Pack-Saddle Basics

Today, it's easy to get a pack saddle that's a breeze to use, is waterproof, and is easily adjusted to correctly fit your pack animal. The current demand for pack saddles is quite small, limited mostly to active outfitters and trail riders

Day rides exploring short trails have only whetted your appetite to embark on longer adventures. You’ve gone on treks with experienced outfitters, watching them load the pack saddles and strap them onto seasoned pack animals.

Photo by Outdoorsman/

Now, you’re ready to explore the wilds on your own, but the mysterious pack-saddle process eludes you. The good news is that the days of tarps with ropes spider-webbed around a horse, and the need for a PhD in knot-ology, are long gone. Today, it’s easy to get a pack saddle that’s a breeze to use, is waterproof, and is easily adjusted to correctly fit your pack animal.

The current demand for pack saddles is quite small, limited mostly to active outfitters and trail riders. This is reflected in the overall modest number produced each year, by just a handful of manufacturers. In such a small sphere, only a little homework is needed to prepare for proper, state-of-the-art packing on the trail.

Here, we’ll give you a basic pack-saddle primer, with help from members of The Long Riders’ Guild. Long Riders frequently use pack horses on their continuous equestrian travels of a thousand miles or more in all kinds of environments and conditions. Their feedback is useful to recreational trail riders curious about the best pack tack and practices.

We’ll first tell you why you should pack light, even when using a pack animal. Then we’ll give you rundown of saddle types: the sawbuck, the decker, and the Canadian adjustable saddle.

Plus, we’ll give you seven ways to avoid pack-animal injuries and a handy resource guide.

Pack Light

If you’re embarking on an equestrian journey, using a pack animal is a great way to save your saddle horse’s back and energy. Any extra ounce carried on a saddle horse is an unnecessary burden. Consider using a pack animal for your tent, cooking utensils, food, bedroll, etc.

But don’t pile that pack animal high with every kind of unnecessary item you can find because you seem to have the space and “might need it.” Overburdening a pack animal is, quite simply, an inexcusable mistake.

The LRG is known for its motto, “The more you know, the less you need.” Some Long Riders even cut handles short on hammers (and even toothbrushes) to shave extra ounces from their beloved mounts’ burdens.

It’s often cited that 20 percent of a horse’s body weight (if the horse is healthy and sound) is the absolute maximum that can be carried but beware of this advice.

“While a horse could carry [that amount], no Long Rider ever would,” warns CuChullaine O’Reilly, a founding member of the LRG. “Only a packer journeying deep into the mountains to set up a base camp or a hunter carrying back a load of game should ever resort to burdening a pack horse in this manner.”

The Sawbuck Pack Saddle

The sawbuck pack saddle consists of two wooden or metal Xs that cross the animal’s spine. The bottoms of the Xs tie into the bar (also known as the tree), which rides along the animal’s back just down from the spine on either side like a riding saddle’s tree.

The upper ends of the Xs stick up in the air above the spine to facilitate gear hanging and pack-saddle fastening.

Panniers are commonly attached by hanging the straps to the top of the Xs opposite the side the pannier travels on, so that the attaching straps criss-cross over the pack animal’s topline.

Modern rigging for this saddle typically includes a saddle pad underneath the bar and double cinches with latigos for tightening the sawbuck onto the pack animal. An additional harness is often included, as well.

The Decker Pack Saddle

The first pack-saddle tree with wooden bars and steel arches traces to S. C. MacDaniels, an Arapajo packer in central Idaho from 1898 to 1900. The Decker brothers improved on it, developing an
additional cover. This cover provided the pack animal additional protection and comfort.

Around 1906, Oliver P. Robinett of Kooskia, Idaho, improved the Decker design. Robinett and the Deckers soon struck a deal, and the former manufactured and marketed the saddle under the name Decker Pack Saddle.

This pack saddle is traditionally constructed from canvas and leather (containing an inside layer of felt). An oak board runs horizontally, midway down along the rib cage and is attached on either side. Holes in the top allow for the metal arch hoops to poke out. A single cinch is visible.

The Canadian Pack Saddle

Long Riders overwhelmingly recommend the Canadian adjustable pack saddle. Riders often refer to these simply as the Kelly pack saddle.

This quintessential, modern pack saddle is adjustable, durable, easy to use, and comes in various models to accommodate either sawbuck or Decker packing styles. One model, the T-top, will accommodate either style.

These model variations allow for optimum fit. Differences in the bars allow for high-or low-withered equines, and a specific draft-horse style is available. Model variations also accommodate the preferred means for connecting the load hooks, T-tops, Decker style, military-style hooks, etc.

When asked what makes this saddle such an improvement over others on the market, DeStrake replies: “The fact that the bars are allowed to pivot on the arch really is the key. I have four different bars, but you can have them fit pretty much any back that is out there. It allows the saddle to have a little bit of movement laterally, these saddles basically self-adjust.”

Avoid Pack-Animal Injuries

Even a good-fitting pack saddle can sore or even injure your pack animal, because of the amount of dead weight it must hold in balance.

Here are seven ways to avoid pack- animal injuries.

1. Get the right tack for the job. A basic pack saddle may be safe for an animal on flat terrain for short trips. When packing into more challenging territory, add harness pieces (such as a crupper, breastcollar, and britchen) to help keep the pack saddle in place.

2. Ensure proper saddle fit. Make sure your pack saddle fits from the outset of your journey. Keep in mind that on extended journeys, your pack animal may lose weight, tone up, or otherwise experience body changes; adjust the fit accordingly.

Modern pack saddles offer special fitting features. Fiberglass panniers simply hang on the bars and contour to the animal’s shape. Canadian adjustable pack saddles, according to DeStarke, adjust automatically through self-equalizing pivots.

If needed, carry additional blankets or other padding to help adjust the pack along the way.

3. Pack feed carefully. To prevent accidentally poisoning your pack animal, never pack feed with poisons, such as fly spray or first-aid potions. Separate these supplies into isolated areas of the pack.

4. Avoid rattles and flutter. Rid the pack of any rattles, squeaks, or other strange noises that may spook your pack animal. Likewise, pack to prevent flapping, fluttering, or trailing objects.

5. Balance every load. An unbalanced pack load will work the pack saddle around the animal to one side. Even if the load doesn’t slip, imbalances of even a few pounds will put the animal off balance. This will cause him to compensate, which, in turn, can cause soreness and injury.

Use a scale that’s made specifically to weigh saddle packs. These scales will accurately weigh the overall load, and will ensure each side of the pack is of equal weight. Weigh each pack twice, lifting them slowly off the ground rather than jerking upwards, for accuracy.

6. Be aware. Before you leave and on your trek, constantly search for anything that might stress your pack animal. Excessive friction and load pressure can cause woeful sores that can become very serious very quickly.

Any part of a pack that pokes into the hide, rather than blending into a continuous, smooth-bearing surface that evenly spreads the load’s weight can result in a galled area. Similarly, a surface that rubs the animal excessively, or has a gritty surface (such as dirt lodged under
a harness piece) can quickly rub the animal raw.

Thoroughly check the entire rig whenever loading, clean saddle blankets and cinches of sweat, salt, and any debris, and check everything over throughout the day. If your pack animal shows any signs of odd behavior, stop immediately to inspect the pack’s condition for anything that might cause a sore or injury.

7. Check cinch pressure. Just as you check the cinch on your riding saddle, check pack-saddle cinch pressure before setting out and at intervals along the way.

Snug the cinch; a loose pack saddle can cause a load to slip and become unbalanced. A slipping load can cause abrasions and can even spook your pack animal, causing a wreck. However, don’t pull the cinch so tight that the animal’s movement or breathing is limited.

Note that over the course of a day (and weeks and months) your pack animal may change weight and tone; change cinch settings accordingly.

Related Articles
Trail ride at a guest ranch in Colorado
A Fun First Guest Ranch Ride
10 Tips for Your First Guest Ranch Adventure
Trail riding in the Rocky Mountains
Steps for horse camping success
4 Ways to Prepare for Horse Camping
Wyoming Cowgirl
Green Horse on the Trail Tips
3 Safety Tips for a Green Horse on the Trail
Trail riding in the Rocky Mountains
Trail Riding Trip Checklist
Receive news and promotions for Horse & Rider and other Equine Network offers.

"*" indicates required fields


Additional Offers

Additional Offers
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.