Saving Our Space

Open land for riding is disappearing quickly. Here's what you can do.

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.”


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.

John Keyes, chairman of the California Equestrian Land & Trails Coalition, emphasizes conservation in his group. “If we as horse owners do not take care of the lands we use, there will be no areas to use in the future,” he says.

“Horse owners have a tradition of using the historic trails that helped form this country. Many of the older trails are now freeways. Developers do not listen or care about the historic trails in the areas where they build houses. Each year, more and more historic trails are destroyed,” he says.

Balliet agrees. “To stem the loss of land for horse-related activity, horsemen need to be working proactively in their communities to protect and preserve trails, boarding stables, training farms, riding academies, competition spaces and hay lands. If we are not proactive, these places will disappear forever. Once they are paved, we will not get them back.”

Balliet notes that it’s important to use best management practices to protect water quality and soil on your farm. This is crucial, since many attacks on equestrian facilities are based on water quality issues.

“We have observed, on numerous occasions, an increasingly urban citizenry fighting hard to not allow stables in urban and suburban areas,” she says. “They try to instill fear into the rest of the community about horse manure polluting the water, the fire hazard of barns and stored hay, noise and dust pollution, etc.”

Balliet has seen anti-equestrian groups use municipal health and environmental committees to stop barn-building permits.

“We see this as a growing issue,” she says. “If horse farms are not using best management policies, they are leaving themselves vulnerable to attack.”


Many feel that the issue of equine land use is so crucial to the health of the horse industry, it’s imperative that equine professionals get involved. This means staying abreast of the issues and encouraging clients to take action within the community.

“Equine professionals can encourage all equestrians to become proactive and become a positive force in support of trails locally and statewide,” says Gage. ���They should educate themselves about what it takes to keep trails and lands open and accessible to horsemen, as well as other trail-users’ groups. Working together with other groups will help to ensure access to trails on public lands and promote access to private lands if liability issues can be mitigated.”

Gage also notes that equestrians should work together to ensure a minimal impact on the environment through responsible horse ownership and respect for the environment.

Stuart McDonald, with American Trails, an organization that works to preserve trails on behalf of all users, explains that mountain bikers learned over the last 20 years that bringing a new activity to the nation’s trails results in a lot of backlash. Hiking organizations resisted bike use, saying the trails were not designed for bicycles.

“As bikes were banned and restricted in state parks and local riding areas, bicyclists soon realized they had to learn how to be better citizens,” he says. “They approached land managers, created new local clubs, promoted a trail ethic, worked with other user groups, and developed volunteer programs. They got involved in researching the real impacts of trail riding and studied better trail design and management techniques. The result was they have become model citizens in most parts of the country.”

According to McDonald, equestrians need to learn from the cyclists’ experiences. “Equestrians, like all other outdoor recreation enthusiasts, need to understand their impacts on the land and on others enjoying the outdoors,” he says.

“And then, equestrians need to get involved in educating other riders and encouraging them to get involved in land management.”

According to Balliet, the ELCR recommends that horse professionals can also participate in their community’s land-use planning process.

“If you own land, consider donating or being paid to extinguish the development rights on the land, in exchange for a tax deduction or cash payment,” she recommends.

“Also, join in activities of your local land trust and/or trail stewardship organization.”

With a little cooperation and good stewardship, all equestrians will be able to enjoy our land for years to come.

Resources for Saving Equestrian Land

Go to the following resources for information:

• Equine Land Conservation Resource;; (859) 455-8383

• U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration Recreational Trails Program State Administrators;

• California Equestrian Trails & Lands Coalition;

• American Trails;;;

• California State Horsemen’s Association;






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