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Home » HISTORY » MASSACHUSETTS » Boxford's Great Equine Equity Elaboration
Boxford's Great Equine Equity Elaboration

By Thomas Edward | July 23, 2010

There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man – Winston Churchill

I grew up in a Midwest rural farm community in Northwest Ohio not far from the county fairgrounds.   Horses were boarded there and I would work with my friends cleaning and grooming the horses in exchange for a chance to ride them. Horse drawn carts would carry ice for home delivery and neighborhood kids would follow and grab ice chips on hot days being careful to avoid the ever present trailing manure piles. Stock car races were held on the dirt tract where trotters used to race. The new horsepower replaced the old and only the County Fair in the Fall would bring out equestrian performance in all its regalia with high stepping mares and prancing ponies along the Fair’s parade route.

When I moved my family to Boxford, Massachusetts, I was happily surprised to find the local Topsfield Fair and an abundance of horse stables in the rural area.   All appearances made it seem like an integral part of a picturesque rural agrarian society, close to the earth and in line with its colorful history and culture. What a contrast to Boston only a few miles south with its high tech commuter lines and voluminous traffic density that snarls vehicular flow that leaves one smoldering in the noon day smog daydreaming about the clean unfettered countryside from whence they came.

Into every state of bliss, some rain must fall; or in this case, like two colliding dynamic weather fronts, sometimes hail and high wind or even a tornado. So it was when the town of Boxford decided to challenge the natural order of things in place virtually since the beginning of its recorded history.   It might be considered a study in how to create an “offal” mess without hardly trying.

The rural Boxford community does not have a extensive commercial or retail base, but does has several active horse farms engaged in boarding, trading, riding, rehabilitating, providing physical and occupational therapy. The horse culture is deeply rooted in Boxford.   Stable licensing is required and requirements set forth by the Board of Health (BOH) consisting of a straight forward common sense two page regulation covering the licensing procedure: the location of the manure, handling and disposal, enforcement by the Health Agent, a $5 per day penalty for violation, and a appeal procedure.   For many years it was in place and just a part of the normal routine of the local Health Departments multitude of oversights and activities.

One day Boxford neighbors got into a dispute over horses and their odors and cleanliness. The dispute grew from over the fence exchanges to finger pointing and shouting and then on to the authorities. The brouhaha grew and the BOH now acted to study the issue in detail and appointed a Stable Regulation Study Committee (SRSC) to clarify the issues and update its 20 year old stable regulations.   These assignments lead to months of contentious meetings, some of which drew police attendance.   A petition to limit the number of horses to two per acre failed and a shift to creating a manure management plan ensued.   Complaints to the BOH were anonymous and lead to a question of their veracity. The debate was fueled and continued with renewed verve.

Emotions ran high as shouting and rash outbreaks occurred on both sides of the issue.   At one meeting a box of bottle water appeared with fake labels like “Pony Water” to poke fun at those who say drinking water would be affected by horse density.   Many horse owners felt that regulating horse density would create a financial hardship for many people looking to sell their house or others who have bought a house in Boxford but have not received a stable permit.

The BOH viewed the updated regulations as a compromise, some members of the horse community thought they were singled out.   Other animals like goats were not considered – only horses.   There was no clear reason given why the regulations were being updated in the first place.   The opposition claimed other health regulations such as the one for swimming pools are not being addressed by the BOH and have more potential to create a health hazard than non compliance with the stable regulations.

Tempers again reached the boiling point as claims that e-mails were sent in violation of the Open Meeting Law as evidence that the BOH was using a biased process to force new horse regulations were levied in an attempted smear campaign.   A special counsel for the district attorney’s office ruled in fact that the BOH members illegally used e-mail to share their opinions. These allegations were eventually thrown out as they were more of a reminder to be careful and the district attorney counsel ruled that the board had tried to comply with the law.   The BOH’s core argument is that horses generate a lot of manure and urine, which can contaminate wells and host diseases.   The board’s goal is to update rules that have not been changed in over two decades.

After all the dust settled, what did they actually do? First they doubled the size of the regulation from 3 pages to 6, defined the location of the manure piles, required the filing of formal plans for fly and rodent control, and subjected livestock barns to biennial inspections.

The rules take effect June 1 and according to a Boxford Selectman “could be very harmful to the horse owners and do not appear to be needed”.   An Agricultural Commission member called it “ridiculous” the fact that “the Board of Health hasn’t identified a scientific problem to address.”

Local boards of health are now empowered to ban smoking virtually everywhere, and are testing the limits of their jurisdiction.   This happened in Boxford and local selectmen received in response letters from 51 property owners about the new and more restrictive and more closely monitored horse stable regulations. Farms in Boxford have been raising livestock for hundreds of years without any identified risk to the health or safety of their neighbors. Possibly the anonymous complaints and hue and cry for more regulation is coming from the newly arrived residents whose definition of rural living does not include those smells indigenous to an agricultural community like cows and horses.

And what of the BOH’s opinion that opposition to the new rule stems from “panic” and “hysteria” on the part of the farmer and stable owner? Maybe hysteria better describes those who live in fear of disease and declining property value from an industry –farming – that has been a constant in a town since its formation in 1685.

In closing, I cannot say definitively who is right absolutely whether BOH or horse owners, so I will defer to greater minds who have already given great thought to the problem and offer the following for your consideration:

…I can always tell which is the front end of a horse, but beyond that my art is not above the ordinary. – Mark Twain, a Biography.

You know horses are smarter than people. You never heard of a horse going broke betting on people. – Will Rogers.

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