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Ch. 11: Horses, Mules, Burros

A good riding mule, when you can get him, and provided you intend to use him only for trail travel in the mountains, is about the best proposition. A mule is more sure-footed than a horse, and can subsist where a horse would starve. On the other hand he is not much good off a walk; never acquires the horse's interest in getting around stubborn stock, and is apt to be mean. None of these objections, however much they may influence your decision as to saddle animals, will have any weight against a pack beast. For the latter purpose the mule is unexcelled. But probably in the long run you will prefer to ride a horse.

Burros are an aggravation; and yet in some circumstances they are hard to beat. They are unbelievably slow, and unbelievably stubborn. When they get tired—or think they do—they stop, and urging merely confirms their decision to rest. You cannot hurry them. They hate water, and it is sometimes next to impossible to force them into a deep or swift stream. They are camp thieves, and will eat anything left within their reach. Still, they can live on sage-bush, go incredible periods without drinking, make their way through country impassible to any other hoofed animals excepting goats and sheep. Certain kinds of desert travel is impossible without them, and some sorts of high rough mountaineering is practicable only with their aid. At times you will be driven to the use of them. In such an emergency gird your soul with patience, and try to buy big ones.

Pack mules are almost impossible to get, and are generally very high priced. A good pack mule does not mean any old mule that comes along. The animal should be rather small, chunkily built, gentle as to the heels and teeth, accustomed to carrying and taking care of a pack, trained to follow the saddle horses, and not inclined to stray from camp. Such perfection costs anywhere from seventy-five to one hundred and fifty dollars. It is worth the price to one who does much packing; but as perfectly adequate pack horses can be had for from twenty to forty dollars, and are easy to find, you will in all likelihood choose them.

Now I know perfectly well that I can tell you nothing about choosing a horse. If you are a New Englander you will know all about the trade; if you are a New Yorker, you could give me points on every horse in the ring; if you are Middle West, you probably have read or worked or traded or raised more horses than I will ever ride. But in selecting a mountain horse, his mere points as a physical specimen are often little in his favor, while glaring defects may concern his usefulness hardly at all.

Never mind at first how the horse offered for your inspection looks. Examine him for blemishes later. You must first discover if he is sure-footed and courageous. An eastern horse would not last five minutes on a western trail. A western horse, no matter how accustomed to mountain work, is worse than useless if subject to ordinary horse-panics at suddenly rustling leaves, unexpected black stubs, and the like. He must attend to his footing, keep his eyes for the trail, and be wise. Next you must inquire if this steadiness carries over into other things. He must stand when left without hitching, and must be easy to catch. Often you will have to dismount for the purpose of clearing trail, helping the pack train, tightening ropes, or reconnoitering. At such junctures iron hitching posts are not always at hand. Nothing is more aggravating than the necessity of searching everywhere for a place to tie, or worse, to be forced to chase down and coax quiet a horse that has promptly decamped when left for a moment to himself. Nor does it add to your joy to get up at four for the purpose of making an early start, only to spend the extra hour filched from sleep in an attempt to catch some snorting fool horse.

The picture I have sketched looks to you somewhat like what is known as an "old cow," doesn't it? But in reality good horses of the quality named are not difficult to find. Equine intelligence is of a higher grade West than East, mainly because a western horse is all his life thrown on his own resources. It is perfectly possible to find a horse both handsome and spirited, which will nevertheless permit himself to be directly approached in pasture, and will stand until further orders on the trail.

But the point is that it is much better, oh, infinitely! to get an "old cow" than a horse without these qualities. The "old cow" will carry you, and will be there when wanted. That is the main thing in the mountains. While as for the other horse, no matter how well bred he is, how spirited, how well gaited, how handsome, how appealing in every way to a horseman's eye—he will be worse than no horse if you have to keep your hands on him, if he must be picketed at night, if he is likely to shy on a bad trail, if he may refuse to tackle a rough place or to swim a river.

In mid-day the shade of the pines is inviting.

Of course it is nice to ride a good-looking horse; but in the mountains most emphatically "handsome is what handsome does." The horses I now own are fine animals and fine mountain ponies; but some of the best I have ever ridden, a horseman would not look at twice. On a time, being under the absolute necessity of getting a pack quickly, I purchased a bay that I promptly named Methuselah. He was some sixteen years old, badly stove forward by hard riding, and not much of a horse anyway. For three months he carried a pack. Then one day I threw a saddle on him to go a short distance on some little errand. Methuselah, overjoyed, did his best. The old horse was one of the best mountain saddlers in the outfit. He climbed surely and well; he used his head in negotiating bad places; would stay where he was put. The fact that he was not sound was utterly unimportant, for not once in a week was he required to go faster than a walk.

On the other hand I once owned a Bill-horse, mountain-bred and raised. He was a beautiful beast, proud, high-stepping—one you would be glad to be seen on. He would have been worth considerable money, and would have afforded much solid satisfaction if I had wanted him for cow work, or pleasure riding in the lower country. But it was absolutely impossible to catch him, even hobbled, without a corral. One day I saw him leap from a stand and with hobbles over a fence and feed trough. So I traded him for another, not near so much of a horse, as a horse, but worth two dozen Bill-horses.

One other thing you must notice, and that is whether or not the beast is gun shy. A great many stampede wildly at the report of firearms. I once owned a pack horse named Sam Fat, on which for some time I congratulated myself. He was a heavy animal, and could carry a tremendous load; and yet he was sure-footed and handled himself well on rough country. He was gentle and friendly. He took excellent care of his pack, and he followed perfectly. No one needed to ride behind him to keep Sam Fat coming. I used to turn him loose when I started, and pay no more attention to him until I stopped. No matter how rich the feed through which we passed, Sam Fat was always on hand when the halt was called. And, very important point, he was a good rustler—he kept fat and sleek on poor food where other horses gaunted. Altogether Sam Fat was a find. Then one day one of the party shot off a harmless little twenty-two caliber popgun. Sam Fat went crazy. He squatted flat, uttered a terrified squeal, and departed through the woods, banging his pack against trees and hanging limbs. We chased him a mile, and finally brought him back, but all the rest of the day he was panicky. I tried to get him accustomed to shooting by tying him near our target practice, but it was no use. Finally, though reluctantly, I sold him.

So when the natives bring in their horses for your selection blind your eyes to the question of looks and points until you have divided the offering into two parts—those that are sure-footed, courageous, gentle, tractable, easy to catch, good grub rustlers, and if pack horses, those that will follow and will take care of their packs, and those that lack one or more of these qualifications. Discard the second group. Then if the first group contains nothing but blemished or homely horses, make the best of it, perfectly sure that the others might as well not exist.

In general, a horse just from pasture should have a big belly. A small-bellied horse will prove to be a poor feeder, and will probably weaken down on a long hike. The best horse stands from fourteen hands to fourteen two, and is chunkily built. There are exceptions, both ways, to this rule. A pack horse is better with low withers on account of the possibility of sore backs. Avoid a horse whose ears hang sidewise from his head; he is apt to be stubborn. As for the rest, horse sense is the same everywhere.

A pack horse can carry two hundred pounds—not more. Of course more can be piled on him, and he will stand up under it, but on a long trip he will deteriorate. Greater weights are carried only in text books, in camp-fire lies, and where a regular pack route permits of grain feeding. A good animal, with care, will take two hundred successfully enough, but I personally always pack much lighter. Feed costs nothing, so it is every bit as cheap to take three horses as two. The only expense is the slight bother of packing an extra animal. In return you can travel farther and more steadily, the chances of sore backs are minimized, your animals keep fat and strong, and in case one meets with an accident, you can still save all your effects on the other. For the last three years I have made it a practice to pack only about a hundred to a hundred and twenty-five pounds when off for a very long trip. My animals have always come out fat and hearty, sometimes in marked contrast to those of my companions, and I have not had a single case of sore back.

The latter are best treated by Bickmore's Gall Cure. Its use does not interfere in the least with packing; and I have never seen a case it did not cure inside ten days or two weeks if applied at the beginning of the trouble.

In the mountains and on grass-feed twenty miles a day is big travel. If you push more than that you are living beyond your income. It is much better, if you are moving every day, to confine yourself to jaunts of from twelve to fifteen miles on an average. Then if necessity arises, you have something to fall back on, and are able to make a forced march.

The distance may seem very short to you if you have never traveled in the mountains; but as a matter of fact you will probably find it quite sufficient, both in length of time and in variety of scenery. To cover it you will travel steadily for from six to eight hours; and in the diversity of country will be interested every step of the way. Indeed so varied will be the details that it will probably be difficult to believe you have made so small a mileage, until you stop to reflect that, climbing and resting, no horse can go faster than two or two and one-half miles an hour.

On the desert or the plains the length of your journey must depend entirely on the sort of feed you can get. Thirty miles a day for a long period is all a fed-horse can do, while twenty is plenty enough for an animal depending on his own foraging. Longer rides are not to be considered in the course of regular travel. I once did one hundred and eighty miles in two days—and then took a rest.

In the mountains you must keep in mind that a horse must both eat and rest; and that he will not graze when frost is on the meadows. Many otherwise skillful mountaineers ride until nearly dark, and are up and off soon after daylight. They wonder why their horses lose flesh and strength. The truth is the poor beasts must compress their twenty-four hours of sustenance into the short noon stop, and the shorter evening before the frost falls. It is often much wiser to get a very early start, to travel until the middle of the afternoon, and then to go into camp. Whatever inconvenience and discomfort you may suffer is more than made up for by the opportunities to hunt, fish, or cook afforded by the early stop; and the time you imagine you lose is regained in the long run by the regularity of your days' journeys.

On the desert or the plains where it is hot, to the contrary, you will have better luck by traveling early and late. Desert journeying is uncomfortable anyway, but has its compensations. We ordinarily get under way by three in the morning; keep going until nine; start about six again—after supper—and travel until nine of the evening. Thus we take advantage of whatever coolness is possible, and see the rising and the falling of the day, which is the most wonderful and beautiful of the desert's gifts.

Going up steep hills in high altitudes you must breathe your horse every fifty feet or so. It need not be a long rest. Merely rein him in for eight or ten seconds. Do the same thing always before entering the negotiation of a bad place in the trail. Do this, no matter how fresh and eager your animal may seem. Often it spells the difference between a stumble and a good clean climb. An experienced pack horse will take these rests on his own initiative, stopping and also starting again with the regularity of clockwork.

It does not hurt a horse to sweat, but if ever he begins to drip heavily, and to tremble in the legs, it is getting time to hunt the shade for a rest. I realize that such minor points as these may be perfectly well known to every one likely to read this book, and yet I have seen so many cases of ignorance of them on the trail that I risk their inclusion here.

Every hour or so loosen the cinches of your saddle horse and raise the saddle and blankets an inch or so to permit a current of air to pass through. Steaming makes the back tender. When you unsaddle him or the pack animals, if they are very hot, leave the blankets across them for a few moments. A hot sun shining on a sweaty back causes small pimples, which may develop into sores. It is better to bathe with cold water the backs of green horses; but such a trouble is not necessary after they are hardened.

Two more things I will mention, though strictly speaking, they do not fall in the province of equipment. When you pick up a horse's hind foot, face to the rear, put the hand nearest the horse firmly against his flank, and use the other to raise the hoof. Then if he tries to kick, you can hold him off sufficiently to get out of the way. Indeed the very force of his movement toward you will thrust against the hand on his flank and tend to throw you to one side.

If you are called upon to mount a bad horse, seize the check piece of his bridle in your left hand and twist his head sharply toward you. At the same time grasp the pommel in your right hand, thrust your foot in the stirrup and swing aboard. Never get on any western horse as an easterner mounts—left hand on pommel and right hand on cantle. If a horse plunges forward to buck while you are in this position, you will inevitably land back of the saddle. Then he has a fine leverage to throw you about forty feet. A bad pack horse you can handle by blindfolding. Anchor things for a storm, take off the bandage, and stand one side.

Stewart Edward White

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