Protecting Trees and Park Structures
By Lora Goerlich
The grass (and legume) grazing equines we know today were once browsers. Woody vegetation, fruits, nuts and select leafy plants made up the bulk of their diet and throughout their 50-55 million years of physical change, a small percentage of horses have retained the inclination to browse, though today it is not considered a positive trait especially if they gnaw away at stall walls, fence, shade trees or anything they can get their teeth on. Humans call it a vice or unwanted behavior.
The reasons a horse chews wood may be known or unknown but typically this behavior is an indication of more deep-seated (often human induced) problems such as past trauma from being starved; current conditions of not enough forage; frustration or boredom from too much time confined by stall walls. At trailside rest areas the reasons might include nervousness, frustration, boredom, being tied next to an aggressive horse or pain due to ill-fitting tack. The concave gnaw marks left behind are unsightly and damaging which is why trail riders must be conscientious while on public land.De-barking, wood whittling horses create gaping, gnarly tree wounds that are visible for many years, leaving clear evidence of careless rider etiquette. The removal of bark will eventually kill subjected trees by cutting off nutrient flow from the leaves to the roots.
The open wounds also make a prime environment for disease and insect incubation. Currently, Oak Wilt (in red oak species) is a major concern. Oak Wilt is caused by a fungus that infects trees through wounds and by root grafting. Once a tree is infected, fungal spores can be spread by insects who come in contact with the fungus; inadvertently transporting it to other trees. This is an oversimplified explanation of a complex disease. Hitching post whittlers reduce the overall usable timeframe while simultaneously eroding the structural integrity of posts and rails that they repeatedly chew.Humane options to curb whittling and protect park structures may include, holding the horse in hand on a lead rope instead of tying; taking shorter breaks, loosening the girth (remember to adjust it before re-mounting), tying next to a buddy, creating a temporary highline or using hobbles (only horses who are trained to use them).
Additionally, tying horses to fence rails, mounting platform rails, park benches, picnic tables or any unapproved structures is not safe because most are not built to withstand the force of a panicked horse pulling backward. All will break effortlessly at the weakest point. The result could be disastrous for the horse, rider and/or bystanders. Imagine all the scenarios of a horse running wildly with broken pieces of fence, boards, or metal dangling at the end of its rope - impalement, broken bones, running into traffic…Make choices that create less work for park staff and protect flora and fauna. Inclusion, no matter the type, is a privilege.
Damage to a tree at a horse rest area where too many horses were brought in. Riders tied horses to trees and a mounting platform. This damage is irreversible and shows obvious disregard for nature preservation and preservation of future riding opportunities.
A dangerous action