Tag Archives: trail riding

Hitting the Trails with 2020 Vision

If there is any silver lining to what has been a time of unprecedented uncertainly, fear and anxiety, it is this—

2020 will be the Year of the Trail.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the equestrian competition season (First World Problem alert), cancelling everything from local schooling shows right on up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is a huge disappointment for riders that have been doing their homework all winter, especially those interscholastic and intercollegiate riders who saw their seasons abruptly end right when year end championships were scheduled to begin. Here in the northeast, our show season is pretty short anyway, so it won’t take much of a delay before it basically ends up not happening at all. And with more states enacting “stay at home” orders or lockdowns, those who board their animals are even being denied access to the companionship and comfort their horse provides.

Covid19showseason

On a more fundamental level, most equestrian organizations and facilities rely on monies garnered from their shows or clinics to help support operating costs; scores of trainers, grooms, braiders, exercise riders and more count on a busy summer season just to cover every day expenses. Losing horse shows may seem like only a superficial problem, but for a luxury industry like ours, the impacts are going to be even more wide reaching. Once this is over, horse and equine facility owners, particularly those who have faced a reduction in income, may have to make some hard choices.

Yet despite these uncertainties, I remain hopeful that positive change can and will come from these hard times. In particular, I believe that we will see more equestrians returning to their roots, focusing on simply enjoying their horses and hitting the trails rather than competing—and that puts those of us who have been advocating for stronger trail networks and a greater understanding of the positive economic, social and aesthetic benefits of maintaining healthy, multi-use trail systems in a unique position to recruit more support for our work.

longed

In early February, over twenty New Hampshire area equestrian trails advocates gathered together for the first “Let’s Talk Trails” roundtable, organized by the New Hampshire Horse Council. We shared strengths and concerns and brainstormed solutions and ideas. Equestrian trail groups across the state are struggling with the same issues: declining membership, limited financial and human resources, increased encroachment on trails and loss of access. One theme became dominant through all the discussion—we need to do a better job networking not just with each other but with other trail users.

The work of protecting trails is not glamorous. It is joining local conservation commissions/trail committees and attending selectman’s meetings, keeping your ears open for opportunities to protect or grow equestrian use of public lands. It is joining land trusts, such as the Southeast Land Trust, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which are increasingly holding the easements on lands we once travelled. Land trusts and other conservation groups play an important role in protecting open space, but they often do not understand the needs or importance of allowing equestrian trail use, even on properties that have historically been used for this very purpose; as a member, we are poised to better advocate for equestrian access. It is taking the time, one on one, to speak with fellow equestrians about good trail etiquette, and also to reach out to our friends who bike, ride off road vehicles, hike or otherwise recreate on trails to educate them about safe interactions with our horses. It is talking to local landowners to hear out their concerns and ensure that equestrian use does not degrade the quality of their land. It is about looking at other trails groups as potential allies, not adversaries.

horses-atvs630
Image from Rider’s West.

This past week I joined a webinar sponsored by American Trails, a thirty-two year old organization founded with the explicit purpose of “bridging the gap between different user types, across the whole spectrum”. American Trails is the group behind the formation of the Trails Move People Coalition (TMP), a consortium of ten different trail user groups ranging from the Back Country Horsemen of America to the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council to the American Hiking Society, for the purpose of discussing and resolving those concerns affecting all groups using trails. Obviously, these diverse trail users will not agree on best practice for everything, but they are coming together with the hope of presenting a unified front for those topics where there is common ground. By becoming familiar with the needs of each type of trail user, the TMP is better able to advocate for a collective vision—one in which trail access is considered a critical part of the infrastructure of a community’s physical and economic health.

TrailYieldSign
The Essex County Trail Association is an effective multi-use trail advocacy and protection group in Massachusetts. This is their version of the universal “yield” sign used on their trail network to help keep all users safe.

On the webinar, Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails, shared his thoughts on our unsettled times. “When coronavirus is all said and done, people are going to need to re-create themselves,” said Passo. “Taking away people’s ability to use their trails cuts at the core of a person.”

Through the Trails Move People project, Passo and other leaders hope to develop tools necessary to unify the greater trails community: gathering hard data on the value and impact of trail users, identifying funding and other resources that benefit the trails community as a group (especially to address the trails maintenance backlog) and advocating effectively for policy, legislation and funding decisions on behalf of the trails industry to Congress and other federal agencies.

Their goals are ambitious but essential. And even on this high level, the same theme came clear—there is a fundamental need for trail users to unite and to support each other in promoting our public and private trail networks as an essential bedrock to our local and regional communities.

img_2503

The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others. It is the only way in which our industry will recover. Trail riding is equestrianism at the grassroots level.

It seems most likely that 2020 will not be the year of great competitive success. But it still can be a time in which we step towards other goals—goals which if they come to fruition will leave a long-lasting impact on our communities.

Are you willing to Hit the Trails with 2020 Vision?

If so, here are a few things you can do.

  • Join a trails group, and if you can afford it, join more than one. Advocacy starts at the grassroots, local level, so my personal opinion is that you start by supporting those groups that have the greatest impact on the trails/region where you ride the most. You can always expand from there.
  • Attend meetings or learn more about trails groups supporting different kinds of users. The more we as equestrians clearly understand what a snowmobiler, biker or ATV rider all need in their trail systems, the better poised we are to advocate for trail designs that can accommodate different users. Cooperation is a two-way street; equestrians are not the largest trail user group, and we are frequently misunderstood. It is up to us collectively to reach out and change that.
  • Introduce yourself to your town conservation commission. Find out what trail projects are already going on in the area, and start to look for ones that might be suitable for equestrian use.
  • VOLUNTEER! There will be plenty of grassroots work that needs to be done on trails networks across the county once we get the blessing to move freely again. Volunteering is free, gets you outside and is a wonderful way to meet other trail users.
  • GET OUT ON THE TRAILS. Take your horse somewhere you have never been. Explore a state park. Sign up for a hunter pace. Attend a meet up of a local riding club.

If living through the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic teaches us nothing else, hopefully it is a reminder that we are all deeply interconnected and must live and act in a way that considers the needs of both other people and the broader ecosystem to which we all belong. Working to preserve trails and protect equestrian access is important, and because most horse trails are shared trails, we will be serving to strengthen our ties to the local communities. And in a small way, we will be taking a step towards healing ourselves.

A few years ago, I founded an informal group called the Strafford County Equestrian Trail Riders. With just a small core group of volunteers, we have started chipping away at tasks including documenting and mapping existing trails/dirt roads in our country with the goal of creating a network, have helped to defeat a proposed “anti-manure” bill at the state level, and have represented equestrian interests to local land trusts and conservation commissions. Our total impact as of yet is not great but it is a start, a small step forward. And as everyone knows, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

In 2019, Equestrians Need to “Do Better”

About a year ago, I attended a board meeting for an equestrian group; its leadership is populated with well intentioned, yet overextended, equine enthusiasts. We had set lofty goals for ourselves that season, few of which we had managed to attain. Our running theme throughout the meeting was that in the upcoming year, our new goal moving forward was simply to “do better”. It became both an excuse and a plan of attack.

As a result, the notion of “doing better” was something I thought about all last year, in a broader context. Many of the most pervasive and pressing issues facing the equine industry at this time boil down to needing better education, better awareness and better advocacy. In order to move towards resolution on messy, complicated problems such as the unwanted horse crisis, loss of open space, unqualified instructors, ignorant but well-intentioned horse owners and an overall lack of understanding of horses by non-horse people, we as equestrians must do better, in many facets and iterations of the concept.

img_3056
I could probably do a better job of grooming Nori.

And here we are, already nearly a third of the way through 2019, and for various reasons I am left still ruminating on the same theme. At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in January, I attended a panel discussion focusing on the needs of the grassroots. Most at the table defined “grassroots” as being riders who have some experience, maybe compete at local level shows, and who see issues such as cost, exclusivity and accessibility as being barriers to their participation in competitive sport at a higher level. As leaders of the USEF, it is not surprising that their definition of the grassroots is competition centric.

But I would like to take it even further.

Turning to Google Dictionary, the definition of “grassroots” is as follows: “the most basic level of an activity or an organization; ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.” Using this definition of grassroots, are we not talking about the vast majority of horse people?

Most equine groups draw a pyramid to represent their membership; a very small percentage of members are at the elite level represented by the narrowest part of the triangle at the top, while the vast majority is competing, training or enjoying their horses at levels closer to the bottom. I don’t like the word bottom though—I think a better word is “foundation”. Because without these riders, horse lovers, trainers, coaches and fans, THERE IS NO ELITE EQUESTRIAN.  It simply cannot exist.

img_2677
Nothing beats a ride with good friends.

I firmly believe that as a sport, as an industry, equestrians are in trouble, because the base is no longer on steady ground. There are several reasons for this: constantly increasing expense, loss of equestrian lands and expanded gentrification are surely a huge part of it. But I also think that equestrians as a group still continue to allow the differences between our disciplines to divide us, rather than work towards allowing our mutual love and admiration for the horse to unite us.

In 2017, the American Horse Council repeated its economic impact study of the horse industry, and they came up with some impressive figures. $50 billion direct impact to the U.S. economy. 32 million acres of land owned and 49 million acres of land leased for horse-related uses. 7.2 million horses in the U.S. But perhaps even more telling is that of those 7.2 million, almost half (3,141,449 to be exact) are used for recreation.  If we were drawing that pyramid, here is our industry’s base. Our foundation.

But how many horse owners and horse lovers are finding themselves priced out of the industry? Even on a shoestring, keeping a horse is not cheap. For many grassroots horse owners, there is sacrifice and choice involved in owning their animals. I have a lot of respect for that, because that has been my personal experience too. In order to make horse ownership a reality, I have always been in some combination of management, rough board or working boarder situation. I also have been blessed to know some exceedingly generous farm owners who were willing to let me and my horses into their lives and barns. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” may be cliché, but in my experience that plus a little bit of luck and a willingness to work hard has made opportunities happen.

img_2122-1
It can be hard to clean up the paddock when its resident insists on sleeping in the poo.

I know firsthand the passion which many of those at the grassroots bring to their equestrianism. And I would like to respectfully suggest that as horsemen, we do a better job of acknowledging that any time a horse is in a situation where he is well cared for, sheltered and loved, it really doesn’t matter whether they are an elite athlete or not, whether they are living up to someone else’s agenda, whether they are wearing mismatched bellboots and a hand me down blanket. It doesn’t matter if the owner’s goal for the season is to make it to the area finals, to go to a schooling show series, to attend clinics/lessons/camps, to learn to canter, to hack on the trails or to simply spend time with their horse and work on the ground. It doesn’t matter. We need to do a better job of recognizing that what all equestrians bring to the table should be a love of the horse.

I would like to humbly propose a list of ways in which we can “do better” — for ourselves, for each other, and for our horses. I bet you can add some other ideas too; please post them in the comments.

Do Better Personally

When it comes to doing better, there is no easier place to start than with ourselves. Doing better could be as simple as finding an instructor you connect with and taking a weekly lesson. It could be committing to riding three days per week. Cleaning your tack more often. Prioritizing your riding and your goals and learning what that means for scheduling your life around this objective.

img_0964
Simply spending time with your (muddy, heavily shedding) horse can be its own reward.

Join a horse club. Pick one that means something to you—a breed society, a discipline organization, the local trails group. Contribute to groups which keep trails open, allow horse camping, protect open space. Support a rescue whose work makes sense to you. Donate your unused equipment and supplies to someone in need. Be a part of the broader equine community.

Commit to your own continuing education. Even the best in the world do this so we mortals are certainly not exempt. Read a book (check out my many book reviews for some inspiration!). Watch a video. Follow someone on YouTube. Go to a clinic. Keep your mind open. If you are a coach or trainer, question your credentials. Get certified. Become a mentor. Be a role model that a developing equestrian can look up to. Always, always respect the animal.

img_1500
I make it a goal to attend as many clinics as I can each year, about a range of topics. Here, Jochen Schleese discusses saddle fit. 

When you are at the barn, put your phone away. Don’t be checking your social media and emails when you are supposed to be enjoying your horse and his company. That’s just rude.

Stop waiting for someone else to show you the way, to organize the trail ride, to get you to a clinic or show. Smile at the child who wants to pet your horse and teach them how to do so safely. Set your goals, break them down, and start achieving your dreams.

fitness-motivation-quotes

Do Better Regionally

This year in New Hampshire, a local state representative proposed a bill which would have required that animal owners, including equestrians, clean up any waste left when in a state park or forest. This is not the first time a “poop bill” has been proposed in our state, and as a result, there are already administrative rules in place that mandate the cleanup of trail heads and other common areas. Trails, though, are exempt. Equestrians and dog mushers banded together in opposition, and the proposal died in committee at the beginning of this month.

I was actively involved in letter writing, petition signing and otherwise trying to get the word out to local equestrians about the risk posed by this bill to reasonable trail access. And there were two things which really struck me as a result of this process—first, the disconnect between horseback riders and non-horse people is continuing to grow. Second, equestrians need to become more proactive in advocating for ourselves, and this means not sitting back and waiting for someone else to lead the charge. Are you an equestrian? Then the someone who needs to do something is YOU.

xcspring
For any horse related event or activity to occur, there are hours spent in preparation, usually by volunteers. Be sure to take your turn!

In online forums and in response to newspaper articles discussing the proposed bill, non-equestrian comments ranged from mildly indifferent to scathing. I was disturbed to read a number of comments which tended towards sentiments such as “equestrians need to get off their high horse and clean up their s&%t” or “equestrians are entitled and just think everyone else should have to deal with their manure”. Other common themes reflected an overall lack of understanding of horses and the logistics of riding in the open, such as the challenges associated with mounting and dismounting safely on trail, horses’ general aversion to wearing poop bags, and the difficulty of carrying clean up equipment on horseback.

We defeated the bill, this time, but I know it will be back. And I fear that there will come a time when due to a continued shift in demographics, a sense complacency in the equine community and/or other unforeseen factors, that we will not be able to win. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As equestrians, we need to do better to unite with other trail users (snowmobilers, mountain bikers, hikers), land trusts, conservation commissions and state land protection agencies. We need to educate them about what horses are and are not, and we need to do so from a place of compassion. We need to volunteer to maintain trails and police other equestrians who use them.

If competition is more your thing—then become active with a regional show organization. Volunteer. Thank your organizers. Support local and regional shows. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject too—you can review them here.

The bottom line is, we need to do better in reaching out to our local communities to educate them about the amazing benefits which horses can bring to an area. Therapeutic programs offer recreation and cognitive, physical and emotional benefits to the differently abled, victims of trauma, and our veterans. Lesson programs give young people and adults an opportunity for wholesome fun, exercise, the chance to be outdoors and all the many benefits which come from learning to be a horseman. Farm owners contribute to the local economy both directly and through support industries like veterinary medicine, farriery, hay production and more. Horse farms help to preserve open land.

MikaelaAnnaLinden

Most people are not raised around horses anymore. Sometimes they have unusual ideas of what it means to be a horseman. Yet in the American Horse Council study, 31% of American households identified as having a horse lover within them. Horses still possess a mystique, a unique draw which calls humans to them like no other species. We need to do better to encourage those horse lovers to stay connected and to allow for opportunities for community members to safely interact with our animals. Humans instinctively fear or oppose things which they do not understand.

All it takes is one positive interaction for someone to have a new level of understanding and appreciation for the horse.

Doing Better for our Horses

If this blog feels a little preachy, or a little bit soap boxy, well, I suppose it is. But for me what it comes down to, always, is our horses. I want to see our industry continue to thrive decades into the future, beyond my lifetime. I want so much to know that all horse crazy young people will have a realistic chance to enjoy all that comes with interacting with these amazing creatures, that the privilege will not become reserved only for those whose resources already allow them access to everything else. I want to ensure that we will all continue to have places to ride, both in and out of the arena, which are safe and beautiful. I want to believe that horses will continue to have a place to exist and be a part of our ever-evolving world, one where they are valued simply for being horses, not because of what they represent in status or competitive success or ego.

So again, I ask you, I ask myself, I ask all equestrians—what can we do better in 2019? And in the years to come?

 

Innie or Outie…or both?

Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:

“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.

“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?

Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.

It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.

Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.

Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.

Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”

I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.

I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal.  But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive.  Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires.  It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.

 

WorldlyatReg8
Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons.  It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise.  For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider.  Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness.   I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.

LeeBeach2008
Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

As in most things, a balance seems to be required.  Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication.  Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring.  The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.

And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse.  Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.

Kitten and Wentworth Pace May 15 004
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open.  We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events.  Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision.  It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.

headingontocourse
Heading out on the UNH cross country course with two innocent students, hoping to infect them with a love of riding out in the open and the freedom of no boundaries.

Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level.  They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount.  I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.

At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again.  Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies.  I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 582
I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable.  My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.

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.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 606
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).

TamarackHack2014 003
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.”

1TrailRidersAcadia
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.

LCHIPlogo

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.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 582
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.

TamarackHack2014 013
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 Tamarack Chronicles: Volume II

The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume II

I think I may have found my new favorite horse sport—distance riding!  On June 8, Lee and I, along with Denny and his mare Cordie (Beaulieu’s Cool Concorde, a 9 year old Selle Luxembourg mare) completed the 15 mile competitive trail ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT.  It was such a great experience on several levels and I am excited that we are aiming for a second 15 mile ride this weekend, with the Hartland Riding Club in Hartland, VT.

If you love to be outside, love riding your horse, and enjoy spending time with other people who value these same things, then you may already be a trail rider.  Competitive Trail Rides (CTR) and Endurance give those of us who enjoy all of the above but also appreciate a bit of friendly competition a chance to put our horsemanship skills to a true test.

CTR How’s and Why’s

As a veteran now of TWO CTR’s, I feel MORE than qualified to explain the basics of how these rides work—haha! Just kidding.  Please take what I say here with a small grain of salt (or electrolyte) and understand that it comes from my limited personal experience and research only, not years of dedicated study and practice.

The CTRs that I have attended are by far more relaxed than any horse trials or hunter show, and nearly everyone—competitor, staff or volunteer—is quick to say hello and lend a hand.

Lee and her friend Ariat at GMHA Distance Days
Lee and her friend Ariat at GMHA Distance Days, 2013

As with most competitions, one of the first things to do upon arrival is to check in with the show office.  Here, you will sign up for your start time; at GMHA, entrants are usually sent out in small groups at two minute intervals.  You will also receive your entry number, and your horse will be marked on both sides of the hindquarter with their number in greased pencil.  This allows for easy identification of an entrant from a distance, and provides a marker that is hard to wash off when the animal is being cooled out at the completion of the ride.

The next order of business is the “vetting in”, where each entrant is carefully looked over by both a licensed veterinarian and the lay judge, who is a knowledgeable horse person.  The vetting in might be completed the day before a ride for a longer distance, or it can be done just before the day begins for shorter rides.  Rides that are sanctioned by the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) provide feedback on the vetting in/out to competitors via a carbon copy sheet which clearly identifies several critical areas for assessment.  The purpose of the vetting in is to establish a baseline for the horse’s condition prior to completing the ride.  The vet and lay judge will palpate the topline, note any rubs/blemishes/swellings, check the legs and note filling, cuts, windpuffs, etc., check anal tone, do a pinch test on the skin, note the condition of the horse’s gums and check capillary refill time.   All findings are carefully noted on the horse’s sheet.  Finally, horses are jogged in hand, moving straight away from and straight towards the judges, as well as in a circle to the left and right.  Horses will start with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for changes to the horse’s condition at the end of the ride.

Once all the horses have been vetted in, competitors will attend a pre-ride briefing, during which various personnel are introduced, trail markers are described and general information about the route is provided.  Additionally, riders are made aware of the time for the route; rides sanctioned by ECTRA or running under its rules seem to adhere to an average speed of 6 miles per hour.  The officials also give consideration to the weather and trail conditions to come up with a window of time during which riders should aim to complete their route.  There is a thirty minute grace period during which riders may still officially finish with point penalty.  Exceeding the grace period will result in a team’s disqualification.  Finally, the vet and the lay judge will announce what the target is for the recovery pulse and respiration rates (more on this later).  For rides longer than 15 miles, information is also provided on the mandatory hold.  I will have to update more on what this means once I tackle a 25 mile ride!

At this point, competitors will return to their horses to prepare to move out on the trail.  The rides at GMHA allow competitors to sign up to go out with another entrant(s); this practice is almost encouraged for the simple fact that you will have someone nearby in case of emergency.  Once on the trail, it is really up to the rider to pay attention to many variables to determine an appropriate pace.  You must consider your mount’s condition and how they are feeling that day, the terrain in front of you (and yet to come), the temperature, etc., and then travel at an appropriate pace.  Because CTR’s DO have a time limit, it is important to be mindful of this and to aim to travel an average of 6 miles per hour. The walk is about three miles per hour, so completing a ride on time requires maintaining a pretty steady trot.   However, there will be times on the trail where conditions warrant a slower speed (walking) and it is more important to consider your horse’s well being than to make a specific time.

Conditioning ride with friends Cordie (back) and Roxie (in front, with Denny on board).
Conditioning ride with friends Cordie (back) and Roxie (in front, with Denny on board).

Next comes the best part—the actual ride!  Vermont in the late spring and summer is a simply breathtaking place, and so as you ride along, you are able to enjoy your horse, the company of friends old and new, and of course, exquisite scenery.  The June GMHA ride took us first part way up Morgan Hill Road, and led us past amazing properties, including one of the homes of endurance Hall of Famer Steve Rojek.  The road sections of the route are on town roads of hard packed dirt, which allow you to fairly comfortably trot out.  We passed homes that even Denny hadn’t seen before, including one that appeared to have a homemade polo field and another antique home which someone was painstakingly restoring to its original appearance.  (We learned upon our return that this particular property formerly belonging to the famous actor, Michael J. Fox.  It seems like everyone wants a piece of Vermont’s beauty!)

Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.
Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

Our June ride took us on about 50% trail and 50% road.  We had one ‘road crossing’ which required volunteers to police the traffic for safety.  During the course of our ride, we encountered a handful of vehicles on the roads, and every driver was courteous and respectful of our horses.  As someone who by and large avoids riding on roads when it is possible to do so, I appreciate drivers who pass horses slow and wide, and we were certain to acknowledge them with a friendly wave and smile.

One aspect that it is so important to remember is that in several instances, we were guests on private property.  GMHA sits on 65 acres and maintains an extensive trail network, with some routes on their own property but many others are only accessible through the generosity of private landowners.  Lack of space to ride is a major and critical issue facing the equine industry today, and all riders, not just trail riding enthusiasts, would be wise to take active steps to preserve the lands which they value.  This topic warrants its own blog post, so perhaps I will reflect on this more and do just that.  Visit http://www.gmhainc.org/trailpreservation.html for their thoughts on the topic.

As riders near the end of the CTR, many will try to slow their horse down to begin allowing their pulse and respiration to return to lower rates.  This is less true at an endurance ride, where the goal is to complete the distance in as quick of a time as possible while considering the well being of your mount.  Upon crossing the finish line, volunteers hand each rider a small slip noting the time of finish, and they also record the order in which each horse crosses the line, as this will determine the order for the vetting out.  Riders are then given twenty minutes to return to the stable area, remove their horse’s tack, and to sponge their horse with water to assist in lowering pulse and respiration rates.  Note that I said “sponge” not “hose”; hosing your horse is not allowed.  Competitors usually will set up multiple buckets full of cool water along with sponges and scrapers before they head out on the ride;  during the twenty minute window, riders will sponge and scrape, sponge and scrape, all in an effort to cool their mount out as efficiently as possible.  At the twenty minute mark, more volunteers will come by to measure each horse’s pulse and respiration, and then record it on the slip handed to each rider at finish.  Ideally, your horse has recovered to rates within the parameters set forth at the briefing.  Horses whose rates are still quite high will be rechecked, and horses whose rates do not drop to within normal limits within an hour will be disqualified (and checked by the vet!).

Once they have completed their P&R check, competitors proceed to the “vetting out”.  Horses are reviewed in the order in which they finished, but horses who are “friends” are usually allowed to come to the vetting out together and are reviewed in order.  The same vet and lay judge who completed the vetting in will re-evaluate the same parameters that were checked before the ride; careful attention is paid to any areas in which condition has worsened.  This may mean that the horse has acquired some rubs from the girth, or perhaps they have some swelling or scrapes from interference (shoes are permitted in CTR but protective boots are not).  Horses are also jogged out in the same manner as they were pre-ride to note any unsoundness.  Horses who show physiological signs of stress (changes in muscle or anal tone, increased capillary refill time, dry gums, etc) will have points deducted and in extreme cases might be disqualified.  Sometimes, an area might actually improve in condition; for example, a horse may have presented with windpuffs pre-ride but shows tight and clean fetlocks post ride.  Points won’t be given back for the improvement, but it is left to the judge’s discretion whether or not to deduct points for the initial blemish.  Again, all horses start the ride with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for exceeding the time allowed on trail, for not meeting the P&R recovery threshold and for changes to the mount’s condition at vetting out.

Some rides, like our June GMHA 15 mile, are scored on a “pass/fail” basis.  This means that no placings are awarded; it encourages riders to really consider their horse and use the ride as an opportunity to improve the horse’s fitness in the way which makes the most sense for that animal. Either your horse meets the minimum criteria and “passes” or they do not.  At a ride with placings, it will be the best conditioned and soundest horse that wins.   Therefore, the horse’s well being must always come first, as it should for all true horsemen.

Lee contemplates the view.  Or more realistically, the grazing options.
Lee contemplates the view. Or more realistically, the grazing options.

CTR Versus Endurance

I was a little shaky on the difference between a CTR and an endurance ride, but after doing some research my short answer is that in an endurance ride, the winner is the horse/rider team who finishes in the fastest time whose horse is judged sound and healthy post-ride.  Time of finish is not a factor in CTR, so long as you complete the ride within the time allowed.  One other difference is that in endurance, where the distances covered tend to be longer, forward progress can be made by an unmounted rider leading their horse.  In CTR, horses must be ridden for forward progress to count.

From the website of the North American Trail Riding Conference (NATRC; www.natrc.org):  “A competitive trail ride is similar in many respects to an endurance ride.  Both cover a set, measured course, and the veterinary judge closely monitors the horses in both sports.  Endurance rides must be completed within a maximum time, and the winner is the horse that finishes first and is judged fit to continue.  But in competitive trail riding, the horse and rider must finish the ride within a window of time, and speed is not a judging factor.  Horse manners are judged in competitive trail riding, as is horsemanship; these are not judged in endurance.  In endurance riding, horses are checked by a veterinary judge at certain points and are judged as fit to continue.  The veterinary judge in competitive trail riding will check the horse anywhere along the trail, and the horse is judged on whether his parameters have changed since the baseline established at Friday check-in.  Riders can proceed on foot in endurance riding, but for all forward motion in competitive trail riding, the rider must be mounted.  Endurance rides may be much longer than a competitive trail ride-some endurance rides go 100 miles in 24 hours!”

Preparing for the CTR: “Never Hurry, Never Tarry”

When Lee arrived in Vermont the third week of May, she was coming off a winter of steady work 5-6 days/week in the indoor arena and a spring which saw some work outside (finally) by mid April, including a few rounds of trot and canter sets.  I would tell you that she was in moderate work, but that she had not been doing the long, slow, distance style work that getting out on the trails can do for you.

Being at Tamarack is an amazing experience for someone who likes to ride out.  A local resident for over fifty years, Denny knows the land and landowners like no other, and works to help maintain a network of trails which I understand is shared with snowmobilers and cross country skiers in the winter.  Riding back on these trails is unlike any experience I have had at home; there is no traffic, no road noise, no airplanes overhead, no trash in the woods.  It is as though you have ridden back in time.  And when you ride out with Denny, he tells stories of the places you ride through, gets to open vistas and identifies landmarks and towns and points out historical markers and other features that one might otherwise not notice.

Old post marking the townline (TL) between Strafford and Tunbridge, VT
Old post marking the townline (TL) between Strafford and Tunbridge, VT

In getting ready for our first two fifteen mile rides, Denny put our horses on a schedule of hard days followed by easier rest/recovery days.  Some days, we would ride as long as two to two and a half hours, mostly walking, but also riding up some steep hills; these are hills which surely put positive stress and strain on a horse’s cardiovascular system as well as work the topline and hindquarters.  To aid my horse, I would also assume the two point position, making me a stronger rider as well!  Easier days might include an hour on flatter trails, or even light work in the arena.  As someone who is accustomed to a steady five-six exercise days/week schedule (usually four in the ring, one on the longe, one as a hack), it was a different concept for me to consider conditioning a horse by pushing a bit harder/further and then giving them a day or two of complete rest in between.  In addition, the week before a ride is usually a bit lighter, overall, so that the horse arrives to the competition feeling fresh and fit.  Though I am just beginning to learn about conditioning horses for distance work, and Denny says most of what he does he has learned through trial and error,  we have been told that this type of progression is used by serious endurance riders.  It is exquisitely important to listen to your horse—if you give them a hard ride (whether in terms of distance, terrain, speed, humidity or some combination) then your next day might be a light ride or no ride at all, to give the horse’s systems time to recover.  If you plan to ride, and the horse feels tired, then you back off even more.  Of course, over time you steadily increase the demands on your horse so that they are stronger in mind and body to hold up to the longer distances on rides.

CTRs themselves can serve as part of the conditioning process, as they offer riders a chance to work their horses under a structured format over longer distances.  In fact, you will often see these rides called conditioning distance rides (CDRs) when they are ten to fifteen miles in length.  Veterinary evaluation offers clear feedback as to how your horse coped with the demands of the ride, and a smart trainer can use this to sculpt their conditioning plan as they move forward.

When we were on the ride itself, Denny shared with me a piece of wisdom that he had gained from a serious endurance competitor; when on the trail, “never hurry, never tarry”.  You want to be more like the tortoise and less like the hare, I suppose.  Keep your horse moving at a steady, consistent pace; trot where the footing is good, walk where it isn’t or the trail is too steep (up or downhill) to trot safely.

Looking forward.
Looking forward.

Distance Planning, or, Setting Long Term Goals

When planning the career of a distance horse, you need to think long term.  Not just in terms of the actual rides you plan to attend, but for the overall health and well being of the horse themselves.  One endurance blogger reports that he believes it takes three years to put enough conditioning work into a horse before they can be a serious contender at 100 mile rides; this is not to say that they might not be fit enough to compete before then, but they will be competing for mileage/experience as opposed to try to win.  And this is assuming that no setbacks occur to horse or rider.  Denny says that preparing for distance riding is largely a question of time and place; you need the time to put in the saddle, and you need a place to do that riding (ideally a place with hills, which maximizes your conditioning time).

It is easy to get caught up in Denny’s enthusiasm for everything horses and riding related, and he has been favorably impressed with Lee’s performance so far, calling her, “one tough horse”.  He thinks that she has the capability of completing a three day 100 mile ride like the one they host each fall at GMHA, but to do something like that would require planning NOW.  In other words, instead of coming out of the indoor next spring fifteen mile fit, she needs to be twenty five or thirty mile fit.  And then next summer would be focused on continuing to gradually build the muscle, joint and organ systems to handle the increased demands required of a ride of that length.  He has me excited to try to go for it, or to at least seriously consider prepping for it, with the option of re-routing to a shorter distance if she doesn’t feel ready.

So the plan for this summer will be to continue to gradually build and to see where we end up; the Hartland Riding Club 15 mile ride is this Saturday, and based on how our horses feel, we hope to go to the GMHA 25 mile ride in early August.  Time will tell whether Lee will truly make it to a three day one hundred mile ride, but as in other horse training endeavors, I shall just keep adding layers to the onion, never hurry/never tarry, and see where we end up.

Leebacksidehacking
Roxie and Lee, from Cordie’s perspective.