The Long Riders' Guild

Oriental Wonder - The Girthless Pack Saddle - page 2

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In 1889 the British Historical Long Rider, Henry Savage Landor, made the first modern equestrian journey through the remote northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. There he learned that the original inhabitants, known as Ainu, were dedicated horsemen, mounted on tough local ponies, who used the sturdy saddle to both pack and ride on.


During his thousand mile exploration of Hokkaido, Historical Long Rider Henry Savage Landor was the first to use the Oriental pack saddle. Like the Ainu horsemen, he both rode on it, and used it to pack his belongings.


Likewise, the German Historical Long Rider, Otto Ehlers, used the Oriental pack saddle when he rode from Moulmein, Burma to Poofang, French Tonkin in 1892.


With the outbreak of the Second World War, Allied troops used the girthless pack saddle in 1944 when they took indigenous Chinese horses from the Salween River up over 11,000 foot passes and into China. One American soldier noted, “The saddle permitted quick removal of the load in emergencies.”


As this late 19th century photo demonstrates, the same system was in use by Japanese packers. Note that this pack horse also wears bamboo sandals.




Though it had given centuries of quiet service, with the advent of the motor age, the remarkable Oriental pack saddle might have faded into folklore if Welsh Long Rider Jeremy James had not discovered it still in used in the mountains of northern Viet Nam. While doing field work for an equestrian charity, James was stunned to see a hardy hill pony come trotting out of a remote jungle. On its back was a pack saddle unlike anything he had ever seen before. Not only was it not secured with the traditional girth and lashings of rope, the pony was gaily carrying two large water casks, both of which were sloshing their heavy, unstable load on either side of the pony.


Jeremy James was the first modern Long Rider to see, and inspect, the girthless Oriental pack saddle. This hill pony, belonging to Hmong tribesmen, had no problem carrying two water casks through mountainous jungle terrain. After the casks were removed, Jeremy took this photograph of the basic pack saddle.

Though James managed to obtain a photograph of the elusive Oriental pack saddle, it might have remained an elusive equestrian artifact, if one of this centuries most unlikely equestrian travellers had not used it to complete an astonishing journey from China, across Tibet and on into India.

 The Tea Horse Trail

For centuries the Chinese had been loading pack mules with bales of tea, then dispatching the heavily laden caravans along the Tea Horse Trail. This ancient path began in China, wound it’s way across the mountains, and concluded at Lhasa, the capital of distant Tibet. Yet since the advent of the Communist government, the Tea Horse Trail had been largely forgotten and unused.

In April, 2006 British traveller, Daniel Robinson, learned that the first modern Chinese tea caravan was about to reopen the Tea Horse Trail. The special expedition was organized by the Pur Tea Company, one of the oldest tea firms in China.

“They did it as a commemoration and to show the old trading route was in contrast to the new high speed rail system which was about to be opened from China to Lhasa,” Robinson said.

The English traveller managed to join the caravan but only after a lot of negotiations with the caravan leader.

“The boss could be endearing and caring, or the worst nightmare you could imagine.”

Robinson recalled that the caravan boss had a Jekyll and Hyde personality, wherein one moment he was a shouting dictator, while the next he privately displayed a kind heart. Yet there was no doubt in the bosses mind that the young foreigner could not make the trip.

“It was 1500 miles from Deqchen, China to Lhasa, Tibet and he didn’t think that I could walk twenty miles a day for 65 days.”

In fact, Robinson not only made it to Lhasa, he then walked an additional 1,000 miles over the Mani Pass into India. In total the first time muleteer traveled from April till October, the last part of his journey being done solo across Tibet and over the Himalayas.

Thus, after negotiating with the caravan leader for permission to travel along the Tea Horse Trail, Robinson not only became the first foreigner to do so, he was also the first modern traveller to purchase and use the girthless Oriental pack saddle.

There were 100 fully laden mules on the expedition and they used the traditional Oriental pack saddle. During an exclusive interview with the Guild, Robinson explained how this unique pack system worked.

Prior to departure from China, the 100 mules of the Pur Tea Company stand ready to be loaded with their pack saddles.

Photo courtesy Daniel Robinson.


Relegated to the Past

According to Robinson, the tea company no longer used the pack saddles to transport tea into Tibet.


“They used stopped using them forty years ago when the roads opened to motor transport. But they still had a warehouse full of these saddles from the days when they were needed.”


Though once common, Robinson quickly realized that the pack saddles were no longer in circulation in that part of Asia.


“I never saw them anywhere else in China. In fact while walking all the way to Tibet, I never saw anyone else with anything like this. They’ve become a rare artifact and I don’t think they can be bought in either Tibet or China.”


Unlike the well-known Sawbuck or Decker pack saddles, Robinson never learned if the Oriental pack saddle had a name.


“I honestly couldn’t tell you. It probably does have a name but I don’t recall ever hearing it.”


Yet after having successfully used the nameless pack saddle through some of the world’s most inhospitable terrain, what Robinson does recall is how the Oriental pack system works.

 How it Works

“First comes a blanket, then the pack saddle, which had a pad attached to it.”

In a surprising change from western methods, this pad was filled with grain, which meant that it could be adjusted like a bean-bag chair to keep the animal comfortable.

According to Robinson, the saddle and pad together weighed about twenty kilos.

“It was quite heavy because it was made from hard, solid wood. The main front and back arches were a couple of inches thick and the slats on the sides were half an inch thick.”

The result was a wooden framework that fit snugly over the back and down along the rib cage of the pack mule.

“It was what I would call agricultural construction. Not only could it take a lot of daily abuse, it was built so strong that you could throw off a cliff and it probably wouldn’t break.”

Unlike the modern Canadian pack saddle, the Oriental system does not allow for any adjustment. However, Robinson noted that its long-ago inventors had foreseen that problem and had adapted the thick saddle pad to compensate for this necessity. 

“Because there was two plus inches underneath the saddle, the pad self molded to the shape of horse.”

 What also makes the Oriental saddle unique is its special crupper. Though the style of the rollers varied from one nation to the next, the Chinese pack saddle also made use of this distinctive idea. Robinson’s pack saddle had a crupper which was equipped with wooden rollers.

“They varied in size, with the largest close to the tail and smaller further up the body. The crupper stayed attached to the saddle. It could be taken off but nobody ever did.”

This photo shows the special wooden rollers which allow the crupper on an Oriental pack saddle to move with the pack mule while it is in motion.

Photo courtesy Daniel Robinson.


Normally two men would lift the pack saddle into place onto the mule’s back.

“When we lifted up the saddle, the mules were always nervous, so we stood close to the back legs. First we put the saddle on close to the hind quarters. This would give us enough space to lift the tail over the crupper. This also let us put the breeching into place. Once these were in the correct position, we moved the saddle forward. Then we attached the breast collar, which just hangs over the front arch. There wasn’t a lot of adjustment.”

Loading the Baskets

In order to carry the load, two baskets were attached to a separate wooden frame that fit snugly inside the large wooden arches. Like the two main wooden arches, this lighter wooden framework was designed to fit well down along the sides of the pack animal. The wooden framework not only helped keep the pack saddle in place, it also prevented the load from being placed too high alongside the ribcage

The baskets, which were rectangular to hold the large flat packets of tea, were “quite light but very strong.”

“Each basket could hold an awful lot. They didn’t have a top but you could place extra gear on top. My big mule carried four of these baskets.”

Robinson quickly learned the importance of getting the baskets correctly loaded and evenly balanced.

“We balanced them by eye, but even though it’s a simple device, there is an art to learn how to fine tune it. If you placed the baskets too low, they rubbed sores. If you got them too high or too heavy, they’re off centre and then the whole thing can topple off.”

At the noon break, the muleteers would lift the wooden frame holding the two baskets off and place that part of the pack saddle on the ground. 

“This took a special technique. Same for putting it back on. We lifted it up, then swung it onto the mule’s back.”

Daniel Robinson’s loyal mules, Mae Ling and Hu Mae graze in Tibet

Photo courtesy Daniel Robinson.



“The baskets were only attached to the pack saddle by one rope. This made it very simple to keep them tight and in place. And they were designed to move with the motion of the mule. They weren’t solid. So if they hit a rock they could  shift easily and not break.”


But one of the drawbacks of the system was when the traveller was tired and the baskets were heavy.


“At the end of the day if we were too tired, we had to unload the baskets and take them off one at a time.”


Yet the system was deceptively simple, so much so that even though Robinson had no previous pack saddle experience, he learned to break camp, load his gear, tack up both mules and be on the road in a little more than an hour.


While designed not to need a cinch, as is customary on Western pack saddles, Robinson’s Oriental pack saddles had two loose cinch straps which could be used in the mountains to help keep the load in place. However the use of the cinch seems to depend on the terrain and was not necessarily used by other Oriental nations who made use of this system.


Along the Road of Memories


Cinch or no cinch, what Robinson learned was that “No one had made this journey in recent memory.”


“We met old people who remembered the caravans coming through in their childhoods. When we arrived in a village, people would throw a party for the caravan. Then the muleteers would sing the Pur Ur Tea song. ‘Here we are again. Everybody be happy.’”


Despite the campfire songs, all was not well. During the arduous journey, the Chinese muleteers robbed Robinson of his clothes, laptop computer, camera and money. Nevertheless, he refused to surrender.


“It was really, really tough. The food was diabolical. Everyone had diarrhea and eventually I collapsed. But I stuck it and made it to Lhasa.”


There were four teams of Chinese muleteer. A team would walk for three days alongside the mules, then spend the fourth day travelling on the supply truck. This allowed that team an opportunity to rest during the day and cook the expedition’s evening’s meal. But because he was an unofficial visitor, not a team member, Robinson was never allowed to ride on the supply truck or enjoy a respite from the grueling journey. In fact, he was the only person in the caravan to walk the entire distance from China to Tibet.


“I went through the experiences of a lifetime with this group.”


But thirty kilometers short of Lhasa, the Chinese muleteers betrayed him.


To Travel Alone


“When we reached Lhasa they completely rejected me.”


Robinson was told the caravan was going to rest the mules for several days, before making a triumphant entry into Lhasa. He was encouraged to use the time to visit the nearby capital. While he away, the boss ordered the caravan back on the road. Thus, after having marched the entire way, Robinson was robbed of walking with the caravan on its last day’s march and written out of the expedition’s official story.


Despite his bitter disappointment, Robinson decided to press on alone. He returned with his two mules to the spot where he had originally stopped. He then retraced his steps back to Lhasa, thus symbolically completing that portion of his long journey. After this he continued his walk across all of Tibet.


“One thing I learned was that no one knew how to shoe a horse in Tibet anymore, so I had to teach himself.”


Though Robinson had the foresight to take horse shoes with him, someone stole his hammer.


“I couldn’t find another hammer for months, not even in the big villages. So I had to use a rock or a metal bar to hammer on the shoes.”


With winter approaching, Robinson crossed the Himalayan mountains and entered India, where another set of extraordinary adventures awaited him.


After surviving their march from China, through Tibet, and over the Himalayas, Daniel’s mules were retired to a farm in Bhutan.

Photo courtesy Daniel Robinson.


The daring traveller is now back in England and his Oriental pack saddles are in Bhutan with his now retired mules.

To learn how Daniel Robinson was imprisoned in India for ten years, but was released, please click here.

To read Daniel’s story of his solo journey please click here.

Photo courtesy Daniel Robinson.

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