Where Will My Son Ride in the Future?

More than 6,000 acres of open land fall to developers every day. Strassburger, who works with the Equine Land Conservation Resource, discusses the potential impact of vanishing space on equestrian events and the ability to grow hay and grain to feed horses.
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More than 6,000 acres of open land fall to developers every day. Strassburger, who works with the Equine Land Conservation Resource, discusses the potential impact of vanishing space on equestrian events and the ability to grow hay and grain to feed horses.

Lately I?ve found myself contemplating what the future will be like for my son Wesley, who turns 14 months old this week. These thoughts always come to me when I'm holding him, and it's mostly when I'm putting him to bed?when the room is darkened, I'm tired from a long day, my stomach?s full from dinner, and I?ve had a couple of glasses of Sonoma County wine.

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I sometimes ponder what life around us will be like in the future (we think smart phones are absolutely amazing, but I often wonder, when Wesley is 18, what kind of devices we'll be using for instant communication then). But what I wonder about most is what will it be like to ride and to take care of (and feed) our horses in 2030 or when he's as old as I am now, in 2060?

Yes, I know?Wesley may not have any interest in horses or riding, so my ruminations may be meaningless to him. He could turn out to be a doctor or an IT geek or who knows what else. But for now I'll hope, encouraged by the fact he clearly finds the dogs and horses fascinating and the book that interests him the most (and the one he brings to us to ?read,? or really, to flip the pages and look at the pictures) is about horses.

At the very least, I hope that I'm able to instill in him a love of the outdoors and a fascination with nature, along with a deep love of the wonderful farm where we live.

I?ve been a member of the Board of Directors and the Executive Committee of the Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org) for more than four years now, and in these contemplative moments I?ve discovered that Wesley has brought to the surface a renewed passion for the organization and for our mission. Many of my fondest childhood memories involve riding across the countryside in New Vernon and Harding Township, New Jersey, where I grew up. My mother, sister and I would ride for hours along a wonderful system of bridlepaths throughout the area, and we also foxhunted every week from September through January. Now, those trails are almost completely gone, as the area has gone almost entirely suburban.

The ability to ride freely across the countryside is certainly a big loss in the last 30 to 40 years. But I worry whether we'll be losing even more competition grounds in the future too. Today the majority of competitions are held at public facilities?they?re either owned by an individual or an incorporated group to be a show grounds or they?re a park of some kind, owned by a county or a state. For the most part, this is a good thing, because the facilities (including things like parking) are better. But precious few of these places are permanently protected. They can be (and have been) sold for other uses whenever the owner decides the moment is right.

The deciding factor is always economic, most often brought on by the fact that the land has become too valuable for us to ride our horses there. Usually a nearby town has grown to just outside the perimeter, or houses have simply enveloped it. I'm thinking of the Colorado Horse Park or Tempel Farms in Illinois as two places you might know that have been enveloped by houses but still hold on.

But there's a much bigger concern too: How are we going to feed our horses in the future? Where is hay going to grow? Where are feed companies like LMF, Purina and Pennfield going to get the grains they need? And how much is it going to cost us? In 10 or 20 years, is a bag of grain going to cost $50 and a big bale of hay going to cost $75?

We're currently loosing 6,000 acres of agricultural, forest and other open land each day to development (according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture). That's 2.19 million acres per year, when we need 36 million acres just to provide adequate feed for the 9.2 million U.S. horses. At the current rate of development, in a little more than 16 years, that amount of land will be gone, forever, and I'm sure you can see how that will likely affect cost and availability of horse feed. Hay and grain are one of the big three items in my farm?s annual budget?prices like this would require us to double what we charge our clients. And you can't just feed less to save money.

What can we do? What can you do to help protect our children?s future with horses? I?d strongly suggest that you join us at the ELCR in our battle, either with your time and energy or with your checkbook.

At ELCR, we ask the question, ?Where will you ride, drive, compete, race, raise foals, and grow hay in the future?? These issues affect every single person who owns a horse, no matter the breed and discipline, and we seethree critical issues: 1) community land-use planning, 2) farmland protection, and 3) trails. In the past three years, ELCR has been instrumental in conservation efforts for 44,237 acres of farmland and 985 miles of trails. We're proud of those figures, but as you can see it's just a pittance compared to what we're losing.

Here are a few other things we?ve done in the last three-plus years, since moving our headquarters to the Kentucky Horse Park (between the U.S. Equestrian Federation and the U.S. Pony Clubs):

?? We've expanded our tremendously important Conservation Partners program to a whopping 144 organizations and businesses, representing 1.2 million people. (We're developing plans now to work even more closely with these groups; we now hold five conference calls a year and hold regular face-to-face meetings with their leaders.)

?? We've revised and updated our valuable publication Guide To Equestrian-Friendly Conservation Easements and published Horses Make Good Neighbors, designed to help those unfamiliar with horses understand the positive equine impact of horses in their community.

?? We helped a Massachusetts landowner save a boarding stable, even though local authorities and new neighbors opposed it.

?? We successfully led equestrians in Clark County, Ky., in developing a comprehensive planning process to fight a housing development in an area of horse farms.

?? Our staff developed the ?Equine Activity Statutes and Recreational-Use Statutes Directory? on our website (ELCR.org), a tremendously valuable resource that compiles these statutes from all 50 states.

?? We've gotten celebrity endorsements from singer Lyle Lovett and Olympian Karen O?Connor and used their endorsements effectively in advertisements and interviews. (Lyle talked enthusiastically about ELCR in a press conference at the Alltech FEI World Equestrian Games.)

?? Our CEO, Deb Balliet, has been appointed to several local and national conservation boards, and she and other board members (including me) have conducted dozens of presentations and speeches around the country. (I?ve spoken in Florida, Colorado, New Orleans, Arizona and here in California.)

Now we're looking ahead to 2011, when we'll begin a curriculum-development project that will be the basis for a nationwide ?train the trainer? program. This is a program with the ultimate goal of placing an equine land-conservation expert in every state and in the leadership of trail, breed and discipline organizations across the nation. These ?Master Educators? will, in turn, educate others about how to ensure places and spaces for horse-related activities remain in their own communities.

We believe that the potential for this program is absolutely tremendous. But to really make it work, we need people like you to invest in the future of equine land preservation, and the only nationwide organization that's doing that is the ELCR.

We've been sounding the alarm about equine land preservation for the last decade, and we're thankful that our warning is now, finally, being heard. (I cite as evidence our 144 Conservation Partners.) Now we're ready to really help horse owners across the country make a difference, and we need your help to succeed.