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Author believes horses and natural resources can coexist

Dr. Gene Wood has been working with the 100 miles of shared-use trails in the Clemson Experimental Forest since the early 1990s.
See the review of Dr. Woods' book "Recreational Horse Trails in Rural and Wildland Areas: Design, Construction and Maintenance" available from Clemson University.

By Tom Lollis, Clemson University (9/8/2006)

Clemson University professor emeritus Gene Wood has two great passions— horses and the land. He hopes the two are never separated because of a dispute over natural resources.

"We can preserve the ecological integrity of the forest and use our horses out there for recreation at the same time."

"The horse is burned into the American psyche," said Wood, a forest wildlife ecologist. The horse carried the pioneer westward and provided, along with the mule, "horsepower" on the farm. No longer the beast of burden it once was, about 45 percent of the nation's 9.2 million horses are used for recreation.

"Probably a higher percentage of the 93,000 horses in South Carolina are for pleasure, primarily for trail riding," he said. That's where trouble begins. "We take these 1,000 pound animals that are bred, raised and cared for as livestock, but thought of as pets, and use them on portions of the landscape that we have reserved for natural resource conservation purposes— in places like national and state forests," Wood said. In his opinion too many riders don't know what a horse can do to the land.

"Of all the non-motorized trail users— hikers, mountain bicyclists and horses— the horse is the hardest on the trail," he said. Over time trail riders often leave behind gullies, eroded stream banks, silted streams and angry land managers and environmentalists calling for a ban on horses on wildlands. It doesn't have to be that way, according to Wood, who owns five horses and enjoys a good trail ride himself.

"We can preserve the ecological integrity of the forest and use our horses out there for recreation at the same time," he said. The keys are well-designed, well-constructed and well-maintained trails along with appropriate behavior by horsemen.

He has been figuring out the details since the early 1990s by working with the 100 miles of shared-use trails in the Clemson Experimental Forest and organizing national and regional trail conferences. Finally he has put what he has learned into a book: Recreational Horse Trails in Rural and Wildland Areas.

Funded by the Federal Highway Administration's Recreational Trails Program with funds channeled through the American Horse Council to Clemson University, the book will be published by Department of Forestry & Natural Resources, Clemson University. Wood teaches the basics of ecology in the first chapter, showing horse owners that soil is not just dirt. Soils vary in sensitivity.

"In some situations you can use the horse a lot without damaging anything," he said. "If a trail has little or no stone in it, and it's muddy, riding a horse at a fast pace will destroy that trail. It's like driving too fast for conditions on a wet road. A dry road may be safe at the speed limit, but when the road is wet from rain, that speed is no longer appropriate," Wood said.

Wood's book contains advice on proper trail construction. The worst trail is one that goes straight up a down a slope, a fall-line trail. It will always turn into a gully.

"Farmers learned to plow on the contour to reduce erosion. Trails should fit the contour of the land as well," he said. If soils contain little stone, switchbacks (climbing turn areas) should be hardened with soil amendments. One technique tested on the Clemson trail system is the use of geosynthetic materials called geotextiles and geoweb filled with gravel. It holds the gravel in place so it won't be displaced by horse hooves.

"The geosynthetics are a saving grace for low-water and bog crossings, places where trails can deteriorate rapidly," Wood said.

To protect the natural resources riders should not ride up and down streambeds. They should stay off stream banks as much as possible. He encourages land managers to learn how to construct appropriate stream crossings for horses.

"A horse needs to get to water, particularly in this part of the world. A horse can go without food for a while, but a horse deprived of water can easily die of heat stroke or colic," Wood said.

Bogs and streambeds can be hardened with gravel and geoweb to prevent damage. In some places stream banks are so high that a bridge is the only good way to cross a stream. Wood believes that the key to preserving the privilege of riding on public lands is for horse users to become as sophisticated about natural resources as organizations such as Ducks Unlimited, Trout Unlimited, the National Wild Turkey Federation, and the National Elk Foundation.

"People with Ducks Unlimited want to be able to shoot ducks, but they understand that if they don't protect waterfowl habitat, they won't have any ducks to hunt," he said. "Horsemen are going to have to get concerned about the overall quality of the forests they ride in, or they won't have anywhere to ride."

Sticking to established trails would be one way to show concern, according to Elizabeth LeMaster, District Ranger for the Enoree District of the Francis Marion and Thomas Sumter National Forest.

"Our biggest challenges have been user-created trails, formed as a result of riders going off trails to a particular area time and time again," she said. "These unofficial trails are often not in the best locations and create a lot of resource damage over the years."

LeMaster said that the Forest Service goal is to have sustainable trails, or at least trails that require little maintenance.

"This can be done, but we need help from all our users— whether it is simply picking up trash, or volunteering for a work day to keep recreation areas and trails looking nice and well maintained," she said. Riders willing to self-regulate themselves and avoid riding when trails are too wet would also be a big help.

Wood pointed out that conservation of forest resources is important to other groups for other purposes which horsemen must learn to appreciate.

"We must search for a harmony between humans and our horses on one side and the land on the other," he said. "When we demonstrate that level of concern and effort, then the attitudes of land managers and many of our adversaries will change. The future for recreational horse use on public lands will be brighter."

He has been spreading this message nationwide since 1998 when Clemson University hosted the National Conference on Horse Trails in Forest Ecosystems. It drew 175 people from 37 states. From that Wood developed a plan for an annual Southeastern Equestrian Trails Conference.

It was hosted by Clemson from 2000 to 2002, then began rotating among the other Southern states— Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee. The Equestrian Trails Conference will return to South Carolina in 2008.

See the review of Dr. Woods' book "Recreational Horse Trails in Rural and Wildland Areas: Design, Construction and Maintenance" available from Clemson University.

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