Training an Older Goat to be a Pack Goat
A couple years ago one nasty, cold fall afternoon while carrying my daughters entire boned out bear and hide on my back for 5 miles back to the truck, I made the final decision I was going to make the plunge into goat packing. I had been considering it for a few years, knowing myself well I am cautious about adding more to my life because when i’m in, I’m all in, to the extreme. The words casual or ease in slowly don’t really apply to my personality. I did a ton of research, selected some breeders and got on the list for some baby goats. I picked up 4 young goats the following spring and was putting my all into training and raising them, dreaming about the day they could carry my gear and game in the wilderness.
If your like me and you don’t want to hurry up and wait for your goats to grow old enough to pack, you can consider looking for a mature goat that is old enough to pack. Finding a mature goat to try as a packer is no easy task. Most people sell goats that don’t work out well for them for some reason or another or you find a goat that has never packed and is a total gamble. If a good goat comes available, expect it to be snatched up very quickly. Personally I would rather take a chance on a goat with little or no experience than take someone else’s second hand pack goat that didn’t work out. I am no expert on goat conformation, however you will want a breed that is known for being a good packer and a goat that is big enough to be a legitimate packgoat. Try and get a weight/height and some good pictures before going to look at a goat. Ultimately you won’t be able to tell how much ‘heart’ a goat will have or what their personality will be like until you have owned them for a while. This past spring I found a 4 year old Alpine who we named ‘Toby’ he was 38”-39” tall and 250+ lbs and had never left the pasture he was raised in. I drove 6 hours one way to get him and took on the challenge of trying to turn him into a pack goat. It was a fun adventure and he turned into a great packer, I will share a few of the things I did that I feel led to his success.
The first and most important thing to do is spend lots of time with the new goat and build his trust to see that you care for him and are trustworthy. Toby was a really mellow goat and not overly social, after some time he would meet me at the gate and wait for me when I got home. Within the first week I began his training on saddling, leash training and loading in the truck.
For saddle training I would led him sniff and investigate the saddle. See How to fit a pack saddle here I worked on slowly setting it on and off of his back, without buckling any straps to let him get used to it. He resisted a little at first, so I gave him a little grain as a reward (oddly enough he didn’t and still doesn’t like peanuts) while I set the saddle on and off his back a few times. I came back the next day and did it again, this time I buckled and strapped the saddle and let him graze for a few hours with it on to get used to it. After a few training sessions it can be pretty easy to saddle a goat. The more times you do it, the easier it gets. Today toby will stand next to me now and let me saddle without flinching, I can load heavy panniers on him easily by myself because he is so calm and used to it.
A goat that has never ridden in a truck can be pretty nervous about it. In Toby’s case he had never ridden in a truck. One thing I discovered is a goat is often very uncomfortable getting under a canopy. If the canopy is removed for training they lose some of the fear about loading. I used a leash and a step box to get him in the truck. I probably repeated this 20-30x in one session, the key is lots of repetitions. By the 2nd day I removed the step box and he made his first jump into the back of the truck. Lots of praise, be patient and lots of repetitions. By about the third or fourth day he loaded up pretty well, after a month he loaded like a pro. Today I can’t drop the tailgate too soon or he will hop in on his own, fully loaded. See How to Load a Pack Goat here
Once you have a goat that is willing to load and trusts you enough to put a saddle on his back it is time for a hike. I would recommend your first hike be with any other goats you have that have already hiked, in a wooded area where visibility is lower, relatively flat and no switchbacks. Reduced visibility will encourage your goat to stay closer, flat ground is best for an out of shape goat and switchbacks often confuse a goat that has never packed. Be patient and and keep your expectations low at first. My first hike with a new goat did not go so well. Being that Toby was raised on browse in a pasture he was in heaven when I brought him to a trailhead in an alpine meadow. He immediately started eating and would only begin to follow when myself and the other goats were about 50- 100 yards ahead of him. Then he would run full tilt toward us, scaring the crap out of my babies sending them running all directions and into me. He would catch up, hike for about 50 ft and then go back to grazing and repeat the cycle. Once we got to the switchbacks he would watch me walking back the other way above him and head back down the trail to match my direction, acting confused as to why I was getting farther up the hill. I would hike back down leash him up and lead him around the switchback. About ½-¾ of a mile at my pace and he was completely gassed out, just standing in the trail tongue hanging out of his mouth. At that moment I thought I had made a mistake, why did I get this goat? I slowed my pace and let him catch his breath. We hiked a few more miles, very slowly, not something I like! After the first day I knew I needed a new plan, this goat learned saddling and loading really well, now I had to get him in shape and teach him to hike fast if he was going to have any chance at being a good pack goat. See Conditioning timeline here
To get an older goat in shape quickly and teach them to hike fast there is no better approach than running in my opinion (thanks for the tip Marc!) Personally I do everything I can to keep myself in shape so I can thrive in the challenging terrain I hike and hunt and hike in, it is no different with a goat they need it too. I am fortunate enough to own a piece of private timber land about half mile from my home that has a 1.5 mile road and gains about 500’ in elevation. I took Toby and my fastest young goat on a run to the top and back about 2-3x per week for 4 weeks with no trail hiking. What this accomplished is number one it taught him he needed to move fast. Every time he tried to nibble on some browse I would actually pick up the pace and he would have to work hard to catch me on the uphill run. Secondly it got him in shape pretty quick, he shed about 20-30 lbs of pasture weight in a few weeks. A big key to getting a goat into shape is to use a road or a trail, humans have an advantage in that type of terrain and can move at a pace that pushes the goats. I found off trail was not the place to ‘get them in shape’ because a goat moves with much less effort off trail compared to a human. After four weeks of running Toby did a 14-15 mile day with very light weight only slowing below my hiking pace a few times during the day. After another month he was able to do the same hike with 35-40 ibs. By the end of the season he was ‘lean’ but had built a considerable amount of muscle actually weighing more than when he used to be a pasture potato, was able to manage a 65 lb load real well. One word of caution here is to progress slowly, this was difficult for me and I did sustain one setback as a result when I hiked 21 miles with him in one day with 8000’ elevation change mostly off trail and over obstacles under a load. He had to take a three week break right during one of my hunting seasons which was a big deal because he was the only mature packer that I owned at the time. See How to build your play structure here
One of the other challengers in taking on a goat that was not raised as a pack goat is the lack of agility. A young goat has natural agility and maintains that by hiking over obstacles and having structures to play on. My young goats are almost a year old now and are great athletes, thanks to the many diverse and challenging structures I have in their pen. An older goat often won’t feel comfortable on structures or obstacles if he hasn’t seen them, especially if he is a bigger goat. I was all excited for Toby to gain agility with my structures, except the problem was he would just stand there and look at them. Even the other goats playing all over them didn’t encourage him, he was raised in a flat pasture and that was where he was comfortable. Once I had him in enough shape to hike I began to intentionally take him over obstacles while out hiking. I often hike in areas where there are no trails so this happened naturally, however whenever I would spot a good challenging obstacle I would intentionally hike the goats through it. He would watch the younger goats go over the obstacle and he would be ‘forced’ to do the same. He looked clumsy and ridiculous at first, but pretty quickly gained his confidence. Just like loading and saddling it takes lots of forced repetitions for a goat to become comfortable with this if they haven’t seen it from a young age. Even as his ability gained he still wasn’t using our play structures like he should. I ended up building some really easy structures lower to the ground and he began to use them and eventually moved on to some of the more challenging ones on his own. Now I am experimenting with isolating feeders and bedding spots behind obstacles, ect.. To make sure all my goats get the repetitions they need to stay really agile. I hike in country that is steep and littered in obstacles, agility is the #1 trait I require and found it to be the single biggest challenge to teach an older goat, so I spent a ton of time on this one. Toby is night and day different then when I got him, but is still not what he could have been if he had been on obstacles from a young age, that is my number one tip for any goat is to make sure you have really good structures in there pen that mimic what they will see out packing.
Overnight pack trips was something I learned more about along with my goats this past year. I am pretty good at learning from my mistakes, but I almost always make them before I learn and my first overnight with goats was no different. I had spent a ton of time with my younger ones on the training, on the trail, ect but hadn’t taken them overnight because they were not load bearing age. Once I got Toby that all changed. I researched and found every opinion under the sun about how to set up camp properly. I rigged some overnight tie-out’s and headed out. I learned few things:
- A big goat is a lot stronger than you think when it wants to move away from where it is tied, especially if it is inexperienced and feels threatened. Whatever you do make sure at least one end of your lowline is tied to a stout tree.
- Goats make a lot of digestive noises in the middle of the night and they like to feed a few times during the night only amplifying the digestive noises and crunching. Don’t put them 4’ from your tent. Lowline or highline location should be carefully selected and needs to be taken into consideration when finding a campsite
- Don’t ever forget a back up squirt bottle in case the main one fails
- Yes some goats can undo carabiners- get the locking ones.
Without going into too much detail my first night found me lying awake at 2 AM listening to an orchestra of different goat sounds right next to my tent. About 3 Am I was close to falling asleep when the goat noises suddenly increased. I heard some branches snapping, goat bleats and the sudden onset of goat hooves on the dry ground. About 1 second later I experienced a goat hellbent on joining me in the tent with the entire lowline and other goats in tow. The tent pole instantly snapped and I was doing my best at being a one man offensive line still zipped inside my tent and sleeping bag to keep the sudden rush of goats from trampling through my ultralight cuben fiber tent. My friend had to get out of another tent and pull the tangled mess of goats and rope off of my tent. With the wind blowing uphill it was likely the goats caught a good whiff of a bear below us (we saw one below us the next day). I had made the make of using stakes to secure the ground line, a normal stake or multiple stakes will not hold a big panicked goat. The second night of that trip all went well with the goats about 25’ from my tent securely tied to a BIG TREE. Some goats learn camp manners pretty quick some do not. Toby only took one squirt (still to this day haven’t had to remind him) to stay out of gear and not walk through camp. My one year old on the trip ‘Hanz’ I learned must have been a product testing expert in another life, he got into everything, over and over again. I squirted him so many times the squirt bottle actually wore out and he had to remain tied if we wanted peace at camp. A New goat will be nervous the first night if they haven’t done it before, they adapt pretty quick and settle down after a time or two. Goats feel more secure if they have some trees around them and prefer to be elevated if possible. I set them in a small clump of elevated trees that allowed them to look down below and they were much more content. They learn to adapt but it can make it easier if the first few nights are in a setup that makes a goat most comfortable. See how to Set your hunting camp here
A few other things to think about are herd dynamics, care, hoof trimming, ect.. Be prepared for total chaos for about 6 weeks, sometimes longer. I recently took on another adult goat and it took him 8 weeks to overthrow Toby as the new pasture leader. There are lots of little things I experimented with and am still working on, like how to separate goats during transport, dealing with shelter issues when one goat is a jerk and kicks the others out, feeders ect… Just be prepared for the expense and time that your set up may have worked before your new goat, but doesn’t work now. I have brought in two older goats now and each time it was easily 20-30 hours of my time + materials just to make improvements to the feeders/ structures/ shelters to make everything work well again. Also an adult goat will probably have some habits you can’t train out of them and have to learn to live with. Toby will follow me across anything, hike through a rainstorm without complaining and push himself to the point of exhaustion and injury to keep up with me, however he still will not let me trim his hooves willingly. I learned to adapt and now when I get him completely tired he will lay down in the truck after a long hike, I will climb in and trim them at the only time he lets me- when he’s completely exhausted. Special thanks to Marc Warnke for all your input and tutorials, they have been a great resource that I continue to use again and again.