Riders' Rights and Regulations

Worried about how a proposed regulation will affect your equestrian activities? Here's a practical guide to working the political system when trails and land use are at stake. By Merritt Clifton for EQUUS magazine.
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"No horses allowed," says the shiny new sign at the head of your favorite trail. Don't get mad. Forget getting even. Recall instead the 11th Commandment of politics: Never attribute to malice what may be attributed to stupidity, and never attribute to stupidity what may be attributed to ignorance.

That sign is there because of someone's ignorance, possibly your own. Someone has disregarded someone else's interest to the point of provoking regulation, which may not be in your best interests. The sign marks a failure of communication. Getting that trail reopened to horses may be as simple-or difficult-as opening or reopening communication with the responsible parties.

The sign says the issue is decided. But you can still get involved, adjust the situation more to your liking and position yourself to avoid further surprises. Take your case first to the regulators, then if necessary to the politicians who oversee the regulators-or approach the politicians simultaneously. It doesn't much matter. What does matter is ensuring that the decision makers have all the same information you do, so that they can properly weigh your interest along with those of everyone else involved in the issue.

If you believe you are losing something vital and essential through regulation, you are someone bureaucrats will reckon with, even if you feel you've been ignored. You have influence because you claim, as a reasonable person, to be losing despite your record as a law-abiding citizen and taxpayer, who shares the values of society.

Regulators worry about creating losers, especially from the mainstream, because losers have no positive incentive to obey regulation. Instead they have only the negative incentive of avoiding punishment, in which case, dodging the law is as good as obeying it: With no rangers in sight, you might gallop down that trail anyway. The closer to the mainstream the disobedient are, the greater the risk that the law will fail: If you do gallop down the trail, and all your friends do likewise, whatever is supposed to be protected will be destroyed. Accordingly, to "implement law in a workable manner" really means "making the law acceptable to the majority of interested parties," including you.

The Rules of the Game
Nonetheless, to be an effective player, you need to be familiar with the fundamentals of effective political action. For starters, you'll want to make it clear that you are a responsible person with reasonable views. Known as positioning, this bit of groundwork can make or break you future efforts.

  • Good positioning is being recognized and respected as a person or group to be consulted.
  • Mediocre positioning is being recognized but taken for granted.
  • Bad positioning is being uninvolved, uninformed and therefore unconsidered.
  • Worse positioning is being marginalized. This occurs when decision makers perceive your views as both unrealistic and nonnegotiable. Though conflicting interest groups often try to portray each other as unyielding extremists, they rarely succeed because the tactic is transparent.

To be an effective advocate, you'll also need to learn regulatory procedures, which, contrary to popular belief, are actually quite simple. In fact, at every level of government, the regulatory process follows essentially the same five-step sequence:

  1. a hearing or hearings to define the problem, plus a consulting interval during which written documentation is accepted,
  2. a regulatory proposal,
  3. a hearing or hearings on the proposal, plus a commentary period,
  4. ratification, and
  5. an appeal process.

Sufficient opposition at any stage of the regulatory process can set it back a step or more. And each step is preceded by public notice; it's up to you to regularly scan the "legal briefs" section of all the bureaucracies whose decisions may affect you. Once a regulation is ratified, appealing it will require a lawyer, but until then all you need is savvy and a tenable position.

Following a simple but practical strategy will help you to achieve your goals:

Assess the situation. You erred in ignoring the decision-making process that closed your favorite trail, but you can still identify all the regulatory bodies that might be involved and see to it that you are added to their mailing lists. In the case of trails, you many need to contact municipal governments, county governments, regional planning commissions, property owners' associations, zoning boards, park administrations, water-conservation districts, your state wildlife department, your state department of environmental protection, the National Park Service, U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service-maybe more. Just finding all their addresses can be tedious, but email access often facilitates communication and allows you to monitor much regulatory activity.

Only one or two levels of authority are likely to be involved in a given issue at any one time. Figure out which regulatory body makes the final decisions about your trail. That's whom you need to persuade. All others, no matter how mighty, are able only to recommend, not decide.

The public perception is that powerful agencies have the ability to dictate to citizens, for instance the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its mandate to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This isn't quite true. The ESA states what thou shalt not do, but it does not specify instead what thou must do. Each regulatory body dealing with an endangered-species issue has the opportunity to find a way to meet the needs of the species at risk without jeopardizing other interests. If this can't be done, the ESA requires that the species at risk receive first priority. Room remains for negotiation.

Acknowledge the problem. Denial is pointless because if there weren't a problem obvious to somebody, no one would have bothered with the regulation in the first place. It doesn't matter if you don't agree that a problem exists: It's a problem for others. Maybe you think the others don't know their halters from their hindquarters, but that's irrelevant. They are the ones you must convince, and your opinions alone won't do it. Only by responding constructively to their criticism will get you the chance to bargain.

If your trail is closed to equestrians because horses jeopardize an endangered flower, find a way to ride without trampling it, allowing your horse to eat it, causing soil erosion or introducing grasses that might take over the habitat via seeds in manure. Rerouting may be the answer, or seasonal closures, riding only on certain days each week, requiring riders to have a permit for the trail in question or requiring riders to pick up and carry out their horses' droppings.

The proposed solutions might seem inconvenient. But consider the possible gain. And don't fool yourself into thinking that you won't have to give up something to achieve your objective. That's not how the system works. Remember, the people who value that endangered flower have already worked long and hard to protect it. To get the trail closed, they had to document the rarity of the flower, get it on the endangered- or threatened-species list and then go through the regulatory process that you're just now joining. They'll be giving something from their ideal situation if they tolerate your horse being anywhere nearby. Your mutual objective is to find a situation where everyone wins.

Identify and talk to every interest group that may be concerned with the issue at hand. Apart from the regulatory bodies whose jurisdictions are involved, there are other trail users and nonusers who have an interest in the outcome. Explain to each that you understand horses may be causing some problems on the trail, that you want perspective on what the problems are and want to find a mutually acceptable way to do something about them.

Also take the time to discuss the situation informally and individually with each member of the decision-making body, especially if you're dealing with a decision that has already been made. Learn how and why the decision was reached and what alternatives were considered. Don't argue, but try to sound out each decision maker about any other alternatives you have in mind.

Listen carefully. When talking with opposing groups, emphasize what you agree on. Suggest concessions you might make to reconcile differences. If you are asking others to compromise on a matter of principle, fashion an arrangement that makes the gains secured more visible than the points yielded.

If you make enemies, you are probably making mistakes. Don't assume conflicts can't be resolved until you've at least talked them over. Your opponents may see a possibility of reconciliation that you don't. Perhaps a conflict can be set aside for the moment, as you reach accommodation on other points. Even if that doesn't happen, your willingness to discuss differences-and especially to hear your opponents out-will work in your favor.

Only extremists will consider negotiation a sign of weakness. The astute see signs of strength and self-confidence in your approach. If you can't compromise without giving up your own principles, explain what those principles are; then withdraw gracefully. Afterward, your opponents may discuss what you've said and come back with a counterproposal that gets around your problem.

Be guided by the concept of the "honorable opposition," as parliamentarians call members of minority parties. The honorable opposition is not your enemy. Rather, it consists of people who hold opinions and values conflicting with yours, who could nonetheless become your allies on a future issue if treated with respect and consideration.

Choose your friends wisely. As important as it is to avoid unnecessary enemies, it is equally important to avoid rigid, automatic alliances. In the example of the trail closure, off-road-vehicle interests may help you overturn the regulation barring horses, if you help them overturn the regulation barring dirt bikes. Think twice. If the opposition is concerned with damage to the trail, and dirt bikes do more damage than horses, you don't want to be hauling their baggage when you make your own case. Moreover, if the off-road-vehicle people are also allied with bike gangs and members of so-called wise-user movement, you might put together a coalition that can trounce the hikers, bird-watchers, animal-welfare activists and environmentalists.

Next year, however, the issue may be whether or not to zone a neighborhood for development, which would mean the loss of pastures and riding stables. Then your newfound allies may be all for it while the people you trashed will feel no inclination to help you get tax breaks for those who want to keep pastures as green space. As political momentum shifts, inappropriate alliances can drag you from a position of strength to the margins. Be friendly toward all; but form your coalitions on an ad hoc basis.

Always provide accurate information. Bureaucrats hate trouble, having nothing to gain by it. Most soon learn that the more accurately their regulations address the problems at hand the less trouble they encounter. Propaganda doesn't help them, but facts do-the more the better. Become known for providing good information, and you'll always find regulators' doors open. Indeed, you may not have to call the regulators; they'll call you.

On the other hand, if your information doesn't stand up, you lose credibility. If you succeed in getting a regulation written or rewritten based on misinformation, you've just set up an influential bureaucrat to lose credibility in the inevitable hearing and appeal processes. That bureaucrat may become your implacable enemy.

Truthfully represent yourself. You need not represent a majority point of view. Our political system is loaded with checks and balances to ensure that the rights and interests of minorities are respected; most regulators and legislators realize, moreover, that "majorities" are usually just coalitions of minorities with a common interest. If you speak only for those whom you genuinely represent, you don't run the risk of having your testimony impeached by someone else with equal or better credentials and an opposing perspective. If you claim to speak for a group, have a mandate from that group in the form of a resolution or election designating you as their officer. Do not simply stand up and say, "On behalf of all the horsepeople in America…."

Representing the interest of horsepeople is especially tricky because there is no single "horse community" with common interests linking each faction. Nor is there a unified opposition to "horses," in the sense that there is unified opposition to pollution, handguns, abortion and other emotionally galvanizing issues. Many of the Western cattle ranchers who object to sharing the range with wild horses do so from horseback. The Bureau of Land Management and various state agencies who cull wild horses for sale proclaim that their purpose is to maintain healthy herds, not eliminate them. The same environmental groups that oppose horses on trails passing near endangered flowers generally support the construction of "greenbelt" riding trails around big cities.

In short, the opposition to your interest could come from many directions, including other dedicated horsepeople. Your task is to be more persuasive, which you'll do best from solid ground: "On behalf of those of us who ride our horses on X-Y-Z Trail…."

Consult your constituency. Your mandate to represent others requires reporting back, keeping your supporters aware of progress, informing them of how they can help you and making sure you do not inadvertently exclude them from negotiations. For example, when you tell the regulatory committee that you can live with an amendment allowing you to use the trail three days a week, be sure your interest group agrees with that restriction.

Keep the media informed. Don't assume the media knows your viewpoint. Every time you approach a regulatory body, send out a press release to local newspapers, magazines and broadcast media. Frame the issue truthfully and thoughtfully, emphasizing its human-interest elements, emotional appeal or other news angles that will catch the assignment editor's eye.

Whether or not your story makes the news right away, chances are it will be filed, building the dossier from which a reporter will eventually construct an article-maybe tomorrow, maybe next month. When the reporter sits down to write, the people who have provided the most information in the clearest way will most likely be portrayed as the major players. This recognition alone can boost your clout. Regulators notice who gets media attention. So do politicians. Praise to the media those who help you. Never mind blasting those who don't.

Last, but not least, comes what is perhaps the greatest challenge you'll face when you're immersed in a conflict over regulations: Keep your perspective. A trail closure is not a communist plot, a scheme of killer buyers to get horses dirt cheap, an animal-rights conspiracy to turn the world over to wolves or even page-one news most of the time. It might not even make the top of the regulators' next meeting agenda. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the view. You face not a war but an exercise in problem-solving. This article originally appeared in EQUUS in November 1994.

This article first appeared in the November, 1994 issue of EQUUS magazine.

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