Thursday, February 4, 2016

Horses in Fiction: The Pack String

In glancing over some new manuscripts sent to me for critique (and remembering a good few from the past), I realized that it may be past time to talk about the casual assumptions so many writers bring to scenes with equine-equipped travelers. It seems that not many have stopped to consider the actual logistics of traveling with live beasties of any type aside from how far they can travel in a day and what the creatures might eat. So, let me share a few nuggets from a lifetime of a) packing in with horses, b) witnessing pack disasters, and c) listening eagerly to the yearly family stories of hunting trips gone awry. My dad was a terrific oral storyteller, and his return from elk hunting every fall was a treat, because there was always something.

Let me hasten to add that we always took care to trail-break our horses. All of them learned how to keep from killing or badly injuring themselves on picket ropes. All were taught as youngsters, like young and miserable Kalup here, to balance the dead weight of packs, usually before we broke them to ride. They learned how to maneuver around trees when loaded, how to deal with noisy or awkward packs (as the two-year-old baby, he doesn't have much of a load here, but look at all that weird stuff), and not to crowd up on the horse in front and drive it crazy going down the trail. But often Dad hunted with people from work who had their own horses, or guys who had never been around them at all. And oh, the stories! Horses that took one whiff of a bloody carcass and turned into prancing, dancing demons sidling over the top of everything in their path (including their handlers) to escape that awful thing bearing down on them (or already atop them). Packs slipping sideways on some round-backed nag. Neophyte pack horses bucking their way off trails, down sidehills, through ten-foot-high brush, floundering over small cliffs, landing upside down in rocks. One actually killed itself while tied to a tree. In camp.

NOT good times. There is nothing quite as scary or as helpless-feeling as watching a pack horse go berserk. And anything can spark it. A dangling strap. A bee sting. An uneven load that shifts worse and worse with every step. A pad working out from under the saddle. A rattling pot (or noisy gravel or other junk poured loose into a pack bag to teach a young horse). Elk antlers jabbing into a flank. Really awkward loads with crap sticking out every which way and cinched down as best the packer can. I read a really fascinating account by an old-time packer into the Idaho gold fields who remembered transporting the first piano into Couer d'Alene atop a mule. Also, one 800-pound piece of indivisible mining equipment. Just the weight boggles my mind. But the awkwardness!!! Holy smokes.

Bear in mind that all types of goods were transported by horse and mule in the heyday of medieval merchants. When roads were so bad that carts were impractical, anything large had to be transported by barge or by horse. Somehow. Last summer I got to watch my kinfolk loading up timbers and other awkward materials for the Forest Service for trail maintenance. Packing ten-foot timbers is an art, let me tell you. The bridge planking timbers shown in the first pic here are only four feet, and still required some serious thought and experimentation before they arrived at a configuration that rode well on the horse and didn't interfere with its shoulders or flanks. Four short timbers, two each side, weighed almost 200 pounds, a full load.

Now, think about really long pieces sticking out above or behind or even in front of the pack animal. Think about trying to maneuver through timber or around switchbacks on steep trails. Now stop wondering why traversing well-traveled European mountain passes was still so difficult.

I once critiqued a manuscript where the author had her city-bred hero starting on a spiritual journey across the wilderness with a pack animal. Okay. The problem was that he knew nothing about riding or caring for the animals. He had always had servants to do it. Learning to ride on your own is one thing; the basics are a matter of balance, figuring out how to get the beasties to go and stop and turn, and not triggering some unexpected reaction that leaves you broken and dying beside the trail. But packing...oh, that is a different skill altogether, and even the most experienced packers can run into problems. Look at the very specialized saddle shown in the first picture above, with all those ropes, the attached harness, and understand the fact that while one guy can load an animal by himself, it is ever so much easier for two. For a newbie with no experience of the animal he is packing to figure all that out, to understand that the load needs to be balanced for weight, to hoist it up by himself and figure out how to lash it on so it doesn't shift--that doesn't come in an hour, a day, or a month. Every load is different and requires experience to make it ride well.

Look at this picture of two nice-looking loads of assorted camping stuff, personal junk, and trash that had to be packed out of a permanent camp. Looks good, doesn't it? All nice and neat. Alas, the stuff was slithery and light, and despite the skill of the packers one of those loads came apart within half a mile. It could have been a spectacular wreck if the horses and people involved hadn't been so sensible. As is, they still spent a lot of time picking up the scattered pieces.

Please, author folks, if you are sending your characters out on a long journey with horses (or any pack animal), don't blithely assume it takes five minutes to get going in the morning, or that the average Joe can leap right in and pack his beast up without training. Or that the horse has been packed before, or will not come unglued when the ropes come untied. But hey! All that is excellent plot fare, isn't it?

Until next time, and I apologize that it has been so long.

If you want to see how I use horses in fiction, try my Fate's Arrow series, beginning with The Mask of God.


Unknown said...

Well said. I've never done much packing myself; the only horse camping I've done never required more than saddle bags on my riding horse. But I have heard many a tale from friends who hunt or do major camping, and my husband, who started out to cross the Olympics with a string of horses the year Mt St Helens blew...I do hope to try it myself some day, but I will definitely use expert help.

Works of S. A. Bolich said...

Riding the Olympics would be fun. Most of my wilderness riding has been in the Cascades, in the Pasayten, or in Montana. It would also be fun to ride the John Wayne Trail, but that's more like an extended day ride, I think. I don't know that you'd need to pack it if you organized well enough. If you have Netflix, you should check out the documentary "Unbranded," where some guys used mustangs to ride from Texas to Montana across the Rockies.

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