For nearly a decade, Elise Backinger explored the trails of Salida, Colorado, aboard her Quarter Horse gelding, Pep. Salida calls itself the “Gem of the Rockies,” and Backinger’s memories of her rides there are tinged with awe. “There is something deeply profound about the solitude and tranquility you experience riding out in nature. It’s just you, your horse and the land,” she says.
Backinger and her husband have since sold their hay farm and Pep is now a semi-retired therapy horse, but the horsewoman remains grateful for the bond she and her gelding developed on the trail. Their outings, she says, “taught both of us valuable lessons---from encountering unexpected wildlife to negotiating rough terrain to building confidence and endurance.” To ensure that future generations will have the same opportunity to enjoy nature with their horses, Backinger volunteers for the Central Colorado Conservancy, giving presentations on local trails and wildlife areas.
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_________________________________________________________The challenges before trail advocates like Backinger are great. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) estimates that 6,000 acres of the country’s open land are lost every day due to the increasing demand for urban and suburban development. And for horsepeople, these statistics can translate into real-world hardships: Open land is the backbone of the equine industry, fundamental to feeding, riding, showing and caring for our horses. If open land continues to be consumed at the current rate, we could start losing the resources we need for our horses in as little as 15 years.
But a variety of efforts are underway, and equestrians in all parts of the country can help preserve trails and other resources that are vital to the future of the horse industry. Here’s a look at the most pressing issues equestrian trail users face today, along with suggestions for getting involved in the search for solutions.
How we got here
Deferred maintenance: Public trails have been in dire need of a maintenance overhaul for decades, and until recently Congress has done little to address the problem. Progress was made in 2016, however, when the National Forest System Trails Stewardship Act was signed into law. Supported by Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA)---a national nonprofit dedicated to keeping trails on public lands open to all users ---the American Horse Council and the Wilderness Society, the bill directs the United States Forest Service to marshal volunteers to expand trail maintenance efforts. The legislation also directs additional federal resources to land and trail management. In February 2018 the Forest Service took further action, designating 15 areas throughout the country as priority maintenance projects based on recommendations from BCHA and the public.
BCHA Director for Public Lands and Recreation Randy Rasmussen concedes that many of the country’s trails have suffered from a lack of resources, but he finds many reasons to be hopeful. “Congress has a number of things in the works that would bolster the Forest and Park Services’ efforts and heed their call for more resources to help with trail maintenance, but we’re still waiting to see the Trail Stewardship Act fully implemented on the ground,” Rasmussen says.
Changing needs: Compounding the challenges for Rasmussen and other advocates is the fact that trails in some parts of the country that once needed only light maintenance now require more significant interventions because of the spread of insect-borne disease in pine trees and the recent spike in wildfires. “Wildfires are occurring at such a cataclysmic rate, our volunteers and the Forest Service can’t keep up with the maintenance,” Rasmussen says. “These fires have caused so much dead and downed timber our crews have been working overtime to cut and remove thousands of downed trees. Affected trails aren’t getting the post-fire rehabilitation they need, and this is causing a lot of de facto trail closures, especially in the West and Pacific Northwest.”
Both climate change and longtime fire suppression policies have contributed to the increased frequency and severity of wildfires, Rasmussen says, while Forest Service funding levels have remained flat or declined. “In the Pacific Northwest and in many of the priority maintenance areas, the fire season has been extended at least an additional 60 days and the fires are becoming increasingly more severe,” he says. “When the controlled, low-intensity burns used to manage overgrowth are suppressed, we get a huge buildup of forest fuels and overgrown forests that burn more rapidly. The problem could be reduced with preventative measures and selective thinning, but Congress is scaling back funding. It’s a self-perpetuating disaster, and it will take decades to turn this problem around and a lot more resources than Congress seems willing to give.”
Overuse: In two decades of riding the vast network of trails in Chaffee County, Colorado, Kate Larkin has seen firsthand how overuse can affect public trails. “We have so many public trail users in our area, it has taken a toll on the land,” she says. “Trails that we previously rode on with great ease are being consumed by too many users, and the Forest Service can’t keep up with the maintenance.”
A member of a BCHA chapter called Trail Wise Back Country Horsemen, Larkin has been helping spread the word about the state of public trails. “Retaining access to public land is clearly a priority for us, but we also have to be mindful about maintaining what we consume,” she says.
Larkin says public trails in certain areas have designated users for each day of the week to minimize impact on the land. For example, Monday might be equestrian day, Tuesday is hiking day, Wednesday is mountain-biking day and so on. “I don’t know how effective this has been because it’s mostly on trails in the Denver area, but I haven’t heard any complaints about it,” she says. “This might be something other areas should explore as we get more and more public trail users.”
Misperceptions: Even as equestrian advocates work to address trail upkeep and access issues, another less tangible problem remains: a lack of knowledge about horses and their impact on trails among hikers, bikers and the general public. For example, some people make the false assumption that horses cause more damage to trails than do other users. To combat negative perceptions the BCHA has worked with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colorado, the Forest Service and state land management agencies to educate trail-riding organizations. “As horsemen, we want to lead by demonstrating how we care about public lands and about our reputation as trail users,” Rasmussen says.
What You Can Do
Everyone who uses trails has an impact on the land. Nonetheless, it’s wise for horseback riders to be especially careful to avoid activities that damage trails and to actively support preservation efforts. Here’s how you can make a difference:
• Volunteer. Consider joining local and national trail advocacy organizations. The BCHA has local chapters across the country and the Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), a nonprofit dedicated to saving land for horses and horse-related activities, has many resources that can help equestrian trail advocates.
Most trail groups not only keep members informed about impending legislation or potential threats to trails but also organize trail maintenance efforts. The needs of trails vary by region, but most work involves clearing brush overgrowth and removing downed trees and other debris.
“We would love to see new groups like breed associations and organized riding groups of all disciplines come forward and volunteer to help with maintenance,” Rasmussen says. “Even if you don’t have any experience, it’s a great way to give back to public lands and learn about the important issues we’re facing---not just as trail users but as horse owners who need open land to care for our horses. Whether you’re certified to operate a chainsaw, can do light trail maintenance or provide meals for maintenance crews, every effort helps.”
• Become an ambassador. Encourage fellow riders to be stewards of the land and trails they use and make an effort to interact positively with non-equestrian trail users. When you encounter a hiker or biker, for example, be polite and, if necessary, explain how they can avoid spooking horses on shared trails.
• Keep lines of communication open. Trails over privately owned properties are at particular risk of development or reduced access, says Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) board of directors member Dot Moyer, so it’s essential to foster friendly relationships. Poor communication with landowners can lead to anger, frustration and closed trails.
“Landowners have reasonable expectations that their property will be treated with respect. Entitled attitudes or inconsiderate usage lead to loss of trail access,” Moyer says. “This includes things like littering, loose dogs near owners’ livestock or pets, and riding when trails are wet.”
While Larkin estimates that she trail rides on public land 70 percent of the time, she strives to maintain good communication with several private landowners. One of the most effective approaches is also the simplest: “Always asking for permission promotes good relationships with landowners and gives riders the opportunity to express any concerns they might have about a trail’s condition or issues with other users,” she says. “And because you have to get permission, there are typically more limited activities on private land. I see hikers on private trails but rarely encounter any other type of user, so if your horse tends to spook easily at bikes or ATVs, private trails might be a good option for you.”
Another good way of engendering goodwill with landowners is to offer to help with maintenance. Organizing a group of riders to help with clean-up and improvements will go a long way toward ensuring healthy relationships with landowners and continued access to trails in the future.
The Path AHEAD
Keeping America’s public and private trails open for equestrian use will require collaborative efforts, careful planning and consistent action. In Larkin’s view, equestrian trail users need to catch up with hiking clubs, biking organizations and other groups when it comes to advocating for trail funding and maintenance---and to ensure that riders will continue to have access to them.
“The mountain biking groups are very organized and active with trail maintenance and the issues facing our trails. I think we need to take a lead from them going for-ward,” she says. “Maybe equestrians haven’t stepped up as much because we were accustomed to just going out and riding where we pleased? Or because we had more access to open land and didn’t share as many trails as we do today? To have a voice for protecting trails, we must be actively involved and give back to our public land. We must be part of the solution.”
In addition, says Larkin, many people who participate in equestrian sports simply aren’t aware of the challenges confronting trail riders. She attended the Arizona Quarter Horse Association’s huge Sun Circuit show earlier this year to watch a friend compete, and she ventures a guess that very few of the horses there had been taken out on the trails. But, she says, trail outings can have a positive effect on performance.
“I believe trail riding provides horses with a healthy mental break from the show pen. It gives them the opportunity to go out in nature, relax and see things outside the arena. My friend rides trails with me as often as she can and says it’s made her horse a better and more well-rounded athlete in the show ring,” Larkin says. “Trail riding is also about the relationship you develop with your animal and with nature, and it’s innately liberating to ride out on open land.”