You don’t have to look too hard to see evidence that undeveloped land is at a premium these days. While you can drive for hours through parts of the country without seeing a strip mall or even a gas station, open space close to metropolitan areas—where most of us live—is vanishing.
This loss of open space is proving devastating to the horse industry. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, equestrians are losing land in the form of forest, farm and open space at a rate of 250 acres an hour, or 6,000 acres per day.
“At that rate, acres of land equivalent to the Kentucky Horse Park disappear between lunch and dinner every day,” says Deb Balliet, executive director of the Equine Land Conservation Resource, based in Lexington, Ky. “Hay lands are disappearing to development and bio-fuel production, driving up the cost of hay and horse-keeping.”
According to Balliet, it takes 36 million acres of land to feed the nine-plus million horses in the U.S., at four acres per horse.
“This loss of land threatens the future of our passion for horses, whether we ride, drive, race, compete, grow hay or keep pasture ornaments,” she says. “No land equals no horses.”
Another issue affecting the horse industry is the diminishing interest in and knowledge of the rural lifestyle.
“In our ever more urban and suburban country, people are no longer familiar with horses and livestock,” says Balliet. “Many people are fearful of horses and are afraid to have them in close proximity to their homes.”
The threat to equine land is most obvious when it comes to zoning for equestrian property, and trail use. Areas that once had horse-friendly zoning have been rezoned. Trails once used for riding have been developed or closed to equestrian use. For horse owners in suburban communities, these are serious and ongoing issues.
These issues are at the forefront of equestrian minds in densely populated states with active equine communities, such as California. “We are losing access to places to enjoy our horses and the out-of-doors,” says Bob Gage, state trails program chairman with the California State Horsemen’s Association. “Equine liability issues are also of continued importance to horse ownership and the enjoyment and use of our horses.”
NEED FOR ACTION
A number of state and local organizations around the country are working to help preserve land for equestrian use. One organization, the Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR), formed in 1997 by a group of concerned horse owners, works on a national level. The group provides support to equestrians working to save land throughout the country. The ELCR allows equestrians to gain access to a national source of information and assistance on land protection and policy matters specifically related to horse use.
According to the ELCR, equestrians need to take two important steps to be successful in the effort to curb the loss of open space: 1) educate themselves with regard to key issues and processes related to land conservation and make land conservation part of the mission of equestrian organizations; and 2) establish partnerships with individuals and groups outside of their own equestrian constituency, particularly with those groups that represent the conservation community.