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Reader Participation Day: What Role Should Horses Have In The National Parks

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Horse travelers in the Bechler region of Yellowstone National Park. Should backcountry horse travel be banned in the parks?/Kurt Repanshek

Horses have a long, long history in America. They came to the New World with the Spaniards and have been carrying riders ever since. In many national parks horses are icons, seen as both honorable steeds that carry mounted rangers and as work horses that carry both visitors and gear. But they also have impacts on the landscape, and there have been calls to ban them from the parks. But should they be banned?

It's a difficult question, in part because of the long role horses have had in this country and for the ongoing roles they serve in the parks. But they cause some glaring impacts on the landscape, both in terms of erosion where they cross through creeks, in muddy trail settings, and in the waste they leave behind.

But quite a few livelihoods are involved with horses in the parks, too, largely involving outfitters who lead everything from hour-long trail rides to multiple-day pack trips. The specter of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks temporarily banning pack trips because the requisite environmental studies hadn't been conducted prompted Congress to intervene. That matter was spurred by the High Sierra Hikers Association, which filed a lawsuit to both get the National Park Service to meet the provisions of The Wilderness Act and to protect the sensitive environmental landscape of wilderness in Sequoia and Kings Canyon. The association was not trying to ban outright horse trips into the high country of the two parks, but rather was seeking what it believes is a more manageable level.

Talk of banning horses from national parks also comes up with talk involving mountain bike access to the parks, as it's pointed out that mountain bikers have far less impact on trails than do horses and yet often they're not allowed to ride single-track trails in the parks.

So, what do you think should be done? Should the National Park Service ban horses in the parks, restrict them to certain trails, or restrict them to use only by rangers? Or some other solution?



Horses are great at postholing and mulching trails to bits.  Never the less, I would certainly not advocate banning horses, but I would welcome restrictions to limit their impact.

Oh boy.  Where to start.  First, in the Smokies you will never ever ever see horse use reduced despite the obvious, documented trail degradation that occurs on a daily basis.  Why?  because the equestrian lobby is well connected and powerful.  Second, you will see that a huge new horse concession was built smack dab in the middle of Cades Cove.  That brings a couple hundred thousand in revenue to the park.  I've always wondered how much we spent to build that for them.  In Smokemont they just put out feelers for another new horse stable that taxpayer money is going to subsidize.  It doesn't matter what kind of science proves the inarguable damage caused by horses, the money will still flow to their comfort.   Anyone that has ever hiked a regular trail and compared it with a  rutted, fouled, horse trail is living proof that these animals are too large for the fragile ecosystems in the narrow Appalachian Smokies.  Not to mention the invasive species they introduce with their droppings that scatter the park.  Nope, this is an argument that will never be heard in the Smokies.  But when the stimulus funds came down the pike, they allocated the only trail monies to replace horse damaged trails.  Not "backpacker damaged trails".   Whatever we can do for the equestrian folks and private lodges who allow their equestrian folks to use "the peoples park".  

Yellowstone National Park has a long history of horseback trail riding and back country horseback camping.  I find it ridiculous that the park system would even discuss topics like this when they continue to allow giant motorhomes dragging luxury cars entrance for the same fee as a Prius or a motorcycle.  What hypocrites you are!  If you really cared about the parks, you should be grateful for anyone who wants to get off the over-crowded, fume-filled highways and out off the beaten path.  As for backpackers vs. horseback very sad that you can't see how much more we have in common than you do with the average park visitor.  

It seems that this has struck a nerve with sunsetrim.  I think that the only reason that horses are still tolerated anywhere is because they are such a small percentage of all visits.  When one sees the damage to the trail that a small number of equestrians can create, there is no way that a greater number would be tolerated.

Sunsetrim, the Park Service is not discussing this issue. The Traveler is a media outlet, not an arm of the Park Service. And we raised the question to get folks discussing it, pro and con, not to take sides one way or another.

I'm an avid trail rider and also enjoy photography, hiking and wildlife watching. These activities aren't always compatible but I think reasonable people can find ways to make things work. Deciding what activities to allow or ban should depend on the individual park and factors such as park size, accessibility, options for separating activities and overall interest. (Horseback riding in Rocky Mountain NP? Very popular. In the Everglades? Not so much!) Where practical, there ought to be separate trails for riding and hiking, or trails wide enough that horses could ride on one side while walkers use the other. Trust me, riding around a narrow, blind curve and coming face to face with a hiker whose huge pack makes him look (to the horse) like a monster, or a mountain biker, is no fun for anyone! Yes, horses do make an impact on the environment. So do hikers, bikers, cars, motorcycles and humans, no matter how hard we try to leave no trace.

Some people, including me, aren't able to hike long distances. Riding my horse takes me to places I otherwise would not be able to see. But even I wouldn't say that horses should be allowed everywhere.

Trail riding clubs are usually quite willing to do volunteer work clearing and maintaining trails, etc. which would help our severely under-funded park system.

As for Cades Cove, we were there 2 years ago and short of putting in a casino, it's hard to see how it could be any more damaged. Bumper-to-bumper traffic and more people than Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving.

We all have our favorite activities and sure, we want to enjoy them everywhere. But common sense, respect for others and caring about the environment ought to help us all come to agreements.

I think it ultimately depends on how much moisture a trail is recieving.  I've seen horse/hiker trails in the wilderness areas of the arid west that show little signs of degredation because it's mostly just dirt and rocks. In the Northern Rockies, horses are used quite a bit, and I only remember a few times where they were an issue.  Most times they were not.  I've also seen some horse trails in the smokies that are in good shape, but it all comes down to how much use they are getting.  If you have 20 horses traveling an hour down a wet trail, you are going to see that trail get rutted and ruined very quickly..  If there are 10 horses every week or so trotting down that trail during dry conditions, then that usually doesn't do much damage. But, i've seen horse/hiker trails in very wet regions of the country that get torn to shreds.  I think horses should only be on dried out trails after the snow has melted, and kept out when it's raining.   Heck, if an elk, and moose can walk a trail (and they very much do), then so can a horse.  Where I draw the line is with people that want to see motrocycles, ATV's, Mountain Bikes, Snowmobiles, etc in wilderness areas.  I've seen my share of what ATVs do to a trail system, and it's not pretty after a few decades of use.  Horses should also be kept out of high alpine lakes, and fragile streams and watersheds.  The worse thing a group of horses can do is pollute a water system, and I have seen some evidence of that in my time when a bunch of careless people with horses allowed them to do their business in a fragile alpine lake.

Although, i will say one of the worst experiences I ever had was walking down the Bright Angel in the Grand Canyon during a rainy day in February. All that mule crap from a years worth of accumulation started streaming down the canyon trails and wall like a sewer. Now that was disgusting. Like everything, there needs to be rational limits on how many horses/mules,etc can use an area per week, which was not the case on the Bright Angel since it seemed mule trains were an hourly occurrence in that part of the world.  But places like the Bechler and Thorofare in Yellowstone?  Heck yes, leave the horses use that region.  Just keep them out of the fragile alpine zones. 

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