Ensuring the future of elk, other wildlife, their habitat and our hunting heritage.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

How to Rig a Packhorse

For a hunter, there’s an incomparable thrill in riding a horse into elk country. Just you and your buds and a string of ponies, headed up, flanked by glowing aspens, snowy peaks and a special kind of freedom. It’s the classic image of the ultimate sporting adventure. So strong is the allure, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation for many years has offered horse-packing clinics during its annual convention – including the 2014 edition held Dec. 4-7 in Las Vegas alongside the National Finals Rodeo. Here’s what attending cowboys and hunters learned from a veteran outfitter.


Blain Jackson (above) talks tack with clinic attendees. Jackson operates Cottonwood Ranch Hunting Services in northeast Nevada. His outfit has been guiding elk hunters for many years, packing several hundred loads per hunting season in and out of the Jarbidge Wilderness. With all that experience, Jackson can offer plenty of tips, but admits that as long as your gear makes the trip and nobody get hurt (including the stock), there’s really no wrong way to rig a packstring.


Jackson advises, drolly, that if you have a choice between shooting a Boone and Crockett-class bull versus a wee raghorn, you really should consider taking the bigger one. The main reason? Wider antlers, he says, offer more packing options. A big rack fits either astraddle or atop a load.


A hands-on clinic, instructors and attendees work together positioning elk antlers across the top of panniers, the containers that hang on either side of a packsaddle.


One trick for packing an elk rack is laying a stout pole across the packsaddle and tying each end to an antler, which helps secure your trophy for a long, rough ride out.


Antlers are lashed to the packsaddle, crossing from one side to the other, around the main beams and between the tines. Done right, the ropes get tighter, not looser, as your horse or mule moves along the trail.


The pile of gear needed to make an elk camp comfortable can seem overwhelming, and rigging it all for transport is, Jackson says, a form of art. Small, loose items are wrapped together in a tarp, called a manta or mantee, to make a bundle secured with ropes. 


Clinic attendees compare and contrast types of packsaddles. A decker saddle, shown here, has a single cinch. A sawbuck, or crossbuck, saddle has a double-rigged cinch.


Size matters but weight matters more. It’s critical that bundles to be loaded on opposite sides of a sawbuck packsaddle are of equal weight, or at least within a pound or two (decker saddles are more forgiving). Jackson actually uses scales to check. Otherwise, he says, a packhorse won’t get far up the trail before you have to stop and re-pack the load. Balancing a load can be especially challenging when you’re packing one particularly heavy item, such as a wood stove.


Be sure to tie and load mantied bundles in a way that sheds water, in case it rains or snows before you get to camp. However, Jackson warns jokingly, if your pack animal happens to end up upside down in the creek, your sleeping bag is getting wet no matter how well you packed and tied the load.


Jackson says the vast majority of packing involves tying box and diamond hitches. Use plenty of rope and tuck-in any extra. May not look pretty but secure beats pretty all day long, literally. Clinic attendees also learned about breeching, breast collars and cruppers.


Bring what you need, but you don’t need the kitchen sink. Nearly every elk outfitter, including Jackson, has funny stories about hunters who insisted on packing things like ice skates, bowling balls, bathrobes, business suits and other nonessentials. But it’s not really funny – overloading is hard on a horse’s loins and kidneys. 


A well-packed load adds to the enjoyment of riding horses into elk country, and, ultimately, the hunt. Along with the annual horse-packing clinics, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation recommends two classic books: “Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails” by Joe Back, and “Packin’ In on Mules and Horses” by Smoke Elser and Bill Brown. 

For more information about the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, visit www.rmef.org.

Steve Wagner

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