There are many large forests around New Zealand; both native and commercial plantation forest. Riding in either requires some special skills, and awareness of the hazards of these environments.
Native or Conservation Forests
Native forests are often harder to get access to, due to the conservation arguments. Within native forests there are usually traditional routes logging, or historic trails, that can be opened to horse riders and non-motorised recreation. Horses were the main form of transport, along with walking for around 150 years through our native bush and forests.
Kauri dieback - if you are permitted in an area with kauri please give your horse's feet a good clean before and after your ride. A 50\50 bleach\water mix in a spray bottle will also deal to any thrush, or seedy toe (and is probably more effective than the spray used for walker shoes) so make it a part of your routine before entering native areas.
Commercial Plantation Forests
Plantation forests in New Zealand are usually pine forests, and largely Radiata pine (Monterey pine in its native California). Some are privately owned, while others are Crown owned, and\or licensed forests. While some don't think pine forests are very interesting, they usually include many little ecosystems of native bush, or experimental trees (eucalypts or others), and while post harvest looks barren and devastated, our pine grows faster than anywhere in the world (including its original home), so it is not long before the young trees are heading skyward again (PHOTO shows just 7 years difference on a track in Auckland's Woodhill Forest).
Forestry is a dangerous industry; never go into an area where forestry operations are underway. Abide by all rules set by the forest manager!
Many harvesting operations are now mechanised, there will be few people around to spot you if you wander into an active area. If you do, this puts both you and the forestry workers at risk, as they are distracted by someone who should not be on their dangerous worksite.
Active harvesting, also means large trucks on the roads. Some forest managers are very good at putting speed limits on their trucks on forest roads, others are pretty appalling at it. But if you are using forestry roads, and particularly crossing them, it is much easier for you to move your horse that for a loaded truck to give you space.
Riding Hazards in a Commercial Forest
"Slash" is the name for the giant piles of tree bits that are created during harvesting. These hang around for a long time, become more unstable as they rot down, and have many places to trap a leg, and lots of sharp bits of wood to create puncture wounds.
Harvested forests will often have many holes; rotten roots from previous trees.
Be aware of pollen season if you are asthmatic, or prone to hay fever. Pine trees send out amazing clouds of pollen when flowering, you will see any standing water covered in it for many weeks (people are often worried this may be some poison, or other nasty).
Roots, branches and Footing
Might seem funny to warn riders about these hazards, but some folk are not prepared for the level of horsemanship you may need on some trails. If you're not a confident rider, or have only ridden on flat grassy areas, go with a friend, or start out on groomed trails or old forestry roads. If you are riding on formed trails, you will often still have to keep an eye out for exposed roots on slopes, branches, and a variety of other hazards.
Footing - again pine forests can be a greater hazard, because the deep layer of dropped pine needles hides a lot of hazards. In Riverhead Forest, for instance, there are deep bogs that look like solid ground because the pine needles on the surface. Every forest will have its special characteristics.
Deer, pigs and other animals abound in our forests. Pheasants are well known for waiting till the last minute before flying, noisily, out in front of your horse. Kereru (wood pigeon) are like the Homer Simpson's of the bird world, I've nearly hit several with my helmet because of their inability to gain height when they take off. Deer and pigs will often frighten the bejeezus out of horses not used to them. Where there are game animals, there are often hunters (legal or illegal), and their dogs. Pig dogs are usually readily identifiable by their radio collars, and generally well trained. If your horse isn't keen on dogs, a commanding yell, will send them on their way.
This applies anywhere there are trees, but particularly to plantation forests. Be aware of the risks when riding in high winds. Every area will have a prevailing wind (the normal wind direction), that trees grow up with. When a storm blows in from the opposite direction, this is a particularly dangerous time in any forest. The root systems and trees are weaker on that side, and much more likely to be blown down. Branches that are weak, or 'hung up' high in the canopy can often be torn loose by wind from the 'wrong' direction.
These deserve special mention. These are branches, or even whole trees that are not attached, or wanting to fall, but are 'hung up' in other trees. When you ride, look up! In windy conditions, avoid riding under these potential killers.
PHOTO RIGHT - A typical NZ pine forest, with 'widowmaker' tree shown. The tree on the right is only upright because its top branches are held up by the two trees on the left.
Forest Riding Code
- Get a permit, and abide by all rules for private, or commercially managed forests. Often the main rule is closing\locking gates to keep out vehicles, and trail bikes. If your friends want to ride, they must get their own permit\keys.
- Take a map/GPS, ride with a friend that knows the area, or stick to marked trails if you are prone to getting lost. Pine forests in particular can be disorienting.
- Take your phone! Although phone coverage is often useless in many forests, in an emergency getting to the top of a hill is usually quicker than getting out of the forest. Most phones have a camera (in case you come across suspicious behaviour\people), and GPS apps that don't need a phone signal (they use satellites).
- Wear a helmet! Even if you "never fall off", whacking branches with your head is not fun.
- Be aware of other forest\trail users, and always courteous toward them.
- Wear hi-viz gear. If you get lost it'll make it easier to find you. If there are hunters, poachers or other trail users - they can see you (and not shoot you!).
- Respect areas set aside for other users, and never go into areas with harvesting operations, or near forestry equipment. If you see anyone else interfering with any forest machinery, or equipment report it to the police ASAP.