Marines learn to rely on horses

14 Nov 2003 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

With plans for a seven-month deployment to Afghanistan in the near future, the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, are honing their mountaineering skills in order to be ready for combat in any clime or place.

Reverting to a less technological means of maneuver warfare, these Marines are preparing for service with horses and mules to ensure success on the battlefield.

"There are a lot of places we could never get a vehicle.  Whether the roads are washed out, too steep, or not there at all, we can rely on animals to help us," said Sgt. Earl R. Roberts, the staff non-commissioned officer of the Animal Packers Course, based in Bridgeport, Calif.  "Anywhere [people] can walk, it's a sure bet a horse or mule can get there, too."

In 1953, the Army retired it's animal packing unit, said Roberts.  With the use of vehicles in modern wars, they were seen as unnecessary and a burden to upkeep.  However, as wars are increasingly fought in mountainous environments where vehicles cannot operate, animals such as horses and mules are seen as assets.

"We can have animals carry things even we can't carry ourselves," said Roberts.  The Asheville, N.C. native, continued,  "Where a human might have a problem carrying a .50 caliber machine gun and his pack, we can load the machine gun onto a horse or mule and maintain fire superiority even in rugged terrain."

The 10-day animal packing courses are taught four times a year during the summer at Mountain Warfare Training Center, located at Bridgeport, Calif.  A brief refresher was taught here recently, bringing pieces of the course to the base.

"I'm giving a refresher course here at the request of 2nd Battalion.  Some places they've had to fight have brought them into some rugged terrain, and they want to make sure they're up to date on how to load an animal," said Roberts.

The Marines who attended the course were already graduates of the animal packers course held in Bridgeport.  Along with general knowledge about packing animals, they also brushed up on their equine first aid and survival skills.

"Taking care of the animals is the hardest part of working with them.  You have to keep them healthy, or knowing how to strap a pack on them won't mean anything," said Lance Cpl. Timothy L. Huff, a rifleman with G Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marines.  The native of Phenix City, Ala., continued,  "It's a trade off.  In order for them to carry your gear, you have to look after them like they were one of your Marines.  Making sure they're healthy so they can keep you healthy."

The Marines worked with field-expedient harnesses and proper packing procedures on horses at the base stables.  Making sure the packs were comfortable on the animal was stressed during the refresher.

"If something is digging into that animal, it could cause a saddle sore or put the animal out of action.  Paying attention to detail when looking at weight distribution and how you strap the packs on can make the difference," said Roberts.

As all-terrain warfare becomes more common in all regions of the globe, the Marines and 8th Regiment and all the other units who participate in the packing course have yet another weapon to add to their arsenal in the war on terror.