Nearly everywhere you look land is at a premium. Whether you are a developer, a homeowner, or an equestrian, land has become a precious commodity. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that more than 5.3 million acres of farmland were lost to agricultural production between 1982 and 1992 – 31 percent of that in land such as forest and pastureland, which is ideal for equestrian activities. Growth since then has escalated.
The situation is hitting horse owners especially hard. American eventers have lost several prestigious competitions in recent years as the land on which their cross country courses sat were sold to developers. All but the core parcel of land that houses the United States Equestrian Team in Gladstone, N.J., has been converted into a golf course. Distance and endurance riders have been severely hampered, both in training and competition, by the loss or inaccessibility of trails.
In small towns and large counties nationwide equestrians are trying to find a way to stem the tide of land loss. There are roughly 2.5 million horse owners in the United States, most of whom use trails. But most equestrians feel powerless to preserve their way of life. In spite of the efforts of several groups to unite and mobilize horse people, only a handful of serious efforts have been launched. The problem is that it takes time, dedication and, in most cases, money to wage this fight.
The projects that succeed, however, do so through the efforts of determined horse people. In many cases they are aided by an organization called the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, an agency established in 1998 for the purpose of "promoting access to, and conservation of, land for equestrian and other compatible uses through education and partnerships." ELCR, as it's known, has established alliances with such powerhouses as the American Bird Conservancy, the National Wildlife Refuge Association and the National Resources Council of America. In March 1999, ELCR published a step-by-step "how-to" guide for use in protecting open land for equestrians. Anyone looking for help on such issues can also contact ELCR at 204 Hill St., Galena, Ill. 61036, or access its Web site at www.elcr.org.
One of the eventing world's icons, Denny Emerson, says there are only two kinds of equestrian communities – those that have been engulfed by real estate development and those that are in builders' crosshairs. He maintains that horse people must take a hard look at their communities and evaluate whether growth is "nibbling away or gobbling away" at the trails and open land, and then decide how to prevent it.
In Southern Pines, N.C., the "open door" policy of riding has been an assumed privilege for years, with the 3,500-acre Walthour-Moss Foundation property at its core. The acreage surrounding the preserve also has served as riding land for a variety of equestrian disciplines. So it was a shock to the community when several of these large farms were sold to developers. A small, forward-thinking group of people mobilized to unite the local equestrian community – never an easy task. But the members were persistent, and the group eventually grew, did its homework, and found an alternative.
One of the group's founding members, Roger Secrist, recommended, after consulting with attorneys, that a non-profit corporation be established and exemption sought under Section 501 (c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. The resultant corporation was named Southern Pines Equestrian Sports (SPES).
The organization then began a search for land, and using a combination of financing and fund-raising, bought a 180-acre farm in Five Points, N.C. The project was named the Five Points Equestrian Center. The goal then became raising $1.5 million for the land and facilities construction to make it usable for eventing, steeplechase and driving. With a Cross Country course designed by USET Three-Day Chef D'Equipe Mark Phillips, the Southern Pines Horse Trials are now held on the grounds.
In Massachusetts, shock waves also echoed throughout the equestrian community when, in 1999, the Massachusetts Audubon Society announced that it had closed trails to horseback riders on all of its 28,000 acres throughout the state. Citing "potential hazards to walkers, increased maintenance due to trail damage and erosion and potential pollution by horse droppings," this announcement served as a wakeup call to equestrians. Riders who had been using Audubon trails as a link to Sherborn Forest were forced onto heavily traveled roads.
One enterprising woman combined her family's love of horses and her extensive experience working with mental health care environments to establish T.H.E. FARM (Tewksbury Hospital Equestrian Farm), a therapeutic riding project underway north of Boston. M.J. Marcucci is a single mother of four daughters and a design consultant for Tewksbury Hospital in Massachusetts. When the hospital was established in 1800 it encompassed about 1,200 acres and was used as a farm for holistic treatment of patients. Now reduced to 800 acres, the property still houses the old pig and cow barn, as well as miles of trails. This area north of Boston has seen land available to riders decimated by development in the last 30 years.
Recently, Marcucci got approval to run a therapeutic riding program combined with an equestrian center that can be used for equestrian competitions. A large cash donation from The Alces Foundation, which supports non-profit organizations with "innovative proposals that stimulate bold strategies for change," got the ball rolling. Others have followed, and some have donated their labor and even materials for the renovation of the cow barn into a multifunctional building including a stables and activity room. Even more impressive is that land was procured and is being converted into a competition site, with state of the art arenas and a cross-country course, badly needed for the area. Eventually, both hospital and equestrian residents from will share the benefits of this facility; the hospital will gain greater community support from the proceeds of the equestrian operation, and the equestrians will have a first class place to ride near their homes. This exemplifies the need for extreme creativity and drive in order to preserve land under pressure.
In neighboring Connecticut the land crunch is equally as tight. But the small northwestern town of Roxbury has been successful in its quest to preserve riding land with the formation of a group of local horse owners, called the Roxbury Horse Association. Together the group has networked with town officials to reach a mutually beneficial agreement and link a system of trails for equestrian use.
It wasn't an easy start, says RHA organizer and President Sandra Cointreau, but the key is persistence. "We found a handful of equestrians, none of which I knew as friends, and invited them to my home for tea. We kept querying everyone regarding who else in town had horses. I drove on lots of back roads looking for signs of horse fencing and pasture, and then checking the grand list to expand our mailing list of people to invite to meetings. We were all stunned to see that there were so many of us."
"The problem is finding them (horse owners) and then getting them to unite," says Denny Emerson. Kandee Haertel, Executive Director of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource says you don't have to do it alone – they are there to help. Log onto their Web site or call (815) 776-0150 for information.