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. Throughout their 50-55 million years of physical change, a small percentage of horses have retained the inclination to browse. However, today it is not considered a positive trait, especially if they gnaw away at stall walls, fences, 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. Still, 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 infecting trees through wounds and root grafting. Once a tree is infected, fungal spores can be spread by insects that 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 unsafe 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 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…
Lora’s parks and recreation career spans thirty-two years; twenty-five years, she served as a dedicated law-enforcement/maintenance ranger at Metroparks of Toledo. Add to that her formal schooling in two distinct areas – environmental studies/resource management and equestrian studies.
Work, education, and personal experience have woven together seamlessly to create a uniquely qualified, neutral horse trail expert/consultant and author with a profound knowledge and understanding of recreational equestrian needs; sustainable trail planning and maintenance in natural areas; law enforcement issues, and strategies; community involvement; best practice horse keeping; equine behavior; customer service; volunteerism; natural resource management; mounted patrol operations and multi-use-trail conflict resolution.
In 2011 she began sharing her expertise at park conferences, including The National Parks and Recreation Congress, Ohio Parks and Recreation Conference, American Trails Symposium, and The Park Ranger Institute. Lora has been a trail rider and horse owner since 1986 and has ridden, started, and re-schooled a variety of horses in various disciplines. Current trail mounts include a Tennessee Walker gelding and a Warmblood cross gelding. You might also find her hiking, cycling, kayaking, or camping with and without horses.
For more information, visit www.equinetrails.org