Experiencing nature on horseback is one of the joys of riding. Think of all the amazing sites you’ve explored because a horse could take you there. But in order to leave those incredible sites pristine for the next explorer – and to ensure that horse access continues – we need to take some precautions.
If you plan to ride on public land or go into the backcountry (such as a wilderness area), the land management agency (Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service) will have established rules, so you should check the regulations that might apply. Some areas used by hikers and mountain bikers may eventually become off limits for horse use unless riders practice minimum impact techniques, leaving little evidence of their trip.
- Stay on well-used trails to avoid impact on surrounding terrain.
- Spread out and avoid making trails in pristine country.
- Stay off faint trails that have only slight signs of use so they can revegetate and revert back to natural appearance.
To minimize visible evidence of horse activity, avoid the most popular areas during periods of high use, travel in small groups and take the fewest pack animals needed when camping. In some areas such as national parks, you can only use designated camp spots. The administrative agency may limit the number of animals per party, so check rules. Usually one pack animal for every two people is adequate, depending on the length of your trip and availability of forage. In areas where grass will be sparse, or where grazing is prohibited, you must pack in feed, which will increase the number of pack animals needed.
If you’re riding in a group, concern for the land in various situations should dictate your method of travel. If riding through an area with existing trails, stay on the trails and ride single file in the middle of the path. Don’t make small detours around puddles, snowbanks or other obstacles if you can safely go through them. If you take shortcuts or cut across the switchbacks, you will trample more plants and create additional or wider trails that may be more prone to erosion. The shortcut you make is usually a steeper path, more likely to create a gully during rain or spring snowmelt.
On the other hand, in remote areas with no trails, do not travel single file except where absolutely necessary, such as through dense timber and other obstacles. If you spread out and disperse the impact, your travel will leave no lasting trace.
Consider durability of the terrain when picking your way through it. Stay on dry, firm ground whenever possible, and avoid more fragile terrain such as marshy ground, meadows and steep slopes. When going up and especially down steep hills, have each rider pick his own route and travel in switchback fashion so that the horses’ feet won’t slide or dig in so deeply, tearing out the vegetation. If you notice an area where other riders and hikers have been and evidence of use is just beginning, avoid those tracks to give them time to recover and vegetation to regrow.
If you stop to rest the horses or for lunch, pull off the main trail so that other trail users won’t be forced to go around you. This also reduces wear and tear on the trail. Choose a rest site with durable soil and footing, where your horses won’t be trampling much vegetation. For a short break, hold the horses. Before you leave, scatter any manure your animals leave.
For a long rest break when horses must be tied, choose live trees at least eight inches in diameter. Use a tree saver strap if you have one or a folded burlap bag around the tree. You can make your own tree saver strap from used car seatbelts.
If you don’t have something to protect the trunk, be sure to travel with a long lead rope so that you can wrap it around the tree twice before tying. This will spread the strain if a horse pulls back and minimize the damage to the bark. It’s always good to ride with halters under bridles so that you’re prepared to tie your horse no matter how long you plan to ride.
Another way to tie to a tree without hurting the trunk is to select a large tree with a sturdy overhead branch, looping the lead rope over the branch to tie it. Horses cannot pull back hard if tied overhead (and are less apt to try), and the rope will not damage the tree. The horse is not right next to the tree and not as able to expose the roots if he paws. Pawing is always damaging to the environment, so a few extra tying lessons at home will benefit everybody.
Don’t take more gear and supplies than you need. If you bring only essentials, you won’t need as many pack animals – resulting in less impact on land. Using synthetic tent material (it’s half the weight of canvas), carrying dehydrated food in plastic bags instead of canned goods and transferring contents of jars into lighter and reusable plastic containers can cut down weight and bulk, possibly reducing the need for an extra pack animal.
Confining Horses Overnight
Accustom horses to the method you plan to use for keeping them close to camp, whether you decide to use hobbles, temporary corrals (rope or electric), a high line or staking. Lessons ahead of time will not only reduce problems for you and the horses at camp, they will also create fewer problems for the environment. You can always move the horses periodically to reduce impact on any one spot.
If there is grass near your camp, you can turn horses loose for short periods of time, either in hobbles or under the watchful eye of a member of your party. If you have experienced camp horses that stay close and come back to camp morning and evening for grain, keep a “wrangler horse” tied at camp in case you must go looking for the herd. A wrangler horse may also help keep the group interested in staying nearby. If you don’t have a horse who will remain calm while others are loose, keep two at camp to keep each other company and rotate them so that they have a turn at grazing.
If horses aren’t dependable enough to be loose without leaving the area, let them graze in a portable pen or on stake ropes for part of the day. Don’t leave them in the same spot very long so that they won’t trample vegetation too much. When they must be confined for long periods, use a high line in a dry area with little vegetation. Avoid wet, marshy areas for grazing or tying because horses’ impact on soft, wet ground is much more pronounced.
Use insect repellent, not only for your horse’s comfort but so that he won’t constantly fight flies and mosquitoes by pawing, stomping or trying to rub on trees. Biting insects are a big problem in most backcountry areas, and you’ll do the horses and the environment a favor by making it less miserable for the horses.
You can set a high line, the preferred method for tying horses in the back country, by stretching a rope between two sturdy trees about seven feet above the ground. (See also the August 2005 issue of Perfect Horse.) This keeps horses away from the trees, so that they can’t chew on bark or paw at the roots. Put a tree saver strap, an old string cinch (that won’t be used on a horse afterward, since it may have pitch from the tree) or some kind of padding around each tree so the bark will not be injured. The horses’ lead ropes are tied along the high line, or loops are made in the line at intervals for fastening the ropes.
Horse manure on trails can be a big issue, especially to hikers and mountain bikers. As you start down the trail to begin your ride, your horse may “clean out” and then may not pass much manure for the rest of the ride.
If you come back on the same trail, get off and walk the last half-mile. This not only limbers stiff legs if you’ve been riding all day, it gives you a chance to kick manure piles out of the trail. Most hikers only use the first few miles of a trail. If all they see is horse manure, they may feel horses should be banned from hiking trails. You can help prevent this attitude just by kicking those piles out of the trail.
If you trailered to a riding site, clean up any manure that your horse leaves after you unload and do not sweep manure out of the trailer to leave on the ground. Keep some heavy-duty garbage bags in your trailer’s tack compartment, along with a broom, rake or shovel. Collect manure your horse deposits by your trailer and take it home.
Feed and Water
If you feed grain, hay or pellets to horses while at camp, don’t feed on the ground. This not only reduces waste, but leaves less impact on vegetation. Use nosebags for grain or pellets, and feed hay in a net hung from the high line or on top of a canvas spread on the ground.
Many wilderness areas don’t have enough forage for grazing. If you are unfamiliar with the area you plan to visit, check ahead of time to know if you need to pack in hay/grain or pellets. Ask land managers about available grazing and how much feed you might need to take, and the regulations regarding feed. In many areas, you can only take certified weed-seed-free feed to prevent inadvertent spread of exotic and noxious weeds. If you do need to pack in weed-seed-free feed, make sure your animals are accustomed to eating it before you leave home. This not only ensures they’ll eat it at camp, but they won’t be distributing weed seeds along the trail and at camp via their manure.
Another way to prevent the spread of weeds is to remove burrs from manes, tails and tack, and make sure there are no weeds stuck to your trucks and trailers when you head for the backcountry.
Select a watering spot along a stream, pond or lakeshore where the bank can endure hoof traffic without damage or evidence, preferably downstream from camp. Marshy areas, ponds, lake edges and stream banks are often vulnerable to trampling or bank erosion. Water horses at a natural ford where wildlife cross or a low, rocky spot along the bank where there will be little damage.
When camping in a designated area with a fire ring established, use it. Don’t create an additional one. If there is no fire ring, leave no evidence of your campfire.
Help, Don’t Hinder, the Horseman’s Image
Today horse use of some public land areas is more restricted than ever before. And there will be more limits in the future unless we practice good manners and handle our horses in ways to leave less trace of our trips. Practice the “pack it in, pack it out” policy for all litter and garbage, including any you find left behind by other riders/campers.
When using a camp that may also be used by hikers, don’t keep horses in camp any longer than the time it takes to unpack or pack them. Then move them farther away for tying or securing on a high line. If possible, avoid using the same camps used by backpackers. At any camp or trail head, make sure you dispose of, disperse or pack out all manure, baling twine or wire and wasted hay.
A mound fire or fire pan is a good way to do this. An aluminum oil draining pan or barbeque grill pan can contain your fire. Place the pan on rocks or piles of dirt to keep it off the ground so that heat won’t damage soil or vegetation. Or
you can spread a non-flammable fire blanket (used by firefighters for personal protection) on the ground, pile a layer of dirt on it and build the fire on top of the dirt. This leaves the ground and vegetation underneath completely undamaged by the fire. Another method is to use a trowel or shovel to dig a hole for the fire, saving the sod to replace in the hole when you break camp and are ready to leave.
Select a safe site for your fire away from trees and brush. Locate it on a sandy area or bare, hard ground, not on forest duff or peat, which may smolder and burst into flame long after you are gone.
Use dead wood for your fire, gathering small pieces. They will burn more completely than large ones. If there is no downfall, cut standing dead trees unless this is illegal in that particular wilderness area. Don’t leave drag trails. If wood is far from camp, pack it on horses rather than dragging it.
In some areas, fires are prohibited. In that case, your only option for cooking is a lightweight gas stove. This also works if you camp above timberline or in desert areas where there are no trees.
Leave a Clean Camp
A few moments spent tidying up before you leave will ensure that the next people coming through will not have anything to complain about. Pack out all unburnable trash and garbage. Burlap bags work for this, as do the pack bags you used for packing in supplies. Don’t bury garbage, burned cans or food scraps, or try to burn aluminum foil. These disposal methods are illegal in some areas; pack it out.
Scatter manure piles left by horses. Use a shovel or tree branch to break it apart. Manure that’s spread out dries and decomposes quickly, leaving less odor and fewer flies. If there are manure piles in a designated campsite, carry it into outlying areas for scattering.
Leave no evidence of your campfire. If you created a fire ring, put rocks back where you found them. If you made a fire pit, put soil and sod back in after you douse the fire and scatter the coals. Let the fire burn down to a fine ash, then scatter the ashes. If there are still some coals, douse the fire with water, stir the coals and ashes, and douse it again.
Your efforts to erase the evidence of your visit to the wilderness may take some effort, but they are worth it because you’ll be leaving the area as beautiful as when you visited and the next person will enjoy it as much as you did.