Part 1: Hunting with Pack Horses
Part One: Getting Started
by Larry Beebe
Several of our students wanted to know about using pack horses as part of the team for a Colorado elk hunt. I asked seasoned hunter and horseman, Barry Beebe to tackle this diverse topic. Barry could have written a good book on the subject, but within the confines of our lessons for EHU, he provides the reader with some good tips and “food for thought” when looking to use a pack string in the field. This lesson is presented in two parts. - Jim Bulger, Hunter Outreach Coordinator
Using horses to pack your camp into a remote area is both challenging and rewarding. The reward is getting way off the beaten path and not having to carry your gear. The challenge is getting your gear and horse(s) safely to your final destination. Hunting with pack horses isn’t for everybody as it requires real horse experience…not just being able to ride one.
Basic Horse Handling and Care
If you have ever owned a riding horses you already know most of the basics. If not, there are some things you definitely need to know and practice beforehand. Find an experienced horse person (4H Horse club, riding stable manager, farmer/rancher, veterinarian, farrier, etc.) and work with them to learn as much as you can. Then practice what you learned as often as possible before your hunt. Here are some very basic things you must know:
SAFETY: Know the do’s and don’t of safely handling a horse
FOOD/WATER: What, when and how much feed and water a horse needs
Note: Improper feeding and/or watering can make a horse ill or be fatal
CHOLIC: Learn the signs and what to do if your horse experiences it
EQUINE FIRST AID: Know how to treat cuts, rope burns, galls, etc.
HOOF CARE: Practice picking a horse’s hooves to remove dirt and rocks that could cause lameness
TOOLS: Have the tools and know how to remove /replace/tighten a bent, lost or loose horse shoe
LOADING/UNLOADING: Practice the correct way to load/unload a horse from a horse trailer
TACKING: Study how to properly saddle/bridle a horse and adjust straps to fit properly
TIEING: Know how to secure a horse to a post/tree so it’s there when you return
Gear for Horse Packing
Special gear is needed for packing in on horses. These include pack saddles, pads, panniers, lash ropes and cinches as well as regular horse gear, i.e. bridles, halters, etc. It may be difficult to find any for rent so the best bet is to find an online resource to purchase used gear as new gear is expensive. A complete set of new pack horse gear costs from $500-$800 depending on the type of rigging. There are two styles of pack saddles: Decker and Sawbuck. Do a web search and decide which you prefer as there are pros and cons to each. Search the internet for “Pack Horse Gear” and learn as much as you can about it.
A little more economical and easiest to use for beginners is the saddle pannier. These are designed to fit over a standard riding saddle. The most simple to use is the “No Knot Trailmax” saddle panniers and top pack or something similar from $250-$350. This style has a top flap to keep your gear protected from dust and weather.
Even more economical is a plain saddle pannier system for $100-$250. Consider purchasing a set of pack liners if they’re not included. You will also need a dust cover (7’x8’ canvas or small tarp for over the top); these both have many other uses in camp.
Although a lash cinch and rope are not required with saddle panniers, they are recommended to help steady and balance the load on the horse.
Other Things You'll Need
Good pack saddle pads if using pack saddles (larger and thicker than regular saddle pads)
Extra long cotton lead ropes (cotton doesn’t cause rope burns as severely as nylon)
Lots of baling twine or heavy cord
High line kit (tree saver straps, 100 ft. high line rope and in-line swivels or steel rings)
Hammer, horse shoe nails, nail clipper, rasp, spare horse shoes in correct sizes, hoof pick
Horse first aid kit (make your own or purchase pre-made) Consult a veterinarian for what to have and how/when to use it
Spare leather straps, rivets, leather hole punch, leather shoe laces
Blaze orange to protect your horses – ribbons or sheets of material on halters, bridles, saddles and around your picket area and on the high line
Rope to raise horse feed (and your food) to protect it from critters (lash ropes/ panniers work well)
Picket pins with swivel top, picket ropes, pegging hobbles
Important: The US National Forest rule is that anyone delivering horses (or ATVs) on National Forest lands must have a permit to do so. There are multiple permitted rental horse suppliers in Colorado and performing a quick internet search for "Horse Rental Colorado" will give you a good starting list of possible suppliers. Some outfitters also have permits but are restricted to a particular area within a National Forest. If you find a rancher or other horse owner renting their own animals, you might have to pick up and return the horses to their home. Search the web for “U.S. National Forest Service Offices” or go to www.staythetrail.org for more information on horse rental outfitters and permits.
Information on renting horses is also available at the Forest Service website. Most of the offices maintain a list of folks who will pack meat out or rent horses. They also have a list of all outfitters permitted for each National Forest. Another source for outfitters is the Colorado Outfitters Association.
Check your chosen supplier's website for their rates and restrictions. Note that each rental horse typically comes with riding saddle, bridal and halter with lead rope (no packing equipment), but you will want to be sure and clarify with your supplier as to what equipment will be included with your rental. Note: 25 lbs. of hay (almost half a bale) and 2 gallons (12 lbs.) of grain/day for each horse, is recommended. Assuming this, small bales of hay (50-55 lbs. each) and a 50 lb. bag of grain (150 lbs. total) will last 4 days per horse. You can also refer to the Equine Network's nutrition page for additional guidelines on feeding working horses.
When renting horses, make sure you’re getting well-trained/broke, well-behaved and well-shod horses along with good riding gear. Nothing will ruin a trip faster than bad horses or shoddy gear. Consider it a bonus IF the horses have packed before. Remember that a great riding horse doesn’t necessarily make a great pack horse nor does a great pack horse make a great riding horse.
Note: Horses being transported into Colorado must have a current Certificate of Health inspection (less than 31 days old) and proof of a Coggins blood test within the last year. The official contact for more information is the Colorado Veterinarians office (303-239-4161).
Alternatives to Renting Horses
There are a few outfitters in Colorado that rent llamas – about $50/day for less than 30-days and about $45/day for over 30-days. Max load for an average sized llama is 45–50 lbs. So 3-4 llamas/hunter (Note: you cannot ride them). They usually provide a 2-3 hr. Orientation before renting.
Outfitter Drop Camps
Drop camps vary greatly in price depending upon the area and what is included. Check with the outfitters in the area you will be hunting. One outfitter in the White River National Forest Flat Tops Wilderness area charges $1,695-$1,895 for a fully equipped camp (bring your own bedding and food). They check on you every other day to see if you need meat packed out. It is a costly alternative, but you are spared all planning and work involved with hunting with pack horses.
Camping with Your Own Horses
You can always set up camp near a county or forest road and ride your horses from camp to/from your hunting spots. You’ll need extra time for riding but you won’t need to pack anything in.
Choosing the Number of Horses
The general rule of thumb is one horse for each hunter (to carry that hunter’s personal gear and some of the general camp gear). Just like backpacking, think light. Each hunter should restrict their total gear weight to 75 lbs. or less. A horse can comfortably carry approximately 15%-20% of its body weight. This means a 1,000 lb. horse can carry about 200 lbs. of gear including rider. Hunters heavier than 200 lbs. that intend to ride will need a bigger horse. You also need 1 horse for every 3 horses to carry horse feed, hay/cubes and other gear for the horses.
Two hunters might get by with 2 horses if they lead the horses instead of riding them and are able to keep the weight on each at or less than 200 lbs. Two trips might make more sense with slightly lighter loads if you’re not packing farther than a couple of miles.
It’s best to not overload a horse as, depending on its condition (which you might not be familiar with), they might quit on you after too many miles with too heavy a load.
You must use certified weed-free hay on BLM and USFS land. For a list of providers, contact the Colorado Department of Agriculture (303-239-4149). Hay is not allowed in any wilderness area so you must substitute with certified weed free alfalfa cubes or pellets. Horses should be fed any of the above for at least 4 days prior to entering BLM or national forests so as to have weed-free manure.
Trailer and Truck Rentals
Some car rental agencies have Commercial Truck Divisions that rent pickup trucks. The normal ½ ton pickups available through the car rental division are not equipped for towing anything. The approximate cost for a one week rental is $300 (per a Colorado Enterprise sales office).There were very few 2-horse trailers available for rent on the Front Range and larger capacity horse trailers are even harder to find. A 2-horse trailer rental is about $600/week (Parker, Colorado area).