Horse Packing in the Idaho Wilderness

Today’s guest post is from Arrowleaf. It’s not about mothering, or cooking, or gardening or making your own. Instead, it’s a tiny vacation from all our sometimes hum-drum revolution of domestic work. A trip to the wilderness of Idaho, to live vicariously through her once-in-a-lifetime experience packing horses. Thanks Arrowleaf, this is just what I needed!


Hello Apron Stringz readers! A nod of thanks to CJ for providing the platform to share my experiences living in the backcountry, and thank you for being willing readers.

In 2006, my ex-significant other, M, and I did trail restoration work in central Idaho. One job was near an in-holding surrounded by national forest and designated wilderness. The in-holdings along the Salmon River, commonly called “ranches” although the days of cattle rustling are long over, are a mix of privately owned properties or commercial guest ranches catering to fisherman and hunters. This particular ranch was private ownership and located three miles up a drainage which dumped into the river. We cleared the trail that connected the ranch to the river and fell in love with the landscape.

Two years later we were offered the jobs of caretaker and horse packer for that ranch. Knowing the operations, it was an easy decision to make although it would be work (a word I later came to redefine). There were no neighbors less than a days’ hike away, no phone, no roads, no hot water nor electricity on demand. But what it had far outnumbered any so-called deficits….off-the-grid living, huge garden beds, fruit trees, chickens, blacksmith shop, a 90+ year old cabin, wood cook stove, horses, barn, woodshop, wild animals, bird songs, mountains to ramble in any time I wanted, a river to swim in, mushrooms to pick, solitude, each season’s joys, time to indulge my knitting obsession, and most importantly the opportunity to whole-heartedly explore our interests. Our jobs were multi-layered: maintain the buildings and grounds, garden for our personal sustenance, farm the hay fields, cut firewood, assist the owners when they visited, and pack horses.

Because it was a road less area, horses were the muscle and transportation to and from the river. All supplies came upriver on jet boats, which required serious foresight on our parts. This led to really contemplating so-called needs, evaluating whether things could be acquired in a better manner (i.e. dry beans vs. canned), and how best to use every stinkin’ component of whatever arrived at the ranch. Upon delivery to our beach, what couldn’t be shoved into a backpack was loaded onto the animals- seven horses and a solitary mule (Spider, I apologize but I am going to refer to you as a horse for ease). Everything came in this way including a love seat, 6 ft. long panels of roofing, 25 spring chicks, a case of wine, our mattress, two nervous cats, beloved house plants, and the horses’ oats (which seemed like a cruel form of torture).

Although I was raised in Idaho, I was FAR from handy with horses. My parents are both from Phoenix, and bless them for trying to adopt a rural lifestyle, but horses were not on their radar. Like many girls, my sister dreamed of having a horse but I was always content wandering trails and collecting rocks. A particularly bad horse riding experience at age 8 left me swearing off horses forever, which I attempted until it seemed like a juvenile fear and I got back on the proverbial horse.

M was experienced with stock animals and relished the opportunity to learn more; declining a wonderful opportunity out of semi-unfounded intimidation was not something I was willing to do. And thus I entered the world of horse packing. With trepidation, to be sure, but with horses you can’t waffle with dominance or you’ll get taken for a sucker pretty damn fast. I won’t discuss horse behavior and horse culture since it’s an extensive topic and some of you likely have more experience than I. Let’s say initially it was my biggest challenge at the ranch.

These horses were exceptional. The previous caretakers lived at the ranch 17 years, and bred and trained all of the horses. Until a few years ago, the hay fields were farmed with horses so these creatures were valuable machines (stay tuned, farming resources below). From the moment they were born, the foals were imprinted. They had pots and pans rattled near their heads, were herded by a hyperactive cattle dog, heard gun shots, got used to human voices at all decibels, and were generally put through the ringer. The result was divine. The horses were calm and intelligent. I watched one squish a rattlesnake without fear. I saw another cock its head at the sight of a bighorn sheep ram on the trail, as if to say “oh, you again”? One horse packed out a dead bear wrapped in plastic without a second thought. They patiently let me load and unload astronomical weight from their backs. They were free-roaming and had a permanent mental map of the trail to the river.

One evening we dropped a load of items at the beach to be picked up by jet boat the following day. We were tired, it was nearly dark, we’d enjoyed an afternoon beer, and the horses were empty. We decided to ride home, despite not having proper riding saddles. M took the lead and headed down the trail while I was lollygagging, oblivious to the fact my horse was missing her herd. Just as I swung myself up on the pack saddle (a highly delicate manoeuver) she took off, running down the trail in utter darkness to catch up. While wondering if my entire body was actually ON the horse, I experienced an evolution of emotions: terrifying images of my imminent death, a serious questioning of my decision-making skills, appreciation for the horses’ intuition and guidance, and faith.

Ah, faith. That word always comes up when discussing horses and the riding thereof. To me, faith in horses falls under the category of “do not over-analyze.” Of course you need to know about the horse to make good choices to keep yourself and the animal safe, but at some point jumping up top is the best action. I carried this approach forward to my ability to learn horse packing skills.

Each February M and I oiled and mended the saddles, saddlebags, bridles and various other parts. Laying everything over saw horses, the winter sunshine warmed the oil and allowed me to stitch busted leather. Packing season started in early March, so this was an opportunity to prepare and work out any kinks in the systems. Since the horses were free-roaming, I hiked around the hills to locate them. They seemed to anticipate the upcoming trip, and there was an air of pride in their movement.

There were two parking spots in the barn with accompanying oat bins. Packing days were the ONLY time the horses were given oats, and they could stand at the ready until eternity if you maintained the oat flow. We each took a horse and due to my short stature I had personal favorites, which was less about their disposition and more about their height. It didn’t take long to figure out each horse’s quirks. One didn’t care for the foot stool I used, so I loaded him first while I was fresh. Another didn’t mind the stool, but didn’t like the way I put the blankets on him. A third adored being brushed and therefore occasionally struggled with her work ethic. Creativity and flexibility became my new best friends.

Pack saddles are uniquely minimal in order to add weight in the form of loaded boxes or mantis (when you wrap the entire load like a Christmas present in heavy canvas). We used Decker pack saddles and each was specific to a horse. The boxes are hitched to the exterior of the saddle through D rings, one box on each side to maintain balance. One box is roughly 18” x 12” x 12” (this is from memory, don’t quote me) and can accommodate two fruit boxes on their sides or two bags of chicken feed. The boxes need to be the same weight and contents are critical. Something as simple as a rattling spice jar will drive the horse batty. A batty horse makes for a dangerous situation, so the load needs to be tight, secure, and quiet. A combination of knots and hitches (designed to unravel quickly if one end is pulled) keeps the system together. I spent my first winter practicing hitches on the legs of the kitchen chair only to realize there is a dizzying amount to learn.

After 17 years of working with these specific horses, the former caretaker taught us exactly the right hitches and knots. We didn’t mess around with that solid system, and our goal was to prepare the horses in a timely and thorough manner, and work to guarantee there was NO way the saddle would roll. A saddle rolls when the weight shifts and the boxes slide unevenly on the horse, or worse, underneath. Often this is human error, although similarly to airplanes contents may shift during the course of the flight. Which is why knowing the contents of the loads is important.

A rolled saddle was my worse fear when I packed alone. Fixing the problem requires breaking up the string and repacking the load. The horses are tied together using piggins, medium weight string or rope that will easy break under the pressure of a 1000 pound horse in an emergency, but tricks them into believing they are one unit. The order of the horses in the string largely depends on their quirks and behavioral problems. When a saddle rolls, you hear the unmistakable POP of a broken piggin (as the horse self-adjusts), say a few choice words, and then must quickly hitch up the other horses somewhere in order to repack the victim. Without fail this occurs a) mid-slope b) in the blazing sun c) in the middle of the creek d) in the one spot on the trail without trees to hitch to. It is a stressful situation and fortunately there were two of us when that occurred. And, I should note, it was a rare, rare event.

It was under the duress of our first rolled saddle that I had a breakthrough about my energy. Yes, energy in the New Age-y way, but horses pick up on vibes, man. They know when we are concerned or when their riders are tense. I’m naturally energetic, downright annoying with caffeine. I don’t really walk, I bustle around. Therefore, days I was nervous or worried (about the load or my hitches) the horses toyed with me. One would act out, Houdini out of her hitch, another would nip my butt. I began to observe my breath, my voice, my movement around them and watched their reactions. When I was calm, stopped fidgeting, used an unwavering voice, and punished offenders all was well. I’ve since read this is very common, but it took a rolled saddle to clarify this personally. In jest I called this my horse Zen methodology. It also works on people.

In general, I was successful in my solo packing endeavors. Typically both of us got the crew dressed for the day, strung them up, and then I walked lead. Packing to the river was often an empty box affair. Everyone slogged home on the return trip when they were loaded down with river gifts. I liked to walk lead on the trail in order to move fallen rocks and wayward animals. If it was a small load and we could spare riders, M and I would ride home. Those were nice days. Once at the barn it was a race to unload the boxes (perpetual Christmas), tugging and pulling on the horses while they calmly ate their oats. We always examined them for boo-boo’s or heat spots, ending with a rub down and words of praise.

The ranch stopped farming with horses a few years before we arrived. The barn loft was full of horse tack, harnesses, collars, parts instrumental to farming. I have read Small Farmer’s Journal for years and was curious about how the process would play out. I knew each horse was capable of haying those fields, and had mentally selected who I would work with. I wondered if they missed pulling the equipment, feeling the tug of a driver, or if their identity was linked to the task. We hoped to one day farm with them, if only for a singular experience, but didn’t have the opportunity.

After I left the ranch my nightly dreams were full of horses. It took a full year for those dreams to subside, and now I relish the sporadic occasions when I see running horses and hear their hard-working breath as they return from the river loaded with goods.

If you are interested in learning more about farming with horses here are some classic guides and references:

-Search your area for local farms and trainers, hands on is the best approach!

Small Farmer’s Journal (most issues have basic info, spring quarter 1980 dedicated to horse farming)

-Draft Horses and Mules: Harnessing Equine Power for Farm and Show by Gail Demerrow

-The Self Sufficient Life and How to Live It by John Seymour (not solely dedicated to horse farming)

The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball

If you are interested in horse packing there are many enthusiastic websites, as well as these books:

Packin’ In on Mules and Horses by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown

Horses, Hitches, and Rocky Trails by Joe Black

Horse Packing: A Manual of Pack Transportation (1914) by Charles Johnson Post

-Hells Canyon Mule Days- annual celebration in Enterprise, Oregon

Do any of you farm with horses? Have you been on a horse packing trip or helped someone load up? Wanna share a horse tale?

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