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Know the West

Advice from a horse

  If going hunting twice in his life makes Mitt Romney a “lifetime hunter,” then you could say I’m a lifetime horse rider. Besides a couple of childhood pony rides, I took one riding lesson as a teenager from an instructor whose teaching style resembled that of a Russian ballet mistress — when she cracked her whip, I was never sure if it was for me or the horse. I was grateful for that lesson on June 5, when I joined the Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, an advocacy and volunteer group that works to keep public lands open to horses, for a trail ride and barbecue to celebrate National Trails Day. Established by the American Hiking Society, the day recognizes the value of public-lands trails for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

The morning of the event, I was the first guest to arrive at the Lower Hermosa campground, located in the San Juan National Forest in southwestern Colorado. Jon Sherer, an insurance salesman and one of the Horsemen, taught me how to control my horse, a 17-year-old ginger-colored gelding named Jack. Sherer warned me that, even though it would be mostly “follow the leader” on the trail, I should be prepared to rein Jack in if we encountered a motorcycle, llama or other strange creature. “Even a backpack looks freaky to them,” he said.

The trail we planned to ride, the Lower Hermosa, is the most heavily used in the ranger district; the Horsemen consider it a “model” of multiple use. “Shoot,” said Biff Stransky, a retired Forest Service ranger who’s now president of the Four Corners Back Country Horsemen, “one year it was in Playboy Magazine, believe it or not. Of course, I didn’t see the article…” But somehow he knew that the story, published about 16 years ago, named the Lower Hermosa one of the top 10 mountain bike trails of the West, and showcased riders who included Playmates.

Later, I learned that on multiple-use trails, a code of etiquette governs encounters between horses and other trail users. When a horse or pack string meets with a backpacker, the backpacker should step off the trail, moving to the low side in order to look smaller and less threatening, and wait for the horses to pass. Mountain bikers and off-road vehicle users going in the opposite direction of a horse string should do the same; if they are headed in the same direction, they should stay behind the horses until there is a wide enough place to walk their vehicles past. The engine of an off-road vehicle can spook a horse, so the driver should shut off his machine when horses are close by. Friendly conversation between the horse riders and other users will assure the horses that there are people attached to those machines and backpacks.

After about an hour and a half on the trail, we stopped for a break in an open woodland of ponderosa pine. Rowdy Wood, from the Columbine Ranger District, said the area is still used for grazing, but things have changed as land managers learn more about how to keep the forest healthy. They now know that plants need a period of rest, so although they used to allow grazing from May 15 to Thanksgiving, they now limit it to June 15 to Oct. 15. And though the agency once let ranchers scatter cattle all over the allotment to remain relatively sedentary throughout the season, it now requires the cattle be moved in groups from one area to another. This is expensive, and the changes have not been popular with ranchers.

While we snacked, Stransky told us the group feels its best advocacy tool is to get people out in the woods, where they'll let their guard down and speak candidly. “A lot of our politicians are forgetting about us,” he said. “They’re excluding horses without even thinking about it.” All that the Back Country Horsemen want, he said, is for people to remember horses when they’re planning projects and uses on public lands. Even when managers aren’t trying to exclude horses, they often end up doing so inadvertently. For example, you can’t bring your horse to just any campground: the roads need to have curves wide enough for a trailer to negotiate, and it’s helpful to have corrals for the horses.

Back on the trail, Jack made it clear he was anxious to get back to camp, constantly trying to get ahead of the others, but somehow I kept him in line most of the time. As we reached the parking lot after four hours and seven miles on the trail, we saw a couple of folks on off-road vehicles preparing to head into the forest. After we passed them, we wondered how far they would make it on the narrow, brushy trail, which is popular with motorcyclists but rarely used by four-wheelers.

The Back Country Horsemen often find themselves on the same side as motorized users and cyclists in fights over access to trails on public lands, but it’s clear many of them feel it’s a Faustian bargain. In conversations amongst themselves, few have nice things to say about motorized users: They scare the horses, they make noise, they go off the trails, they’re lazy, and how can they experience the outdoors from the backs of those machines? “They look like Darth Vader,” said one rider.

But ask members of the Horsemen directly whether they support some restrictions on trail access, and most of them will sidestep the question. It’s clear that, as much as they may regret the presence of motorized vehicles on the trails, they are afraid that if they start supporting restrictions on one type of user, their own preferred mode of transport could be reined in next. Instead, “education” is their watchword: They just want to teach everyone to get along.

Finally we all arrived, sore but in one piece, back at the campground in time to eat barbecue with a couple dozen other Horsemen who had arrived while we were on the trail. Before we all headed home, Sandy Young, the event’s organizer, left us with a few words of advice from a horse:

Take life’s hurdles in stride.
Loosen the reins.
Be free-spirited.
Keep the burrs out from under your saddle.
Keep stable.
Carry your friends when they need it.
Spur yourselves to greatness.