Paint Horse owners must work with fellow enthusiasts to maintain and protect equine trails and ensure their long-term preservation.
By Alana Harrison
Sharon Witherspoon of Bells, Texas, undeniably enjoys showing her solid Paint-bred mare Aria in hunt-seat equitation and ranch riding, but she also finds trail riding with her beloved partner to be both emotionally and physically beneficial to their bond.
“There’s something incredibly peaceful about trail riding. You shut out the modern world and it’s just you, your horse, your friends and nature,” Sharon said. “It also provides horses with valuable, real-life experience and teaches them lessons you can’t get anywhere else—from negotiating rough terrain to encountering unexpected wildlife to building endurance and confidence in both horse and rider. You can’t get that in an arena.”
Whether or not you and your Paint enjoy and benefit from trail riding as much as Sharon and Aria, you should be concerned about maintaining and protecting both public and private equine trails.
The U.S. Forest Service reports that America loses an estimated 6,000 acres of open land every day due to the increasing demand for urban and suburban development. The land we’re losing is used to feed, ride and care for our horses. If it continues to be consumed at this rate, we could start losing the resources we need for our horses in as little as 15 years. Meanwhile, a massive backlog of trail-maintenance projects on U.S. public land is leading to trail deterioration, closures and frustrated users.
But there’s good news: A number of ways exist for the Paint Horse community to help preserve these cherished equine landscapes, safeguard trails for equine use and ensure future generations have the necessary resources to care for and enjoy their horses.
Public trails have been in dire need of maintenance overall for the last several decades, and Congress has done little to pass legislation addressing the problem. In recent years, however, Back Country Horsemen of America—a national nonprofit organization dedicated to keeping trails on public lands in 32 states open to everyone—partnered with the American Horse Council and the Wilderness Society; in 2016, they successfully pushed the Trails Stewardship Act through Congress to reduce the trail-maintenance backlog. In February 2018, the Forest Service took further action by releasing a list of 15 areas throughout the United States designated as priority maintenance projects, based on recommendations from BCHA and AHC.
In past years, many of the priority areas only needed light maintenance, but Randy Rasmussen, advisor for public lands and recreation for BCHA, says heavier maintenance is becoming increasingly necessary in certain parts of the country due to the epidemic of insect disease in pine trees and the recent spike in the number and severity of wildfires.
“Wildfires have caused so much dead and downed timber, our crews have been working overtime to cut and remove hundreds of downed trees,” Randy said. “Wildfires are occurring at such a cataclysmic rate, our volunteers and the Forest Service can’t keep up with the maintenance. 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.”
Randy says that a warming climate and a century of fire suppression on America’s national forests have contributed to the frequency and intensity of wildfires; Congress has not adequately funded the Forest Service to reduce the severity of the fires.
“Our fire season has been extended an additional 60 days, and the fires are becoming more severe,” Randy said. “When necessary low-intensity burns are suppressed, we get a huge build up of fossil fuels and overgrown forests that burn more rapidly. We could reduce the problem with fire prevention and selective thinning, but Congress is scaling back funding. It’s a self-perpetuating disaster.”
Another issue trail riders are facing is non-equine trail users’ general lack of education and understanding about horses and their impact on trails. Randy says BCHA aims to raise the bar on increasing awareness and educating all trail users about minimizing their impact on the land.
To reduce negative perceptions of equine trail users, BCHA has worked with the Center for Outdoor Ethics in Boulder, Colorado, the Federal Bureau of Land Management and state land management agencies to teach trail-riding organizations how to respect the environment, minimize their impact and educate others.
“The general public often doesn’t know the difference between private horsemen and -women that BCHA represents and commercial outfitters, who have regular trails and campsites they use every day or every season,” Randy said. “As horsemen, we want to lead by demonstrating how we care about public trails and about our reputation as trail users.”
This is an excerpt from the full article—get the whole story in the Fall 2018 Chrome magazine, which is sent to all current APHA members. Not a member? Join or renew at apha.com/join.