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Horse Riders Spit Bit Over Trail Cleanup Rule

A horse crosses a Plainfield pasture in Sept. 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

A horse crosses a Plainfield pasture in Sept. 2009. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

Orford — Granite State equine enthusiasts are spooked by proposed state regulations that would mandate horse riders on state-owned land to clean up after their animals, calling the stipulation unnecessary and impractical.

The proposed rule changes would require owners of horses and other animals to clean up manure in “public traffic areas” on state-owned land such as trails, including the Northern Rail Trail.

The regulations also give the state’s Department of Resources and Economic Development the authority to prohibit horses in areas where there is concern for public health and safety or resource protection.

Liz Gesler, an Orford resident and avid trail rider who sits on the board of directors for the Green Mountain Horse Association in Woodstock, Vt., called the proposed rules “absolutely ridiculous.

“Basically, if it were passed and it were policed, it would mean the end of people riding on trails,” said Gesler.

Gesler said she is fortunate to have neighbors who allow her to ride freely on nearby trails, but many other trail riders — especially in the southern part of the state — rely on state-owned multi-use trails.

Amy Bassett, the spokesperson for the state Department of Resources and Economic Development, said that rules stipulating owners clean up after their animals on state-owned lands have always been on the books. The proposed rule change, she said, merely clarifies the guideline as it applies to horses.

“It’s always been expected that they are to clean up after their animals,” she said. “It’s not specifically calling out and saying horses did something bad. It’s just clarifying the rules.”

The department will hold several public hearings on the matter next month, with the hearings nearest to the Upper Valley taking place on Oct. 1 in Concord and Plymouth.

If the response state regulators have heard is any indication, the hearings are likely to draw a passionate crowd.

Leanne Lavoie, a program specialist for the Department of Resources and Economic Development, said she works in a technical, behind-the-scenes capacity. Her name and contact information, however, were linked to the rule changes in an email that has been circulating in the horse enthusiast community, so she has heard plenty about the issue.

“I’ve been doing rule-making with this agency for probably 20 years, and I’ve never seen this level of comments or people come out like this regarding our rules,” she said.

Sally Batton, an Etna resident who has been Dartmouth College’s equestrian coach for more than two decades, said the proposed rules are burdensome and impractical for horse owners.

“There’s no such thing as a foldable pitchfork,” Batton said. “It’s not like dog poop, that you can just put a bag over your hand and then turn the bag inside out.”

Batton added that plastic bags and other accessories used to carry animal manure could easily spook a horse who might not be accustomed to them.

“Horses are creatures of flight,” she said. “A lot of them are used to things like that, but some of them are scared of things hanging off of them.”

Jenny Kimberly, a Windsor resident and member of the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association, said that complying with the rules using so-called “bun bags” that catch falling horse manure and are sometimes used for horses in cities who tow carriages, could prove dangerous.

“I know that when we do competitive riding and conditioning for it, we’re doing mostly trotting or cantering,” Kimberly said. “If you’re going along at that speed, I could see the bag bouncing and the horse getting a little bit crazy.”

Kimberly also questioned whether riders could even know when their horses relieved themselves.

“Some horses, as you’re going along, they’ll stop and they’ll poop,” she said. “Other horses will poop as they’re trotting along. Sometimes you don’t even know they’re doing it. Even if you had to get off and do something about it, you wouldn’t know.”

As for the impact such a rule change would have on the sport of trail riding, Kimberly said the state’s trail network is dwindling.

“It’s hard enough to find a place to go,” she said. “There are multiple use trails, and horses are one of those uses. I don’t think any of the trails are used so much that they’re going to be paved with horse poop.”

Gesler echoed similar concerns about diminished room for horses to roam.

“It changes the entire experience if you don’t get a chance go out and ride over real countrysides, through the woods, through the water, up and down hills, you never become a real horse person,” said Gesler. “You have to have that experience of encountering the unexpected or the unknown on your horse in order to really become a good rider.”

Gesler continued, “We’re already losing that because we’ve lost so much land that people have ridden on historically, and people don’t have the kind of time anymore to put into riding if they can’t go riding out their back door.”

John Taylor, the trails program director for the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, said that other than the Northern Rail Trail, the new regulations would impact horse riding in the Mount Sunapee State Park and a wildlife management area in the Lower Shaker Village Tract along Lake Mascoma in Enfield.

Taylor said that regular equestrian use on a trail with other uses, such as hiking and cycling, leads to occasional conflicts.

But he said the only complaints he regularly receives about horseback riding is during wet soil periods, when the horses’ hoofs sometimes create holes in the mud.

Jessica Ricketson — the trails coordinator for the Vermont Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation — had also heard about the proposed rule changes. She said similar policies are becoming “increasingly prevalent” in other states, but there’s nothing of that nature in Vermont.

Ricketson credited the state’s close relationship with the Vermont Horse Council, which she said is diligent in educating its membership about trail ethics.

“I would say that’s probably a really good reason why we haven’t had it come up,” Ricketson said. “On a case by case basis, we’ve looked at it and so far we haven’t made the decision to have it in policy as of yet.”

John Hammond, a Cornish selectman and longtime farrier who has been breeding horses for 35 years, said that the rules could have a greater economic impact than the state may realize.

“Sometimes, the people that make the rules are kind of disconnected with the reality of the situation,” he said.

Like others, Hammond said the issue could also represent a shift in the state’s own self-image.

“Sadly, we are no longer as much of a rural community as we used to be,” Hammond said. “People talk about organic stuff and natural and that sort of thing, but they don’t want to see it and they don’t want to smell it. Well, (manure) happens.”

Ben Conarck can be reached at bconarck@vnews.com or 603-727-3213

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