by Laura Crum
Reading Mugwump's blog yesterday, her story about hobbles reminded me vividly of some of my horse packing experiences. I told one of my "hobbles stories" in the comments there, and a few people asked about the way I kept my horses in camp on pack trips. This brought so many stories to mind that I thought I'd tell a few here.
First, a little background. I spent a couple of years working at a pack station on Sonora Pass in California's Sierra Nevada Mts in my early twenties. (This would be about thirty years ago.) Then, in my thirties, I spent many summers packing into the mountains with friends. We taught our more phlegmatic horses to carry the pack rigs, and fortunately I had a friend who was good at packing (which is somewhat of an art) and had the gear. Our team roping horses became sure-footed on the rock after a few shorter, easier trips, and we went on to do many longer (two week) trips, crossing numerous passes and visiting many high mountain lakes. These adventures form the basis of my fifth mystery, Slickrock.
As for how we kept the horses in camp, well, as I said on mugwump's blog, some horses will stay in camp (turned loose) and some won't. Unfortunately you often find out who are the trustworthy ones the hard way. Our usual habit was to put half the horses on run lines, or zip lines, and turn the other half loose. Usually this worked well....except for the times it didn't.
I remember one trip when a friend and I had gone in to a favorite meadow. There was a pretty creek and a lot of feed here; a horse could graze his fill. We had two reliable horses and the friend was riding a new horse, a red roan mare named Shiloh. Shiloh hadn't been on any trips that we knew of, but she was a ranch raised horse and gentle and we thought she'd be fine. We were careful, though, and when it came Shiloh's turn to be loose, we tied up both the other horses, so she'd have no excuse to wander far.
Well, we unclipped the lead rope from Shiloh's halter and she looked around the meadow with interest. She studied the creek, and her buddies on the tie lines, and our camp. She looked at the trail. And she put her ears forward and started into a long, swinging walk. Down the trail.
My friend and I looked at each other. This wasn't good. Surely she'll stop and graze, we said. Nope. Shiloh walked in a purposeful, determined way down the trail, across the meadow, and out of our sight. We flipped a coin to see who would go after her.
My friend lost and I stayed in camp with our other horses while he trailed the mare. Fortunately she ran into a party of hikers not a mile down the trail. They were standing there wondering what to do with this roan mare they'd caught when my friend retrieved her. Needless to say we didn't turn that horse loose again.
The funniest "campfire story" concerns a horse we called Lester. This was a lively, restless gelding; I often referred to him as our ADD horse. The first time we turned Lester loose on a pack trip, he looked around, lifted his head, and started out away from camp in the long trot, which quickly escalated to the gallop. My friend and I looked at each other with that "oh no" look on our faces. Lester galloped across the meadow and we waited for him to hit the trail back through the woods. But just as he was almost out of sight, he stopped. Whirling around, he galloped back across the meadow, straight at us.
Our "oh no" looks turned to "what the hell" looks, as that horse proceed to gallop right through the middle of camp, leaping over the fire (I kid you not) and out across the meadow again. On his next pass he went through the woods behind camp, jumping a log that was at least three foot six in diameter. He kept galloping around until he'd had enough (you would have thought he'd be tired after the ride in) and then settled down to graze. And we all gave a big sigh of relief. Turned out this became a routine with this horse. I can't count the number of times he ran through camp, often jumping the fire. We'd yell, "Here he comes!" and get out of the way. But he never once took off on us.
So, a couple of campfire stories for a winter's day. I'll try and post a few more pack trip tales later, for those who are interested.