By Maggie Slepian • August 11, 2022
Most people who have spent any time in the backcountry are familiar with the ethics involved in minimizing your impact. The Leave No Trace organization has a set of seven principles for people exploring the backcountry. Horses add another level of impact to the trail and campsites, but there are plenty of ways to make sure you leave the area as nice—or nicer—than you found it.
In fact, the Equine Land Conservation Resource has worked with Tread Lightly!—an organization that focuses on motorized backcountry access—to help educate users in minimizing their backcountry impact. Clearly this is a subject that matters to multiple groups across the recreation spectrum. Minimizing impact and educating users has myriad benefits. For one, it’s better for the environment. Promoting sustainable travel helps us leave the trail systems and camping areas pristine for future enjoyment, and has a positive impact on wildlife and plant life. Secondly, it helps secure future access, and has the potential to open up additional trail systems and areas to stock access.
Here are a few go-to tips to increase stewardship and minimize impact during your next trail ride or pack trip.
1. Manage Manure
Horse people are accustomed to manure. We step in it, our horses step in it, and we probably barely even notice it on our boots after a while. That comes with the territory of being a horse person, but it’s important to take a step back and realize that not everyone on the trails is going to feel the same way.
Sure, horse manure is a lot better than dog poop. It doesn’t smell as bad, and after a while it dries up and disintegrates into tiny flakes that eventually entirely dissipate. But other trail users shouldn’t be left to dodge and step in piles of fresh manure. If your crew stops on the trail and leaves a swath of manure behind, take a few moments to kick it off to the side and break apart up the biggest piles to help it break down faster. This also goes for campsites—especially near water sources. You don’t have to bury it like human poop or pack it out like dog poop, but be sure to distribute the piles and clear as much as you can off the trail.
2. Switch up Your Riding Pattern
We recommend riding single-file along the trails to minimize rutting from each footfall, then dispersing in open areas. When you reach areas with no defined trail, it’s usually preferable to spread your line out. This can help prevent unintentionally creating a new trail across a pristine piece of land, and leave it looking as untrampled as possible.
3) Deliberately Choose Your Horse Containment Area
Horses are grazers, so it’s natural to want to corral them at camp in a place with plenty of grass to nibble on. That’s totally fine and expected for pack trips! Our suggestion is to choose a containment area away from fragile plant life and flowers, and on as dry ground as possible. Large stock animals on wet ground can damage grasses and low growth, and make it difficult for the area to recover when it does dry out.
4) Consider Tying and Tethering
If you’re tying or tethering your horses, give them enough space so they don’t paw or kick the ground. They should have enough space to keep themselves entertained without getting themselves in trouble. If you know you have a horse who might disrupt the area around themselves, try to tie those horses in an area where they won’t be able to dig too deeply or do extensive damage. If your horses continue to paw, try feeding them more, applying bug spray, or hobbling. For highlines, always use tree-saver straps to avoid damaging the tree trunk.
5) Leave Camp as Clean as Possible
Campsites are the places most prone to higher impact from stock. If you choose a hard-packed, pre-established area, you’ll have less to do, but we always want to naturalize the area before leaving a site. This means dispersing manure piles, filling in areas where the horses might have dug or pawed, and distributing natural items such as leaves and twigs around scuffed areas to make the site look like no one was ever there.
Maggie Slepian is a writer and film wrangler, with decades of horse experience on trails, film sets, and in the arena. Learn more about Maggie at maggieslepian.com .