In a realm of trains, planes and automobiles, there are those who prefer their transportation the old fashioned way — by horseback.
However, the opportunity to enjoy an old-fashioned horse ride is becoming a thing of the past. But there is one group, the Back Country Horsemen of America, a national, non-profit organization based out of Graham, Wash., that is working to ensure the experience is not only available for people today, but also for generations to come.
According to Carol Nudell, president of the West Desert Chapter of BCHA, the organization once consisted of just four members. Four men from Montana gathered around a campfire to discuss what they saw as a disturbing trend. As the popularity of hiking and mountain biking was increasing, the use of horses on public lands was quickly becoming unpopular. Pack and saddle stock was quickly restricted to a few particular trails or prohibited altogether. They discussed the formation of an organization to represent backcountry horse users on matters regarding public lands.
The founding members presented their ideas to local officials of the Flathead National Forest in Montana. They endorsed the concept and encouraged them to proceed. The founding members held a public meeting on Jan. 17, 1973. The formation of the BCHA had begun.
That was 40 years ago. Today, the BCHA has become a vast organization, with more than 13,000 members housed in 185 chapters. Nudell said that while these chapters are not in all states — just 26 states have chapters — there are members in all 50 states.
The organization lives by and promotes three principals. The first is to become involved in public land management issues that affect recreational stock use. The second is to participate in volunteer programs on public lands that enhance riding opportunities, and the third is to educate horsemen in low impact methods of using stock on public lands. These principals have guided the organization since the beginning.
Locally, the organization is working to preserve riding trails. Nudell said many horse-riding trails that are threatened are also used by hikers, campers and bikers. Of particular interest to the horsemen are the trails in Settlement Canyon, which Nudell said are the most used in the county.
“Trails in Colorado have been closed as well as in Glacier National Park,” Nudell said. “I hope Utah does not suffer a similar fate. There’s talk of closing trails in the Uintas.”
In Tooele County, the organization fosters a good reputation. In order to access public lands, such as areas on Stansbury Island or along the Oquirrh Mountains, members must cross private land and thus need the landowners’ permission, Nudell said.
“We’re known for not littering,” Nudell said. “BCHA practices what we call ‘value added.’ If we see garbage on the trail, we pick it up.”
Nudell said the local group also works as a service organization. This was a sentiment echoed by member Stew Paulick.
“We’re serviced based, not recreational based,” he said.
Paulick, who has owned a horse since 1945, loves being part of the service the horsemen render. Gary Bean, also a member and a horse rider for seven years, agreed. Bean has worked on many projects and yet seems to get more out of them than he’s ever put in.
“This is where you get to meet new people, make friends and have fun,” he said.
The types of projects the horsemen involve themselves with are quite an undertaking. Cleaning up trails, for example, involves more than just picking up trash and debris. One trail has the tendency to become many as erosion and trees falling on trails take their toll. It seems quite the contradiction that those working to preserve nature are so adversely affected by it, but the horsemen roll up their sleeves and do what they have to do. Repair and remediation, clearing paths, posting trail signs, and even using chain saws to cut up fallen trees are just part of what they do to keep trails open, clear and clearly marked.
The horsemen do more than work on trails. They have been involved with religious organizations, Boy Scouts and hiking groups, as well as those who enjoy horse riding, lending their expertise and educating wherever possible. A case in point is Janet Hancey. In connection with her BCHA membership, she is serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, working on the four local welfare ranches the church owns and operates. Hancey brings to the church skills and experience as part of the BCHA.
“I ride but I don’t rope,” she said. “I leave that to the real cowboys. But I do lots of horse and cattle work, including sorting, driving, pushing and holding. I work the chute and squeeze gates, and assist with shots, ear tagging and in keeping the logs up to date. It’s hard work and often long hours, but so worth it. My horse and I are a team helping the poor.”
Wade Sperry, who supervises field operations at the welfare ranches, pointed out that the church does not just supply beef locally. Beef from the ranches is used for relief efforts when natural disasters occur.
“None of this would be possible without volunteers,” Sperry said. “[Janet] is a dedicated volunteer.”
The group that is working to preserve some of the old ways is hoping to use new ways to reach and educate. In the past they have used newsletters to keep members and others informed. They’re hoping to use the Internet to expand their capabilities. A local website is being proposed.
The organization also hopes to expand its education efforts. The group hopes to reach more youth and work with such groups as Future Farmers of America and 4-H to achieve common goals.
In anticipation of its 40th anniversary, the BCHA is planning a major celebration. The group is celebrating throughout 2013 with events and activities at all levels of the organization: chapter, state and national. Some special activities are scheduled during the annual national board meeting in April in Rapid City, S.D. Fitting for the occasion, the festivities include educational clinics, meet and greet gatherings, and recognition of the people who have helped make the group the organization it is today.
The West Desert Chapter of BCHA is planning a trails restoration event on June 8. Those wishing to be of assistance or who are interested in joining the group can contact Nudell at firstname.lastname@example.org. For further information on the group, visit backcountryhorse.com.
For those who love horses, riding and service, Nudell said the BCHA is the right group to join. After all, she said, “The path to your horse’s heart lies through your own.”