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.
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.
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.