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The Good-Enough-to-Get-You-Out-the-Gate Saddle Bags
August 22, 2018

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
Mule Polly rockin’ her new (to us) pack saddle bags.

In starting mule trips, good enough gets you out the gate and perfection keeps you at home. This week I’m fitting mule Polly with bags for her pack saddle. They’re not new. They’re not perfect. But they’re good enough to get us out the gate. At least they don’t smell like vomit.

Julia and I are 2 weeks away from heading off on our mule ramble. I’m calling the caper “Ride Out the Front Gate”. The idea is simple. We ride out the farm gate on our mules, turn left and…… well, just ride in to the mountains of North Carolina. There, we’ll write down, record, sketch and post what we encounter here on RiverEarth.com and on Julia’s blog Saddle Under the Stars.

In the spirit of summer, there’s no pressure for perfection. We’re just grabbing gear, much of which we already have, and heading out.

One piece of gear we didn’t have, but just got, are pack saddle bags. These are bags that fit on to the pack saddle that mule Polly will carry. We’ll carry our clothes, cooking utensils, food, journals and camera in them.

Sure, you can buy a hand tooled leather set and look like you just stepped out of “Gunsmoke”. Thing is, those buttery soft, fringey suckers are expensive – think hundreds of dollars.

That’s just not the spirit of this trip. No, the spirit of this ramble is more along the lines of a trip I took a few years ago with mule Polly.

Before setting off on a similar spur of the moment saddle trip, I borrowed a set of duffel bags from my friend Ronald Hudson.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag horse mule packing trailride uwharrie riverearth.com
Long time friend, mule man and skin flint Ronald Hudson. I bought Polly from Ronald.

All went well until they got rained on and I was overcome by the urge to puke.Turns out, Ronald had gotten the bags cheap because they’d been used to carry vomit bags.

You can hear Ronald tell that story here.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag horse mule packing trailride uwharrie riverearth.com
It took me two days to prepare for what I now call the “Vomit Bag Uwharrie Ramble”. I’m riding Buddy, a mule I borrowed from Ronald. I’m packing Polly. Sunday, Day One was spent teaching Polly to haul salt blocks without killing me (or the 100 pounds of mineral salt on her back). The square shape in the duffel bag is a 50 pound trace mineral salt block. Day Two Ronald and I clobbered together enough gear for a week on the road. Tuesday noon I was gone.
Close-up of Polly’s improvised pack rig. You can see the profile of the salt block through the duffel bag.

Not figuring the gagging and nose holding, those bags got me through a wonderful pack trip through the Uwharrie Mountains. (“That account of setting out is, Pack Saddle Tempation. The story on the Vomit bags is here.)

Flash ahead to now. Instead of forking over a stack of notes for a “real” set of saddle bags, I spent $80 on 2 surplus Army rucksacks. They’re called “Mollee II 3-day assault packs” which brings to mind a secret mission that involves being dropped behind enemy lines for a very short time after which time you’ll wish you’d brought more underwear.

This week, we hung the packs from mule Polly’s pack saddle. The bags are light, only 4 pounds each. To get Polly used to carrying a heavier load, we added sand bags.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
We fill shopping bags with sand that’s washed out of the mules’ dry lot. The scales are to make sure each bag weighs the same (16 pounds).
bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
Closeup of our old brass scale. Each bag must weigh the same. If not, the load is unbalanced and it will pull the pack saddle to the heavier side.
bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
The top of each bag is tied with bailing twine so the contents don’t spill. Then each…
bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
is put in to one of the Army rucks.
bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
Final weigh in. The load on each side of a pack saddle should be within one pound to keep the load balanced.

The only thing dis-agreeable about these packs is the smell. Unlike the $400 leather set that smells of Montana mornings, these smell like Army pits. Something between an Army Jeep with the emergency brake on and the inside of an Abrams tank.

bernie harberts julia carpenter pack saddle bag riverearth.com
Hanging out to dry: we washed and line hung the rucks to get the military smell out of them. Some smells are more powerful than detergent and sunshine.

No matter, our bags are good enough. They’re gonna get us out the gate. Even if, wafting out behind them, trails a slightly military scent.

Posted Wednesday August 22, 2018 by Bernie
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Cavallo Hoof Boots
August 20, 2018

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
Our new Cavallo hoof boots. They’re the Trek model, a very generous gift from the manufacturer for our upcoming “Ride out the Front Gate” ride.

I use hoof boots on my mule’s hooves instead of steel shoes. I’ve done so for years, working my way up from boots I made with stuff I found in a dumpster, to the store bought kind. I use Easy Boots and Renegades.

This week hoof boot manufacturer Cavallo sent me 4 boots for my mule Brick. The timing was perfect. I was short 4 boots so Cavallo’s Treks came at the perfect time.

Thanks guys!

I strapped my new mule duds on Brick’s feet, lashed my chainsaw to mule Polly’s pack saddle and took off up the mountain. It was time to saw up that tree that had fallen across the trail.

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
The old Husqvarna chainsaw strapped to the pack saddle. The rope is from an old anchor rode.
bernie harberts lost sea expedition mule polly tiny house public tv rocky mountain pbs
Booted up: these are the Cavallo “Trek” model. A mule often has a narrower hoof than a horse. Cavallo offers their Trek model in a “Slim” version. These fit Brick’s feet really well. Like many horses, mule Brick’s front feet are larger than her hind. In front she’s a size 1, hind she’s a size 0. We did not need to fit the pastern wraps Cavallo provided. These will sure be nice to have, though, if we ever need a little extra boot padding. Ditto the gel-like inserts that go in to the shoe.
bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
Heading out from our barn.

Our farm is in the Foothills of North Carolina, 20 miles from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Mostly forested, it’s covered in stands of old growth red and white oak, white pine, poplar, maple and some hemlock. Winding through the forest are access roads used for logging and hunting access.

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
The mule’s eye view of our country.

Thing is, if you have roads and trees, it’s only a matter of time until a tree falls across a road.

Sure, you could pile your chainsaw on to your tractor and putt-putt up the hill and do the job that way. But that’s not nearly as fun as doing it with a mule.

Which is why this morning, we clip clopped up the hill in our new hoof boots so we could drop a poplar tree that had fallen across one of our roads.

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
Heading up the mountain trail.

While downed trees aren’t a big deal on secondary trails, we try to keep our main roads open. Later this month, we’re seeding the stretch of road blocked by the fallen tree. There’s enough room under the tree for a mule to pass but not a tractor and seeder. It’s just gotta go.

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
The offending tree. It feel during one of our torrential rains.
bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
Waiting: the mules hang out while I tend to the chainsawing.

After the tree was dropped we climbed back on to our mules and rode up to the orchard. The trees are young. They’re from this area: Arkansas Blacks, Winesaps and Limbertwigs. Julia and I just sat and looked in to the southern range. Soaked up the silence. Took in the sun’s low morning slant, summer’s geometric not toward fall.

This is why we didn’t take the tractor to cut that tree.

bernie harberts cavallo hoof boots ride out the front gate
Orchard Hill.

Then we reined our mules down the mountain, toward the rest of the day and breakfast.
Thanks again for the hoof boots, Cavallo. They survived their first mission just great.
More about Cavallo’s Trek hoof boots here.

Posted Monday August 20, 2018 by Bernie
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Booting Up
August 8, 2018

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition
Julia and mules Brick, Dusty and Polly. The black things on the mules’ feet are hoof boots. Polly is the mule I drove across America for the “Lost Sea Expedition” TV series.
This week, 3 weeks before we set off on our mule ramble, Julia and I are fitting our mules with boots. No, not the lace up kind or the rubber kind you might imagine. No, not the ones I made out of inner tubes 15 years ago. Rather, these are boots built just for horses and mules.

This used to be hard. Now it’s easy. My mind goes back to stinky dumpsters, whizzing trucks and California.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition
Booting up: the protective boots that keep the mules’ hooves from wearing down too fast on the road. We use Easy Boots (“Glove” model / near) and Renegades (“Classic” model / distant)

How it all started
Back when I did my first cross country mule trip (North Carolina to California), in 2004/5, I set out from Oriental, NC with steel shoes on my mule Woody’s feet.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition
Day 1: Woody and I heading out of Oriental, North Carolina on our coast to coast ride.(Melinda Penkava photo).

A few weeks later, I bought a pony from my friend Mel Wyatt in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I named her Maggie. She would become my pack pony. I nailed a set of front shoes on her, figuring a I’d add the back shoes when she needed them.

bernie harberts woody maggie foxtrack training center mel wyatt riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition
Pony Maggie the day I bought her from Mel. A few days later, I steered her out Mel’s front gate and headed for California.

While Woody’s shoes initially held up okay, I soon ran in to trouble.

Obstacle One: I wasn’t a great horse shoer. Sure, I could nail the shoes on Woody’s feet. But a few days after I got them hammered in place, I’d hear the tell tale “clink, clink, clink” of a loose shoe. And so I’d pull over to the side of the road. Dig my shoeing kit out of my saddle bag; “Kit” just being some shoeing tools wrapped in the remnants of a canvas raincoat.

I’d beat the nail clinches tight and set off again until, a few miles up the road “clink, clink, clink”. Mule Woody was very patient.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition
One of the only photos I have of the shoes I put on Woody.

Obstacle Two: carrying shoeing gear is heavy. Sure, if you’re a farrier, you’ve got a honkin’ big truck to haul your gear around in. But when your sole transportation is an old saddle mule and small pack pony, those 15 pounds of spare shoes, nails, hammer, clincher, rasp and hoof knife weigh as much as the rest of your possessions: tent, clothes, notebook and camera.

Enter hoof boots

In Star, North Carolina, 2 months after heading out from Oriental, Maggie’s back feet started getting sore. I was so sick of messing with steel shoes I decided I would try hoof boots.

Trouble is, this was before the Buy-Anything-Anywhere-on-Your-Smartphone Era. Oh, and my funds were as slim as a worn steel shoe. Instead of ordering a set of hoof boots I decided to make a pair.

I dumpster-dived some inner tubes out of a tire store dumpster. With my multi-tool and a set of borrowed tin snips, I cut the inner tubes in to star shapes.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition home made hoof boots star north carolina
The skidder tubes cut in to star-shaped pieces (Star, NC)
bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition home made hoof boots star north carolina
Look closely and you can see where I traced an outline of Maggie’s foot (Star, NC)

The next day I duct taped one of these pieces of inner tube to Maggie’s feet. With Maggie wearing what looked like a cross between a mummy and bed room slippers on her feet, we struck out anew. The boots were clunky. They impaired her gate. Woody, Maggie and I shuffled toward western North Carolina with our DIY boots.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition home made hoof boots star north carolina
My DIY hoof boots. Yes, they worked. Their commercial opportunities underwhelmed me. This is Maggie’s right hind foot. (Lovejoy, NC)

Progress was slow. I had to replace the duct tape every few miles, the inner tubes every few days. In Asheville, 2 months later, it was clear I needed something more permanent. I bought my first pair of Easy Boots, a “real” pair of hoof boots.

As my steel shoes wore out, I replaced them with hoof boots. By Oklahoma, Woody and Maggie were walking with nothing but hoof boots on their feet.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition home made hoof boots star north carolina
Woody and Maggie take a break from following the Oklahoma back roads (outside Stillwell, OK)

I haven’t nailed a steel shoe to a horse or mule’s hoof since.

Flash forward to now.

Looking back on it now, I’m glad I wasn’t able to just go out and buy the hoof boots I needed. This is a marvelous era. We can order, download and receive almost anything we want. Hoof boots, farrier tools and saddle gear are easy and relatively inexpensive to acquire.

In shorter supply are patience, creativity and endurance. I miss how my brain, faced with something I needed but didn’t have, would flash, “hey, we could use an inner tube for a hoof boot and we can strap it on with duct tape and then to make it last longer we can strap mud flaps to the bottom.”

Or do I?

Actually I don’t. If I’m honest, what I miss are the fun memories and funny visions of my imperfect solutions. What I don’t miss, and conveniently forget, are the weeks spent gimping up the road shedding boots and pieces of rubber on the side of the road as I headed to California. The hours on the side of the road, with cars and trucks whizzing by, taping boots to my mount’s feet. That stank.

bernie harberts riverearth.com horse mule trailride long distance riding ride out the front gate lost sea expedition

Not a great place to do hoof boot maintenance (NC/TN state line)

I need 4 more boots so that every hoof on our mules has a boot on it. Forget the duct tape and inner tubes. I’m ordering some more hoof boots. I need to save up my patience, creativity and duct tape for the trip ahead.

Additional reading and viewing
-“Too Proud to Ride a Cow”, the travel book about my voyage across American with Woody and Maggie
-“Woody and Maggie Walk Across America” – the kid’s book about my voyage across America with Woody and Maggie
“Too Proud to Ride a Cow” available on Kindle
Both books are available at the RiverEarth.com General Store.

-“The Lost Sea Expedition” streaming on Amazon and available at the RiverEarth.com General Store.

Posted Wednesday August 8, 2018 by Bernie
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Carpe Cool
August 8, 2018

bernie harberts julia carpenter snookie dog mule travel coors beer consideringanimals.com
Shadow cast: Left to Right they are mule Dusty, Julia, mule Brick, me and mule Polly

Carpe Cool. Julia, the critters and I try to be on the trail first thing in the morning while the western North Carolina trails are still cool. Here, we’re riding out behind our house. We try to spend at least one or 2 hours in the saddle every day (Monday – Friday). This helps the animals’ hides – and ours -toughen up for our early September mule ramble.

Posted Wednesday August 8, 2018 by Bernie
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Teaching Brick to Leg Picket
August 5, 2018

Hitting the road with your mule boils life down to basics: food, water, shelter. Right up there is keeping your mule from wandering away in the night. While you could tie her to a tree or post, she couldn’t lie down, roll or eat. Not cool. There are many ways to secure a mule. I prefer the leg picket. Here’s how I’m training Brick to the picket.

Posted Sunday August 5, 2018 by Bernie
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Catching Brick
August 1, 2018

A few days ago I wrote how I was going back to the “old ways”. Of just heading out the front gate with my mule and finding out what lies up the road. Turns out, I first had to catch that mule. Her name is Brick. She’s the mule I plan to ride on the “Ride out the Front Gate” trip. I’ve only owned her about a week and here’s how our first meeting went. Talk about a flashback to the “old ways”….

Posted Wednesday August 1, 2018 by Bernie
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