A lifetime ago, when I was an undergraduate, I thought that I would be leading a very different type of life. I graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, with a specialty in Environmental Affairs, and I was really interested in environmental education. I wanted people to understand about the amazing beauty and balance in our natural world, hoping that such exposure would lead to an appreciation which would encourage conservation. While in school, I studied abroad at the School for Field Studies in Nairobi (Kenya), and interned at MASSPIRG in Boston (MA), the Seacoast Science Center in Rye (NH), and the New England Aquarium in Boston (MA). I stuffed envelopes, editing mailings, collected signatures and led tidepool tours, gave interpretive talks on Seacoast history and presented countless sessions on the mighty Homarus americanus (aka the American lobster). But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I served them on paper plates at the local seafood emporium in order to help pay for school.
Life is full of these little paradoxes and tradeoffs. “How is the swordfish tonight?” my customers would ask. “Oh, it’s endangered. Perhaps a nice salad?” I would reply with a laugh, as though I were kidding. My father still thinks that one of the funniest things I have ever said was that I served endangered species on paper plates to pay for my degree in conservation.
While I still love natural history, marine biology and believe in environmental conservation, my passion for horses and for riding has always been stronger. Upon graduation, I worked briefly in an elementary school but shortly after found myself managing a small horse farm and teaching some lessons. That led to other management positions and more teaching, and I never really looked back.
It is easy to disconnect from reality when you hang in the equine world for too long. Let’s face it—there are some facets of what we do which just smack of First World Privilege. It is something which from time to time has really bothered me—especially when clients get all worked up because Blaze is in the wrong colored blanket/boot set, or when I hear the amount of money which someone has dropped on a new horse, saddle or trailer. In the July/August 2017 issue of USDF Connection, Susan Reed of Albuquerque, NM, wrote in her letter to the editor, “…I cannot imagine life without my animals. However, when I see the amount of money that is spent on horses, equipment, training, and so on, I wonder at the value systems of those who choose that lifestyle….I taught school for 25-plus years and was distressed to see that my horses had better foot care, food and medical care than many of the kids in my classes…Where is the balance between making the world a better place for all creatures and being passionate about an art form, which to me is dressage? I haven’t found a good answer yet.” (Emphasis is mine).
I felt chills when I read Ms. Reed’s letter. Her sentiments echo the little voice in my own head, the one which I ignored for many years but which has become louder and louder in recent months. What have I done to make this world a better place?
When I moved to Cold Moon Farm two years ago, one of my goals was to make it a model of implementing sustainable practices in horse farm management. At the same time, I run on a shoestring budget, so I know that any progress would be gradual. What could be overwhelming can sometimes be easier to manage in smaller chunks. In the long term, I hoped that I could learn some “best practices” and then use media to help spread the word to more equestrians.
Progress has been slower than anticipated.
But slow progress is still progress, and this spring I took part in the New Hampshire Coverts Program, put on annually by UNH Cooperative Extension. This three day workshop is geared towards land owners, managers and conservationists to train them to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship. I can’t believe how much information was packed into that workshop—I think most of us left feeling both overwhelmed and invigorated.
Becoming a Coverts Cooperator is exciting to me for several reasons. First, participating in the program allowed me to return to my “roots”, so to speak, and spend time with other conservation minded individuals. Secondly, it showed me that becoming an effective land steward doesn’t happen overnight, and that there are many resources available for support and assistance. Finally, I realized that it really is okay to try to manage this farm to meet my objectives; in other words, creating well placed riding trails, pastures and other horse areas is acceptable if that is what I want to do with my land. I can emphasize improved habitat opportunities in other places on the property, and by managing the “horse parts” of the farm well, I can reduce the negative impact they might otherwise have on local ecosystems.
After attending the workshop, I contacted Strafford County Extension Forester Andy Fast and set up an appointment for him to visit the farm. We walked all around the property but especially paid attention to the 26 acres which are in current use. Two of these acres are classified as “farmland” (aka, field) and the rest are woodlot. There are some basic trails out there but they need a brush hog and additional clearing to make them more usable for the horses. Andy was excited by the amount of white oak on the lot, reminding me that it is a valuable food source for many species. He recommended applying for funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create a Forest Management Plan, which would allow for a possible small timber harvest. Well planned timber harvests can have many benefits, including improving forest health, increasing diversity, improving wildlife habitat, and possibly yielding a little income which could then be used to improve the trails.
I also participated in two further trainings. First, I have become a “Speaking for Wildlife” volunteer, another program coordinated through UNH Cooperative Extension. Groups such as senior centers, youth organizations, conservation commissions, libraries, etc., can sign up to have trained volunteers present a number of scripted slide shows on topics such as NH wild history, bat conservation, vernal pools and more. Our commitment is to try to give just one presentation per year, which seems pretty reasonable! I also attended a field workshop on managing shrub land and young forest lands for wildlife and bird species. We visited two different sites, identifying nearly ten species of birds and actually mist netting two.
For me, all of these actions have been tangible, rejuvenating steps which help to bring my life back into alignment with my core values. I love horses—that will never change, and I continue to be passionate about riding, coaching and training others. I will continue to take active steps towards achieving my personal goals with horses and for my business. But at the same time, it is equally important to me that I am working to make this world a better place, and to not get so all consumed in the accuracy of a ten meter circle that I forget to appreciate all of the beauty and open space around me.
Stay tuned for further updates on future actions which will help me to “live my values”.
Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride
***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***
On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row. We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina. But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.
The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding. Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion. The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.
Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention. I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog). Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area. I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.
GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders. In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.” This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through). This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country. Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.” What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?
Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle. I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?
This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it. While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm. She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter. It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old. During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad. This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.
I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April. Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be. I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride. As it turned out, I got my wish. The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front. She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.
At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015. Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me. At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?
In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan. I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness. I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.
But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR. Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled. I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out. And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.
Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets. We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads. Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great. She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.
After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100. The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward. Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.
During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition. I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain. We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops. At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.
About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee. It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls. I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.
I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee. Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender. I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose. Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.
I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve. You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one. I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal. Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan. So for three weeks, Lee longed. I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes. The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move. And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up. It always went away after a few laps at the trot. But I was sure there was something there.
Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year. Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise. I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput. Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.
Yet I am stubborn.
I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels. So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things. “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.
I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in. However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt. When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks. I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities. There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building. For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.
Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well. I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took. On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride. Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.
I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee. She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions. We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days. Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.
My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted. After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing. I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.
The Heart of the Thoroughbred
The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day. Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time. Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness. At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step. I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.
I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching. By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.
In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion. Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother. Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers. In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse! Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.
On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought. The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past. I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse. She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left. Not lame, just….different. Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.
Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road. First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters. Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore. I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era. Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions. We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.
The hold on red day was stressful. Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog. Again, not lame, but not completely even. They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness. They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again. When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again. They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.
It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge. The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica. A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water. I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower. In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.
After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee. By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity. One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition. While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being. Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort. After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.
I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns. While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch. I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk. At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant. Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens. The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges. I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.
Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion. It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest. We were cleared to continue.
Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days. Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen. As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe. While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges. I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look. At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.
Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best. Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum. But then the most amazing thing happened. It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to. It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.
It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.
We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down. Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.
We had done it. Again.
Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides. Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.
As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring. She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse. We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.
Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride. Overall, she weathered the experience well. But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart. What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.
Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance. It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again. I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages. As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian