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By Jennifer M. Keeler for ELCR

Mustard credit USDA

Mustard. Photo credit: USDA

One of equestrians’ favorite activities is exploring America’s landscapes from the back of their favorite horse.  But when riding the trails or across the countryside, are we unwittingly helping to endanger the natural beauty we treasure?

The flora and fauna surrounding our riding areas may contain “invasive species” of plants, animals, and even microscopic organisms, defined as a species which is non-native (or alien) to the ecosystem under consideration, as well as whose introduction causes or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.  There are natural vectors, such as wind, water, and wildlife, which contribute to the spread of invasive species.  Human actions are another means of introduction, including travel, vehicle traffic, shipment of goods, and logging, as well as simply enjoying outdoor recreation through hiking, biking, and trail riding.  Even though these invaders may be small, they pack a big punch: invasive species are now found in all 50 states, and published reports estimate the negative economic impact to be as much as $138 billion annually.

Horsemen can unwillingly offer free rides to invasive species while enjoying a short day’s trail ride or a week-long packing trip, never noticing or realizing the potential danger to the environment.  Pathogens can easily be carried on riders’ and horses’ bodies, spread in hay and manure, and travel via truck and trailer tires.  Once in a new area, invasive plant species are especially fond of disturbed areas with bare soils, such as trail heads, staging areas, and camps; and after establishing themselves, they continue to spread, displacing native plants and often weakening natural erosion and water filtration controls within a watershed.  Invasive insects and pathogens can kill trees and vegetation and are commonly transported in firewood.  And just like in the movies, once the alien invaders make themselves at home, they can be virtually impossible to remove or even control.

Weed free sign #1 credit Deb Balliet smaller

Photo credit: Deb Balliet

With invasive species, the best protection is prevention.  Debbie Caffin, Trail Program Manager of the Southern Region with the United States Forest Service (USFS), notes that with a few easy and proactive steps taken from the start to finish of trail rides, horsemen can play an important role in helping prevent the spread of invaders.  And it all starts at home.  “First of all, get educated,” says Caffin.  “Learn about invasive species in your area, and how to identify them.  Remember that before ever getting on to ride, just having good pasture management at home and using quality hay with few weeds and heat-processed feed can help in the fight.”

When planning for a ride, Caffin encourages horsemen to take a few extra moments to prepare.   “Check your tack, groom your horse, comb out manes and tails, and pick feet before even loading your horse on the trailer,” she explains.  Caffin also notes that frequent washing of trucks and trailers will not only help protect one’s home farm from outside invasion, but also remove pathogens which may be inadvertently transported between locations.

Because of the danger of invasive species, many state and federal restrictions that may affect horsemen are being put into place to protect ecosystems.  “Do your homework and be aware of any special regulations regarding trails where you plan to ride,” says Caffin.  One of these regulations includes use of weed-free feed and hay, which some states now require on all public lands.  In these cases, certified weed-free hay and feed must be fed to horses two to four days prior to a ride, as well as used on-site.

Hoof picking credit Jennifer Keeler smaller

Photo credit: Jennifer Keeler

Once on the trail, horsemen should stay on established and designated trails and roads.  Additional helpful tips include minimizing water crossings; tying horses on durable surfaces to avoid disturbing the soil; being aware of seeds that stick to riders’ clothing or animals’ coats, manes, and tails; and cleaning all tack, equipment, and horses before leaving.  Caffin makes note of one more important step: use the pooper scooper.  “In the spirit of Leave No Trace, pick up manure at the trailhead and place it in a muck bucket to take home or use manure bins where provided.  Also, try to minimize spillage of feed and hay, and clean up any which does fall out of hay bags or feeders.”

By being familiar with every twist and turn of their favorite trails, horsemen can also serve on the front lines of the fight against invasive species.  Learning to recognize invasive species which threaten a local area and then being the first to spot newly-established plants can make a big difference.  “Learn to identify one or two of the ‘most wanted’ suspects for your area, then keep your eyes open while riding,” says Caffin.  “Got a GPS and digital camera?  Stop, mark the point and take a picture.  There’s even an ‘app’ for your smartphone.  It could be that you spot a new ‘invasion’ early enough that one can simply hand-pull a few plants.”  Volunteer organizations that work to maintain trails can also incorporate weed patrols and help attack established populations.  “Working with your local land manager is the first step,” Caffin notes.  “Tell them you want to get involved, and they can help guide you and/or your club towards the most effective way to get involved.”

Johnson Grass credit Jennifer Keeler smaller

Johnson grass. Photo credit: Jennifer Keeler

Invasive species are costly and dangerous to our country’s natural ecosystems and farmlands, and concerns about their continued spread may endanger horsemen’s access to lands and trails in the future.  However, all trail riders can help in the fight.  Invasive species management along trails is an important part of good trail maintenance, and controlling weeds along our trails and in our natural areas helps to keep them out of pastures as well.  By working together with government agencies and other trail users, horsemen can help keep our natural forests and grasslands healthy, beautiful and enjoyable for generations to come.

For more information about invasive species in your area, visit the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Invasive Species Information Center at, or contact your local Cooperative Extension office.