Jefferson County may well be one of the horsiest places across this wide country.
And yet, the county has no public park dedicated to equine trail riding.
It’s a vexing problem that has gotten a segment of our county’s population all whipped up, while on the other side, county officials say their reins are tied in a knot.
They’ve got nothing against horses, but when it comes to allowing them into the current stable of ill-suited county parks – this dog don’t hunt. (I take total blame for that mixed-mammal metaphor.)
Here’s an interesting idea: What if the two sides did a little horse-trading – you know, worked together toward a plan that could potentially make everyone happy?
Now, that could certainly be a horse of a different color.
Check out county reporter Steve Taylor’s story in today’s paper to learn the details of the horse controversy, which has reared its neighing head at several Jefferson County Council meetings over the last year, but came to an actual vote on Oct. 28.
Over the strenuous objections of 13 speakers who made the case for horse access, the council gave preliminary approval, on a 5-2 vote, for an ordinance to ban horses in all county parks except for Big River Saddle Club Park in Dittmer and, once it is developed, Beck Park in unincorporated Eureka.
Two more affirmative votes are needed to pass the ordinance, with final action expected Nov. 12.
The equine exhorters argued passionately for the council to stick with a reported handshake agreement in the 1990s that had allowed horseback riding in the 38-acre Pleasant Valley Nature Preserve near Byrnes Mill.
But County Counselor Wes Yates was equally assertive in explaining why it just can’t be. He cited chapter and verse about the tract’s unsuitability for horses: It’s too small; its trails are too narrow; its status as a nature preserve, by contract, does not allow horseback riding; a grant has been awarded to develop the park for human use; and the presence of equines would pose serious legal and insurance concerns.
Signs that prohibit horses at the park need to stay up, he said emphatically.
A majority of the council agreed with him, and he won me over, too.
Still, what about Jefferson County’s essential horsiness? For one plank of proof, look to the Hillsboro Horse Show, which dates back to 1946 and drew more than 1,000 people to the Jefferson County Fairgrounds in October (my horse-riding great-nieces among them).
The equine lobby claims that Jefferson County has more horses than anywhere else in Missouri. I couldn’t find hard numbers to back that up, but I suspect it’s true.
The Missouri Department of Agriculture says our state’s 200,000 horses ranks third nationally, per capita. Since Jefferson County is the sixth-largest county in the state and is more rural than the five counties with higher population, the odds are we’ve got the most horses by sheer number.
Maybe not per capita, since some of our smallest rural counties have few people but perhaps lots of hooves. But Jefferson County figures to have many taxpayers who would find public horse trails appealing.
Tim Pigg, who oversees the county’s Parks and Recreation Department, says he gets that, but he’s got a burr under his saddle about the way he’s been depicted in the squabble.
“Some people think I’m against horses, but I’m not,” Pigg said. “They are majestic animals. It’s just that you can’t do everything in every park.”
With or without the new ordinance, horses will remain welcome at Big River Saddle Club, a park that includes an arena for horse shows. But its 10 acres don’t accommodate trail-riding. For that, the undeveloped Beck Park in northwest Jefferson County is the shining light upon a hill.
Literally, Pigg said. “This is Jefferson County, for crying out loud – it (Beck Park) is on a hillside.”
The county spent $20,000 a quarter-century ago to buy the 127-acre tract, formerly used by Famous-Barr for company picnics and retreats, and park officials have been tantalized by the site’s potential ever since.
If there were money to improve access and build trails wide enough for horses, Beck Park would be a lovely place to take Flicka.
Alas, there is no money. Going all the way back to 1965, county voters have adamantly declined to increase tax funding for parks. So the county has focused on improving facilities at its nine existing parks rather than trying to develop sites in the “land bank.”
Hold your horses – what if equine proponents worked with the parks department to raise funds specifically for developing Beck?
Yates said the South Central chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Missouri group has already agreed to lend a hand, and, as established, there are a lot of other county residents who have a vested interest in creating a horse-friendly park.
The all-abilities Kade’s Playground in Herculaneum was developed precisely this way, and now countians brag about it as a dream realized.
I think the concept has legs (pun intended; you’re welcome). Pigg said he would most definitely be aboard.
Here’s the hard part: It would require people who are putting their passion and energy into changing council members’ minds to instead take a different tack.
And change course.