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Pack horse

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Pack horse

A packhorse or pack horse refers generally to an equid such as a horse, mule, donkey or pony used for carrying goods on their backs, usually carried in sidebags or panniers. Typically packhorses are used to cross difficult terrain, where the absence of roads prevents the use of wheeled vehicles. Use of packhorses dates from the neolithic period to the present day. Today, westernized nations primarily use packhorses for recreational pursuits, but they are still an important part of everyday transportation of goods throughout much of the third world.


Packhorses have been used since the earliest period of domestication of the horse. They were invaluable throughout antiquity, through the Middle Ages, and into modern times, used wherever roads were nonexistent or poorly maintained.

Historic use in the United Kingdom

Packhorses were heavily used in the transport of goods in England in the period up until the coming of the first turnpike roads and canals in the 18th century. Away from main routes, their use persisted into the 19th century. This usage has left a history of old paths across wilderness areas called packhorse roads, and distinctive narrow and low sided stone arched packhorse bridges at various locations. For similar reasons, names such as The Packhorse are common public house names throughout England.[1]

Historic use in North America

The packhorse, mule or donkey was a critical tool in the development of the Americas. In colonial America, Spanish, French, Dutch and English traders made use of pack horses to carry goods to remote Native Americans and to carry hides back to colonial market centers. They had little choice, the America's had virtually no improved waterways before the 1820s and roads in times before the automobile were only improved locally around a municipality, and only rarely in between. This meant Cities and towns were connected by roads which carts and wagons could navigate only with difficulty, for virtually every eastern hill or mountain with a shallow gradient was flanked by valleys with stream cut gullys and ravines in their bottoms, as well as Cut bank formations, including escarpments. Even a small stream would have steep banks in normal terrains.

By the 1890s the Lehigh Coal Mining Company was shipping Anthracite coal from Summit Hill, Pennsylvania to cargo boats on the Lehigh River using pack trains in what may be the earliest commercial mining company in North America. Afterwards in 1818-1827 it's new management built first the Lehigh Canal, then the Mauch Chunk & Summit Hill Railroad, North America's second oldest which used mule trains to return the five ton coal cars the four hour climb the nine miles back to the upper terminus. Mules rode the roller-coaster pre-cursor on the down trip to the docks, stables and paddocks below. The same company, as did it's many competitors made extensive use of sure footed pack mules and donkeys in coal mines, including in some cases measures to stable the animals below ground. These were often managed by 'mule boys', a pay-grade up and a step above a breaker boy in the society of the times.

As the nation expended west, packhorses, singly or in a pack train of several animals, were used by early surveyors and explorers, most notably by fur trappers, "Mountain men", and gold prospectors who covered great distances by themselves or in small groups. Packhorses were used by Native American people when traveling from place to place, and were also used by traders to carry goods to both Indian and White settlements. During a few decades of the 19th Century, enormous pack trains carried goods on the Old Spanish Trail from Santa Fe, New Mexico west to California.

On current United States Geological Survey maps, many such trails continue to be labeled pack trail.

Other historic uses

Packhorses are used worldwide to convey many products. In feudal Japan riding in a saddle (kura) was reserved for the samurai class until the end of the samurai era (1868), lower classes would ride on a pack saddle (ni-gura or konida-gura) or bareback.[2]Pack horses (ni-uma or konida-uma) carried a variety of merchandise and the baggage of travelers using a pack saddle that ranged from a basic wooden frame to the elaborate pack saddles used for the semi-annual processions (sankin kotai) of Daimyo.[3]Pack horses also carried the equipment and food for samurai warriors during military campaigns.[4]

Modern uses

In North America and Australia, in areas such the Bicentennial National Trail, the packhorse still plays a major role in recreational pursuits, particularly to transport goods and supplies into wilderness areas and where motor vehicles are either prohibited or impracticable. They are used by mounted outfitters, hunters, campers, stockmen and cowboys to carry necessary tools and equipment that cannot be carried with the rider. They are used by guest ranches to transport materials into remote locations to set up campsites for tourists and other guests. They are even used by the United States Forest Service and the National Park Service to carry in supplies to help maintain trails, cabins, and even to bring in commercial goods to backcountry tourist lodges and other remote but permanent residences.

In the third world, packhorses and donkeys to an even greater extent, are still seen hauling goods to market, carrying supplies for workers, and many other of the same jobs that have been performed for millennia.

In modern warfare, pack mules are still used to bring supplies to areas where roads are poor and fuel supply is uncertain. For example, they are a critical part of the supply chain for all sides of the conflict in remote parts of Afghanistan.[5]

Training and utilization

Foundation training of the packhorse is similar to that of a riding horse.[6] Many, though not all packhorses are also trained to be ridden. In addition, a packhorse is required to have additional skills that may not be required of a riding horse. A pack horse is required to be tolerant of close proximity to other animals in the packstring, both to the front and to the rear. The horse must also be tolerant of breeching, long ropes, noisy loads, and the shifting of the load during transit. Patience and tolerance is crucial; for example, while there are many ways that pack horses are put into a pack string, one method incorporates tying the halter lead of one animal to the tail of the animal in front of it, an act that often provokes kicking or bolting in untrained animals.

Loading of a packhorse requires care. Weight carried is the first factor to consider. The average horse can carry up to approximately 30% of its body weight.[7] Thus, a 1,000 pounds (450 kg) horse cannot carry more than 250 to 300 pounds (110 to 140 kg). A load carried by a packhorse also has to be balanced, with weight even on both sides to the greatest degree possible.

See also


  • Back, Joe. Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails.
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