Category Archives: Equestrian Land Conservation

The Four Seasons of Cold Moon Farm

This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!).  Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work.  Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.

Winter is here in New England.  A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing.  Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep.  This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.horsesfed

Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping.  All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know.  If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots.  But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter.  The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year.  Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor.  One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing.  No athlete can maintain peak performance year round.  Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge.  After all, nature is doing it, right?

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Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty.  As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me!  With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.

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A February sunset (2016).

In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned.  I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky.  I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil.  Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.

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Getting legged up April 2016.

Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers.  We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends.  Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.

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Marquesa and Lee enjoying spring grass in May 2016.

Songbirds return.  At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy.  The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.

But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups.  Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs.  Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area).  Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies.  And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.

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The hazy days of early summer.  June 2016.

Summers in New England are short and intense.  There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it.  I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible.  I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day.  My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.

This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought.  I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.

The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual.  I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated.  On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back.  But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll.  Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil.  I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.

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Lime being spread August 2016.

Fall here is simply stunning.  There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten.  Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color.  Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed.  The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction.  The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer.  Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.

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The view from between Anna’s ears.  October 2016.
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These two things don’t seem to belong together (October 2016).

Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter.  The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300).  Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water.  And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves.  I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!

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Yes, I mowed over these, or at least the ones that didn’t blow away.   October 2016.

As fall winds down, winter begins again.  And the cycle continues.

Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change.  Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.

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Marquesa shows off her “frosticles”. Winter Solstice, 2016.

So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.

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“You are so lucky to work outside,” they said.

Happy New Year.

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‘Tis the Season

So I may have missed #GivingTuesday with this blog, but in the spirit of the season I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on some of the amazing non-profits which I have had the opportunity to be involved with this past year.  Any or all of them would be worthy recipients of a seasonal donation, should you be so inclined.  Alternatively, choose a group that YOU believe in and support, close to your own home.  Donations don’t have to be monetary (though I am sure that is always appreciated)…donations of goods and services often also fill a need.  And so many non-profits rely upon the dedication and commitment of good volunteers.  Really, there is just no excuse to not get behind a cause that is important to you!

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for UnTacked magazine about Detroit Horse Power, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded by David Silver.  DHP’s mission seeks to use horses to provide opportunities for Detroit’s underserved youth, and in the long term, to establish an equestrian center within city limits which will provide the residents with a center for community events and equestrian services.  The story of the path which led David to the creation of DHP was really inspirational to me; I have so much admiration for people who identify a problem, see a solution, and then actively set themselves on the path to put the plan into action, despite some seemingly insurmountable hurdles.  You can read more about Detroit Horse Power here or visit their website at www.detroithorsepower.org.

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Detroit Horse Power Summer Camp participants from a 2015 session; founder David Silver is in the red polo on the right.

The United States Pony Club is still a group near and dear to my heart.  USPC states as its mission that it “develops character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community in youth through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports.” USPC is represented by its graduates in many walks of life, from the upper levels of equestrian sport, to related fields such as veterinary medicine, to leadership roles in various equestrian organizations.  Perhaps as significantly, USPC graduates cite their experience as Pony Clubbers as being influential in contributing to their success in other, non-equestrian, ventures.  Visit www.ponyclub.org to learn more.

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The Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org) is one of the most organized and effective advocacy groups supporting the cause of equestrian land preservation.  Since 2007, the organization has assisted in protecting more than 200,000 acres of land and more than 1,200 miles of trails.  They maintain an online resource library, with free information on topics such as conservation tools for horse lands, best management practices, and more.  The ELCR keeps tabs on local threats to equestrian access across the country, and helps to provide solid facts and figures to present to key stakeholders.  Through their partnership with My Horse University, the ELCR provides free webinars on topics such as manure management, developing a private trail system, and more.  As a community, we MUST be attentive to the long term management of public and private lands which allow equestrian use.  We can all list places where we used to ride; once equestrians have lost access, it almost never returns.

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Just recently, I had the chance to write a Charity Spotlight on the Standardbred Retirement Foundation for an upcoming issue of UnTacked.  This group was founded in 1989 by two women closely affiliated with the Standardbred racing industry, and since its inception they have helped to place over one hundred horses per year.  As with many racehorses, some animals are left with injuries and other limitations which make them unsuitable as riding horses; the SRF will retain ownership of these animals and provides them with care for the rest of their lives.   The organization remains involved with all of the horses which it places, requiring twice yearly follow ups on the animal’s health and well-being, signed by the owner’s veterinarian.  In addition to saving literally thousands of horses in its twenty six year existence, the SRF has assisted with programs for at-risk youth, exposing them to the sweet, gentle personalities of the Standardbred horse.  Executive director Judith Bokman commented in her interview with me that their limiting factor, always, is funding.  With more funding, they could take in more horses and expand their youth programming.  To learn more, visit www.adoptahorse.org.

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Standardbreds are uniquely identified via their freeze brand, seen here.  Their gentle personality and willing nature make them wonderful riding and companion horses.

Finally, an introduction to All Better Pets, a Manchester, NH, based nonprofit with the mission of providing care to abandoned and homeless pets. This organization is affiliated with the Center for Advanced Veterinary Care, a small animal emergency and referral hospital. Many of the animals which come to the clinic are in need of medical attention for treatable conditions; without intervention, however, euthanasia would be the only option.  Since 2010, the organization has helped over 200 animals get well and find new homes, and has provided assistance to hundreds of others through affiliations with other groups.  I am a little partial to All Better Pets because my cat, Nieva (nee Willow) is an alum.  She is pretty much perfect. Visit www.allbetterpets.org to learn more.

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Nieva

These are just five worthy organizations for your consideration this holiday season.  Please comment with information about YOUR non-profit organization of choice.  Even small donations add up, and in this season of giving please do not forget to consider the importance of supporting the efforts of these grassroots groups.

Five reasons why YOU should ride at the GMHA Distance Days

Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about.  After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding.  My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.

Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport.  It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.

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“Team Peanut Butter and Jelly”, GMHA Distance Days 2015– Kat Waters and High Brook Quintessential, me and Lee, Robin McGrath and Aikanes Sunflower.  We did the 100 miles together.

The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days.  There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.

Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.

1) Become a part of history.

The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”.  Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock.  It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).

GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state.  In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.

The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar.  Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun.  Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge.  Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.

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Mrs. Fletcher Harper, who by all accounts was a fearless rider, jumping downed trees on trail while others searched for a route around.  Photo from GMHA archives.

All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians.  Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.

Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.

2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events

You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.”  You are totally right.  Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….

And that is why  Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride.  There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders:  15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles.  The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long.  The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.

The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three.  These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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The historic Taftsville Covered Bridge has long been a highlight of the 100 mile ride.  The original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Irene but was restored in 2014.  The bridge will be included on the 2016 route.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend:  the 100 mile team relay.  There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance.  Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides.  If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!

 

3) Non Competitive Fun

Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance.  Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition.  Points are deducted for negative changes.

But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too!  CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.

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Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA in 2015, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days.  You can do any and all combinations of day(s).  On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options.  On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.

Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.

4) Stunning Scenery

Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.

The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks.  Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.

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Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them.  The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including  Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few.  But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.

The popular equestrian travel website www.equitrekking.com featured the trails around GMHA in its “50 States Trail Project” as the ‘place to visit’ in Vermont. You can read more about it here.

5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love

The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride.  Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants.  Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.

Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.

This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require.  Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend.  Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride.  Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.

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Denny Emerson is just one of many horsemen who got their start in distance riding at GMHA.  Emerson has gone on to complete the Tevis Cup and 2300 endurance miles.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it.  With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride.  Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.

If this blog has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Distance Days at its website, https://www.gmhainc.org/trails/, or follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GmhaDistanceDays/?fref=ts

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review:  The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders  by Heather Cook

c 2009 Storey Publishing (North Adams), 231 pages

ISBN 978-1-60342-147-8

The Green Guide for Horse Owners and Riders is a super easy to read and well organized book which represents the most comprehensive summary of the concepts of “sustainable practice for horse care, stable management, land use and riding” in one place to have crossed my desk.   Depending on your previous level of knowledge on the subject of eco-friendly horse management practices, this book might alternately be too basic in some areas or too detailed in others.  In either case, though, you are likely to find references to supplemental sources which can direct you to more information.

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I have long maintained that the equine industry needs to get on board with more sustainable management strategies.  Too many farms are overstocked, with destroyed paddocks/turnouts, unsightly and unsanitary manure piles and out of date protocols.  This book helps take the reader through the steps necessary to establish a different paradigm, whether starting a farm from scratch or working with facilities and layouts already in place.  Cook does an excellent job of balancing general guidelines with more specific detail.  For example, each chapter concludes with guidance to be considered for various climate regions in the US and Canada.

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Manure compost bins do not have to be overly fancy.  Image from http://www.horsesense-nc.com.

 

Some of the strategies covered in this book include techniques for “harvesting” water from rainspouts for use as wash water or for irrigation (which, interestingly, is illegal in Colorado); several methods of composting manure; selection of sustainable and healthy building materials; reducing the use of fossil fuels, and reclamation of muddy paddocks.  In addition, there is an extensive resource list compiled in an appendix which is clearly divided into sections such as green energy, grant sources, recycling, trail riding resources, helpful government and non-government organizations, etc.

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Management strategies which reduce mud will prevent your paddocks from looking like this one.

This book really is a “must read” for anyone who is interested in being a good steward of their land, or in providing guidance to someone else who is in that role.  The onus is on all of us as concerned and conscientious citizens to do a better job of implementing management practices which consider the local and regional environment.  A healthy farm means healthy horses.

5/5 stars

Blogger’s Note:  Cover image is taken from Sustainablestables.com, another great resources for assistance and tips on better horse and farm management strategies.

 

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.