Over the centuries, horses, mules, donkeys and many other species have served man. They are the foundation on which entire civilizations were built. Literature often refers to them as beasts of burden. But what does that mean?
What is a beast of burden? A beast of burden, otherwise called a pack animal is a working animal used by people to transporting materials by loading items in a pack on the animal’s back or attaching the load to them in order to be pulled.
Traditional pack animals can include camels and goats in addition to the more recognizable pack animal like horses, mules, and donkeys.
The sort of animal utilized varies from location to location. In many places on earth, the utilization of pack animals is the primary way to move large heavy items from one area to another.
Horses and Mules As Beasts of Burden
In England, horses were intensely used to transport merchandise and minerals from medieval times until the development of the first turnpike roads and canals in the eighteenth century.
They were especially helpful as roads were muddy and often impassable by wagon, and there were no bridges over some significant streams in the north of England.
In North America traders utilized mules to convey products to remote Local Americans also to transport rawhides back to foreign marketplace.
In the 1790s the then Lehigh Coal Excavating Company used to ship Anthracite coal all the way from Summit Mountain, Pennsylvania up to cargo ferries situated at Lehigh River utilizing trained mules in what might have been the first commercial mining organization in North America.
As the country extended west, mules were utilized by early explorers and travelers, mostly by “Mountain climbers, and gold miners who covered abundant distances personally or else by small troupes.
In Australia and North America, the pack horses take up a noteworthy job in recreational interests, especially to transport products and delivers into wild regions and where engine automobiles are also impracticable.
Even today, pack horses are utilized by mounted suppliers, hunters, stockmen, campers, and cowmen to transport items too heavy or bulky to be carried by a horse and rider. They are also utilized by the US Forest Department to carry equipment needed to look after trails.
Donkeys As Beasts of Burden
In developed nations donkeys are utilized to sire mules, to guard sheep, for children’s mounts and as pets.
Donkeys are able to be fed and stabled with horses. Their small size makes them easy to load and their surefootedness makes them a good option for pack animals. BLM Donkeys particularly make great pack animals because they are inexpensive to adopt and fairly easy to train.
Oxen As Beast of Burden
The use of Oxen was common in early America. Oxen were more trustworthy than horses and mules and had less probability of running off. They were also able to withstand the fatigue of the voyage from England to America and were easily fed by accessible vegetation.
They were also fairly affordable. In 1846 a burden of oxen cost around $25. Conversely, a good riding horse at the time cost around $150 (source).
Conestoga wagons were too big and overwhelming for the Oregon Trail. Converted ranch wagons, called Prairie Schooners, were more easily utilized and pulled for the most part not by horses, but by oxen.
Camels As Beasts of Burden
Camels excel in desert regions as a pack animal due to its ability to carry larger loads up to 400-500 pounds and their excellent adaptation to desert life.
The key to camel’s capacity to withstand a considerable length of time without water to drink because of its effective protection and control of water (they don’t keep water in their humps, those actually are mostly fat).
A camel can carry items at capacity over long distances in very dry conditions, eating only shrubs. When camels drink, however, they may devour twenty-five gallons at a time. They were instrumental in early history for their role in the trade routes and continue to be of service in Asia today.
Goats As Beast of Burden
Goats have long been an excellent pack animal. They are small, easy to keep even on very poor forage and often have 2 or 3 babies at once.
Larger goats can easily don saddle bags or pack goods. They are sure footed and readily trained to lead. Their small size means keeping them does not require a large piece of property.
While many may not like to think of them this way, goat meat is also the #1 most eaten meat in the world. Part of that has to do with their prevalence in underdeveloped nations and farming communities.
The US Department of Agriculture says that 63% of the world’s population eats goat meat. It is lower in calories, total fat, saturated fat and cholesterol than Chicken, Beef, Pork and Lamb. (source)
Can I ride a donkey? Donkeys can be trained to ride and can do many of the maneuvers horses can do. However, one must take into consideration the size of the rider compared to the size of the donkey. I have an excellent article that, while written for horses, also applies to donkeys that can help you with that: Choosing The Right Size Horse for Your Height & Weight.
Are alpacas good pack animals? Alpaca could be used to carry small amounts of weight but are primarily used for their fiber and meat. Their larger camelid counterparts, the llama and camel, are better suited for pack animals.
Are there still oxen? There are still oxen used in various countries. In the United States, they can even be found on some small working farms (source). Larger farms have almost all replaced animal labor with large machinery that can do the job faster and on a larger scale.