Equestrians and the Quest for Open Space

This piece is adapted from an assignment I did for a course about the value of wilderness in society; hence the references to the impact of equine presence in designated wilderness areas.  However, I think the concerns discussed herein occur in many other areas where equestrian access is permitted alongside other users.

The horse is a bit of an enigma in American society.  They are classified as livestock, yet treated by most as companion animals, which leads to constant conflict in decision making.  People are simultaneously drawn to them and fear them.  An enduring symbol of the American West, the mustang inflames passions on all sides of the arguments which arise in reference to their “management”.  Horses and civilization have gone hand in hand since between 4,000 and 3,500 years BCE, when they were first domesticated on the Asian steppes.  It would seem to follow that little to no taming of the American wilderness would have been possible without the horse.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 has ‘grandfathered’ the use of horses and pack animals in wilderness areas, despite the fact that their use gives mechanical advantage to the rider.  Allowing livestock in these areas is hardly an unprecedented event.   In fact, many existing trails were built on those created by free grazing livestock.  Many of the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are still grazed by livestock, on leases which can pay pennies on the acre.

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A mustang on the California/Nevada border.

In a 2012 article from the National Parks Traveler , Kurt Repanshek reported on a court ruling that the use of horses and packing within the Sequoia National Park was in violation of the Wilderness Act, because the Park had failed to study the impact of the increased use of pack animals on the area. Quite interesting is a casual read through the comments reacting to this article, which sum up some of the same arguments we equestrians hear time and again:

“…trails that are being pounded to death by hooves, eroded to dust and cobbles, and buried in manure…”

“…stock trails require a higher standard and more expensive maintenance, so the NPS essentially subsidizes this very small user group…”

“Apparently, the NPS has no problem with horses trampling and destroying nature, but if cyclists want to have access to national park trails, somehow, trail erosion becomes an issue. Oh the hypocrisy!!”

Like any user group, horseback riders come with their positives and their negatives.  To be truthful, I have little experience with the use of horses in true designated wilderness areas, but I have some experience with their use in national and state parks and other public areas.  In spite of my inherent bias as an equestrian, I still feel that the benefits of allowing this traditional use on these lands outweigh the detractors.

Let’s start by looking at a few facts…

First, horses are Big Business…this is not a “very small user group”, as our detractor put forth above.  According to the American Horse Council (2005), there are 9.2 million horses in the US, and the equine industry has a direct economic effect of $39 billion annually.  Billion.  With a B. The industry pays over $1.9 billion in taxes per year to all levels of government.  Over 70% of horse owners live in communities with a population of less than 50,000.  And the vast majority (just under 4 million) of horses are not racehorses, or show horses—they are used for “recreation”.  With these numbers, it is clear to see that we are not talking about some insignificant user group.

Secondly, manure is not a public safety hazard.  Americans are truly the most poop-phobic people.  It is really ridiculous.  From a 1998 white paper prepared by Adda Quinn for Bay State Equestrians (CA), “Horse manure is a solid waste excluded from federal regulation [by the EPA] because it neither contains significant amounts of listed hazardous components, nor exhibits hazardous properties…No major human disease has ever been accurately attributed to the intimate contact human beings have had with horses for thousands of years…The chemical constituents of horse manure are not toxic to humans. Horse guts do not contain significant levels of the two waterborne pathogens of greatest concern to human health risk, Cryptosporidium or Giardia, neither do they contain significant amounts of the bacteria E.coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella” (Quinn, 1998).

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Hacking in Vermont on private land.  Those yellow ears belong to my horse, Lee.

Historically, equestrians have been allowed access to trails in many public and private land holdings, but in the past seventy five years, those areas which continue to allow for this use have been dwindling.  It is perhaps all the more frustrating when the loss of use occurs on public land, because in many cases recreational use is one of the reasons why such lands have been set aside.

In 2009, the AHC responded to concerns from the recreational use equestrian community that there were an overwhelmingly large number of trails on public lands being closed off to equestrian use.  The Washington, DC, based organization, which is the most significant lobbying body for the equestrian industry, surveyed members regarding their experiences with federal land use.  Issues were in particular identified on lands managed by the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, but also those managed by the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife, with problems cited including lack of maintenance and lack of access through trails closed to equestrian use.  Frustrations abounded, especially when the rationale for the closures was not known.

From the report, “An initial examination of restricted access reports reveal that in most instances there was a clear history of equestrian use.  Furthermore, in only a few examples of restricted access was the respondent aware of any public process or public comment period associated with the trail closure.  Respondents in some cases are aware of a stated reason for restricted access for equestrians.  However, in a number of instances the respondent is unaware of any reason behind a closure.”

What is ironic is that some of the closures/restrictions in access have occurred on public lands given with the full intention of equestrian use.  Most notable are the carriage trails in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, ME.  These roads were built by David Rockefeller with the intention of being available for equestrian use.  In regards to these restrictions, one respondent wrote, “There is a portion of them still open to equine use and there is a concession offering carriage rides and allowing access for people to bring their own riding horses for a fee.  But this access is only on a portion of the carriage roads…I live very close to one section …that has been closed to equine traffic.  I have requested information from Park Administration as to why this has happened and if there is any way to open the closed areas…I have received no reply from them.  In order to ride the carriage roads that are less than ½ mile from my stable I now need to trailer my horses twelve miles one way and pay to park my trailer.  There are numerous horse owners in close proximity to me that would benefit from access to our traditional riding areas.”

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Trail Riders in Acadia National Park (photo from http://portraitswithhorses.com)

And while I don’t deny that horse hooves can cause damage to trails through over use, and agree that horses should be restricted from unique and sensitive ecological areas, horses are not the only user group which can leave a mess in their wake.  Another respondent states, “The problem is not that BLM is actively denying trail access to equestrians.  The problem is that BLM is not regulating motorized use of trails.  The motorized users have caused so much damage (rutting, erosion) to the trails, they have become unusable for equestrians.”

It seems clear that there is conflict over the use of horses in some areas of federally managed lands.  Sometimes the issues are direct, such as degradation of trail quality through equestrian use.  Sometimes they are less so, and manifest in terms of lack of funding for trail maintenance, causing lack of access, or conflict with the needs of other user groups, such as hikers.  However, it is equally true that those who enjoy riding horses out in the open, the way that they historically have been, are passionate about doing what is necessary to ensure that access is not further restricted.

Why Equestrians Need Public Land Access…and why Public Lands Need Equestrians

The reality of being a rider in the modern US is that more than likely, you must pay a fee equivalent to a small mortgage to board your horse at a public stable.  Fewer people than ever are able to have the luxury of the land and space necessary to properly maintain horses, and as open land has become somewhat of a premium commodity in populated areas, the cost of being able to do so even at a boarding stable has skyrocketed.

Without trying too hard, I can name a long list of facilities which used to be horse farms, even right here in the seacoast of New Hampshire.  Running a horse farm is a labor and cost intensive affair, and some owners have simply grown tired of the grind. But many more were unable to afford to keep their properties, for many reasons.  Flat, open land is often taxed at a premium, making it hard to break even when you add in the equally high cost of the production of hay, grain and other consumables.  Once these farms were converted to subdivisions, mini malls or similar, they never have returned to a natural state, in my experience.

In New Hampshire, programs like LCHIP (NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program) have purchased the development rights to many long standing farm properties, effectively dropping the tax rate and preventing future development of the land.  Proper and sustainable management of these farms will ensure at least pockets of open space for generations to come.

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The fact is, if equestrians wish to enjoy the privilege of riding out in the open, they simply must step up to educate and advocate for the preservation of lands in which such activity is permitted.  The Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) was founded nearly a decade ago for just this purpose.  From their website , the organization’s vision is “A future in which horse lands have been conserved so that America’s equine heritage lives on and the emotional, physical and economic benefits of mankind’s bond with the horse remain accessible to all.”  The ELCR has been involved with the protection of more than 200,000 acres of land and 1,200 miles of trails.  Through their education and outreach activities, the ELCR has assisted horse owners in doing their own outreach and educational campaigns within their local communities.  The ELCR reminds us that the USFS estimates that we are losing 6,000 acres of open lands per day and that “poorly planned, uncontrolled development or sprawl, competing demands for land, and a population that is increasingly unfamiliar with horses are the greatest threats to equestrians and horse lands today.”

The preservation of wilderness within the United States was at least partially due to the young country’s quest for an identity.  The American West became a symbol of the vast lands which this country had in its borders.  Horses are indelibly linked to this heritage, and their use as a means to access far away and isolated areas is unparalleled.

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My mount, Thunder, and I, with the White Mountains of Nevada in the background.

I cannot even begin to describe some of the amazing places I have had the opportunity to visit via horseback, both in the US and abroad.  Obviously I have a love of the horse and of riding in general, but for me, there is almost no better way of reaching remote and far away areas which only rarely are visited by humans.  On foot, at best I can walk a few miles per day.  On horseback, I have gone forty or more.

Horseback riding is a way for our country’s citizens to learn to appreciate and enjoy amazing natural areas, without need of roads, tramways or cable cars.  Horseback riding gets people outside, and if the need to protect trails is what motivates these citizens to be active proponents of protecting open space, so be it.

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It is hard to believe that these mountains in Vermont were mostly pasture lands for sheep and cows not even a century ago.

The equine industry is a large and powerful user group with a strong motivation to protect and preserve open space and lands which permit equestrian use.  It would certainly behoove those interested in protection efforts to consider their needs and recruit their support.

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Equestrians and the Quest for Open Space”

  1. In Colorado, we almost saw this with the Colorado Horse Park. There were lots of rumors about private companies buying the land to build more expensive houses in the highly-desirable Parker area. Since I started in endurance and competitive trail, I’ve seen many of our area’s ride locations close to horses. The Colorado Springs Air Force base is restricting access more and more every year. We are losing some of the best ride locations, and, as you know, it’s very difficult to find enough land for endurance/competitive trail. We used to skip the rides that looped back on themselves five times over, because we felt it wasn’t worth the entry fee to go in circles on the one open trail loop. In Cozumel, beach access has been extremely restricted to horses. Ironically, tourists and cruise ships are the reason the island is being slowly destroyed. At home, since we don’t have beaches to ride on, it’s a big deal to ride on the lake shore, but many lakes are no longer allowing horses. Even when riding in national/state parks, I’ve experienced horrendous trailer parking situations and very limited trail access. I’m lucky to have ridden where I did when I did. So much has changed even within the last five years.

    1. From my perspective as an equestrian/conservationist, the loss of open space and access to open space is one of the biggest and most troubling issues facing the equine community today.

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