The Gila Back Country Horsemen celebrate a decade of clearing trails for use by the four- and two-legged alike.
By David A. Fryxell
Gerry Engel gleefully recalls a horseback trip last year to clear logs from trails along the north fork of the Mimbres River — a trip that involved a fallen tree, some serious sawing action, a gigantic rootwad and a neat little physics lesson. "We had to be really careful," he says, "because the rootwad was so heavy. Once we cut the log and there was no longer the weight of the rest of the tree counterbalancing it, the stump just sat right back up."
Michele McGorky packing a chainsaw to remove logs blocking the Continental Divide Trail.
He demonstrates by making a levering action with his hand and a sort of "woop" sound effect. Then he grins.
Engel spent 31 years with the US Forest Service, serving as a district ranger in Silver City and Mimbres. Now, as a member of the Gila Back Country Horsemen, he rides out into the forest to help keep trails accessible — -not only for fellow riders, but also for hikers, backpackers and motor bikers. It's strictly volunteer work, but nearer and dearer to what he joined the Forest Service for in the first place.
"I knew that once I retired, I was interested in trail maintenance," Engel explains. "I'd seen the funding for trail maintenance decline over time, so there was an opportunity for a volunteer group to help fill in. I'd held mostly administrative jobs with the Forest Service — not a lot of hands-on work. I tell people I do more now with the Back Country Horsemen of what I wanted to do than when I was in the Forest Service."
The Gila chapter, based in Silver City, will mark its 10th anniversary this month. It's affiliated with a national organization that began in 1973 when four horseback riders by a campfire in Montana decided they and their fellow back-country riders needed to band together to protect trails and access to them. Now based in Graham, Wash., the Back Country Horsemen boasts 17,000 members in 32 states. In 2009, the group contributed 345,690 hours to trail maintenance, working with agencies including the Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.
New Mexico has eight chapters, including groups in Silver City, Las Cruces and Socorro; riders in Ruidoso are working to organize a ninth chapter. The Gila chapter was launched in February 2001 by Gerry Thompson, a transplant from Michigan, who died last year. Almost all the members moved to Southwest New Mexico from someplace else, usually motivated by their love of horses and desire to live somewhere with plenty of room to ride, nearly year-round.
Colleen Poole, an original member, moved here from Massachusetts. She recalls what led her to that first meeting: "I just wanted somebody to ride horses with on the trails. I wanted to find other horse people."
Doug Dexter and Rawlings Lemon cutting logs along the South Fork Mimbres River Trail.
Husband Ken Poole had joined the Lower Rio Grande chapter in Las Cruces a few months before, then saw a notice in the paper about Thompson's efforts to start a local chapter. The Gila chapter quickly took off, zooming to about 80 members within a couple of years before leveling off at about 50 members for the past five years. Members come from an area ranging from Glenwood and Buckhorn to Deming, and there's even one from Las Cruces.
You don't have to be an expert rider to join. Stan Rawllins, who joined three years ago with wife Fran, jokes, "We range from dumb to expert."
A few members don't even own a horse, at least not yet. Stan and Fran Rawllins were members for a year and a half before getting their own mounts, and she says that the Gila chapter meetings and fellow members were a big help in picking the right horses.
Education is a big part of the group's mission. Besides monthly meetings, mostly indoors at the Gila Regional Medical Center, the Gila chapter is trying to schedule more outdoor seminars and classes. Last year, program topics included search and rescue, saddle fitting, horse training and tack cleaning. Veterinarian Dr. Kevin Brown talked to the group about first aid when horse camping. NMSU Extension Agent Amy Star demonstrated riding with a garrocha, a long pole used to work with cattle in a style developed in Spain and Portugal.
Advocacy for trail access is another core activity for the Back Country Horsemen nationally, although local members downplay its importance locally. As member Rawlings Lemon puts it with a wry smile, "We don't demonstrate."
The group enjoys a good rapport with local government agencies, Engel adds. "We try to work with the agencies like the Forest Service, so we know where they're coming from and vice versa."
That relationship is also important to the activity that members most enjoy talking about — trail maintenance and clearing. Lemon explains, "They call us and tell us where we need to come work."
That cooperation even extends to erecting signage for the Forest Service. "The Forest Service doesn't always have enough funding or manpower," says Engel. "We'll put up signs in areas that are difficult to get to."
Going on horseback where others can't — because it's too far to hike in or because motorized vehicles are prohibited — is key to the effectiveness of the Gila Back Country Horsemen. "We can carry tools more easily than somebody on foot can," Engel goes on. "We can carry gear like crosscut saws for inside the wilderness or chainsaws for outside. We'll ride until we come to a log that's blocking the trail, tie the horses up and clear it."