Pulling Burrs From Under the Saddle

by M John Fayhee on September 29, 2011

It’s important to make a few things perfectly clear right up front, if for no other reason than, by and large, horse people are generally far better armed than I am. First, I grew up around horses on a farm in eastern Virginia. I have been employed in two different horse-related/specific gigs (one working as an equestrian sanitation engineer in Vermont, one working on, of all strange things, a wagon train in Nevada and California), and my first serious girlfriend was a professional thoroughbred racehorse trainer (as well as a fox-hunter and a horse-show devotee) who insisted that I go riding with her often. Unlike most backpackers, I not only know the bow from the stern of a horse, but I know how to saddle and navigate them.

Next, I really like horses. I consider them among the most beautiful creatures on the face of the planet. When I dwelled in the bluegrass country of Kentucky — one of the most horse-dense places in the world — I would often sit and admiringly watch herds of equines running to and fro in the verdant pastures. (This was an especially captivating spectator sport when those horses had upon them comely Kentucky vixens.)

Unfortunately (and here’s where I hear some readers muttering “time to lock and load”), I need to make two further points (excuse me while I hunker down beneath my desk): First, I would basically rather have a root canal that sit atop a steed. Even though I have spent more time around horses than just about any non-horse-person you’re likely to ever meet in your entire life, I have always considered the best horse to be one that did not have me on it. Riding a horse makes me nervous, and, within point-two nanoseconds of parking my butt in a saddle, said butt will be sore beyond my ability to describe on a family-friendly website (the Manson Family, probably, but, still … ).

Next, I’m one of those predictable backpack-toting, Sierra-Clubber granola crunchers who has hiked through life with some serious issues vis-à-vis the subject of horses and the people who drive them through the backcountry. I don’t believe there is any doubt that horses cause more environmental degradation to the backcountry than any quadruped this side of bovines. And the resource damage that is often caused by large groups of horsepackers — especially of the hunting variety — is often so hideous it makes me want to both yak and cry.

All that said, by and large, I would rather rub elbows with horses and horse people than I would with mountain bikes and mountain bikers most any day of the week, which is something I’ve been pondering a fair amount lately, because 1) the place I call home is some serious-assed horse country and 2) we’re starting to see more and more mountain bikers on our local trails, especially those trails closer to town. (One of the main reasons I left the Colorado High Country for the less-green pastures of New Mexico was how many mountain bikers were starting to inundate trails that were forever and ever hiking trails).

There is a gleam in the eye of horse aficionados that I have long admired, one that says, in no uncertain terms, that there is something I am missing in life by not interfacing more with horses.

But, as it’s important to me to maintain my good standing with my elitist backpacking cronies, I always shake my head at the mere mention of horses and their undeniable negative effects on the backcountry environment. The eroded trails. The mounds of fly-covered horse droppings. The stench of urine that lingers for hours in the trail. The trash-heaped and denuded campsites. The sense of trail-hierarchy entitlement that, were such a feeling limited to the many ranchers who call Gila Country home, it would be one thing, but, sad to say, that attitude has infested even affluent newbies (the kind who wear expensive riding helmets out into the boonies), who act as though they have a proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership, which pisses me off, because it contradicts MY sense of proprietary right to our local trails that borders on a sense of ownership!

Anyhow, a few years ago, Tom Shealey, the then-editor of Backpacker magazine called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing a story on horsepacking. (I’m certain he’s still chuckling.) After I regained my composure and cleaned up the beer I had just spilled, I asked what was up with Backpacker doing a story on, of all things, horsepacking. What was next, queried I, a piece on dirt-biking?

Tom told me that he had heard that, in the previous few years, the equine community had started cleaning up its act to the point that, after decades of being dissed in print for its lack of environmental consciousness by magazines like Backpacker, it was high time we high-fived lovers of horses, if, indeed, the rumors he had heard were true. Before I could shout “giddeeup!” I had a plane ticket to Montana in-hand. (The timing was very fortuitous, as I was at that time in the middle of a multi-month DUI-based driver’s license suspension that, as far as I could tell, did not prohibit me from driving a horse, though I personally know of at least two people who have been cited for driving their equines while in their cups.) I went on a three-day horsepacking trip with Dr. Richard Clark, a professor of biology and outdoor recreation at Western Montana College in Dillon, a town, I should note, with enough bars to do any Colorado resort town proud.

Clark was a card-carrying adherent of the concept of horse people bending over backwards to minimize their environmental impact. As the founder of the Professional Guide Institute, he devoted a significant amount of his time and effort to spreading the gospel of aggressive resource protection consciousness to his kindred horse people spirits. Though Clark had a few bureaucracy-related problems with Leave No Trace Inc., he bought in wholeheartedly to LNT’s ethics.

Clark’s quest was based upon a twofold premise: That the only future the ranching industry has in the West is to diversify economically, and that guiding and outfitting provides an very real contextual opportunity for many ranch families to make a little extra dinero in these tourism-intense times. (Despite the fact that he is a college professor, Clark, it should be noted, was a bonafide good ol’ boy, having been raised in rural Idaho on a ranch.) Next, Clark believes that if outfitters, horsepackers and horse-people of all stripes do not start practicing minimum-impact strategies in the backcountry, then their unfettered public-access days are numbered. I agree with Clark that more trails will be closed to horses and the Forest Service Special Use Permits required of outfitters to operate on public lands will be yanked if they do not clean their act up, significantly and pronto.

Clark’s message was a tough one to preach in rural Montana where (how to say this tactfully?) tradition reigns supreme. But, when I last heard from him several years ago, he was making inroads, even among the harder-core 90th-generation outfitters who are not exactly accustomed to changing their ways because some professor says they ought to.

The message that Clark was trying to bring to the saddled masses is also being preached with conviction in Colorado, though that consciousness has yet to make any serious inroads that I can see in the southern part of the Land of Enchantment, where I live. The National Outdoor Leadership School has for more than a decade been offering week-long Leave No Trace Masters courses for professional horsepackers outside Durango. Hundreds of people have passed through that class. LNT has published a booklet of environmentally friendly backcountry horsepacking. And the Durango-based San Juans Mountain Association’s Ghost Riders program — wherein horse people go out into the mountains preaching the gospel of Leave No Trace to their brethren — has spread to other parts of the country.

Numerous people I have talked to on this subject say the tide is turning with regards to the way horse people look at the backcountry and their impacts on the backcountry. All that, of course, is wonderful, though I have this knot in my stomach about the fact that, once again, it seems like backpackers are still sitting atop their perch, which is located on the summit of the self-proclaimed moral high ground, dictating performance standards by which all others must live.

I once talked on the phone with a horsepacker who has seen the minimum-impact light. He spoke with the conviction of a born-again Christian, without the incoherent babbling. He effused my ear off about the practical and ethical benefits of treading lightly on the land. He verily preached about the need for horse people to make it a point of honor to leave little, if any, trace of their passing. He even marveled at about the recent improvements in quality of freeze-dried food, which he now carries to save weight.

It truly warms my otherwise stone cold heart to see a demographic group as large and passionate as horse people buying into the notion of Leave No Trace. I know it’s a tough sell for many horse people, but, hell, no other user group has roots that grow that far back into history. It may take a few years for these new missionaries to reach the furthest tribes, but, hey, my hat’s off to them.

Now, if only the LNT message can be spread into the world of mechanized backcountry travel — as well as to the ski areas — then, truly, we can count on a good future for our public lands.


M. John Fayhee is the editor of the Mountain Gazette. He lives in Silver City, New Mexico.

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