Kristen Kovatch wraps up her three-part series on lesser-known western sports with a spotlight on “Packhorse Races.” Who knew?
I mentioned in the first part of this series that western pleasure and other popular western disciplines were all born of authentic working western riding—first at rodeos and then at formalized horse shows, cowboys and eventually equestrians in general began competing to see who had the best of anything, whether it was a rope horse, sprint racer or smooth rider. This truth is not unique to just western riding but all kinds of riding—some contests, like hunt seat equitation, are easier to trace in origin than others, but if you can imagine it on horseback, there’s a competition for it. Like packhorse racing.
One such race took place every summer in Dubois, Wyoming, a small western town outside of which I worked on a guest ranch. I was never fortunate enough to be in town to witness the packhorse races in person but heard a lot about it around Dubois.
Teams consist of two riders and three horses—two saddle horses and one pack horse. All teams start with the three untacked horses and a fully-set-up camp site. At the start, the contestants must break down camp and pack it up, then saddle up and ride a seven-mile course at a trot. After a mandatory fifteen minute-break, competitors unpack the horse and then trot the course again. (I imagine that this break is similar to the vet checks at endurance races; I could not find in my research if teams could be scratched due to being unfit at this stage.) At the finish, the teams have to set their camp back up again, including a full-sized cowboy-style tent. Teams typically finish in an hour and a half to an hour and three-quarters. For the Dubois races, the divisions include an open division (open to all,) a “powder puff” ladies’ race and an “old timers” race in which the combined age of the riders must be over 100.
For what seems like a fun vacation-type activity to a lot of horsepeople (Come camp in the mountains! Cowboys will bring in your gear on their trusty packhorses!) the pack horse races are a pretty big deal to a number of the entered teams. Especially in Wyoming, a number of ranching outfits still rely heavily on packhorses to bring supplies to far-flung cattle camps—similar to how the local rodeo is not just a fun show for tourists but a proving ground for the cowboys to hone and compete with their daily-used working skills. It’s easy to forget that there are still places in this country that need horses not just as recreation (and therapy and companionship and a thousand other needs) but as real working partners for survival.
Even the lowly packhorse can get some time in the winner’s circle.