly joined the Boy Scouts in 1965. He knew that his pack was overloaded because he had followed all the rules.

During his first three months as a Scout, it rained during every campout. During the course of those endless soggy weekends, his iron-hard Scout Master required him to hike for many miles along muddy tracks. To add to his woes, he was burdened to death because of the Scout’s motto, “Be Prepared.” In his case this meant that due to inexperience, he had faithfully packed everything which the Boy Scout manual urged him to carry in case of an emergency. It took more than fifty miles of water-logged hiking before his little eleven-year-old mind began to realize that no matter what the manual said, he wasn’t likely to need a needle, green thread and extra buttons in the immediate future.

He can still recall the night, when prior to leaving the next morning on his fourth campout, he debated about the need to follow the rules laid down in the manual. Did he really need all this kit? After all, none of it had even been taken out of his backpack during those long hikes. Should he instead follow his common sense and jettison some of the weight that was breaking his back?

The moral of this story is that the more you know the less you need. But, to bring it all back to equestrian travel, the less you know the more you pile on your poor pack horse. In other words, the less a man knows about horses, the greater is his idea of its powers.

In 2001 Long Riders Edouard Chautard and Carine Thomas set off with their road and pack horses to make the first mounted exploration of the Pacific island of New Caledonia. Their journey, which took them more than a thousand miles through the dense interior, came to a halt when they were threatened by attack from local natives. “People were standing in the trail waving knives,” Edouard reported.

That is why the critical law of Long Rider packing is to never place one single item or ounce on your pack animal if it can be avoided. Not an extra packet of food. Not those warm socks. Not even those little Boy Scout green buttons you think you might need in an emergency.

It is imperative that the pack horse be taught his trade at home. Before we discuss how to train the pack horse, let us consider how we physically define such a noteworthy animal? Though it is a bit like trying to identify the perfect mate, here are some reliable guidelines.

Breeds. A Long Rider focuses on deeds not breeds. What you need is physical strength, mental agility and deep emotional devotion, not papers proving an illustrious pedigree. An inexpensive mustang, a sturdy farm mule, or perhaps a former logging horse are the type of blue collar worker you require for a journey.

Sex. Geldings make the best pack horses, as mares in heat, and stallions, both become distracted by sexual issues.

Intelligence. Most people overlook the fact that road horses receive directions from the reins or are guided by the rider’s hands, while pack horses are required to make independent decisions. For example plough and logging horses are both guided by long reins. While a pack horse spends much of his time hooked to a lead rope, occasions will arise when the animal may be asked to make his own way over, around or through obstacles along the trail. Unlike the unburdened plough horse, the pack horse must not only overcome these challenges without assistance, he must do so while maintaining and balancing the load on his back.

Training. A pack horse must be easy to catch, enjoy being groomed, allow his feet to be handled and stand still while being loaded. He should never lay back his ears, show the whites of his eyes, and threaten to bite, or kick you. Replace such an animal prior to your departure. Your pack horse must be calm when handled, unruffled when being tacked up and serene on the trail.

Before the pack horse is ever fully loaded, it is critically important that he should be allowed to become thoroughly familiarized with walking about with only the empty pack saddle on his back. When he is accustomed to wearing the pack saddle, take him on very short training rides alongside your road horse. This allows him to become used to the feel, sound and smells associated with carrying the unburdened pack saddle on his back.


Thanks to the historical motivation provided by Swiss Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely, Argentine Long Riders Raul and Margarita Vasconcellos set off to ride from Arizona to the pampas of Argentina in the early 1980s. They relied on two diminutive pack mules named Pelusa and Fifi to carry their gear.


Only when you are confident that he has no need to fear wearing and carrying the pack saddle can you carefully introduce him to the concept that low hanging panniers, or other luggage, will be placed on his back and may hang down along his ribs.



Instead of starting with hard sided panniers, which may frighten or rub him unexpectedly, you should begin by hanging two soft straw filled bags off the pack saddle. Allow him to stand quietly, growing accustomed to this strange, low hanging, but unbreakable load. Then begin walking him calmly in hand. Always making sure that you stand well to one side so that if he becomes frightened, he will not unintentionally injure you by shoving, running or jumping past you in a panic. 


Lead him alongside, past or through objects which will touch the straw bags. To demonstrate how he needs more space than he is used to, walk him between two trees which provide six inches of clearance on each side. To accustom him to the unexpected sound of panniers scraping, walk him beside a barn wall .To build up his balance, walk him up and down a short steep trail. These exercises will build up his confidence, all the while reinforcing important new lessons; more space is needed to move safely forward, strange scraping noises emanating from the panniers are not life threatening and the sense of balance can no longer be taken for granted.


If possible, keep the road horse in sight so as to reinforce the pack animal’s emotional security.


When you feel he is ready, set off on a short training ride. But be ready to stop, halt, dismount, and calm the pack horse at the first sign of any trouble. If need be, drop his load and return empty, rather than frighten him. Next, substitute two hay bales in place of the straw bags. Though still unbreakable, they will teach him to accept a large firm load. Walk him through his exercises again, making sure to praise him upon his success.


Once the straw bags and hay bales have been accepted without trouble, take the next step, which is to carefully hang the empty panniers onto the pack saddle. It is often the noise, or unusual sensation of panniers unexpectedly scraping his ribs, which sends nervous horses into a panic, so proceed cautiously. Once the empty panniers are accepted without protest, once again walk the animal peacefully on a short lead rope. Always allow the new pack horse as much time as required to become accustomed to these strange new burdens.


Only after the pack horse has learned to stand quietly to be loaded, and will let you walk him with the pack saddle and panniers in place, should you begin to gradually add equal amounts of weight to both panniers. Training rides should be kept short.


Do not forget that the unaccustomed sounds of the gear being carried in the panniers might startle the pack horse. The result may be an impromptu rodeo on a narrow trail which sees your gear smashed and scattered. Even worse is when a panicked pack horse becomes a runaway, streaming gear behind him as he disappears into the distance. When travelling you must always ensure that any objects loaded in the panniers are padded, so as to diminish the sound of rattling or banging which might frighten an inexperienced pack animal. The training period is when you forestall this problem by intentionally placing a small tin can holding stones, or some other suitably noisy, small and indestructible objects in the bottom of the panniers. Walking the pack horse by hand, sooth his concerns when the noisy load begins to shake, rattle and roll. Repeat this procedure on your trail ride, using the noise to reassure the pack animal that any sound emanating from the panniers is of no physical or emotional concern to either of you.


This riding horse is expressing his displeasure at being unexpectedly packed!


Never rush any part of this training and make certain these exercises are accomplished slowly, so as to avoid frightening the animal.

This article is a short extract from the "Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration " by CuChullaine O'Reilly.

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