Horse Of A Different Color

This column, “LBWA” (Leadership By Wandering Around), is based on the premise that, in order to find out what’s going on in the field, a parks and rec leader has to leave his or her desk and “wander around” the area of operations, talk to people, ask questions, and kick around ideas with the individuals in the thick of delivering services to the public.  So the author will bring up issues that may be common to many PRB readers and ask the leaders who are the readers to weigh in and share their knowledge and experiences. 

“You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going

broke betting on people.” 

--Will Rogers, cowboy philosopher

I can’t back this idea up with a scientific survey, but I am willing to assume that a vast majority of parks and recreation departments don’t include horse-related activities as part of their offerings; therefore, they probably don’t fathom the type of maintenance issues faced by equestrian operations.

I personally didn’t have any idea what type of maintenance was involved in operating this service, so I decided it would be an interesting topic to tackle.

My first discovery was that my initial assumption was misguided. As I began my research on Google, I found many rec departments around the country that do offer different levels of programs involving horses.

Active With Obstacles

One of those places is Wickham Park, the largest active park in Brevard County, Fla. Active is perhaps an understatement. The 400-acre park features different areas for soccer, baseball, camping, a large senior center, a veterans’ area, a main pavilion, archery, disc golf, and more; and among all this is a 30-acre equestrian center with a main show ring, warm-up ring, dressage ring, stables, and a jump course.

“I’ve got the best job in Brevard County,” says Jeff Whitehead, the supervisor of the park. “I’ve got the best staff we’ve had in 25 years, and I get to deal with some great people.” He has a staff of 21, with 11 of them working maintenance.

The enthusiasm he has for the park is evident as we chat about what challenges he faces in the equestrian area. I am surprised at his number-one issue.

“The biggest problem I have there is what to do with all the horse manure,” he reveals. After some pithy comments that will remain unprintable, I asked him seriously, “Really?”

“Well, an average 1,200-pound quarter horse produces about 50 pounds of manure a day,” he comments. In my mind I am wondering who captured that detail and how, but then I started to realize the magnitude of the problem.  In one show or event there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of horses that traverse the area for several days, so multiply that times 50. Well, you get the picture.

“How do you handle that?” I ask incredulously, not realizing until a second after the words are out that it is probably the worst pun I can tell him. He could have tossed it back to me with a comment like “very carefully,” or “with a shovel,” but he is a pro, so he diplomatically lets it go.

“We put the onus back on the event organizers,” he says, explaining that groups rent the complex for shows or other equestrian events. “We require them to have a dumpster or trailer to load the manure up and take it with them when they leave.”

That sounds logical, and it’s the same thing rec departments often do when renting sports facilities for large events. Whitehead tells of one early experiment where the department rented a dumpster and permanently installed it at the complex for users. However, people started using the dumpster for everything from household trash to lawn chairs and other inappropriate items. On one occasion, Jeff and his staff had to dumpster dive to separate the inappropriate items from manure because the dumpster company wouldn’t take it. They wisely devised the current system.

Whitehead also shares another solution to this unique parks and rec problem. “Our future answer is working with the Agricultural Center in Brevard County, which is part of the University of Florida extension service, to start a community garden,” he comments. Noting that his budget constraints didn’t enable him to use a commercial composter, the Ag Center is working on a grant to have one donated.

“We’ll have a community garden between the stable buildings, and with the composting system in place, we will eliminate the problem,” he proposes optimistically. I am still wondering if there will be more supply than demand, but he adds that it will be a large garden and that he can also use the compost in other landscaped areas of the park. So now I am thinking this plan can work, and it is an innovative way of solving two problems in one fell swoop, or scoop.

In the meantime, this park—like most other parks and rec departments in the modern fiscal culture—is marketing the stables as “multi-purpose facilities.”

“We have a farmers’ market that uses the middle stables every Thursday,” he says. “One barn is used by the sheriff’s department for training, two of the stalls are occupied by chickens and ducks for use by the Ag Center, and, of course, the community gardens will go between the buildings.”

I ask Whitehead about the decision to go multi-purpose. Part of the answer is necessity, but he also points out that “this brings different people into the area, and when they see what we have here, it promotes the services we offer.” 

In keeping with traditional protocols, Whitehead also works with volunteer groups. “Our rec partner is the Wickham Park Equine Club,” he says. The club started in 2008, no doubt in consonance with the complex’s renovations underway at that time. “We have developed an amazing relationship with them over time, and we’ve done a lot to make it right for them. They help run the area; they promote clinics and help with events,” Whitehead explains.

Rough Terrain

About 3,000 miles away, on the opposite coast, Laura Parent can probably relate with at least some of the challenges Whitehead faces at his equestrian complex. Parent is the head of maintenance at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve near Guerneville, Calif. However, in contrast to the flat landscape in Florida, Parent deals with elevation issues.

Located in northern California hill country, Armstrong Redwoods is adjacent to Austin Creek Recreation Area and shares the same entrance. Austin Creek’s rolling hills, conifers, and oaks contrast with the dense canopy of Armstrong’s Redwood grove, which is actually at a lower elevation. This contrast provides some of Parent’s challenges.

There are about 25 miles of trails for hikers and horse riders between the two areas. “Two of our trails have very steep grades, and we are planning to work on them soon to lower the ridges and reduce runoff and erosion issues,” says Parent. “Horses wear trails down very quickly, so reducing the grade will also make it safer for everyone; it’s been a long time coming.”

Like other rec departments, California parks face strict funding issues and three years ago Austin Creek was slated to close. Fortunately, the Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, a non-profit association, stepped in to assist.  It is in its third year of a five-year agreement to operate Austin as well as a campground at Bullfrog Pond.

“Seventy-five percent of the trails are up in their domain, the rest are in mine,” Parent says, and when she says “mine” she means it literally because she is the only maintenance worker, other than a seasonal employee in the summer. Thankfully, riding activities are suspended in winter months.

“Keeping our trails clear for hikers and riders is my biggest challenge,” she says. “We have to keep the limbs cut back high enough to accommodate the horses and riders, so we use long-handled pole saws—we had to purchase a couple of the mechanized kind to keep up. Also, when we get a report of a tree down across the trail, we have to respond quickly, especially if we know we have groups coming in on weekends.”

Getting to downed trees is a challenge in itself. The only motorized vehicles allowed on the trails are maintenance ones, but some of the areas are so rugged that eventually Parent has to leave the ride behind and hoof it—pun intended.

“People don’t always give precise locations of a downed tree,” she muses, thinking aloud that it would be nice if everyone gave GPS coordinates. “So to find them, we often have to just start at the uphill end of the trail and work our way down.”

She continues to use the collective term “we,” but I suspect it is often a one-woman job. “We do have volunteers come in once a month, so I decide what the priority is for that time, and they work on it, which helps a lot.” She adds that every other month the Stewards use the additional volunteers for needs in their area. “They are short-staffed, too,” she laments, echoing a common reality in parks and rec departments.

I ask if she has to deal with many complaints if trails aren’t just so. “We get suggestions more than complaints,” she asserts. “Horse people tend to be pretty easy to work with.”

Another familiar issue that Parent deals with is parking—something I didn’t think would be a big issue in the wide-open spaces. “We don’t have a lot of parking here for the trucks and horse trailers, which take up a lot of room,” she says, explaining that there are about 50 free, paved spots at the front of the park, but only 15 are “drive through,” providing a double-length space. For $8 riders can park in another area, but again only a few spaces are big enough. “If they don’t get here early in the morning, it can be challenging to find a place to park. They can park alongside the county road, but that makes it difficult to get the horses on and off the trailers.”

As Parent talks about an access road that is too narrow to accommodate two passing vehicles, Redwood roots pushing up pavement, and too-few water troughs, it becomes clear that equestrian operations offer a different take on some familiar parks and rec issues.  

Oh, and just to add variety, Parent tells me there is also a coastal area where “dune” trails offer a whole new level of equine maintenance issues, but that is a horse of a different color and a job for a different maintenance crew.

Randy Gaddo served for 15 years as a director in municipal parks and recreation after retiring from 20 years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He developed, wrote, administered, and presented maintenance plans as well as recreation master plans during that time. Gaddo earned his Master’s in Public Administration, and now lives in Beaufort, S.C. He can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email