Horsepacking, luxury or necessity?

I yanked on Dooley’s lead rope. He finally gave in and trotted forward. Then he kept going, coming up past my horse, Thunder, and I had to wiggle the lead rope in front of him. He slowed down and once again fell in line behind and to the right of Thunder. Thunder pinned his ear back briefly, telling Dooley not to bite his butt.


Dooley was my pack horse, and for the most part, he was a good one. We were in the mountains, and pack horses can be either a necessity or a luxury, depending on the purpose of the trip. In our case, in the Cantwell area where the weather was deluging rain, it was a luxury as we weren’t really packing in. Pack horses were with us to pick up drop-horn treasures and pack them out.

Leading a pack horse, called “ponying,” has it plusses and minuses. One good thing is the confidence it gives the ridden horse. In my case, having Dooley by his side allowed Thunder to plunge right into the swift, three-foot-deep Jack River without hesitation, and without having to follow another horse. It allowed him to walk confidently through a swamp. Dooley was there with him, and, in a horse’s herd-mentality brain, that meant everything was OK.

But, there are negative sides. I received a rope burn on my hand when I trotted Thunder ahead, and Dooley just didn’t want to follow. Gloves are definitely a necessity.  Plus, with one hand on my own reins, and one on the lead rope, it’s hard to free up a hand to do the fun things, like take pictures and grab a snack from the horn bag.

Lisa Barnes has been horse packing in Alaska since the early 1980’s.
“It’s the most beautiful way to see the world,” she said. “I find it very peaceful to be out in the wilderness, and I love my animals. I love to do things with my animals.  It’s a nice way to get out of city life and enjoy God’s country.”

Horse packing gear is important, and a good, well-fitting pack saddle is very important so the horse doesn’t get sore. The panniers — the bags that hang on the side of the pack saddle — can be either hard or soft. The hard ones are more convenient because food and other items won’t get squished in them. However, they can be noisy and dangerous. The noise can spook a horse, causing the pannier to smack into another horse or person, whereas soft panniers are more giving.

Another important detail to remember is to always weigh the packs. They must be the same weight. I have been on a pack trip where the pack saddle slipped sideways and the horse took off bucking into the woods, finally heaving every article of horse tack off of him. That incident did not result in any long-term injury or death, but when I came upon the horse lying on his side in the woods, I was sure he had broken a leg until he lunged up and continued bucking.

Hunting season is often the time people head to the wilderness with pack horses, and it’s important each horse understands the nature of the panniers and what is going to be carried in it. Some horses don’t like the smell of dead moose. A horse should be thoroughly desensitized to anything that might happen with the pack.

If you are contemplating using horses for packing this year and have not done it before, go with someone with experience. According to Barnes, “If things go wrong, it can go wrong fast and become very dangerous.”

She said one of the most dangerous issues is leading a horse from the ground. If it spooks and lunges forward, the panniers can knock you in the head. On this trip, Barnes’ mule leaped forward, knocking a pannier into her knee, but that is better than her head. She recommends always riding when leading a pack horse.

Another common danger is when a rider somehow makes a loop around his or her hand with the lead rope. In an instant, that loop can tighten into a stranglehold, ripping your hand and even dragging you off a horse.

A third danger she cited was tying horses to each other. If it has to happen — in cases where there is a string of pack horses — the tie must be able to break away. Then if one goes on the other side of the tree or over a cliff, it doesn’t take the whole string with him.

While Barnes owns horses, she likes to use mules in the mountains because of their strength and agility.

“They have a great sense of self-preservation,” she said. “Very seldom will a mule fall down the side of a mountain.”

Our mountain trip was successful.

Three drop horns were found, and only one negative incident occurred when a rider was thrown and then later kicked because the horse didn’t like the lead rope under his tail. But there was no long-term injury — only two huge bruises. Her treasures more than made up for the bruises.