Packing Gravel

by Jenifer Morrissey
October – November 2017

It was a small job for a client, but one I’d never done with the ponies, so it required preparation beyond fitness. We needed to move sixteen cubic feet of gravel down a steep rocky trail. The trail went into a roadless area to a building site near a large lake. I chose an experienced pony and a novice for this job, and they confirmed my admiration for working ponies.

ponies packing
Two ponies packing gravel down a steep trail to a lakeside building site through an area burned in a forest fire last year.

My nineteen year old Norwegian Fjord gelding Torrin had worked on this site twice over the past eight years, skidding logs doing fuels reduction and hazard tree removal. Our previous work was put to the test last year when the area was burned in a forest fire. Due to hard work by firefighters and perhaps the fuels reduction work we’d done, the buildings were saved, an oasis now surrounded by charred trees.

Torrin hadn’t ever had concerns about the location, but when I’d taken a novice there previously, she communicated that she’d never seen a lake nor boats nor people ‘sitting on water’ before. She was mesmerized at first sight then settled into the work at hand. This time I took Lucky Joe, a four year old Fell Pony gelding. It was his first time off the farm since arriving three years before. After that first experience with a novice pony on the job, I knew that this time our first task upon arrival was to walk down the hill to allow Joe to digest the new-to-him location. For Joe, the lake with its boaters didn’t merit a second glance.

It took about two hours to pack the gravel down the hill. Afterwards, while the ponies rested and ate, we leveled the building site. When we determined we needed a bit more gravel to finish the job, I was very happy that I’d done two-a-day trainings with Joe and Torrin. They were mentally as well as physically ready to go to work again.

When our client first gave us the job, I knew I would need to purchase panniers appropriate for the work. The panniers that I had on hand were conventional top load types with flap covers, and for this job we needed no flaps and bottom unload. Through the wonders of the internet I found gravel panniers available for sale, but they were more expensive than I could justify for a one-time use. In addition, they were oversized for my ponies on this job. One of the disadvantages of working small equines is always having to get creative about sizing tack and harness and implements. Fortunately Cathy Greatorex at Doc Hammill Horsemanship suggested I look at apple-picking bags. I found some well-made sixty-five-pound capacity bags that were a third the price of what I would have paid for the customized versions. And they even stood up well enough to be stowed and available for any future, similar opportunity. My husband immediately imagined elk quarters in them!

Part of the training in addition to fitness was making sure the ponies would accept gravel falling down their sides. I had started the fitness-part of their training by having them carry 25-pound bags of feed in each pannier, so naturally the first thing that I let drop from their panniers were those feed bags. The first time I caught the bags and slowly lowered them down, then progressed each day to more abrupt unloading. When we finally got to the day to try gravel, I got a pretty good laugh. Gravel is more dense than feed, so I quickly found that I was the limiting factor in this operation. While I’d been able to lift twenty five pound packs easily, I struggled with a similar volume of gravel. Fortunately the ponies were not only up to the added weight but also accepting of it cascading out of their panniers.

packing fjord with pannier
OWell-made apple-picking bags worked well as bottom-unload gravel panniers.

On the day of the job, I made adjustments to britchens and loads based on feedback from Torrin and Joe. We also had to have a way to make sure we put the same weight on each side, another place where those identical feed sacks weren’t ideal preparatory loads. When I first packed twenty five years ago, we used a scale to weigh the panniers to balance the load, moving items back and forth between panniers until the weights were similar. This time, though, because the contents of the panniers were identical side to side, we ended up using a bucket with a line drawn inside; we shoveled gravel into the bucket up to the line then dumped the bucket contents into the panniers. I think packing is an ideal way to get a pony started doing regularly work. It’s weight-carrying, but the weight is still, not moving around as a human body does, and it is work done at the walk. Joe gave us feedback that, as a younger pony, he wasn’t up to the same weight that Torrin was, so we had two lines on the bucket to load his panniers more lightly.

I am often asked how much weight the ponies can manage. They can definitely manage more than I asked of them on this job. Yet the logistics of loading the gravel, lifting the panniers onto the pack saddles (where I was definitely a limiting factor), and the steep trail had to be taken into account. Given that we accomplished the job reasonably quickly with no injuries or mishaps is how I count success rather than a simple scale-based measurement. At the end of the day, the boss said he was proud of how I’d prepared the ponies, which was the second-best feedback I received on the job, with the first being the ponies doing it willingly and well.

More often than not, when we have work for the ponies in our business, the work site is a long way from home. This job was no different; it was an hour and half commute to the trailhead. A few years back when we were faced with a two hour commute each way, I developed a short massage routine to help the ponies handle standing in the trailer for the trip home after working hard for several hours. Lucky Joe thought this routine was odd at first but eventually came to appreciate it.

One of the more mundane parts of preparing ponies for work is accustoming them to fly spray. When we started preparations for this particular job, the weather was hot and the insects were making up for lost time during a cool spring. My old hand Torrin looked forward to being sprayed, noticeably relaxing and licking and chewing as soon as the bugs found him less appetizing. At first Lucky Joe was uncomfortable with the feel of the spray on his skin, but after a few days of work and perhaps watching Torrin’s appreciation, it was gratifying to see him go from being afraid of fly spray to wanting it!

This job made me once again appreciate the opportunity to work ponies. This sort of work is of course what these pony breeds were originally bred to do, so it’s no surprise that they have so many characteristics that make them suitable. They are surefooted and have good feet so they made the multiple trips up and down the steep rocky trail with ease and barefoot. They are strong enough to do real work but short enough that tacking up and lifting panniers on them doesn’t require a step stool. And their conformation allows them to serve multiple uses – after packing in the gravel, we ate lunch amidst stacks of logs that Torrin had skid years before.

In our business, we never know what sorts of work we’ll be doing one year to the next. I always hope, though, for opportunities for the ponies to contribute. We’d never packed gravel before; who knows what might be next. That good old pony versatility will make it easier to fit them in somehow!

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Jenifer Morrissey works ponies in Gould, Colorado and is the author of The Partnered Pony: What’s Possible, Practical and Powerful with Small Equines.

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