B U R E A U   O F   P U B L I C   S E C R E T S





6. Horses, Mules, Burros, Riding,
Packing, and Horse Furniture



Time was when practically everyone know a little something about horses. Those days are gone, and now every summer thousands of campers in the western mountains become intimate with livestock for the first time in their lives. Too many packers have an unfortunate custom of working off poor stock and harness on the innocent, and saving their best for the knowing, particularly if the latter be liberal spenders. Things being as they are, it would be hard to object to such practice, everyone has to make a living as best he can; but unless the buyer, or rather renter, is wary and informed, he is liable to get little for his money. Rates are uniform throughout large areas, and you pay the same amount whether your stock and equipment is good or bad. Therefore if a packer refuses to furnish you with the best, go to someone else; the woods are full of packers.

If you plan to walk and want only a pack animal, you will need to be especially careful. Packers are horsemen, and from the ancient Scythians to the modern cow puncher, the man on horseback has always had a deep disdain for the poor creatures who creep about five feet beneath him on the earth. [The man who wrote the curse of the serpent in Genesis probably punched cows in ancient Judea.] [The bracketed sentence is crossed out in the MS.]



First the animal. You will want a healthy, well broken, strong one, and if you are inexperienced, one not too young and skittish, and of course not old, but rather, so to speak, middle-aged. Few packers have fancy, high-bred horses, such animals are too valuable to turn loose in the mountains in the care of inexperienced tourists. However, broken-down bridle path stock is fairly common. Whatever such an animal’s age or condition, it is not suitable for mountain trails. Avoid horses with delicate legs and long, graceful necks, in other words animals that look like race horses. The best saddle horse for the mountains is short, moderately plump and stocky, with a short back, without sway, straight legs, high at the withers (the base of the neck at the back), deep and broad in the chest, with a sturdy but not abnormally short neck, a wide forehead and a slight but definite arch to the nose. Watch the animal in the corral: if its head hangs, its movements are slow and few, and its general demeanor is one of cynical ennui, it is old, overworked, sick or all three. Or it may be just plain stupid; horses vary amazingly in intelligence. If it carries its head very high and cavorts around a lot it is too young and frisky for your purposes. Get a gelding (a castrated male). Mares are too likely to jump the pasture fence and go off to visit the neighbors.

Color usually makes little difference. Black horses stand heat less well than others, pure white ones, particularly those with pink skins and blue or pink eyes, are inbred, and at the least, nervous, irrational and short-tempered. Roan horses, particularly the strawberry variety of folksong fame, are reputed to be difficult to manage, though one of the finest horses I ever rode on a trail was a blue “snowstorm” roan. Roan, incidentally, means covered with tiny flecks of white and gray, thickly interspersed in a ground color of one of the usual horse shades. A strawberry is dull pinkish, a blue is a sort of gunmetal gray, a snowstorm is streaked with white, usually along the back; there are also brown roans of various hues. Buckskin horses, with a coat of dull tan and stripes of dark brown or black along the spine and around the legs, are the best of all for mountain use. They come from an ancient line of Spanish horses, long ago run wild on the Great Plains. Besides being extremely hardy and strong, they are usually gentle and intelligent. Pintos, or paints, i.e. horses piebald with two or more colors, usually black and white like a Holstein cow, are also descended from a line of Spanish horses run wild. They were the favorite breed of the plains Indians, who bred qualities of toughness, speed, intelligence and small size into the original line. Such animals are at a premium in some parts of the West and the line has become attenuated, therefore some horses may be inbred and recalcitrant. Most likely, your horse will be a bay or chestnut. The condition of the coat and the length of the hair often misleads the inexperienced. Horses with glossy coats, fine hair and tender skins are usually too delicate for the mountains; the shaggier the animal the better.

Take a feed bag and some feed, adopt a knowing air, and walk up to the horse with a graceful and easy motion, he is an herbivorous animal and unlikely to bite unless provoked. Approach him head on and from the left side. (The left is called the “near,” the right, the “off” side of a horse.) Speak to him softly, in rich and mellow tones, and pat him on the neck, not the nose. If he starts and throws back his head, this probably only means he is shy before strangers; give him some feed. If he looks really disturbed, he has likely been mistreated. If he is hale-fellow-well-met and nuzzles the bag, he has been petted, and if there is nothing seriously wrong with him, he is the horse for you. For the inexperienced rider, disposition is the most important single factor in the selection of an animal.

Next, look at his teeth. This is done by placing the left thumb and middle finger in the corners of the lips between the molars and incisors (which are separated by a considerable gap), and pulling gently down and then lifting the upper lip. Usually the animal will open his mouth immediately. Don’t be startled by the discoloration of the teeth. A mountain horse feeds largely on green grass, which stains badly, and doesn’t customarily use a dentifrice.

A horse, full grown, has six incisors and twelve molars, six on each side, in each jaw. In the male, there is a rudimentary tusk in the space between. In the colt the teeth and jaw are set straight, with a bite almost like that of a man; as the horse grows older, the teeth tip forward and spread apart more and more, until in an old animal, the closed teeth form almost a 45° angle. If all the teeth are in place and there are fewer than twelve molars in either jaw, and no tusks in the male, the horse is less than five years old and may be too young and foolish. From five to ten years of age the horse is in his prime. At the beginning of this period the incisors have little depressions running lengthwise on the crown of the tooth. At six years these depressions, called “cups,” begin to disappear from the other teeth, and at eight they wear away from the corner ones. After eight years the center incisors begin to lose their oblong shape and grow first round and after fifteen years, triangular in cross-section, and the corners become first lozenge-shaped and then triangular and deeply worn. As the horse grows older the darker enamel at the center of the crown wears down and becomes smaller.

These indications are not an infallible measure of age; if the animal has been fed on rough feed the teeth will naturally wear down more rapidly. Persistent champing at the bit may wear the teeth badly. In an old horse the brow, and the head generally, become more and more bony and sharp in outline, until an animal of twenty or more years looks positively arthritic.

Put down the head, speak to the horse and move back to his left shoulder. Look for saddle galls, cinch burns, or other sores on his back and flanks. If he has carried an ill-fitting or poorly balanced pack recently he may have sores at the elbow. Look at the hoofs, first from the top, and see that they are not split or pared back to fit a small shoe. Notice any swelling in the joints, or soreness in the pastern (the space between the ankle and the hoof). Take hold of the pastern, tap him gently behind the knee and lift, he will lift his foot. Place it on your knee and look at the bottom of the foot. The hoofs should be straight and clean, and should not flare or bulge, and should not be either dry and brittle or soggy in appearance, but should have a rather leathery look. See if the shoes are badly worn. Clean away the dirt with a stick and look for sores in the sole and frog. Look at all his feet, keeping your back half turned to his head; and crossing him in front, then listen to his breathing and heart. Put your ear against his left side just to the rear of the elbow: the beat should be regular and smooth and from 33 to 40 per minute, the breathing should be regular and effortless and average about one breath to every three heart beats. At higher altitudes both pulse and respiration will be considerably faster.

Move your hand before his eyes, one eye at a time; if the animal takes no notice, he may be blind. Turn his head toward the sun; if he shrinks and the eyes wince, his vision may be defective. If the eyes have a prominent white, if the white has many blood vessels showing in it, if there are any blotches on the iris or pupil, or if the eyes are watery or clouded, the vision is probably defective.

When the horse is not looking at you, speak sharply but not too loud in a tone of command. He should look toward you or at least prick up his ears; if he pays no attention, he is probably deaf.

Finally, get on and ride at various speeds for about a half mile, more if you are buying the animal. Avoid a pacer, i.e. an animal that moves the legs on one side of the body simultaneously, or a trotter unless you are a good rider. The best gait is a walk, a running walk, and a run.

MOUNTING. Before you can ride, you will have to get on. If you have never mounted, have someone hold the cheek strap. Stand at the left side, facing the rear. Never mount a horse from the right. Take the cheek strap of the bridle and the reins (the left rein pulled in) in the left hand and turn the horse’s head slightly to the left. Twist the left stirrup around so the back is to the front, put your left foot in it, put your left hand, with the reins, on the saddle horn, and your right on the cantle (the “chairback” of the saddle) and swing yourself around and up, taking your right hand out of the way as your right leg goes over. Be sure not to pull out and down on the saddle or it will roll. Never try to adjust the saddle by pressure on the stirrups after you have mounted, this is sure to wrinkle the blanket and hurt the horse. In such a case get off and resaddle. Never try to improve your seat with a blanket or cushion, you will land on your ear. Never use the stirrup as a stepladder; keep your weight on the right foot until the last moment and with it start yourself with a vaulting push.



Horses are not good pack animals, or rather, good horses are not rented as pack animals. Most pack horses in the average packer’s string have been rescued from the dog-food factory and are aged, broken down, barrel chested, sway backed and short of wind at the best. Mules are more intelligent, easier to feed, and can carry much heavier loads than horses. It is not true that the mule, if properly treated, is more difficult to handle than the horse, but rather the reverse. However, some owners treat mules atrociously. The standard equipment for a mule driver of the old school is a bull whip, a vicious disposition, and an encyclopedic collection of profanity. Small wonder the mule becomes a misanthropist. If the mule you are looking over shies badly or tries to kick or bite, he has probably been mistreated. If all the mules in the packer’s string behave similarly, the fault is the packer’s, and if you are wise, you will take your business elsewhere.

There are three types of mules you are likely to encounter: big chocolate, bay or brown ones, with wide hooves, medium-long ears and large rumps; small ones, very mulish in appearance, with narrow hooves, long ears, and colored like a buckskin horse or a burro with a cross on the shoulders; and medium-sized ones, colored like horses, often bright bay, and generally of a horselike appearance. The first are the best there are, fine for heavy loads, intelligent, and if properly handled, gentle and obedient. The second type is very intelligent, usually gentle, but with considerable independence of mind, and is best for pedestrians, light loads and travel over very rough country. The third type is the poorest and should be avoided if other animals are available. Good animals of the last type have one virtue: if lightly loaded they can travel as fast as a horse. Some animals of the second type do not need shoes; if they have been used unshod on mountain trails and their hooves and feet are in good condition, this is a great convenience. All others should be shod, and it is wise to notice if mule shoes, which are larger and narrower than horseshoes, have been used or if the hoof has been pared to fit a horseshoe. If such is the case, you may have trouble with cast shoes and sore feet. Packers, by the way, usually shoe their stock with plain shoes. It is much disputed as to whether these are better than calked shoes for mountain use. Personally, I prefer shoes without the calks, but with heel calks for pack stock. The type of mule, by the way, depends largely on the type of horse from which it was bred. I hope you know that a mule is a sterile cross between a horse and a burro.



Some packers and punchers who affect a Buffalo Bill sophistication without knowing much about their business, malign and belittle the burro. They insist he is stubborn, lazy and prone to kick and bite. What happens is that such men treat the little animal badly, overload him, feed him poorly and kick him around generally. He, with the wisdom of Egypt and the Ancient East from which he comes, stoically accepts his fate, bides his time, and when he gets a chance, returns an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. This alone shows that he is a lot smarter than a horse, who can be hammered by a sadist into neurotic subjection. If you go camping every summer and have a place to keep him over the year, buy a young burro and break him in yourself. If you treat him properly he will be as devoted and intelligent a pet and servant as any dog. In the winter the children can ride him, or you can yourself if you weight 150 pounds or less and don’t overdo it; and in the summer he will carry 75 to 120 pounds up and down steep trails without a murmur. A good burro, not spoiled by bad handling or too old, will get along as fast as you care to walk, but not as fast as a large spry horse. Carrying 75 pounds or less he can make his way over any kind of terrain, short of actual mountain climbing. He will stay in the meadow where you put him and not stray, in fact, if you give him a little barley, salt, sugar or a bit of bread every day, his principal fault will be a tendency to tag around after you like a dog. He can be taught to go ahead of you and stop, if he meets a sign or crosstrail, while you botanize in the hedgerows. He soon learns to sound snow and keep away from pockets and bridges when crossing a pass. He can estimate distances better than a mule, let alone a horse, and seldom gets himself wedged in rocks. Loaded down, he will navigate streams that would sweep you away. (I once almost lost my life by following a burro into a high ford which he crossed with ease.) He is a companionable beast, and if you let him, he likes to come in and lie down near the edge of the firelight at night. If you are traveling alone, this is welcome company, but I wouldn’t advise you to carry on long conversations with him; passing rangers may get the impression that you are a little dotty. I never heard of a house-broken horse, but a burro can be trained to respect the precincts of a camp. He doesn’t have to be shod, he can be trusted to keep away from poison feed, he seldom gets sick, but usually dies of old age, sometime after his thirtieth year, and he flourishes at 14,000 feet. In general, if he could only cook and pack himself, he would be a lot better trail companion than many humans.

Trail-broken burros can be purchased for as low as $10, but not from packers in the mountains. They usually rent for about two-thirds the price of a horse or mule. If you care to, and you can throw a rope, you can catch yourself a wild one most anywhere in the southern intermountain region. Get a young one, have it spayed or castrated, and break it first to the saddle and then to the pack. If you are good at that sort of thing, and don’t wish to invest in a burro saddle, tie a rope around the animal’s belly, put a length of broomstick in it on top, twist it tight and get one, hang on, and let ’er rip. Don’t use a prod or whip, once you start you can’t stop, the animal will learn to dislike you and will shirk and balk unless encouraged, or at least threatened, with punishment. A light switch is plenty. No matter how mad it may make you, NEVER, never strike any animal in the face; horses, mules and burros may not have the memory of the elephant, but they will remember that a long time.

For medium and light loads the best burro is one with a dun or dull tan coat, dark mane and tail, brown ears, a brown stripe down the spine, a cross stripe on the shoulders, and dark or striped knees and hocks. Burros or mules so marked are excellent for mountain use. For heavier loads and faster speeds, the tall, silvery, or sometimes roan, race is preferable. They will carry as much as a small horse if they are in good condition, and will keep up with the average saddle horse on the average mountain trail. They are sometimes called “Spanish jennets” but the name is incorrect, the jennet is a small horse or a mule bred from that horse. My experience has been that the tall burro is often less intelligent and hardy than the average member of the small race. Big ones should be used by mounted parties, but for the pedestrian, the small one is the better. Wooly “donkeys” of the English type are usually too delicate to carry a pack through the mountains.

Never rent a burro from a packer who expatiates on the faults and shortcomings of the breed. His animals probably have them, and he probably gave them to them. Be sure the harness and saddle fit. A burro cannot carry a cut-down mule rig without discomfort. Look for cut and riveted harness. Try the pack on the animal’s back without the blanket, notice if the kyacks rub at the shoulders, watch for breeching and breast bands that bulge and hike up, or can only be adjusted with difficulty. If the rest of the harness fits, the ears of the kyacks, if they have no buckles, can be shortened by twisting them on the forks. Watch for old animals, burros live on indefinitely and most packers have no equine retirement fund. However, if you are not in a hurry and the animal is not absolutely decrepit, age is almost a virtue. His years will be filled with wisdom, for he never stops learning. The best burro I ever rented went two and one-half miles an hour and was over thirty years old.

I guess that is all about burros. I hate to leave the subject, it is filled with pleasant memories. I hear the little animals are being improved on. Perhaps you have heard of the llama, a docile, wide-eyed creature rather like a small giraffe is woolen pajamas. They were domesticated by the ancient Incas and have been used ever since as beasts of burden in the high Andes. Someone in southern California has started importing them and crossing them with burros. The resulting hybrid, called a burma if a male, and a llaro if a female, is reputed to far surpass either parent in intelligence, agility and durability; and, as an added inducement, the oil of its wool, if rubbed on the body, is excellent for dandruff, hot and cold flashes, and aching feet. Probably the mountains of California soon will be full of them. As yet they can be obtained only with difficulty and at practically prohibitive prices.

[In this last paragraph Rexroth is putting us on with the sort of zany tall tale that country folks delight in telling gullible city slickers. The llama, a member of the camel family, cannot interbreed with burros; and even if it could, it is unlikely that the oil of its wool would provide a cure for dandruff or hot and cold flashes...]



SADDLE. If you are used to riding a western saddle, you will have your own preferences of tree and pattern. [A saddletree is the frame of a saddle.] For those to whom the experience is new, a simple western model of the types called “farm saddles” or “dude saddles” is probably the best. The first type has a 14-inch tree with a 13-inch swell; a two-piece seat with a medium-dished cantle, 4½ inches high; round skirts, 11½ by 24 inches, lined with wool; narrow fenders, 7½ by 16 inches; steel leather-covered stirrups; 9½-inch stirrup straps, with buckles; and should be double rigged, with a 20-strand angora cinch in front and a 3½-inch soft webbing cinch in the rear; both cinches should have leather chafes and should be secured with 1¾-inch by 6-foot latigo straps. [Latigo is cowhide that has been tanned with oils and waxes for use as straps, harnesses, leashes, whips, etc.; a latigo is a strap used for cinching saddles.] Neither cinch should have stiff cross bars. Most western saddlers make a special dude saddle, easy to ride, easy on the horse, sold to packers in large lots for $50 or less. Most riders not used to range conditions will find the Association, Visalia, and similar popular western trees too wide and with too great a swell. Many are also unnecessarily heavy for tourist use. All saddlers will make a saddle with double rigging; the large California makers have, however, specialized in single rigging, the Arizona makers in double rigging. On the whole, a double-rigged dude saddle from one of the big Arizona houses is preferable for the relatively inexperienced tourist. Retail prices should range from $50 up, depending on finish. It is often possible to pick up a second-hand saddle, particularly in the foothills, for considerably less. If not too worn, but well broken in, it is likely to be better than a new one. Avoid saddles with deep bulges in the pommel, high horns, straight cantles, a high wide seat, which tip sharply back on the horse. They are made for heavy roping and are not suited to day-long travel.

You will not need stirrup covers, except in mesquite and similar country, but if you use them get small ones, long “mule ears” are a nuisance. Every packer and puncher has a different theory about rigging. If you are a horseman, you can have a theory too; otherwise, insist on double rigging, the saddle is more likely to stay on the horse on steep trails. Punched latigos and cinch buckles are easier to handle than plain straps and rings, though it is commonly believed that they break more easily. Get as plain a saddle as you can, particularly if you are buying one; fancy finishes are hard to keep clean. Look at the tie straps on the skirt: in rented saddles they are often rotten or broken, and you will need them for your poncho and jacket. [Illegible two-sentence insert here.] See if the cinch rings are nailed, riveted or laced to the tree. They should be laced and the lacing should be in good condition. Be sure the latigo straps are clean, pliable, free from cuts and a full 6 feet long. Look for broken strands in the front cinch and rust and wear where the rings pass through the cinch. Be sure the saddle fits both you and the horse. Women require a much more carefully fitted saddle than men. In most cases the tree should be smaller, undershot; the seat narrower; the cantle low and deeply dished; and the stirrups adjusted exactly. An ill-fitting saddle, used for several days, all day, can seriously disarrange a woman’s anatomy.

BRIDLE, BIT AND HALTER. The simpler the bridle is, the better. If you are buying one, it should cost about $2.50. Rosettes, conchas and braid don’t steer the horse any better. It should have -inch double cheeks, with buckles, and buckle loops for the ends of the straps; double over the crown; and -inch straps for the brow band, curb strap and throat latch. The brow band, cheeks and throat latch should be joined by rings, sewed fast to the crown piece; and the curb strap should buckle through the top rings on the bit. (Some bits have special rings for it.) The reins should be inch wide and at least 6 feet long. All bridle leather should be oiled tanned, full grain, and never split hides sewn together.

Unless the animal is extremely fractious, the bit should be as simple and light as possible. How would you like to carry 20 ounces of metal in your mouth all day? Sixteen ounces is plenty heavy enough, and the cavalry bit of this weight is one of the best. A medium-weight [illegible word, possibly “sort” or “port”] bit, without a roller, 14 ounces or less is also good. The best bit is the one the horse is used to.

For pack animals the halter should be of extra-heavy leather with a double crown and a strong bozal (the part under the chin); for ordinary use at night a lighter halter will do. Some animals are broken to stand and not feed as long as the halter is on. Obviously, in such cases it should be removed at night. The bozal and crown should be adjustable and fitted with buckles on the near side. The cheeks, crown and throat latch should be joined by rings; and the bozal, cheeks and nose straps by squares. The lead ring should be free on the bozal and joined to the throat latch by a double strap and triangle ring. The lead or tie rope should be 10-feet-long, spliced or looped and wired down, never tied, to a harness hook at one end.

SADDLE BLANKETS. Curled hair, without covering, is the best material for saddle blankets, provided it is of good quality; next is a pure wool blanket, folded to the proper size. For pack animals, pads, covered with drill [a strong twisted cotton fabric] and filled with deer hair are best. Refuse to accept makeshifts of old quilts, sacks, etc. If your packer starts putting on more than one thick or two thin blankets or pads on a saddle horse, it usually means the saddle doesn’t fit. Pack animals may require a pad and two thin blankets, but more are unnecessary if the pack saddle fits properly and is lined with sheep hide. Used, but not dirty or worn, saddle blankets are best. In fact this is true of all harness, which must be broken in like shoes before it is comfortable. If the horse is used to spurs, you may have to use them, otherwise they are a nuisance. Get the lightest.

PACK HARNESS. The common pack saddle over most of the west is the cross tree or sawbuck. It is by far the most efficient and the only one worth discussing. Avoid homemade sawbucks, they may be very good, but again they may not. The frame should be of hardwood throughout, and should not give when twisted in the hands. The insides of the boards should be lined with sheep’s hide with the wool left on, and should be shaped to fit the animal. There are different sizes of pack saddles and there is no excuse for making a burro suffer under a mule saddle or vice versa. The breeching should be hung both from the sides of the frame and from suspenders from a center strap, and the breast piece should have a suspender strap over the withers. Both breeching and breast should be adjustable with buckles on all straps. Proper fit is extremely important in pack harness and should be watched carefully. The saddle should be double rigged, never single, and both cinches should be of fishcord or heavy but soft canvas or webbing with leather chafes. (Preferably without bars.) There should be a little strap connecting the cinches under the belly. The latigos should be of 1¾- or 1-inch leather and 7 feet long for a mule and 6 for a burro. The lash cinch may be of webbing, but should have leather chafes and a rounded wooden hook. A metal hook will cut the lash rope.

The pack saddle bags, called kyacks, usually of canvas, sometimes of hide, should have leather ends, cars [bars?] adjustable by buckles; the off one should have a strap long enough to go over the filled pack, and the near one a buckle to receive it. They should not be ragged, torn, patched or otherwise worn out and the ears should be of four thicknesses of leather and in perfect condition. If possible, they should be watertight when half immersed in water for two minutes or so. This is important if you plan to ford many streams. Most packers use oil-can boxes inside the kyacks, these weigh 7 pounds apiece. They are necessary if you are carrying anything breakable, or if you are out for a long time. The only fiber boxes I know of that will fit a kyack are those used for Campbell’s Soups. Two of them fit very well in each bag and their weight is inconsiderable. A light board put next to the outside of each bag in the middle will keep the lash rope from forcing them apart, or the grill will serve equally well. They are not recommended for rough or careless packing. Five-gallon rectangular oil cans, two in a bag, are also much better than the boxes they come in. They will find many uses around a large camp, and they keep out water when traveling and keep mice out in camp.

The pack cloth should be large enough to double, completely cover the pack, and fold around the sides of the kyacks. It should have grommets in the corners and the center of each side and be free from holes, so that it can be used for a lean-to or fly.

The lash rope should be new, or four-ply manila and one-half inch thick. Refuse to accept old, worn or cotton rope, or any of less than half-inch thickness. It should be of from thirty to forty feet long. Nothing will cause more trouble than a bad rope. If renting, I always furnish my own.

HOBBLES AND BELL. I would never put hobbles on my own horse or picket him overnight, but then I wouldn’t keep a horse that ran away. Usually if the mares are hobbled the geldings with stay with them, but one never knows. Horses delight to break out of pasture and see the country while you are asleep. The best system is to hobble the leaders, usually mares and the more adventurous males, and bell every three or four horses. Mules are less likely to stray than horses and seldom require hobbling. Small cowbells, number five or six, are good enough. Each bell should have a collar to fasten it to the animal’s neck. If you are unused to catching horses, be sure to put halters on them before turning them loose. (Unless the animal is broken to stand under halter.) Never picket a hobbled horse, the animal is very likely to break a leg. In the intermountain region many animals are broken to be picketed by the left foreleg, the rope through the empty hobble.

Nosebags may be improvised from burlap sacks or regular bags, called “morals,” may be carried, but the animals should never be fed from the ground or much of the feed will be wasted. With good feed in the country, a quart of barley a day is ample, but it is best to inquire before starting. When the grass is ripe and the trip lies through good range, the stock can often forage for themselves with little or no feed. If mules are muzzled with muzzles made of leather straps they will not feed en route and can easily be trained to follow.



Saddling is a comparatively simple operation. The blanket or blankets are put on first, centered on the spine, and the saddle is lifted with both hands, the right hand on the horn and the left on the cantle or holding the rear edge or the rear skirt, and swung up, crossing the right arm over the left; or the left hand on the horn and the right on the front edge of the rear skirt and lifter, and put gently on the animal’s back. The off stirrup and cinches should lie thrown back over the seat and hold the off skirts up so they do not fold under as the saddle is placed in position. Never allow the stirrups or cinches to bump against the horse or he will soon refuse to stand for saddling. They are then pushed over and caught beneath the horse’s belly and pulled tight by passing the latigos several times through the rings in the cinches and in the tree (from rear to front in the bottom rings and from front to rear in the top). Each time the latigo is put through, it is pulled a little tighter and when all but a foot or so has been used it is tied over the upper ring in a cat’s-paw knot. The rear cinch should not be tight, but should fit snugly or it will chafe. This is very important, a tight hind cinch will cause the horse no end of distress and he may throw you. Once you are in the saddle, sit down and relax. The stirrups should be just long enough for your insteps to rest in them without stretching your legs from the slightly bent position they will assume in the saddle, and you should be able to put pressure on them by leaning slightly forward, and relieve it entirely by leaning back. Sit upright and hold the horse only with the inside of your thighs. As the lower part of your body adjusts to the horse’s pace, most of the motion should be taken up in your waist. Your shoulders should be comparatively quiet, but not rigid. Your whole carriage should be loose jointed and easy. You want the horse to think you have done this all your life, and he will know different if your body is tense. Never ride the stirrups, i.e. half stand in the saddle, except at a fast trot or gallop, and ride with one leg over the horn only for short distances. You will soon learn to adjust your weight to make things easier for the animal on rough or steep trails. Don’t try to “post,” it is almost impossible to do in a western saddle, obviously you couldn’t keep it up all day without killing both yourself and the horse and any self-respecting animal is liable to scream and throw you over his ears.

Watch out for overhanging branches and don’t try to ride up or down steep banks or over very rough talus (rock slide). Never ford a large stream unless you have some idea of how deep it is. Most rivers and big creeks have bridges on them somewhere; if you can’t find them, don’t try to swim your horse, you will be very luck if either you or he come out alive. Never run while traveling, even for short distances; running is for rest days and should be practiced only in dry meadows which are free from gopher and groundsquirrel holes. If the horse runs away, bend over his neck, keep him away from overhanging limbs and let him run, he will soon get tired. Under no circumstances try to get off.

Hold the reins up but not tight (they should be tied together) and find out how the animal reins or “steers”: some western horses turn to the left when the right rein is held against the neck and vice versa, most turn in the conventional manner, toward the direction of pull. A few well-trained horses turn in the direction of knee pressure, i.e. to the right against pressure of the right [left?] knee. After the horse has started on the trail he will usually mosey along with the reins looped around the horn.

If the animal rears, bucks or pitches, do not saw [draw?] on the reins. If he bucks, lean back, if he rears, lean forward. If you should happen to get a horse that tips over backwards, take hold of the pommel, free your feet from the stirrups, and vault off either to the left side or far to the back. Do this pronto or you may get badly hurt. Don’t let him get away with it, but bawl him out and get back on, and as soon as you come to a telephone call up the packer and raise several kinds of Cain. Nobody has any business renting such homicidal creatures to tourists.

Whipping seldom does any good, the horse learns to fear you and finally becomes completely unmanageable. The horse is best disciplined when he does not suspect you have anything to do with the evil consequences of his acts. Unless the animal is subnormal mentally, persistence and a little ingenuity will break most bad habits that are likely to appear on the trail if your original selection has been careful. Jerking at the hitch rope may be broken by putting a bowline around his neck and tying the end a little shorter than the hitch rope. A properly trained horse should stand at a bridle dropped on the ground. Kicking may be stopped or at least controlled by tying a bowline around the neck, running the rope around the rear pastern on the near side, back to the noose and drawing it tight. If the horse strikes with his forefeet, rap him sharply across the knees with a stick. If he attempts to bite, jerk the bit against his teeth. A horse that refuses to stand can be cured by pulling the bridle tight with the left hand, taking hold of the tail and forcing him to run around you in a narrow circle. All such punishments, to be effective, should follow immediately on the offending action. Ropes tied around the neck or legs should be secured in such a way that they can be freed instantly by pulling on the other end, and a horse so tied should be watched every instant.

Animals seldom balk simply from cussedness. If your horse or mule stops suddenly on the trail and refuses to move after a little coaxing, either something is wrong or he thinks it is. Get off, keep hold of the reins and take a look around at the trail and harness. The trouble may be on the animal: a cinch may be too tight, the pack or saddle may be about to roll, he may have a stone in his foot, the pack may be too heavy, out of balance, or otherwise improperly packed, some part of the harness may have been left unbuckled or be twisted and chafing. Or there may be something wrong with the trail. Some animals will balk at fresh bear sign (feces) or at the warm trail of a cougar, at a piece of paper or a flapping canvas, or at any other unusual object. Naturally, any animal will refuse to step over a rattlesnake. There may be down wire on the trail. If there is, don’t ride across it. Pull it out of the way. If you can’t, be sure that it lays flat on the ground before you lead the animal across. If the trail is at all steep and the wire is off the ground and unremovable, cut it. A telephone line is useless as long as it is on the ground, anyway; and it is better that the repair crew spend a few minutes splicing, than that your animals break their legs. Pack animals often balk because the trail if obstructed by rocks or trees and too narrow to permit the passage of the pack. An animal that refuses to go forward can usually be fooled by backing him up, turning him around a couple of times and leading him ahead. On steep climbs or descents an animal should be permitted to rest as often as you would if you were walking. If the breathing becomes violent and raucous, or if the animal makes a peculiar moaning, grunting noise, stop, and don’t go until he has recovered his wind. (Ordinary grunting is unimportant.) Well-trained mules or burros can lie down with a pack on their backs without seriously disarranging it, provided, of course, that the pack is all right. When allowed to do so, they should be watched: some beasts have a bad habit of trying to roll off the pack.

DISMOUNTING. Getting off a horse, as you will find out if you have never ridden before, can sometimes be very important. Don’t throw yourself earthwards at the first signs of fractiousness, but when the futility of holding your seat becomes evident, and it is necessary to get off, get. If you have selected your animal with any care, and your packer is a reliable gentleman, you are very unlikely to run into any such emergencies, but horses are unpredictable creatures and a body never knows.

There is only one foolproof way of getting off a horse. Learn that, use it always until it becomes a series of “conditioned reflexes,” and you will always land on your feet rather than your fundament or your occiput. Hold the reins in your left hand, take hold of the saddle horn with the right, take the right foot from the stirrup, shift the left foot back until the toes rest in the stirrup, swing the right foot back over the cantle and down to the rear of the left foot, twist the torso until the body faces forward, balancing your weight against the horse’s side, tip the left foot out of the stirrup and alight with legs separated in a stepping position, the left foot forward and the knees and waist slightly bent. Don’t let go of the reins and don’t jerk on them. Don’t let go of the horn until you are thoroughly “grounded.” Practice at a stop first and then as the horse is moving; soon you should be able to dismount at a run.

Good range horses are trained to stand when the reins are dropped in front of them. If your animal is not so trained, be sure to hitch him. If you leave the reins over the saddle horn he may wander away and give you a pretty chase before he is caught again.

UNSADDLING. Stand on the left side, loosen the rear cinch and throw the latigo over the saddle, loosen the front cinch and throw the latigo over the saddle. Take the horn in the right hand and the blanket in the left and pull them toward you. After the saddle is off, fold the cinches across the seat. Be sure to keep the blanket off the ground. If there is no place but the ground for the saddle, lay it bottom side up, with the cinches across it and the blanket on top. Never put the saddle on the ground if you can help it, most campsites have a saddle rack, a log or a large clean rock somewhere about. If the surface is clean the saddle should be placed right side up with the cinches across the seat, ready for saddling, and the blanket on top. At night all harness and blankets should be put out of reach of animals, and in the daytime should be kept out of full sunlight. Rub the animal down before turning him out to pasture.



Probably your packer will load your animal the first time, so it is best to start with unpacking. If this is done properly the job of packing and harnessing up on the following morning should be easy and simple, even if you have never seen a pack harness before. First, watch the packer attentively as he works, be sure he uses a diamond hitch and have him show you how it is done. Be sure he uses a scale to balance the kyacks, and carry one with you. Be sure the top pack, usually the bedroll and tent, is compact and well balanced.

UNPACKING. Hitch the animal with the lead rope. (If the pack carries a pail take it off first.) Stand on the left side, pull the doubled lash rope tight and slip it over the cinch hook, free the rope where it goes under the kyacks and pull it towards you, untie the knots, straighten it out, coil it up, and hang it up. Untie the cinch if you are going to use it for a picket rope.

Take off the pack cloth, fold it and put it away, take off the bedroll, unbuckle the strap across the kyacks, lift off the near one, and then, crossing the animal in front, the right one. Return to the left, unfasten the cinches, place the latigos across the saddle, unbuckle the breast strap and fold it back across the saddle, pull the saddle back until the breech is free and fold it back across the saddle, lift the saddle off, put it on a rack or log and put the blankets over it. This leaves the harness in perfect order, ready to be put on in the morning.

Rub the animal down with a piece of burlap if you have no brush, and lead him out to pasture. If you are going to picket him, tie the lash rope to the lead rope with a square knot, leaving about ten inches of loose end on each rope so the knot will not pull out, lead the animal to a dusty spot where he can roll, then lead him to water, and finally picket him. The best knot for an all-night picket rope is a clove hitch with two half hitches pulled tight around the standing part.

PACKING. Always have the kyacks packed and balanced and the bedroll rolled and tied before you lead the animals in for loading; the longer they have to stand, the more likely they are to litter the campsite. Fill the kyacks systematically, the things you are not going to use on the bottom, articles that may be needed during travel at the top of the left kyack toward the rear. Put the axe on top of the left kyack, sheathed or wrapped in burlap, with the blade out or down and the handle toward the rear. Put the shovel in the right one, the handle toward the rear, the blade sheathed or wrapped and the curve of the blade down. The first aid kit, rope, flashlight and other emergency equipment should be in the extreme upper outside corner of the left kyack.

If it can be avoided, never roll the tent on the outside of the bedroll. Use the ground cloth for an outside covering, or better still, wrap the roll in a piece of heavy canvas (10 oz.) about five by five feet. Lay the bedding and folded tent on the ground cloth, with the heavy cover at the far end, tuck in the ground cloth at the sides, kneel on the roll as you roll it up. Lash it firmly with half hitches and run the loose end around and secure it to each crossing half hitch with half hitches, tie the rope at one end with a draw knot (a half bow).

Never carry more stuff (with the exception of the pail) than can go in the two kyacks and the bedroll. If you have more, get another animal. Under no circumstances carry miscellaneous articles on the top pack or tied to the outside of the pack. They will cause the load to shift and their joggling will tire the animal and make him irritable.

A well-packed pack is a masterpiece of neatness and order and offers as much aesthetic delight as a well-cooked dish, and more than lots of poems and pictures. Only one thing offends the sensibilities more than a bad job of packing, and that is the awful little girl who “recites” and does “classical” dances for the company. When tempted to just pile things on any which way, remember the first time you heard “Gunga Din” and you can form some idea of the embarrassment you will cause passing rangers and punchers. I once ran into a troop of YMCA boys, four boys to a burro, led by a rubicund gentleman whom I discovered was a very good Certified Public Accountant. The poor animals were struggling through a marshy meadow, the packs rocked and swayed as though they were on camels, and they were tastefully decorated with dangling, rattling pots, boots, canteens and miscellaneous junk. That safari was really in the class of “The Dream of Eugene Aram” [a very melodramatic Victorian poem]. I have seen nothing like it since the terrible weeks after my eight-year-old girl cousin returned from a recital of Isadora Duncan.

Weigh the kyacks carefully. The hook of the scale should be put through one ear and then through the buckle of the left kyack and through a hole in the strap of the right one. it is a good idea to hang the scale from a rope and life the kyacks onto it, rather than to lift them by the scale.

Be sure the blankets are free of dirt and sticks, rub the animal’s back clean with a piece of burlap, and put the blankets on. Be sure they are accurately centered on the spine. Put the saddle on, lift the breech up and tuck it under the animal’s tail and pull the pack forward until the breech is in place, lift the breast strap off and let it drop on the right side, reach around the animal’s neck, secure it and buckle it fast. Neither breech nor breast straps should be at all tight or even snug. They are only to steady the load when ascending or descending steep grades. Lace the latigos through the front cinch as described in the paragraph on saddling and pull the cinch tight, then fasten the rear cinch. The rear cinch should fit snugly but not tight and should be far enough forward so that it does not chafe the tender part of the belly, or run any danger of slipping back against the sheath of a male animal. A small strap or thong should connect the rings of the cinches on both sides to keep them from spreading apart.

Take the right kyack, across the animal at the front, hang it on the left forks of the cross trees and throw the strap across. Hang the left kyack on the right forks, put the bedroll across the saddle, pass the strap across the bedroll through the buckle and pull it tight enough to lift the bottoms of the kyacks slightly. Rock the load gently to see that it is perfectly balanced. Put the pack cover on and fold it neatly around the ends of the kyacks.

Take the end of the lash rope which is not tied to the cinch and lay it across the top of the pack, exactly in the center and parallel to the animal’s spine. Let the free end drop to the ground off the front of the left kyack. This end of the rope, from the center of the pack to the end, should be about twenty feet long. Throw the end with the cinch (the soft side of the cinch down, so it will be against the animal’s belly) over the pack and let the rope slip through your fingers as it goes over. At first you will have to reach under the animal and pick it up, but with practice you will be able to catch it as it whips up under the belly. Don’t do this recklessly or you will slap the animal with the cinch and cause him to start. Hook the rope which you have held in your right hand into the cinch, pull it tight, and pass the loose end up to the center of the pack, on top of the other length which you placed there first. Roll the loose end from the cinch twice around the tight rope from the cinch, from back to front, and open it into a small diamond. Pull the first length or rope through this diamond in a long loop. Throw this loop over to the far side, across the front of the animal, and put the loop around the off kyack, tightening it from rear to front. This should leave you with the long free end of the rope at the front of the diamond. Cross the animal. Pull this tight around the front of the near kyack, under the kyack and up on the back. Put the end of the rope through the back of the diamond on the left side and pull it very tight.* Fasten it with a draw knot. You have tied a diamond hitch.

[*Terry Gustafson annotated the asterisked sentence: “The rope is already through the back of the diamond on the left side. You don’t have to put it through. Suggest: ‘Grab the tail end of the rope, which passes through the back of the diamond on the left side, and pull it very tight.’ ” He then adds the following remark: “Joe Back’s book Horses, Hitches and Rocky Trails is better, but Rexroth’s is the most understandable written description of throwing a diamond I’ve seen.”]

After the hitch is tied it is wise to go back and tighten the rope, beginning with the rear off side. If a pail is to be carried and you have no special harness for it, it should be put through the draw knot, the free end tied about it in a clove hitch and then tied by another draw loop to the rear off rope. Be sure the pail is centered on the pack and tied down tight or it will jog loose and disarrange the pack. If there is a lot of rope left over, the front and rear ropes can be tied together across the top of each kyack. This makes a tight, neat and extremely professional-looking job.



On long trips a few extra shoes, one or two to each animal, should always be carried. Be sure they are cold, malleable shoes, and fit your stock. Malleable steel shoes are usually made to fit both front and rear hooves, and have no calks. Low heel calks for the pack stock are good, but calked cold shoes are hard to find.

Shoeing is no job for amateurs. The wisest thing to do is to have your packer show you how to do it, and then, if an animal casts a shoe, hunt up a packer or puncher, and ask him to do it for you. However, no such friendly soul may be available, and it is a good idea to know what to do in such an emergency.

The best way to form some conception of the structure of a horse’s foot is to imagine one of your fingernails enormously thickened and extended almost completely around the finger, the tip of which is callused. The nail is the hoof proper, the callused tip is the sole. Midway down the sole of a horse’s foot is a wedge-shaped process known as the frog, parallel to the frog on each side are ridges known as bars, and at the rear is the heel.

Any old nails still in the hoof should be removed first. The clinches are first cut, and then the head of the nailed seized in the nippers and pulled out. Large irregularities are cut away from the hoof with the parers (the blunt edge against the outside of the hoof) and the hoof is then trimmed with the paring knife. The sole is then trimmed down slightly to allow the shoe to rest against the edge of the hoof. The shoe is then fitted. It should be wide enough at the rear so that the frog does not rest against it and the edges should match the edge of the hoof. Horseshoe nails have a bevel on one side. This bevel is placed toward the inside of the foot and leads the nail out through the hoof. Drive one of the rear nails first, and twist off the protruding point with the claw of the hammer. Then drive in the other rear nail and proceed around the hoof. When all the nails are in, put the buffer against the outside of the hoof and drive the nails against it with the hammer. Clip the clinches off till they are about of an inch in length, flatten them with a hammer, and finish off all rough edges with the rasp. Do not pare the frog or heel or do anything to the rest of the foot except clean it.

To hold a front foot for shoeing, stand with your back to the animal’s head with the cannon bone between your knees. Hold the hind foot with the cannon bone across your thigh, with the pastern resting on your knee. If the horse shies, blindfold him with a coat. If he continues to shy, he may be tied with a bowline around his neck and a loop running from it around one of the rear pasterns (not of course the one to be shod). The wisest thing under such circumstances is to find an expert.



Horses suffer from a wide variety of sicknesses and injure themselves in all sorts of ways. If the animal is seriously ill, let it alone, and go for a ranger or at least a packer or puncher. Don’t tamper with it yourself. The three commonest ailments are wind colic, spasmodic colic, and distemper. The first two are due to indigestion, caused by drinking while too hot, overeating, or feed which the animal is not used to. The animal may lie down frequently, roll, wander about restlessly, belch, break wind and walk with its shoulders humped up and put its feet down tenderly. If these symptoms are mild, there is nothing to be distressed about, recovery is usually prompt. But if he grunts and rolls violently, breaks into perspiration and quivers with spasms, he has spasmodic colic, and is seriously ill. Go for help.

If that is impossible, and there is no drenching syringe in the outfit, which is hardly likely, and the party is of such a character that it includes a bulb douche, he may be physicked with a scant teacup of epsom salts in a quart of warm water. Put the nozzle well back in his mouth and apply the pressure gradually, allowing him time to swallow. Lacking a douche, a bottle may be used. Tie a rope around the upper jaw back of the tusks, pass the end over a branch and pull the head up. If the animal refuses to swallow, tickle the roof of his mouth with the bottle. Don’t try to give the drench all at once, allow plenty of time for swallowing.

If the physic has no effect, the animal’s rectum may be impacted. A handful of tobacco inserted in the anus will sometimes cause the horse to expel the obstruction, or it can usually be removed by hand. The hand and arm should be heavily coated with grease and the horse tied to keep him from kicking. However interesting this is as reading matter, it is wiser to leave the beast alone.

Distemper is a sort of cold in the head, accompanied with a fever and swelling of the throat and lower jaws. Nothing much can be done about it except to allow the animal to rest, keep him covered at night, and wait until the swelling and fever go away. Most horses past eight years of age have had distemper and are immune.

If the horse breaks out in small buttonlike abscesses, or if he suddenly becomes extremely vicious, kicks, bites and rears at insensible objects and otherwise “has fits,” keep strictly away from him and call up a ranger. He may have glanders in the first case, and rabies in the second. Both can be transmitted to man, and the second, if Pasteur treatment is not given promptly, is always fatal. Certain poison feeds have symptoms much like rabies.

If the horse becomes lame, the foot should be examined for injuries. If the upper leg has been hurt, it should be rubbed with cloths dipped alternately in hot and cold water. Bandages, if properly applied, are also a help. If an animal breaks a leg he should be shot, but don’t do it yourself. Get a ranger.

Pink eye is an infectious fever, and derives its name from the most prominent symptom. The animal should be isolated and allowed to rest. Recovery usually takes place in a couple of weeks. It is common only among young horses.

Horse pox is characterized by eruptions, something very like small vaccination sores (which are cow pox) on the oral cavity and on the lower legs. The animal should be kept very warm, allowed to rest, and covered at night. Recovery is usually complete in two weeks.

Founder is a disease of the forefeet, caused by drinking too much water while hot and tired. The hoofs splay out and curl up and the soles grow abnormally. The animal should be allowed to rest, and the feet should be bathed in warm water.

Horses get calluses, corns, sores and gangrenous spots from ill-fitting harness and saddles. The skin may either be dry, leathery and insensitive (dry gangrene) or wet, swollen and sloughing (moist gangrene). The horse should be allowed to rest, the saddle adjusted and the sores treated with poultices of cod liver oil.

Bots are causes by a species of fly which lays its eggs in the hair of the horse’s legs. The eggs set up an irritation which causes the animal to nibble at them. The eggs are taken into the stomach, where the worms hatch and fasten themselves to the stomach walls. A small handful of tobacco in the feed every few weeks will expel the worms if they are not too bad.

Rattlesnake bit should be treated the same way as for man. If the animal is bitten during the night and appears in the morning with a badly swollen leg, he should be kept warm and allowed to rest. Horses, mules or burros almost never die of rattlesnake bite.

Abscesses, cuts, etc., should be treated with iodine or cod liver oil. If they are large they should be bandaged.

Ticks can usually be expelled by smearing them with grease. Never pull them off. The head will remain behind and cause an infection.


Chapter 6 of Kenneth Rexroth’s Camping in the Western Mountains (unpublished manuscript, ca. 1939). Copyright 2003. Reproduced by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

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