Funds for land acquisition and trail development are drying up.

Photo: Thinkstock.com

Each horse needs about two acres of land to meet its basic exercise, shelter, and forage needs. In addition, owners and riders need land for their horse-related endeavors. Unfortunately, the amount of land for sustaining our horse population and activities has been declining. This loss will continue unless horse enthusiasts come together to demand consideration of their needs in a changing economy and land market.

The U.S. Forest Service estimates that about 6,000 acres of farmland and open space are lost each day to urban development. This means we lose more than an acre of farmland per minute.

In 2008 the Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) organization determined that 165 equine competition sites in 28 states had gone out of business. Most of us can point to a new subdivision or shopping mall sitting on the site of what was once a community fairground. Sometimes urban sprawl seems inevitable. And it will continue given the economic incentive to seek lowest costs for development.  

While many states and localities have implemented purchase-of-agricultural-easement programs, a growing number of the programs struggle for funding. The Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program (FRPP) was repealed under the 2014 Farm Bill, ending federal match funding that land conservation programs qualified for when purchasing easements on prime agricultural land. Both federal and state sources of funds for land acquisition as well as trail development and maintenance are drying up. So, as agricultural and rural lands are converted to urban uses, the land that riders need for their pursuits also -disappears.

The ELCR’s Deb Balliet says, “All land is saved locally,” and it is done by individuals who are willing to join with others who share their interest in fighting for both land preservation and access for equestrians. Many groups and programs are focused on conserving agricultural land. But land preservation does not necessarily guarantee access.

The challenge is that most Americans don’t understand the importance of the human-horse relationship. While we horsemen and -women see the value of protecting both agricultural land and -access to it, to others our horses and activities are simply hobbies or even trivial pursuits. Thus, there are four things we must do to ensure enough land is preserved for our horses and activities.

  1. 
We must provide horse access in creative ways to the general public that’s unfamiliar with horses so they can understand the social and psychological value of human-horse interactions. We cannot gain others’ support for our initiatives if they do not understand or have the opportunity to experience the ways in which horses enrich our lives. The horse community must implement a coordinated and comprehensive marketing campaign designed to build awareness.

  2. 
We must work to build public understanding of the economic impact of all sectors of the equine community. Horse owners consume many goods and services, and our equine activities bring competitor and tourist dollars to communities. This is called an equine economic cluster, and it represents all the businesses associated with the core activity: horses. Very few policymakers and residents are aware of the horse enthusiast dollars that flow through a local and state economy. For example, the 2012 Blowing Rock Charity Horse Show in Boone, North Carolina, generated more than $7.7 million in income for the area over its 22-day period.

  3. 
We must be vigilant and engaged with the local government to ensure equine community interests are integrated into land use planning. For most of us, monitoring land use planning meetings is not only boring but also baffling. We must educate ourselves about the fundamentals of land use planning and then be willing to work with others both to protect the land and to gain access to community land for horseback riding through zoning ordinances.

  4. 
If we want access to existing and planned trails, then we must be our own advocates and partner with other groups; many voices are more likely to get multiuse trails built than individual voices. Local and state governments have been actively developing trails over the last decade, but riders are often denied access to trails on federal and state lands. Moreover, local trails are rarely designed to allow horses access.

What we do now will determine whether the future will bring sufficient land resources for our horses’ needs and our activities. This is our challenge and our responsibility because it’s about our passion, our businesses, and our pleasure. 


Lori Garkovich, PhD, is a professor in the Department of Community and Leadership Development at the University of Kentucky, in Lexington.

Originally published in the April 2015 issue of The Horse: Your Guide To Equine Health Care.