The cover of a recent outdoor-gear catalog featured two men on horseback looking cool and competent. Marvelous, I said to myself: An outdoor recreation company is acknowledging that horse riders also love the outdoors.
Alas, the photo caption made no mention of horses, their utility or their traditional use in that country. For me, it was just another example of how the outdoor recreation community ignores people who prefer to get outdoors on horseback. We love and make use of our public lands, but we get no respect, either on the trail or in the trade.
Consider outdoor recreational marketing. Along with about 27,000 annual people, I’ve been attending the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Salt Lake City for years. It’s the major buying event for retailers and a major networking event for everyone else.
When I go, I make a point of wearing cowboy boots and jeans, and I like to explain to people selling outdoor gear exactly why I’m there. I talk about how we horse folks explore the wilds as much as bikers, hikers, runners and boaters. And who are “we”? Horse owners tend to be deep-pocketed, conscientious consumers. Surveys show that we tend to spend a lot and remain loyal to companies with quality products.
Mostly, though, when I say this to outdoor rec companies, people react with a polite lack of interest. After each event, the Outdoor Foundation sends out emails to survey the types of recreationalists who attend. Dozens of activities can be checked on the survey, including skateboarding, bird watching and car camping. Riding a horse, however, is not listed.
But who do you think originally blazed the trails that hikers and bikers enjoy today? Historically, it was probably people on horseback. And horse riders help take care of those trails today: The 174 chapters of the Back Country Horsemen of America spent over 300,000 volunteer hours last year, doing trail maintenance on public lands.
Recently, I visited with the president of a Utah nonprofit organization that is dedicated to improving trail systems, especially for mountain bikers. She snorted when I mentioned the need for collaboration with the horse-riding community. Horses on the trail, she said, were simply large pooping machines that are hazardous to human beings.
I refrained from criticizing her fast-moving mountain bikes, which can evoke a flight-or-fight response in horses because they approach so quickly and silently, like predators. When that happens, the bikers, the people on horseback, and the horses can all get hurt. Think about the damage a moose can cause to a car and its driver. Now, take away the car.
The worst place for mountain bike encounters with horse riders is in the wilds surrounding Seattle, said Jim McGarvey, executive director of the Back Country Horsemen of America. Typically, he said, young guys hell-bent on an adrenaline rush lack horse-smart trail manners. As the elevation and grade of a trail increases, so does a biker’s speed and the potential for a dangerous encounter, said McGarvey.
These days, when horse riders see mountain bikers coming, many immediately bushwhack off the trail because so many mountain bikers lack trail courtesy. This attitude and practice stands in stark contrast to the policy in places like Acadia National Park in Maine; there, it is hikers and bikers who yield to equestrians. But spreading the word that horse riders have an equal right to use the nation’s public trails is an uphill battle.
Some consider us a rare and vanishing breed. Three generations ago, almost everybody had a horse or two, or at least made use of someone else’s horses when they needed transportation. Now, even ranchers and wildlife biologists seem to be swapping them for all-terrain vehicles. It’s admittedly expensive for young people to jump up in the saddle if they haven’t grown up horse-y.
Nonetheless, don’t count us out; we’re still on the trails. In New Mexico, California and Colorado, a recent Humane Society survey found that a half-million horses are used recreationally.
Maddy Butcher is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a writer in Mancos, Colorado.