Tag Archives: equestrian

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.

 

 

The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle

Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training

Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right.  Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.

I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses.  I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.

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Take contact, for example.  In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances.  The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow.  So, you know, something in the middle.

When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”.  The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”.  It has forward intention, and just enough jump.  The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available.  Again, it is somewhere in the middle.

If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes.  The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained.  The correct position for the rider’s lower leg:  not too far ahead or too far behind center.  Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”

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The Goldilocks Principle.  You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.

And while we are talking about training philosophies….

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty.  This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve.  When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit?  I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte.  Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.

The same is true for riders.  Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people.  Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do.  It is okay if new skills don’t come easily.  But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.

Riding horses is a complex, active sport.  Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”.  Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line.  However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.

What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out.  Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.

And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle.  The Goldilocks Principle.

 

 

 

Planning a Sustainable Life

I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).  This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.

My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade.  Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero?  Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go.  Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:

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If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required.  Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term.  Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.

I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach.  In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere.  While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.

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Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”.  Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision.  It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.

Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life.  One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing.   It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on.  That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but.  However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.

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One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources.   On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now.  But what is really meant by it?

Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:

  • Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • Able to last or continue for a long time.

Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3).  But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.

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There is a balance in everything.  It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without.   There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself.  In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.

Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it.  Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.

I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life.   Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.

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This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others.  For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations.  Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that.  But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.

Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life.  And for me right now, this is everything.

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A New Year, a New Focus

 

With the start of a new calendar year, I am taking advantage of shorter days and less motivation to be outside in order to pour greater effort into my writing in general, including more regular attention to this blog.  If you are a new reader, welcome, and if you are a returning reader, welcome back!

If you have landed on Chronicles of a Mini-Pro, then you likely have an interest in the equestrian world.  We share an interest in common. I found myself enamored of horses starting at an early age and have been fortunate enough to parlay this passion into a full time career.  However, the route which I have taken to this point has not been direct and my role within the industry is ever-evolving.  At the end of the day, though, my greatest passion is to simply be on the farm and around my horses.  Any day is a better day if it involves horses.

In this blog, you will read a variety of different types of posts—stories of my own personal experiences with horses, reports from clinics which I have audited or ridden in, reflections, observations and insights from my own riding, teaching or training, book reviews and training tips.   I hope to share the ups and the downs which any equestrian experiences, as well as provide a forum to always reflect back onto what horses mean to me, and the critical relationship I have with them.  I also hope to document the process of turning my Cold Moon Farm into a model of sustainability, marrying these concepts with horse keeping practices.  A healthy planet is a key foundation to healthy farms and horses, as well as a more viable equine industry in the long term.

The longer I have been around horses, the more I feel there is to learn about them.  I hope that you will enjoy reading along with me as I continue to explore all that being intimately involved with these animals has to offer.  I hope that you, as a reader, will feel a degree of connection with the subject matter or perhaps even recognize shades of your own experience which mirror mine. I hope that you can take away a kernel of new information, or inspiration, or comfort, or whatever quality it is you are needing, from the words I write here.

If you will do me the honor, please click on the “follow” tab below.  This will allow you to get a notification as new posts become available.