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What is a Packhorse?

By Henry Gaudet
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Since the earliest days of domesticated animals, the packhorse has helped people carry loads over great distances. Packhorses are not used for carrying riders but are loaded instead with saddlebags and panniers, although many packhorses also are trained to be ridden. Usually, the term applies only to horses, but animals such as mules, donkeys or ponies also might be referred to as packhorses. Even people laboring under heavy loads might be called packhorses, though this is done in jest.

The packhorse is especially valuable in the absence of roads that would make wheeled transport a viable option. Travelers and tradesmen in centuries past had to rely on packhorses to carry tools and merchandise until more and better roads were built. Even when smooth and safe roads existed, packhorses still were widely used in the 19th century to reach out-of-the-way towns and villages throughout the western world. Regions lacking transportation infrastructure such as roads, canals and rail lines rely on the packhorse to transport goods to and from isolated areas.

Like a riding horse, a packhorse must be trained for the task. The horse will first need to be comfortable wearing a saddle and harness, and trainers might find riding horses easier to work with. It is essential for the trainers to use properly fitting gear while training the animal. Over time, the horse will need to become comfortable not only with the weight of the load but also with any sounds that the gear might make, as well as being able to carry the gear for long periods of time.

Proper training of the animal is essential, but properly packing the load is just as important. The weight should be distributed as evenly as possible, giving both saddlebags similar loads. Slipping is another concern, and after a load begins to shift, it most likely will continue to slide, unbalancing the load, chafing the packhorse and possibly causing a fall.

Packhorses often are associated with the Old West in the United States, and they were widely used by settlers, explorers, trappers and prospectors, carrying the tools and supplies needed for life in the wild and carrying merchandise back to the towns. The packhorse made the exploration and settlement of the American frontier possible. Before roads and rail lines were built, packhorses were the best way to take supplies to Native American and white settlements in the wilderness.

In western nations in modern times, packhorses most often are used for recreation, exploring wilderness trails and camping. People who find themselves in open wilderness, such as cowboys or forest service workers, might still use packhorses to carry essential gear. Even soldiers might find packhorses useful in regions where roads are poor and supply chains are not reliable.

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