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Pack Saddles

RM Williams 1960s Packsaddle Advertisment 

Packsaddles are purpose designed to carry cargo and baggage and are quite different to a riding saddle. Riding saddles may be adapted for use as packsaddles by slinging a split bag or pack bags joined by straps or cordage. A riding saddle is not appropriate for carrying heavy loads as it does not distribute the weight evenly due to the different tree design.

The most basic packsaddle is a "Crossbuck". This consists of two crossed posts at each end fixed to backboards. Often the front cross buck is taller than the rear. This to compensate for the lower withers of donkeys and mules and keep the load level. The rigging is arranged around the base of the crossed posts called "bucks'. Still extensively used in USA this design evolved from the early frontiers where it was used by trappers and fur traders. The design was taken up by gold miners during the many goldrushes and has become a mainstay of packing in many states. Panniers or Kyaks are slung by straps from the crossed posts on the opposite side to where they lay.


















Illustration  1. Wooden Cross Buck Type Pack Saddle Tree (less rigging)

Rod Nikkel Saddle Trees Photo

Australian pack saddles were designed by the Surveyor General of NSW, Major Mitchell. He developed his design from experience gained during the Peninsular Battles (Spain) of the Napoleonic Wars. The saddle tree consists of two metal arches or bows fixed to wooden backboards or bars. The bars may be fixed or hinged. Hinged boards better fit the shape of the animals back particularly if the animal looses or gains weight. Essentially the design has not changed since the 1830s. Two distinct patterns have evolved:

  • The "Queensland" type. and

  • The South Australian type.

The Queensland style has one central girth and low arches whereas the South Australian style has two girths, a main and a balance, and often distinctively taller arches. Low arches were preferred in hilly vegetated terrain typical of the North Queensland mining regions.High arches were used in the plains and open country of South Australia and Western Victoria as the names suggest.














 Queensland Style Packsaddle- single girth and low arches (Dominant Leathergoods Photo)




South Australian Style- twin girths and high arches (James Alcock Photo)

Australian packsaddles consist of the following components:


  • Arches - take the load off the animal’s spine.

  • Backboards or bars - spread the load along the muscles of the animal’s back.

  • Rigging, a harness to position and secure the saddle on the animal includes girth points.

  • Quarter panels - provide padding to separate the saddle and load from the animal and prevent chafing (both saddles above have quarter panels and a "1/2 skirt or flap to protect the leather face of the quarter panel and rear of the pack bags from rubbing). 


The rigging may include a: 


  • Breeching, a strap that fits around the animal’s rump to stop the saddle shifting forwards:

  • Breastplate, a strap fitting around the chest to stop the load moving backwards; and 

  • Crupper, which is a special strap, that fits around the base of the tail (dock) to stop the saddle moving forward.


The saddle is held in place by a girth that fits across the sternum of the animal. A second longer girth, known as a “balance girth” may be used to reduce bouncing of the saddle and load caused by the animal's gait. This girth fits around the belly and is not fastened as tightly as the main girth. Donkeys and mules are often girthed using crossed girths of equal lengths. Crossed girths tend to prevent the saddle moving forward as donkeys and mules lack the high shoulders or withers of a horse that keep a saddle in position. The girths should cross over on the sternum.














Commonwealth Army MkV GS Pack Saddle showing Quarter Panels and Pockets that Secure the Back Boards.

The tree is attached to the panels with pockets that retain the ends of the backboards (bars). The panels are stuffed with straw or teased horse hair.

Note that in these army packsaddles the top front of the panel has rounded corners and the rear are square to aid recognising front and rear of the saddle.

Kalunga Pack Saddle. Our packsaddles for use with donkeys, are adapted from traditional Australian packsaddle designs and the military Mark IV packsaddle used by Australian Light Horse units. We obtained the design from a booklet published by Brian Beck. This was adapted to make a very lightweight, yet robust saddle to suit our requirements.

The design incorporates “rolled” aluminium tube arches with welded load hooks. The arches are attached to the backboards by hinges that allow the backboards to fit a different back shapes and move with the animals’ gait. The plywood backboards are cold formed in a jig to a shape that conforms to the shape of a typical donkey’s back.

Thick saddle pads are used in lieu of quarter panels to reduce weight. Total weight of our saddles is 2.5kg including pack bags.



















 Wilderness Expeditions "Kalunga" Pack Saddle


Loads are generally carried in pack bags that are slung from hooks welded to the saddle arches. Large items may be secured to the saddles using ropes and special “quick release” hitches either as “side loads” or as “top loads”.

















Biscuit with a Demonstration Load slung using a modified Basket Hitch ( Crows-Foot Hitch)


A canvas sheet known as “pack cover” or “Wantie”protects loads from the weather. A long webbing strap known as a “pack surcingle” or “Wantie Strap” encircles the animal and load to consolidate the load and prevent it from dislodging from the load hooks.





 Charlie demonstrating use of a Wantie and Wantie Strap securing the load



Loads may also be secured to the saddle by use of European/ American style diamond and double diamond hitches formed from lengths of rope. 


Pack loads have an optimum size of 73 Wide x 36 High x 26 Deep (cm) or (283/4 Wide x141/4 High x 101/2Deep ( inches). Side loads should be of equal size, shape, density and mass. Donkey loads should not exceed 22% of the animal’s body weight, including saddlery.

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Australian Pack saddle- South Australian
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