Too rough for wheels, shifting to hooves
In the mountainous regions of the world, sometimes four hooves are far more sure than the wheels of modern mechanized warfare. To answer the military’s need to move equipment and supplies in remote regions, the age-old use of equine power has forced modern technology out to pasture.
At the U.S. Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, located at Pickel Meadow near Bridgeport, Calif., a course in high-country packing, including basic horse and mule care, is incorporated in the mountain warfare training programs to prepare Marines and other military personnel for the challenges they will encounter. The movement of heavy weapons, fresh water, meals ready to eat and ammunition, are all dependent on these animals and the military personnel who handle them.
At the center, the packing program is overseen by base operations chief Master Sgt. Anthony Parkhurst, with animal care and stable management by pack master Sgt. Robert Scott, who is staff non-commissioned officer in charge and head wrangler Sgt. Phil Bocks.
Thirty head of stock, six horses and 24 mules, are quartered at the center for training purposes. From early spring to late fall all the animals are ready for work at the center’s stable. During the winter months, all but 10 are moved to winter pasture near the Sleeping Elephant Ranch at the northern end of the Antelope Valley. The stock is rotated between the center and pasture during the winter so they will all stay in top conditioned training for the work they have to do. There are also limited winter courses available at the center concerning the use of the mules and horses so their diminished presence is necessary.
“Last January and February we had members of the Canadian Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry training here at the center” Scott, said. The course is not just for Marines. British Special Air Service, Special Forces, Marine expeditionary units as well as other branches of American military avail themselves of this training.
The rugged environment of the Sierra surrounding the Pickel Meadow location is the perfect training ground for an alpine packing course, according to the Marines. The animals used for the training are bred and raised for this purpose. The newest additions to the training mules retained at the center were purchased from the Hells-a-Roarin’ pack station in Gardner, Mont., at an average price of $1,500 a head.
Mules are the predominant breed of choice and the ideal requirements for their intended use are animals at least 15 to 16 hands and about three years old when purchased by the government.
“At this age, they have the potential of many years of service, making them a sound investment for this training program.” Parkhurst said.
“They are able to carry approximately one-third of their body weight, meaning an animal that weighs approximately 1,200 pounds can carry 400 pounds of gear,” Scott said.
“The weight equation is also dictated by terrain, distance to travel and how much the animal has been used on a daily basis,” Scott said. “Two hundred pounds is an average weight for them to carry most of the time.”
Mules are primarily used because of their sure-footed-stamina and common sense. “Mules are considered stubborn,” Scott said “but in truth, it is just their common sense. You can force a horse to go places against their better judgment but if a mule feels it isn’t safe, it just won’t go. That isn’t stubborn, that’s smart.”
A packing demonstration performed by Scott and Bocks showed the need for a lot of attention being placed on the initial care of the animal.
The food requirements at the stable reach up to 1,000 pounds of hay daily when the entire pack string is quartered at the stable. The center supports the local economy of the Antelope Valley by purchasing hay locally from the Torley Ranch. Grooming of the animals is a priority with special attention paid to the parts of the body where equipment will touch the areas of the back and stomach.
“Dirt and debris can rub the animal raw in just a few short miles while packing a load,” Scott explained.
The mastery of these abilities is critical in the remote regions of places like Afghanistan assisting the native packers used by our forces. The hiring of native packers in the region is common because of their knowledge of the terrain and their familiarity with their animals. When needed, interrupters are provided by the Afghan National Army. The importance of providing our Marines with a working knowledge of the skills required to get the packing movements done gives an advantage to the job required to supply our troops in the inaccessible and rugged terrain of the Middle East.