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for people who care about the West

Home on a very small range


In the years that I zealously rode a horse as a teen, the pasture below our house was a pen for my plump little buckskin mare. Conveniently flat, it doubled as an arena, hard-packed and strewn with makeshift jumps.

Other than being a nuisance and forcing me to feed hay more often, the thistle and burdock that crept across more and more ground each year were part of the background. I didn’t think much about the connections between me, my horse, and the condition of that well-used patch of ground.

By the time I left home, I’d acquired a taller and slimmer sorrel gelding. I tried stabling him near college or work a couple of times, but the combination of expense and inconvenience was always too much. Spoiled by the habit of proximity, I decided I wouldn’t get a horse again until — and unless — I ended up in a place where I could pasture it at home.

About 20 years passed, and life went on: college, jobs, travel, marriage, home ownership. My husband and I lived for a time in the foothills outside of Boulder, Colo. The land was rocky, steep and heavily wooded, without much in the way of grass. We could have put up a corral and sustained a horse on hay, but I had acquired a different perspective by then. I wasn’t willing to sacrifice a patch of land to the hoof-packed desolation that would inevitably result from my desires. I’d begun to figure the costs as something more than the price of feed.

When we decided to leave Boulder, finding a place that would be appropriate for horses was a major consideration. We found land on an interlude of grassy volcanic hills in central Colorado. Eight years passed between buying the place and setting up for horses, but the moment arrived last summer. I’d been looking forward to being able to ride from home again, but I’d also grown fond of running my eyes over the landscape’s flow. In spite of the promise of on-site equines, seeing the imposition of the new fence stretching across the grass has been rather more bitter than sweet.

Still, the prospect of having horses is part of what brought us here, so next spring we’ll fence in a second, larger pasture, one big enough to feed a couple of horses without getting pounded into a weed-choked hardpan. The fence we’ve designed should secure the desired occupants while posing a less treacherous barrier to deer and elk than the standard-issue barbed wire.

Ten years ago, this land was part of a huge ranch that sprawled across thousands of acres. I suppose that in that context, my ruminations on two horses grazing 40 acres seem like conceits, just the sort of overblown self-importance that might make an old-timer snort with scorn.

Yet, the irony of land-use patterns in the West today is that the decisions made about smaller and smaller pieces of land will have greater and greater repercussions. Like so many of the issues that affect the environment, the impacts of any one individual seem inconsequential, but the cumulative effects can be devastating.

As thousands of 35-acre (and smaller) lots are carved into ranchettes from what had been open range, the pressures exerted on small areas are compounded many times over. These pressures are all the more intense, given that such land is typically marketed as a retreat from life’s burdens. The last thing most new owners want to hear is that they need to cut weeds or manage their animals’ grazing or adjust their dreams of rural living to accommodate wildlife.

The West is burdened by the wishes and desires of a growing population, though, and it’s clear that the time has come to expect more of small landowners. As a member of this group, I’m trying to develop a sense of what my obligations toward this land are.

Pulling weeds, regarding pastures as more than pens and trying out options for wildlife-compatible fencing are tiny steps, I’ll grant. Yet just as the impacts of our individual lives are incremental, so, too, are the opportunities for restraint and thoughtful choice. If there’s any good news to be found in sprawl, it’s that more people have an opportunity to forge connections with the land. Large-scale conservation and restoration projects are a vital part of the modern stewardship repertoire, but small, individually motivated efforts have their place as well.

Up on this windy ridge, I’m taking it one horse, one fence line, one pasture at a time.

Andrea Jones is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She lives and writes near Guffey, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].