Not Just Horsing Around
Back Country Horsemen of BC enjoy the wilderness and work to ensure the ‘right to ride’…
In 1988, when Langley, BC equine enthusiast Jim McCrae embarked on a solo horseback ride of the 4,260-kilometre Pacific Crest Trail, he knew that it would be a life-changing experience. But he had no idea that his adventure would be a catalyst to change the lives of so many others, too.
McRae started at the trailhead in Mexico, then travelled up the coast through California, Oregon and Washington, before eventually winding up in British Columbia. It took him and his three horses five months to make the trip.
When he encountered problems along the way, McCrae was grateful that there was always someone available to provide assistance. On many occasions, the individuals who came forward to help were members of an organization called the Back Country Horsemen of America.
Needless to say, when you spend 147 consecutive days on a solitary trail ride, you have plenty of time to think. One thing McCrae thought about was that the Back Country Horsemen of America were doing some amazing work on behalf of recreational riders in the USA. He decided that his home province of British Columbia could benefit from the creation of a similar organization.
After the dust had settled on his legendary ride, McCrae put his thoughts into action. In 1989, along with his wife Marilynn and several other equine enthusiasts, he formed the Back Country Horsemen Society of British Columbia (BCH). It would become a registered society in 1991.
Today, with McCrae’s continued support as well as the volunteer efforts of hundreds of dedicated members, BCH has become a province-wide organization with more than 600 members and 16 chapters, including three on Vancouver Island.
The first Vancouver Island chapter was formed in Nanaimo in 1996. Many of its then 100-plus members, however, lived in the Comox Valley and surrounding communities, so commuting to meetings was a challenge. As a result, in 2002 the Vancouver Island chapter was moved to the Comox Valley. Additional chapters were eventually started in Duncan (South Vancouver Island), Port Alberni (Alberni Valley) and, most recently, Saltspring Island. Total membership on the Island is about now about 100, 60 of which are in the Comox Valley region.
“While the name ‘Back Country’ may mislead some people into thinking that our organization is only concerned about trails in the far reaches of the wilderness, we also work to secure access for horses and riders, to maintain and to use trails in urban and rural settings,” explains John King, chair of association’s Vancouver Island chapter and vice president for the provincial board of directors. “Many of the trails are multi-use and are frequented by hikers, cyclists and people on all terrain vehicles (ATVs). Some trails are decades old and historic, built for horses and used only by horses, but almost all are suitable for other forms of recreation, as well as trail riding.”
The Vancouver Island chapter has been extensively involved with the development and on-going maintenance of several well-used and much-loved trails in the Comox Valley and beyond. Not only do members ride these trails, they take great pride in them, too.
In the wake of a wind storm, volunteers clear deadfall from trails. If a bridge needs to be built to ensure a safe creek or ravine crossing, volunteers organize a work bee and build it. They have even constructed a few outhouses in the outback—always a welcome sight after spending several hours in a saddle.
One of their most recent accomplishments has been the development of the historic One Spot Trail, which runs along the former mainline railway grade of the Comox Logging and Railway Company. (See sidebar.)
The group has also been collaborating with the Merville and Area Residents and Ratepayers Association (MARRA), in their First Nations Land Claim consultations with the provincial and federal governments. The goal is to ensure the public will continue to have access to the 20-kilometres of trails that wind through the magnificent 520-hectare Williams Beach Forest Reserve.
“We have been at risk of losing public access to this particular parcel of Crown land for many years,” explains Sharon Pickthorne, volunteer treasurer for both the Vancouver Island chapter and the provincial organization. “In 1998, there was a land rights trade proposed. The community rallied together and the deal was cancelled. For the recent negotiations, I joined MARRA’s team to represent all horse riders, on behalf of BCH. Our efforts are supported by Horse Council BC and the Joint Trails and Access Committee.”
On October 2, 2008, MARRA was invited to present its case to save Williams Beach to six members of the provincial and federal negotiating team. Pickthorne says they were disappointed when the two-hour time allotment was shortened to only an hour, but they still managed to present a strong case. With the assistance of a lawyer, who had volunteered her time to help prepare an extensive briefing, the presentation was complete with maps, newspaper clippings, historical information and excerpts from the Official Community Plan. One federal negotiator commented that no group had ever given her anything so professional.
“I was able to speak for about 10 minutes on the equine connection and Back Country Horsemen,” adds Pickthorne. “I described why we love this forest, how it is such a great place to take a novice rider or a green horse for their first trail rides. I explained the lack of conflict with other users and the perfect footing. And I asked that we have the foresight to leave this Crown land with public access, to accommodate a larger population base of many users in the future.”
After many hours spent preparing documents and coming up with a strategy to save the Williams Beach Forest, Pickthorne came away from the meeting feeling they had given it their best shot. Only time will tell if those efforts were successful.
More recently, Pickthorne, again representing BCH, was invited to represent riders in the Resource Group for the Comox Valley Parks and Greenways Planning Strategy. This is a 50-year plan that encompasses recreation land use, including trail riding. This inclusion was considered a great honor and an acknowledgement of the sound reputation the Society has fostered in our community.
In addition to these key projects, BCH makes continuous effort to work with various private landowners (such as timber companies), woodlot licensees and the provincial government to secure access for trail riders on both privately-owned and Crown-owned land. Considering the scarcity of Crown land on Vancouver Island, maintaining a good working relationship with various government sectors—such as forest and environment—is of utmost importance for BCH members.
While lobbying to ensure the right to ride is an important aspect of the society, not all members get involved in politics and policy development—many simply saddle up and ride.
“Back Country Horsemen are a unique and dedicated group,” says King. “Our membership is comprised of both men and women of all ages, from all walks of life. They use English or Western tack and ride various breeds and sizes of horses or mules. Many are life-long horse lovers who have grown tired of the cost and competition of the horse show circuit and just want to get out and enjoy their horse on the trail.”
It is interesting to note that while most horse-related organizations attract a large contingency of women, the majority of BCH members are men. “But don’t let that make you think we’re just a bunch of old geezers going into the back country with pack mules to hunt moose!” adds King with a smile. “A few of our members may fit that profile, but the majority of us simply like to take our horses out on the trail for a few hours on evenings and weekends.”
“Many of our members are experienced trail riders,” explains Pickthorne. “However, we also welcome people who are new to trail riding and will help them work with their horse to ensure they have fun and learn to ride safely. In fact, you don’t even have to own a horse or a horse trailer to join.”
In addition to trail riding, further education is a major focus of BCH. Meetings are held at 7 pm on the third Thursday of every month (from September through June) at the Grantham Hall on the Old Island Highway. Special guest speakers, videos and member presentations cover a wide range of topics, from horse health to environmental stewardship. In addition to the educational presentation and reporting on the Society’s business, there is always plenty of opportunity to network and socialize at the monthly meeting. Anyone is welcome—you do not have to be a member to attend.
BCH hosts several trail riding events and clinics throughout the year, some in alliance with the Certified Horsemanship Association (CHA). You can simply attend the events as a participant or elect to progress through four levels of CHA trail riding certification. Trail Rider Level 1 covers the basics of horsemanship and trail skills, requiring you to complete at least two group rides that are organized and operated according to the standards set by the CHA Trail Safety and Etiquette Guidelines. Wilderness Rider Level 4 is far more advanced, encompassing not only riding and horsemanship but trail and camping skills, group control and organization, advanced pack animal management and considerable field experience.
“To ensure the safety of both horses and riders, education is an important part of our activities,” says Pickthorne. “But we also want to ensure that wilderness areas are used responsibly and in cooperation with other recreational user groups.”
A popular annual event is the province-wide Rendezvous held the last weekend in May. This year’s three-day event at Rock Creek in the BC Interior attracted more than 225 people with 175 horses from across the province. Both Pickthorne and King attended and say it was an amazing experience that was well worth the trip.
“From big events like Rendezvous to solitary rides on the trails at Seal Bay, my involvement with the Back Country Horsemen has given me the confidence and knowledge to get out and explore many areas of the province that I very likely would never have been able to see,” says King. “It has been time well spent for my wife and me, and for our horses.”
Pickthorne agrees. “Sometimes, when I am on a wilderness trail and I gaze out at the view across a valley, I think to myself… ‘Wow! It doesn’t get any better than this!’ Then I venture further up the trail and am even more amazed by the next vista. Traveling the back country on horseback is something everyone should be able to enjoy.”
For more information call Sharon Pickthorne at 250-337-1818
or John King at 250-338-6789.