Protecting Access to Equestrian Trails
By Lora Goerlich
Most long-time equestrians are aware of and have experienced trail loss over the years. Surprisingly, most of the time it is not due to a lack of volunteers or lack of funding. Trail exclusion and trail loss is often self-induced by careless riders who consistently disregard rules and directives that have been established to protect both park visitors and the diverse habits within natural areas. The importance of knowing, understanding, and following the rules will go a long way in protecting future trail opportunities for all trail users - even if you don’t agree with them. I touched on this topic in a January 2023 article but let’s delve a bit deeper into rules that are frequently overlooked by trail users.
1. Designated trails - Trail planning considerations are vast and normally include impact to flora, fauna, trail tread, topography, landscape, short- and long-term maintenance, safety factors such as trail width, bridge ratings, support structures, and visitor experience. Stay on designated trails as if your life depends on it - because it does! Imagine riding a horse over a pedestrian bridge that is not rated for horses… the consequences could be deadly if a horse fell through the decking. A decision to traverse through a ditch or ravine instead of using an approved bridge without realizing there is a bog (muddy quicksand) underneath will create another potentially deadly scenario. Not only has the horse been put in a life-threatening situation, but you have quickly created mayhem for the park and rescue personnel who will be called to help - who may not know how to safely extract a horse and probably won’t have the proper equipment readily accessible.
Trail riders can be instrumental in preserving trailside integrity by keeping horse hooves squarely on established trail tread for bowel movements and urination. Stepping off trail even for a second can kill ground nesting birds (and their young), slow-moving wildlife and rare/endangered plants. This rule also applies to foot and wheeled traffic, including (and especially) birders and photographers who do not have a “free rein” to trample off trail for photo or bird sighting opportunities. Entrapment in sub-par bridges, camouflaged ground pits from old latrines or mining operations, cave openings, stepping in a leg hold trap, on a yellow jacket ground nest, animal dens or on a venomous snake are only a few worst-case examples.
Study a map and know where you are permitted before you ride. Going off trail bushwhacking for thrills, or around mud, around down trees, around approved bridges into ravines, or riding on non-designated trails even for a few strides could have serious consequences for you, your horse, others, and trailside habitats.
2. Alcohol and Intoxicants - Most parks have restrictions on consuming alcohol for obvious reasons; aggression, loss of inhibitions and impaired judgement are the three common effects of drinking. Pairing drugs or alcohol while on the back of a horse is irresponsible and creates unnecessary liability for those you might be riding with and your horse! if you’re drinking on the trail, what are the chances that you’ll be under the influence for the drive home? Save the drinking for back at camp (if permitted) or at home - when you are done riding and driving for the day.
3. Dogs – What are the leash requirements where you will be riding? Most leash laws specify “visible” leash, no longer than six feet. It is possible to ride a horse with a dog on a leash, if you are certain your dog won’t get stepped on and you won’t get tangled up in a leash while trying to maintain the reins. Leaving the dog(s) at home - not in your vehicle or trailer, is a better option when riding at parks where leash laws are in effect. See November 2022 Trail Journal for more information.
4. Trail Right of Way – Of all trail users, equestrians are probably the most familiar with this because they are the most likely to be negatively affected when others knowingly or unknowingly act recklessly. They also understand how their horse might react to stimulus. By every standard known, all users must be required to stop or yield the right of way to horses. It is that simple. If the area(s) you ride don’t have explicit rules regarding trail right of way, there is probably at least one rule that could be used in conflict situations, especially if someone’s safety was jeopardized. Encountering equestrian riders is a good exercise in humility and grace – we want others to patient and kind, to stop their wheels or feet and shut down their engine momentarily to allow horse riders safe passage. We hope they might speak up with a friendly “hello”. In turn, riders need to show gratitude to those who do extend safe passage, (even while riding a seasoned horse). Say “thank you!” Don’t try to explain that your horse isn’t fearful of anything, that only devalues their effort and creates confusion the next time they encounter a horse and rider who may not be as seasoned...
Originally Published in Horse Trails of America, April 2023 Trail Journal.
Woodcock hen laying on a nest of four eggs within two feet of a trail edge.
Imperceptible & dangerous characteristics - the support
beams under this bridge are punky railroad ties finished
with 1” tongue and groove deck, intended for
household use. This is an unsafe structure for horse use.