Throughout Australia, horse trekking and pack saddling is a fairly niche pastime, with relatively few proponents heading out to hit the trail. However, as the sport grows, so does our need to consider our impact on the environment and the trails we hold so dear. In parts of the US with high levels of horse camping traffic, some campsites have been left decimated and trees ringbarked by unsustainable horse camping practises. With a bit of foresight, care and caution, we can take the following measures to ensure that our own trails and horse campsites remain looking relatively ‘untouched’, thus ensuring the sustainability of horse trekking for generations to come.
1. STAY ON THE TRAIL
When the trail has become a bog hole or been taken over by a large puddle, it makes sense for many of us to go around it. This wouldn’t really be a problem if you’re one of the few passing through, but as trail users increase, the puddles get larger, the trails wider, and the vegetation suffers. Even one horse veering off the path and walking through a bog leaves tracks that can last for years.
Therefore, its best to convince the horse to take the straight and narrow- even if it means crossing those puddles and icky bits. It’s all great water-crossing practise after all, and besides, it’s not like our horses need to worry about getting their new hiking boots muddy!
2. BUCKET WATER STOCK
Even when your animals are able to access their own water at your chosen campsite, it can still be a good idea to collect it by way of portable bucket and deliver it to them away from fragile creeks or riverbeds. You’ll be saving the banks from unnecessary erosion and the water won’t be as muddied up when you go down to fill your own drinking water containers. Plus, a nice fresh bucket of water is a satisfying way to thank your horse for his hard work that day- and he doesn’t even have to get his toes wet to get it.
3. BURN THAT BOG ROLL
There are perhaps few things more off-putting than arriving at camp, only to find it littered with the ‘white snow’ of toilet paper remnants from campers who came before. This white scourge and the mess left behind from other campers is also one of the main culprits of free camping sites closing down all over Australia.
So, what to do with the bog roll when you’ve done your bit with it?
Apparently, toilet paper is better buried than burned. But in reality, who ever buries their toilet paper deep enough, especially in Australia, where we are often dealing with rock-hard soil? Everyone worries about poo, but in reality, it’s the toilet paper that can take years to break down. It might seem a bit gross, but it really does pay to cart your toilet paper back to the campfire and burn it. And if you don’t happen to have a fire going that night, perhaps consider packing it out in a double-bagged zip lock bag.
4. WATCH WHAT YOU”RE FEEDING
Speak to an environmentalist or ranger about why your horses are not permitted in the forest or National Park, and nine times out of ten, the answer will be ‘weeds’. For example, Australia’s Bicentennial National Trail guidebooks state,
“Many seeds pass undigested through a horse and will readily grow in the manure. Nobody wants a 5000km National Weed Trail’.”
And fair enough. However, perhaps nowadays many would argue that very few horse owners feed whole grains, what with the advent of readily available processed feeds. After all, the Copra (coconut meal) favoured by many horse trekkers is hardly likely to sprout little coconut trees along the side of the trail (although this might make for a rather pleasant trailside treat for subsequent passers-by!)
However, hay is another story. Float-based horse trekkers will often choose to pack hay into the bush to feed out at camp, and this is where weed problems can begin. Ask around or search online for certified weed free hay. Keep in mind that hay certified in one area might not meet the mark in another, because different areas consider different weeds to be noxious.
Hay cubes or pellets are another interesting option would be weed-free pellets must have been processed at a high enough temperature and ground to a fine enough particle size that no weed seed would be able to survive and germinate. These are nicely compressed and therefore well-suited to horse packing and trekking.
5. BRUSH THOSE HOOVES
Phytophthora Dieback is killing a wide variety of native and exotic plant species, fruits, vegetables and nuts and threatens the survival of animals depending on plants for food and shelter. Phytophthora cinnamomi is the most common and destructive species and requires immediate action to minimise its spread. The bacteria can be spread by car tyres, on the soles of boots, as well as by horses’ hooves.
To do your bit in preventing the spread of Dieback, always start your ride or trek with clean hooves and riding boots. At the end of the day’s ride, or when entering a Dieback exclusion zone, remove soil from your horse’s hooves. This can be done by packing a small disinfectant spray bottle and hoof pick (with brush) into your saddlebag.
6. BOOT THAT POOP
While we can’t control where or when our horse poops, we can control how we leave it. Unlike urban dog walkers, horse trekkers can hardly be expected to collect their horses’ dropping and take them home to dispose of. However, a great big compact mound of steaming manure will take much longer to break down than the scattered kind, so where possible, encourage or train your horse to carry on at a walk while he does his business, therefore dispersing it and leaving less of a trace. When at camp and removing manure is not possible, kick it around to disperse it more thinly across the ground.
7. BIGGER THE FIRE, BIGGER THE FOOL
There’s a well-known bush saying about campfires- “the bigger the fire, the bigger the fool.” A large fire consumes more wood, which takes more work and time to collect, as well as to feed the fire. A small fire is really all you really need for a bit of light, warmth, and cooking fuel.
8. CONSIDER HIGHLINING
When a horse is tied to a tree for a long time, the surrounding ground is pawed away from the roots, the tree’s bark is damaged, and the adjacent ground cover is broken and torn. Manure and urine are concentrated and contaminate the immediate area.
Instead of tying to trees, consider ‘highlining’ your horse. This is a line, approximately 2.5 metres off the ground, tightly stretched between two trees. A highline allows the horse to walk around in a circle or lie down. Best practise is to use ‘tree savers’ or perhaps even girths or surcingles to protect the bark of the tree from being rubbed away and ringbarked by the rope. Horses can be secured directly to the highline, or by purpose-built swivels.
Check out the following video to learn how to set one up:
9. RIDE ONE, PACK ONE
Horses can be tough on the land, so consider your need to take more than a couple at a time when you go trekking. After all, someone trekking with eight horses is going to leave a much larger footprint than someone with only one or two steeds. There will be less demand on pastures and water resources, less impact to the trail surface, and less manure to announce to the world that you’ve just passed through.
While it’s somewhat harder for horse trekkers to follow the humble hikers’ adage of ‘Leave no Trace’, we can all do our part to help ensure that the trails are kept beautiful, clean, (and open!) for years to come.