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Reining in
Damaging Trail Behavior

By Lora Goerlich


The one thing trail riders might all agree on is the desire to have access to more miles of bridle trails on public land. Unfortunately, the horse-trail user group has gotten a bad rap over the years from riders who intentionally engage in conduct that damages natural areas, leading to trail closures and exclusion. Sadly, the problem is not new or fun to discuss. But, hopefully, bringing the issue to light will prompt better habits that will benefit recreational equestrian trail riders and natural areas.

Bushwhacking, secret trails, outlaw trails, renegade trails; these are a few terms used to describe riding off designated trails. Whatever term you use, the important thing to understand is that riding off designated trails (in areas where it is prohibited) with the intent of creating challenges or new adventures can have devastating consequences for natural areas, horse and rider, and the people who might be called upon for emergency rescue.

What is a trail? A trail is the designated path that is planned, designed, developed, and maintained for a specific use. Factors such as trail grade, tread surface, weather/climate, and intensity of use (and misuse) all affect how trails are managed. Trail tread is what hooves, soles and wheels are expected to stay on. Trail tread might be natural (whatever is naturally occurring) sand, rock, clay, loamy soil; or the tread might be improved (paved) with asphalt, concrete, brick pavers or packed gravel.

What does off trail mean? “Off trail” means leaving a designated trail tread briefly or for extended periods of time. For example:

1. Riding on a trail that is not designated or designed for horse use, such as riding on bike trails or hiking trails.

2. Creating new, unauthorized trails that might connect existing trails. Creating loops and shortcuts.

3. Leaving a designated trail to ride through ditch banks/ravines, blazing through fields, forests, dunes, beaches, or bodies of water.

4. Traveling around obstacles such as downed trees, standing water or mud.

5. Moving a horse off trail for a photo opportunity.

6. Allowing horses to step off the trail tread to urinate or have a bowel movement.

7. Not following re-routes and disregarding temporary trail closures.

What is the problem with going off trail? As a reveler of rules coupled with thirty-four years of park experience plus forty years of trail riding, let me assure you there are a lot of problems with it. From falling through inadequate and unsafe boardwalks (due to subpar bridge decking and support beams that are not rated or designed for the added weight of horses), to temporary and permanent trail closures.


A lush ravine parallel to a horse trail beckons you in for a quick drink. Its beauty and cool, spring fed water are almost irresistible. What you cannot distinguish is the mucky bog ready to suck a horse in, up to its neck. Once trapped, the only way out is with the help of backhoe and slings. The trail is steep and narrow making it difficult to access. Over the years several horses have struggled to their death before help could reach them.

This trail corridor is a wide two-track with a sandy trail tread. The tree canopy is trimmed high, and the trail edges are kept mowed (within the park’s horse trail standards.) The purple flower on both sides of the trail is wild lupine. It is the only plant the endangered Karner Blue butterfly larvae feed on. Stepping off trail onto this plant could ruin successful populations of this federally endangered butterfly.

BREEDS An easy to remember acronym that highlights the negative results of riding off trail... 

Bearings – Intentionally or unintentionally wandering from a marked trail can lead to disorientation especially in unfamiliar territory; a lot of people have a hard enough time navigating well marked trails. If you lose your bearings, how will you direct rescue personnel to your location if you need them and how will you be located if you become unseated from your mount and lose consciousness?

Rescue – Emergency personnel might have a tough time navigating to your location due to trail width, terrain, and other accessibility challenges. Also, rescue crews may not have the appropriate equipment or knowledgeable personnel to assist with equine related incidents.

Entrapment/Entanglement – Potentially deadly encounters with quicksand (bogs), fast moving water, old latrines/septic tanks, cisterns, mines, leg hold traps, animal dens, cattle grates, unstable surfaces (landslides), falling through bridge and boardwalk decking on trails not rated for horse use. Hidden hazards buried under leaf and vegetation debris that might include boundary (wire) fence lines; sagging cable gates; old homestead trash pits containing broken glass, sharp, rusty metal, old farm implements or vehicle parts.

Exclusion – Horse riders have experienced permanent trail closures, blanket, or temporary trail closures (seasonally), and exclusion in new trail opportunities more than any other user group. It should come as no surprise that rider misconduct is one of the reasons behind those decisions.

Damage to natural resources – Stepping on and killing slow moving wildlife; smashing tortoise/turtle eggs, bird eggs or nestlings. Trail side and vegetation degradation and trail widening (trail braiding) happens when riders choose to go around mud, down trees, or other trail blockages.

Setting a bad example – Hoof prints and manure are hard to ignore in areas where they do not belong. Non-equestrians who loathe horses/trail riders (for real or contrived reasons), make no qualms about rallying to exclude horse riders and trail violations add fodder to their cause. How are other equestrians supposed to discern proper trail etiquette from improper trail etiquette, especially if they are not familiar with the trail system? Remember, “off trail” violations in most parks are a citable offense. In addition to that, emergency rescues are often billable especially if a large animal rescue operation or specialty equipment is needed.





Every trail enthusiast has an obligation to evaluate their actions and modify detrimental behavior while utilizing public land. Challenge yourself and other trail riders to change old patterns. As park use increases, it has never been more important to follow (all) the rules whatever your mode.

The importance of riding on designated trails cannot be emphasized enough. Aside from an unplanned flighty bolt, riders should have full control over their destination while enjoying a trail ride on public land. Additionally, horse clubs and trail riders have an obligation to proactively protect trails by reining in misuse through self-policing, reporting riders who buck rules and regulations, and by actively promoting proper trail use ethics within their user group - and not just etiquette for cyclists, ORV, and foot travelers.

Trail widening created by riders who could not keep their horse in the center of the trail during muddy conditions. This is the number one contributor leading to blanket and seasonal trail closures.

Originally published in February 2024 "The Trail Journal - Horse Trails of America"
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