Take it Out Back
The Backcountry Horsemen of California Redwood Unit…
A picture posted to Facebook shows 13 horses and 12 riders standing tall with their horses in front of the famous Carson Mansion in Eureka. If you put the photo in black and white, you might’ve thought that it was taken in the 19th century, proving how the Backcountry Horsemen of California are keeping traditions alive as well as trying to maintain access to public lands. Taken in November 2022, the picture also shows nine Cub Scouts, two “horse apple” picker-uppers, two nonprofits and six local businesses that participated in the annual Cowboy Canned Food Convoy.
Creating a mission to preserve the historic use of trails with recreational pack and saddle stock, the Redwood Unit formed in the early 1990s, but the Backcountry Horsemen as a whole formed a decade before. The High Sierra Stock Users Association was incepted in 1981 and five years later joined with some western states to form the Backcountry Horsemen of America. The nationwide organization grew to more than 174 chapters within 26 states, including the Redwood and Redding units in Northern California. There are 2,000 members in the state from top to bottom. In past years, the Backcountry Horsemen of California have given close to $4.4 million of volunteer hours in dollar value.
Jacque Murphy sits on the executive board for the state and local chapter, and also acts as its webmaster. She lives in Fortuna and has been involved with the Backcountry Horsemen for 20 years. She got into the Backcountry Horsemen when she signed up for a group ride, which included membership into the club. “We have fun, enjoy the backcountry, and I’ve gotten some good riding buddies out of it,” she says.
The Backcountry Horsemen also educates public land users on how to be responsible and respectful to other users and the environment. “We teach backcountry users on how to Leave No Trace as well as other skills, outdoor cooking and outdoor ethics,” Murphy says. “We fight for the tooth to ride in public lands, and maintain the historical use of equestrian trails. The Forest Service will stop maintaining the trails if no one is using them, so we’re the squeaky wheel to try to get them fixed.”
With more trail use between mountain bikes, hikers and e-bikers, a lot of trails have changed to multi-use and have gradually started to disallow horses. Therefore, the Backcountry Horsemen fight to keep their access and local policy bills from phasing them out.
For instance, there’s a state bill to not allow horse poop (called “apples”), which is hard to pick up when there’s not a safe place to stop and dismount the horse. While it can be annoying to see it on the trails, the Backcountry Horsemen encourage riders to pick it up when they can, and it is mandatory for trail users to give their horses certified weed-free feed to keep any invasive species from rooting in the soil through discarded seeds. And as e-bikes are getting more popular, that can also create conflict, since e-bikers are quiet and can come up fast on a horse, startling it and potentially causing an accident.
There are about 150 members within the Redwood Unit and they meet monthly to go on rides. Some rides are shorter in the winter, but they all vary and sometimes members the group will break off and keep going or take a different route. Murphy herself has done some 10-hour, 20-mile rides. “Membership comes and goes, and it was affected by COVID,” Murphy says. “The majority of users are older and we’re trying to figure out how to get younger people involved.”
To help generate awareness and maintain relevancy, the Backcountry Horsemen began the Cowboy Canned Food Convoy. It’s the brainchild of Murphy, who thought it would be fun to collect, coordinate and distribute food via horseback throughout Old Town Eureka to the local food bank. The event started about 16 years ago and always takes place in November before Thanksgiving. And no matter what the weather is doing, the Backcountry Horsemen will be there.
“It’s a cool organization and you don’t have to have a horse to be a part of it,” Murphy says. “There are really great people in this group who care and want to keep this alive. I’ve found out so many neat things not even related to the backcountry through this group. We really try hard to practice good stewardship of the land. In our education, we remind people that if a trail is too muddy, don’t go on it, teach the Leave No Trace mentality, and we try to show people how to properly maintain the environment. We take care of each other, and safety is our number-one concern. And once a rider gets out in the backcountry, then you can’t get enough of it once it’s in your blood.” •
Backcountry Horsemen of California Redwood Unit