I’ll be excited to join a National Cowboy Poetry Gathering panel in a few weeks to talk about the state of horses in the 21st century. In Elko, at Western Folklife’s G Three Bar Theater, I’ll sit with Randy Rieman, Bryan Neubert, and Maria Lisa Eastman to discuss Of Horses and Riders. Come join us on Saturday, February 1. Read about Special Sessions here. Or, check out the entire NCPG schedule here.
This is the Part III of an essay on the future of horses.
When I’m asked to forecast the future of horses in the 21st century, I see partly cloudy skies.
I think first of the wildly different stances people assume around horses in our lives, in our neighborhoods, and on our trails. I consider, for instance, the wildly different reactions to an op-ed I wrote for High Country News and which was subsequently republished by Adventure Journal and many other media outlets. It went viral.
On HCN, the comments were supportive and acknowledged the horse’s place in outdoor recreation and in the history of the American outdoors. Meanwhile, on Adventure Journal’s site, readers’ reactions could be summed up in a few choice words, “Get outta my way, old timer. And take the manure with you.”
I have news for my fellow riders of the woods: It’s going to get worse. Getting horseback in big country might seem sexy and iconic as an idea, but on the ground, bikers and hikers don’t like the poop or the sizeable foreignness of horses.
To make matters worse, we number increasingly few on today’s public lands, when compared to runners, hikers, mountain bikers, and even electric bikers (ee-gads!). In pubic digital spaces (like Instagram, Facebook, etc.), we are an aging, underrepresented population, too. Backcountry Horsemen, a national organization that boasts hundreds of chapters and works on scores of trail maintenance projects every year, doesn’t even have an Instagram page (although some individual chapters do). Compare this silence to, say, the social media shout-outs and representation for hunters.
Recently, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which has 50,000 followers on Instagram and more than 75,000 on Facebook, shared news that Congress had issued legislation to invest in the future of hunting, addressing its declining participation. The post got more than 1,400 “likes.”
Show me an initiative to address the declining participation in trail riding. Show me some nationwide, equine organizations, non-profits or for-profits, that are effectively taking up this cause. Isn’t riding on public lands as storied and worthy as hunting on public lands? Our lack of collective social media presence and collective enterprise will certainly contribute to our downfall.
Part of the problem is our niche-ness.
I was talking with a Purina guy at the Equine Affaire in Massachusetts a few years back. Since I’ve spent lots of time with horses in Maine, Massachusetts, Ohio, Iowa, Montana, Utah, and Colorado, I wanted to know what he thought about the broad spectrum of horse keeping across the country. He laughed, “a woman in California once asked if I could suggest a good Thursday feed. Her horse was turned out 24/7. She checked on him once a week.”
Meanwhile, plenty of suburban horses are managed more intensely. Riders sometimes do not ride outside an arena. Owners spend lots of time mucking stalls, blanketing and un-blanketing, grooming, and feeding custom diets. Among my horse-owning friends in Colorado, no one does this. Is it any wonder we struggle to relate to one another?
Disconnects hurt our chance to unify over what might seem like common issues. Take public land use and access, for example:
In the Northeast, there is scant riding on public land because there is scant public land. But in the western U.S., vast swaths of states belong to everyone.
Take welfare issues:
Along with most of my fellow Colorado horse owners, I could be cited for how I keep my horses if I lived back East where many states require at least three-sided shelters for any horse acreage. Groves of trees provide cover here.
How do we unite when our mindsets are so incongruent? We all love horses, but we have hugely different challenges, goals, expectations, incomes, abilities, and cultures. Sure, there are popular associations for rodeo, eventing, dressage, jumping, gymkana, vaulting, reining, and every breed under the sun. Car owners have these kind of niches, too, but they all still tend to have AAA for road service. Where is our AAA?
I’m excited about more folks discovering horses through therapy. Perhaps equine-assisted services will be a knight in shining armor for the future of horses in the 21st century.
It’s terrific that more and more health insurance companies cover equine-therapy. Every day, new riders are being introduced to its powerful benefits at over 400 PATH centers and other facilities. Horse work like this is also an attractive optic that works for enlisting men and women, young and old, able and disabled.
Peripheral outfits like Heroes and Horses (a Montana operation which guides veterans with horses) and spa retreats with riding elements are having a good time of it, too. All kinds of groups are finding ways to introduce horses to urbanites. And, in case you hadn’t read the news – our world is becoming increasingly urban.
But still I worry for horses’ future. Like my friend, Dan, who felt sorry for the aussie-doodle puppies bred for cuteness, I wonder how human prerogatives will alter horses and horse keeping over time.
Will most horses be draft crosses – mild-mannered and able to carry the average, overweight American?
Will they be hypoallergenic?
Alas, any semblance of a horse will still be better than a robotic one, right?