Photos by Marc Warnke of packgoats.com
Pack goat breeds range from Kiko goats to Saanens to Toggenburgs. But five factors outweigh which breed you choose.
I turned off the highway at the small green and white sign that read Pack Idaho. Erv and Teri Crowther run the small organic farm that supplies my neighborhood convenience store with raw cow milk and the best yogurt I’ve ever tasted. I didn’t come for milk or produce, though. I came to meet the goats.
Furry heads butted under my hands; the wethers demanded to be pet. As the goats crowded around, Teri introduced everyone. “Watch out for Willie,” Teri said with a laugh. “He’s a butt rubber.” As if on cue, the goat sidled against me and rubbed his head against my butt. Luckily, he was dehorned and my backside survived the experience.
The Crowthers use these goats to pack gear for camping, hunting, and trail maintenance into the Rocky Mountains. We are more accustomed to mules, donkeys, and even llamas as pack animals but pack goat breeds are gaining popularity in the United States. Goats are well suited to the high country. Their surefooted nature makes them able to navigate steeper, rougher, and less-maintained trails than other stock animals. They have less impact on the environment than other pack animals. Goats eat a variety of plants and weeds and thus don’t overgraze. Even their poop resembles rabbit or deer droppings. A well-trained goat doesn’t have to be led. Whereas a llama sometimes needs to be dragged and a horse, if it gets away, can run all the way back to the trailhead, a goat wants nothing more than to stay with their human. You are their alpha and they will follow you anywhere.
Goats are also a lower cost option for people wanting to try out packing with an animal. The cost per animal to feed, house, and care for goats is less than 20% of that per horse or mule. They require less space, so you can start with a couple of goats even if you don’t have extensive pastureland. You can fit several goats in the back of a pickup truck so they don’t require a horse trailer.
Goats make great hunting companions. The smell of blood and wild game doesn’t bother them. They don’t bolt from the scent of predatory animals the way horses do. Erv and Teri were packing with their goats when he heard the lead goat give a warning noise. He looked back in time to see a mountain lion, on a rock outcropping, take a swipe at the goat. Erv managed to scare the mountain lion off before anyone, human or goat, got hurt. Once the danger was gone, the string of goats calmly resumed walking.
The downside to packing with goats is their size. They can’t make as many miles a day as bigger animals and they can’t carry as much gear. A full-sized, well-trained pack goat breed can carry between 50 and 70 pounds. A horse, under the same conditions, can carry 200 pounds.
The Crowthers’ goats are all an Saanen-Alpine goat mix. They have packed with Toggenburg goats in the past but found them to be too smart. There is no clear consensus on what pack goat breeds are best; you should research breeds to find qualities that are most important to you. It’s a good idea to talk to a qualified breeder that understands goat packing.
What you want in a good pack goat breed boils down to five things: size, conformation, personality, conditioning, and training. Of these, conditioning and training are the most important and can make up for deficiencies in size and conformation.
Conformation is the combined structural correctness and musculature, including frame and shape. A good pack goat should be at least 34” at the withers and at least 200 pounds. It should have a flat back from withers to loin. The cannon bone should be half the length of the upper leg. The goat should be wide across shoulders, and legs should track reasonably straight. It should have good bone size in its legs and feet. Some hockiness is good in a pack goat if you are going to be taking it into mountainous areas; hockiness is a tendency for the hocks of the hind legs to turn inward. This makes a goat more agile on rocks.
Decide what personality traits are important to you. Some breeds of goats “talk” more than others. If you are looking for a companion, this could be good thing; if you are hunting it might not be. Some breeds are known to take to crossing water better. Some are more wary and alert for predators. If you have a chance to observe the kid before you buy, get one that is bright-eyed and follows you around.
Training starts very young. There are soft, lightweight training panniers you can put on your kid as you lead them around the pasture. Now you are ready for the single most important thing a pack goat needs: conditioning. You can’t take a fat, out-of-shape human, put a heavy pack on him, put him on a trail at 9,000 feet and expect him not to be gasping and wheezing after a few feet. It is no different when caring for goats. If you take an out-of-shape pasture goat up there, he’s going to make it about half a mile then lie down in the middle of the trail and refuse to get up.
The future of packing with goats into the high country is unclear. I spoke with Marc Warnke, an active member of North American Packgoat Association (NAPgA) and owner of packgoats.com. The Shoshone National Forest is considering changes to their forest management plan aimed at banning pack goats in core bighorn sheep habitat. Pack goat enthusiasts like Marc are worried that if the Forest Service bans access in that area, other national forests will follow suit. “None of it is based on accurate science,” Marc told me. “It’s all based on fear and just trying to blanketly eliminate any potential risk versus what we would call reasonable risk. If you access the NAPgA website and do any research on the information NAPgA is putting out, it is very, very clear that pack goats don’t present a reasonable risk to wild sheep populations. It’s really unfortunate the direction they are trying to go with it.”
According to Marc, if you want to get started packing with goats, all you need is a collar, a leash, a saddle (which is called a sawbuck) and some panniers. You will also need a baby goat and some time. Goats can’t pack heavy weight until they are almost four years. However, it is very difficult to convert an adult into a packer. You really need to start with babies. As for the training, Marc has this advice: “I’ve trained everything from dogs to horses. Goats are one of the softest animals to train. They need to be trained with love. You can never be heavy-handed with them. It just doesn’t work. It’s not a functional disciplinary tool. All you have to do is yell at a goat and he’s torn for hours. I wish more people didn’t think they were so tough and beat-uppable.”
The secret life of the pack goat is getting less secret every day. For enthusiasts, breeders and businesses like Marc’s and the Crowthers’, the pack goat carries its own weight as an asset to hunters, campers, and outfitters.
Have you tried packing with goats? What pack goat breeds would you recommend?
GET GOING WITH PACK GOATS!
Reading: The Pack Goat or Practical Goatpacking
Meet up with other Goat Packers: Napga.org
Originally published in the November/December 2017 issue of Goat Journal.