The Long Riders' Guild


Oriental Wonder - The Girthless Pack Saddle


CuChullaine OíReilly


Occident and Orient

During the passing millennia humans residing on those parts of the planet known as the Orient and the Occident developed different ways to accomplish a simple task. Forks, for example, were used in England instead of the chop sticks preferred in China. 

Likewise there were equestrian differences as well, the most common being the long stirrup favoured by Westerners, as opposed to the shortened stirrup leather adapted by Central Asian nomadic horsemen.

While short stirrups and chop sticks are well known, what is seldom remembered is that different pack saddle systems developed on opposite sides of the planet. Before I explain why it differs, allow me to clarify how the more recognizable Western pack saddle came into being.

Evidence indicates that manís earliest mounted exercise was on the reindeer who reside at the northern edge of the Equestrian Equator, above todayís modern Mongolia. It was a natural step for early nomads to transition from riding the docile reindeer to the faster horse.

Rome to the Rescue

As the art of riding spread east and west, early man also studied the problem of how to carry his possessions on horseback. The ever efficient Roman army tackled the problem by using a sawbuck style cross-tree pack saddle. Whether they invented it or not, isnít known. Yet a Roman tombstone in Pannonia, modern Hungary, depicts a draft horse carrying a pack saddle. The Romans also brought the pack saddle into Britain.


The next important step for Westerners was also the result of an import. This came about when the concept of the aparejo-saddle pad was introduced into Spain by the invading Moors. The Spanish were quick to grasp the importance of protecting the backs of their pack animals. This fact was confirmed in 1486 when Queen Isabella of Spain attacked Granada. In support of her army, she dispatched 14,000 pack mules. With the Moors conquered, Spanish conquistadors carried their sawbuck and aparejo on the ships which sailed to South America and Mexico.


While time marches on, pack saddles seldom improve, as is evidenced by this modern pack saddle from Paraguay, which is similar to those employed in the 15th century by Queen Isabellaís mule teams.

(Click on this and any other image to enlarge.)

Lashing on the Sawbuck

Further north, and a few hundred years later, British trappers working for the Hudson Bay Company took the wooden sawbuck pack saddle across North America. It was during this early stage of northern colonial development that French trappers invented the term panniers to describe the deep baskets they hung from the sides of the sawbuck. In 1849 the famous California gold rush brought another important change. That was the year Americans are credited with using a lash rope to tie the load tightly against the pack animalís body.

Though they are separated by thousands of miles, these two late 19th century images depict Russian (left) and American packers both lashing the load to a pack horse, using methods first tried during the California Gold Rush.


During the 1886 campaign against the Apache chief, Geronimo, General George Crook realized he would never capture his elusive adversary if his cavalrymen relied on slow moving supply wagons. Known as the father of modern pack service, Crook relied instead on large pack trains to support his now rapidly mobile troops. It was during this rugged campaign that the armyís master packer, Uncle Dick Closter, improved the soft-sided Spanish aparejo. He did this by inserting wood slats into the pad. The slats helped form a uniform arch that spread the weight of the load over the pack animalís ribs.


The traditional wooden sawbuck pack saddle has changed very little since General Crook was chasing Geronimo. Though a strong leather breast collar, two stout cinches, and a robust series of leather straps known as the breeching, encompass the animalís body, it is still necessary to use strong ropes to tie the load securely in place.


A Slight Improvement


Thus, from Caesar to Geronimo, the Western pack saddle and its supportive pad underwent very few changes until 1906. That year an American named O.P. Robinett created the Decker pack saddle. This system replaced the wooden cross beams with two strong steel hoops, from which loads could be hung and ropes secured. Yet the pressure on the pack animalís body remained immense and severe saddle sores were still common.


Even though the Decker pack saddle replaced the Sawbuckís wooden cross beams in favour of steel hoops, it retained the same principals, and failings. Once it was in place on the animalís body, a thick pad known as the Half-breed was slipped over the steel arches. Constructed of strong canvas, the Half-breed has thick felt pads inside, designed to protect the animalís ribs, as well oak side boards, which help distribute the weight of the load.


The Forgotten Pack Saddle


At the conclusion of the First World War, the US cavalry undertook to develop  a more efficient pack saddle. Known as the Phillips pack saddle, after intensive successful field tests, it was adopted for the cavalryís use in 1924. The Phillips pack saddle was so heavy that it required two men to lift it into place. Yet it was a marvel which could be used for long distance travel, during which time the pack animals suffered few if any injuries. Not only did it not injure pack animals, if turned upside down and covered with canvas, a dozen of the buoyant saddles could be turned into an emergency boat. Nevertheless, the US army disposed of all these valuable pack saddles at the conclusion of the Second World War. As a result of this short-sighted decision, when the Pentagon dispatched the modern US army to Afghanistan, the soldiers were forced to revert to the primitive Sawbuck pack saddle used by their 19th century ancestors.


The Phillips pack saddle was heavy but incredibly successful.



A Modern Answer


With the dawning of the 21st century, the Western style pack saddle underwent its last critical improvement. This came about with the invention of the Canadian adjustable pack saddle. ( Light-weight, extremely strong, able to fit any pack animal ranging from a tiny Shetland pony to a massive two-humped Bactrian camel, this affordable pack saddle has revolutionized modern equestrian travel, allowing Long Riders to travel great distances with few saddle sores to their pack animals.


Strong and safe, the Canadian adjustable pack saddle has been successfully used by Long Riders to explore every continent except Antarctica. The pack saddle pictured on the right is currently involved in a ten-year field test, during which Long Riders will use it on expeditions in every part of the world.


A Radically Different View


Meanwhile, as the Occident experimented with ropes and pads, an entirely different pack saddle system developed in the Orient. The girthless Oriental pack saddle consists of four main components. One, a thick pad rests atop the pack animalís back. Two, on top of the pad sits two thick wooden arches, which are kept in place by four strong wooden slats. Three, a lighter wooden frame-work is designed to fit snugly inside the larger wooden arches. Four, attached to this frame-work are two sturdy baskets designed to carry the load.


The five main components of the Oriental pack saddle: pad, wooden arch, crupper, wooden frame, baskets.


There were variations on this theme. For example the Japanese used small ropes to act as a rudimentary breast plate designed to keep the saddle from slipping backwards. Yet regardless if it was located in China, Viet Nam, Japan, Korea or Burma, the Oriental pack saddle also had another impressive improvement over its Western counterparts. This was the improved crupper.


The Western crupper (left) is a hard leather band, which can cause a friction burn under the horseís tail when the animal is travelling.

In stark contrast, the Oriental crupper (right) is made of leather discs, or small leather balls. These circular objects are designed to roll along the horseís back and under its tail, while the animal is on the move.


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