Those of you who have been following my blog awhile know that I did quite a bit of research on various configurations of pack saddles before finally settling on the Decker-style Phillips Formfitter pack saddles, from Outfitters Pack Station, for our Mexico-to-Canada horse pack trip. As Dad already had two crossbuck pack saddles, we ended up using my two Deckers with manties and Dad’s two crossbucks with Utah-style paniers. It’s time for my comparison and evaluation.
Crossbuck pack saddle tree
To provide a little background, crossbuck pack saddles, sometimes called sawbuck pack saddles, have been used in North America for at least a couple hundred years. They consist of two crossed wooden “crutches”, similar to the way a sawbuck is built, which is where the name comes from (a sawbuck is two crossed beams over which a log is laid to be cut with a saw). Paniers, which are large bags or hard-sided boxes, are hung by straps from the crossbucks. Traditionally, soft paniers, often called “Utah Paniers” were used. These paniers are often covered with a tarp, which is tied in place with a diamond hitch, which improves the water-resistance of the pack and holds items tied on top of the packs.
While hard-sided paniers are available and quite utilitarian, we decided to go the traditional route. That’s what Dad and I have always used and we saw no reason to change. However, during our passage through the Chiricahua mountains, one of the riders who joined us for a few days packed hard paniers on his mule and I was much impressed. In camp, these hard paniers could be converted into seats or tables. I expect I’ll eventually get a set of these and give up on my traditional bent. Also, there are bear-resistant hard paniers available from a number of suppliers, for those areas where they may be required.
Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, a new-style of pack saddle was invented, which is now commonly called the Decker-style pack saddle. The Decker pack saddle, characterized by metal bows, or arches, to which loads are strapped, has proven its usefulness over the past century, due to its versatility. One can hang about any kind of load imaginable from a Decker-style pack saddle with a little ingenuity. This style of pack saddle eventually became the standard in the northwestern United States, while the crossbuck has remained king in the southwestern U.S.. Why this is so, I think I discovered during our pack trip and I will discuss that in another post.
Our mustang, Jimbo, with the mantied load on a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle
For the kind of loads we carried on our pack trip, manties are used to contain the cargo, which are then tied to the Decker pack saddle. Manties are heavy canvas tarps, normally measuring about 7 X 8 feet, in which the cargo is wrapped and tied into a pack. One manty pack is tied to each side of the pack saddle to balance the load. Manties of uneven size and/or weight may be balanced by adjusting the way they are tied to the saddle. While top packs may be tied to these pack saddles, it is not commonly done, however the manties may be tied as large or small as required. The pack saddles I finally settled on have arches that are made to handle not only manties, but also Utah Paniers.
The Phillips Formfitter pack saddle also has other features that attracted me, such as the adjustable-angle saddle bars and the fleece pads attached to the bars. My reasoning for this selection was that the adjustable bars would answer the problem of the different conformations of the several horses on which we intended to use them. Our remuda consisted of two Missouri Fox Trotters, two Quarter Horses, one mustang, and one mule, ranging from 16 hands to 13, all with very different backs among them.
My concerns with regard to this pack saddle were limited to two things: Would the adjustable saddle bars be able to hold the pack loads in place like a solid pack saddle would? And, would the narrow saddle bars, configured similar to a riding saddle’s bars, sufficiently distribute the loads on the horses’ backs, so as to avoid pressure points and saddle sores?
Before the trip, I discussed these and other concerns about the pack saddles with Wade, at Outfitters Pack Station. We also discussed whether double cinchas, such as are commonly used on crossbuck pack saddles, might be better for our trip. I decided to go with the single cincha, since that is the configuration I have seen on most Decker-style pack saddles. I figured that if they proved insufficient, I could order the double cincha rigs at the end of the first leg of our trip. On the Phillips Formfitter, the cincha rigging is changeable by simply unbuckling one and replacing it with the other. Wade also gave me some advice on setting up the rigging to ride properly on the pack animal.
During the first 200 miles or so of our trip, we knew we would be packing feed for the horses, since there is little feed available for grazing along our route in the lower desert areas of Arizona. We decided on Equidine pellets in 50 pound sacks, as it would be easy to pack in manties and to balance as a load. We started our trip with 400 pounds of feed, split among two pack horses, packed in manties on my Phillips Formfitter pack saddles. With the help of friends, we were able to re-supply with feed as needed. The rest of our gear was packed in paniers on Dad’s crossbucks. Our plan was to have two animals under riding saddle, two packed heavy, and two packed light, then rotate every day or so to keep all the horses adequately rested. We also planned for two rest days per week. On the first day, all the animals were packed pretty heavy, but the feed went down at a rate of nearly 120 pounds per day, so the packs lightened up quickly.
I set my pack saddles up according to Wade’s advice, however, both Dad and I felt the 3/4″ wool felt pack saddle pads we had were insufficient for the loads we were packing on the horses. We decided to place a regular saddle pad over top of the pack saddle pad for extra protection for the pack animals’ backs. As it turned out, that was a mistake with the Phillips Formfitter.
The first day we made approximately 10 miles. In that distance we had to re-settle the decker pack saddles several times. I was beginning to believe I had made a serious mistake in not ordering the double cinchas. By the end of the second day, in which we made over 16 miles, we had stopped and re-settled the Decker pack saddles a number of times. It seemed they would start to turn every several miles, regardless of how well balanced and tied the load was, or how tight the cinch was. We had no such problems with the crossbuck pack saddles, which were padded in the same way.
Saddle sore on the QH Daisy
By the end of the second day, our large, heavy-built Quarter Horse mare had developed a saddle sore high on her withers. After looking at the location of the saddle sore and considering how often we had to re-settle her Decker pack saddle, we determined that we had over-padded the pack saddles, causing them to “woggle” on the horses’ backs. After that, we packed the Phillips Formfitter saddles without the additional saddle pads and had no further problems with the saddles turning or with saddle sores on any of the other horses. After that point, the Formfitter pack saddles stayed in place with the single cincha and performed very satisfactorily. Lesson learned: Do not over-pad with these pack saddles.
Incidentally, we continued to double-pad the crossbuck pack saddles on the mule and one Quarter Horse and had no trouble with the saddles turning or saddle sores.
I was very pleased with the quality and adjustability of the rigging on the Phillips Formfitter pack saddles. I was able to make the saddles fit properly on my 16-hand, tall-withered, short-backed, tall-spined, deep-chested, bony-hind quartered, Missouri Fox Trotter gelding, as well as the 15-hand, long-torso, flat-backed, broad-chested, wide-rumped, Quarter Horse. As for the mustang, he was fairly in-between the other two and we had no trouble at all with fitting the pack saddles to his conformation.
The one horse that had problems with the Phillips Form Fitter rigging was my 4 year-old Missouri Fox Trotter mare. This mare, Lizzy, has a walk to die for under saddle, but it is that same walk that makes her unsuitable as a pack horse. Her long-strided, swinging walking motion caused her to get rub sores from both the breast strap and the breeching, despite the fact that Wade makes those straps with the edges rolled with a light, soft leather. I found Lizzy also got rub sores from my riding saddle breast strap, so it wasn’t the pack saddle rigging at fault, but simply that my mare has such movement in her strides that she simply gets rub sores. Consequently, Lizzy spent more time than anticipated under my riding saddle with the breast strap stowed in the packs. My other Fox Trotter, Ranger, had no such problems and ended up under the pack saddle more than planned.
On the Fox Trotters, we had to set the spider way up on the croop to avoid rub sores
The one piece of rigging on the Phillips Formfitter saddles that caused problems on both Fox Trotters, was the spider, which is the piece that holds the breeching in place on the croop of the horse. It should ride about half-way between the point of the croop and the horse’s tail. This piece had rubbed deep sores on both my Fox Trotters’ rumps before I noticed it. I had to adjust the spiders so that they rode right on top of the horses’ croop to alleviate the problem. When adjusted as it is supposed to ride, the motion and conformation of the Fox Trotters caused the front edge of the spider to dig into the hair and subsequently the flesh of the horses. I think this problem could be remedied with a slight re-design of the spider. The spider is made with two layers of heavy leather with fairly sharp edges. I think a fleece pad under the spider, a different shape, or possibly rolled edges like the breast strap and breeching have, would fix the problem. I must say, however, that the only horses that experienced this problem were the Fox Trotters. The Quarter Horse and the mustang had no problem with the spider, or any other part of the rigging, as-is. I intend to design a removable fleece pad for my saddles, for use with my Fox Trotters.
The Packer’s Field Manual, by Bob Hoverson
I used the book “Packer’s Field Manual,” by Bob Hoverson, as a guide for setting up and using my Decker pack saddles. I found his book to be quite complete and useful. I learned to tie up manties quickly and well, using the knots and hitches he shows in the book. I set up each pack saddle with two “sling ropes” of about 28 feet length attached to the front saddle arch with a loop. Each rope runs through the rear hoops and is looped around each pack in a way that suspends it solidly from the saddle arches. The packs are weighed and balanced using a pack scale before loading, however, if one pack ends up slightly larger or heavier, balance can be achieved by setting the heavy pack a little higher on the saddle, thus changing its center of balance and making the load to ride balanced.
Decker-style pack saddles differ from traditional crossbucks not only in the way they are made, but also in the way they are equipped. While our crossbucks were pretty bare and light on rigging, the Phillips Formfitters were heavy on rigging. They also, as do all Decker-style saddles, use a protective canvas and wood shield, known as a “halfbreed” or “Arapajo”, apparently named for one of the men who originally designed and used this type of pack saddle. The halfbreed is a canvas layer that fits over top of the Decker pack saddle and has sideboards of 1 X 4 pine that protect the horse’s sides from the packs and spread the load. This is particularly important when packing items such as lumber, fence posts, or gravel. By the time we finished the first leg of the trip (355 miles), both Fox Trotters and one Quarter Horse were starting to show the beginnings of saddle sores where the side boards rode against their sides from the heavy loads of the feed sacks. The mustang, on the other hand, showed not a single mark…anywhere.
The Phillips Formfitter pack saddle is made with a leather skirt covering the saddle bars, with wool fleece on the underside. This fleece is intended to increase the padding and keep the saddle in place better. In comparison, our crossbuck pack saddles are simply made of wood. For the most part we had no trouble with the Phillips Formfitter staying in place…at least once we learned not to over-pad them, however, on our mustang we had a problem with the saddle pad crawling out from under the pack saddle. We had to stop and reset his saddle at least twice during the trip to move the saddle pad forward. We did not experience this on any other horse.
One of our crossbucks on Honey
Again, our crossbuck pack saddles were very sparse on rigging. Just a strap for the breast strap and a couple more for the breeching. They were simple to place, rig, load, and remove. They caused no saddle sores on any of the animals, and never threatened to turn and dump a load, despite our mule’s propensity to roll every time we stopped for a rest. We used the crossbucks on both of the two Quarter Horses and the mustang with similar results. Having said that, I must also add that the heaviest load we ever put on the crossbuck pack saddles was about 170 pounds and they often carried under 150, whereas our Phillips Formfitters were often loaded with up to 200 pounds of feed.
One problem we had with Dad’s old pack saddles was the fact that they are both in dire need of having all the leather replaced. Still, they made it through our trip with only one broken strap – a breast strap, which we repaired with a piece of nylon webbing we found along the trail.
Over the 28 days, Dad and I tried to streamline our morning camp-breaking ritual a number of ways, but we found that with four pack animals, and having to pack our camp and make up four manty packs and four paniers, we simply could not do it in less than about four hours. We discovered that packing the paniers was a simple matter of placing things in the bags in a fairly even manner, then weighing each panier with the pack scale and adjusting as necessary, normally a matter of removing an item from the heavy panier and placing it in the light one. Making up manties, on the other hand, was a matter of building two manties at one time, so that we could estimate that each would be fairly equal in size and weight, then wrapping each one and tying it up. Then, after they were completely done, weighing them to make sure the two packs were within one pound or so of each other. If they were significantly different in weight, they were unpacked, adjusted, and repacked. It was easy to balance them when a pack consisted of one or two bags of feed, but when they contained items of camp gear, after the feed was used, then it was a pain. Additionally, tying up the manties is very hard on the hands. The canvas and rope chafed and rubbed my hands to the degree that it became quite painful for about the first two weeks of the trip, until my hands toughened up.
The one thing we found handy about the manties was that we used the canvas tarps as a ground sheet and bed cover (we prefer sleeping out in the open and did not take a tent). By the end of the trip we had decided that for our kind of pack trips, mantying was simply an unnecessary chore. I can see how they would be the way to go for an outfitter with odd-sized items to pack, but for us, it just isn’t practical.
Utah-style paniers on a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle
For the last three days of the trip we decided that we would go with two pack animals and send one crossbuck pack saddle and one Phillips Formfitter home with our two mares. We also decided that mantying packs was a tedious task we could do without. We finished our trip using four paniers, two of which hung on either side of a Phillips Formfitter pack saddle.
In the final analysis, after 355 miles and 28 days on the trail, we learned that while Decker-style packing is very versatile, making up four manties every morning was terribly time-consuming, tedious, and very hard on the hands. Yes, Decker-style packing is versatile, but panier-style packing is much easier and takes less time and effort to pack, unpack, and load on the pack animal. Even with a cover and diamond hitch, the paniers were easier to pack than the manties. Hard paniers would be an even simpler option.
As for my Phillips Formfitter pack saddles, I am pleased with them and they performed well – once we learned the lesson about over-padding them. They are very well made, both with regard to materials and workmanship. However, I cannot say they out-performed the old traditional crossbuck pack saddles. Though, had we loaded up the crossbucks with the weights with which we loaded the Formfitters at times, things might have been different.
I will continue to use the Phillips Formfitter pack saddles due to their adjustability and versatility, but I will use them with paniers unless it is absolutely necessary to use manties. They will go with us when we start again next spring. While we had two horses that experienced saddle sores and rub sores, I cannot blame that on the pack saddles and do not believe they are at fault. These saddles allow me to choose between panier packing, with both soft and hard paniers, or to go with manties for odd-shaped loads.
For the type of horse packing Dad and I do, panier packing will remain our standard. Consequently, as far as utility is concerned, it is a wash between the Decker and Crossbuck pack saddles. While the Deckers are definitely more versatile in the ways they can be packed, we will be using them for handling paniers, which the crossbucks are specifically made for and do very well. Knowing what I know now, I would choose a standard crossbuck pack saddle over a standard Decker pack saddle for the kind of packing I do.
As far as the Phillips Formfitters are concerned, the quality of workmanship and materials, and the adjustability of the rigging and saddle bars are important to me and I remain pleased with them. I will use them pretty much as I would use a crossbuck pack saddle in the future, but will still have the added versatility when needed. In my opinion, the price tag of $699 for a fully outfitted Phillips Formfitter pack saddle is an excellent value when compared with prices for other brands and styles of pack saddles similarly outfitted. I expect mine will cover many miles on my pack animals before I hang up my spurs.