April 23, 2020

HORSEBACK RIDING IN STATE PARKS DURING THE STAY AT HOME ORDER - What You Need To Know

The MHC has been working diligently to obtain confirmation from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) that the below Facebook post appearing on the Maryland State Parks Facebook page on April 7, 2020, was in fact, official policy, and the reasons behind that policy.  

ALERT: In accordance with Governor Hogan’s emergency actions to protect public health during the COVID-19 pandemic, horseback riding is prohibited in State Parks.

After some back and forth emails with Nita Settina, Superintendent, Maryland Park Service, DNR, we were provided with the following official statement by Ms. Settina on April 15, 2020.

"The decisions on outdoor recreation were made in consultation with the state’s legal experts on how to interpret the governor’s executive order. The intent of the governor’s executive order is for everyone to stay at home unless you absolutely must leave. 

While we realize that this is an inconvenience, risking unnecessary exposure is not just a hazard for you and your family, it puts our law enforcement, emergency responders, and staff in danger and diverts front line resources that are needed to respond to the pandemic. An exception for the care of live animals has been made in the executive order.

While the Stay at Home order does allow for outdoor exercise recreation, such activities must be limited to reduce potential exposure. Hiking, biking, and walking are expressly allowed under the executive order. Since kayaking and paddle boarding are both human-powered forms of exercise, akin to bicycling, they are permitted under the executive order. 

Activities that require significant time, travel, and use of common facilities exceed the intent of the order's allowance for exercise. Accordingly, state officials have determined commercial and recreational riding centers and stables should suspend operations (as stated in our online guidance FAQs), and the department has followed suit by suspending horseback riding on all public lands until the order is lifted."

We recognize that this statement leaves a lot of unanswered questions, including why only horseback riding is considered an activity that requires "significant time, travel, and use of common facilities" and why, if "the intent of the governor’s executive order is for everyone to stay at home unless you absolutely must leave,” that intent is not deemed to apply to others, for example, to those who load their bikes onto their cars and drive to distant state parks to cycle, or the groups of families and friends who pile into their cars to drive to parks and are, according to press reports, crowding trails with little regard for social distancing.  The MHC strives to maintain a positive relationship with DNR and the State Parks system. However, we are struggling to find a principled way to respond to those who claim that DNR appears to have an institutional bias against horses and horse people in view of this apparent discriminatory treatment.

We also don't understand the correlation between the closure of "commercial and recreational riding centers and stables" on the one hand, and the prohibition of riding in state parks on the other hand.  We are fairly certain that DNR is aware of the fact that many horses in Maryland are privately owned and maintained, and are not necessarily kept at "commercial and recreational riding centers and stables."  (In this regard, "public lands" as used in the statement, refers to state owned land, not county owned land.)

In response to our intent to post this article, Ms. Settina sent us further clarification on behalf of DNR on April 17, as follows:

  "One important point of clarification: the DNR website page that features COVID-19 FAQs has been updated to clarify that the prohibition on horseback riding does include riding on public lands. ( https://news.maryland.gov/DNR/2020/03/31/FREQUENTLY-ASKED-QUESTIONS-ABOUT-GOVERNOR-HOGANS-STAY-AT-HOME-ORDER/ )

In meeting the intent of the governor's stay at home order, other activities currently prohibited include recreational boating, catch-and-release fishing. hunting (unless for necessity), golfing, and off-highway vehicle riding. As with horseback riding, these are outdoor activities the department strongly supports. The state's legal experts, however, have determined that these activities do not meet the definition of "necessary" outdoor exercise and they are prohibited under the executive order.

We appreciate that people disagree with this legal determination and are communicating their displeasure and concerns; however, we hope that your readers will recall the long history of the department's support for horseback riding and know that the state will continue to support this valued recreation in the future as soon as the governor's stay at home order will permit."

While we appreciate DNR's continued commitment to horse enthusiasts, we are still unsure of the basis for their position.  Specifically, we are not sure why horseback riding would not be covered under the March 30 stay at home order as an "essential activity" that includes "engaging in outdoor exercise activities..." 

The MHC will continue to work towards getting state lands open to trail riders again.  In this regard, the state of Maryland has begun looking at ways to start re-opening the state, as the numbers affected by the virus in Maryland start to decline. As part of its input into that process, the MHC is specifically looking to have state lands re-opened to trail riding.  Stay tuned for further updates.