On the Open Trail

Be­come a strong ad­vo­cate for keep­ing your fa­vorite trails open for rid­ing with these ex­pert strate­gies.

Horse & Rider - - Contents - BY HEIDI MELOCCO

Be­come an ad­vo­cate for keep­ing your fa­vorite trails open for rid­ing with these key strate­gies.

You’ve watched open fields be­come busy subur­ban neigh­bor­hoods. Con­stant growth can limit out­door-recre­ation space for all ac­tiv­i­ties and po­ten­tially close ac­cess to horses on de­sir­able trails. You’ve heard that fed­eral bud­get cuts are im­pact­ing land- and wildlife-man­age­ment pro­grams, and you won­der whether your fa­vorite trails will stay open to eques­tri­ans. Your local trails are fur­ther lim­ited by large tracts of pri­vate prop­erty with “No Tres­pass­ing” signs.

Don’t fret—take ac­tion! As an ac­tive trail rider, you’re per­fectly po­si­tioned to be a strong ad­vo­cate for keep­ing your fa­vorite trails open, whether you ride in a city, in the sub­urbs, or in the back­coun­try.

Here we’ll give you three sce­nar­ios, each de­scrib­ing a dif­fer­ent type of trail at risk. For each one, we’ll ex­plain the re­lated press­ing is­sue and how you can push back. We’ll also give you tips on how you can be a con­sid­er­ate trail user.

Shar­ing the Sub­urbs

THE SCE­NARIO: You live 30 min­utes from down­town, but far enough from the city to keep your horses at home on a small acreage. Smaller prop­er­ties sur­round you. An apart­ment com­plex isn’t far away. Your sub­urb caters to out­door en­thu­si­asts and main­tains a mul­tiuse trail sys­tem in a county-main­tained, mul­tiuse, open-space park. You can open your gate and leave for a re­lax­ing ride with­out haul­ing your horse to a dis­tant trail­head.

One Satur­day morn­ing, you mount up and meet your friends for a ride. As you ride through the trail­head, you see that the park­ing lot is full of SUVs sport­ing bike racks. As you start down the busy trail, a group of cy­clists cau­tiously passes you.

Soon an unusual buzzing spooks your friend’s horse. A drone. Star­tled by the noise above his head, your friend’s horse turns and bolts. You know that as prey an­i­mals, horses can in­ter­pret threat­en­ing sounds from above as a moun­tain lion ready to pounce. Your friend barely stays on as she works to con­trol her usu­ally placid mount.

Your sea­soned trail horse looks up to­ward the unfamiliar sound and tenses as he watches the drone cross his path. He stops in his tracks and snorts, re­fus­ing to budge. The drone flies off, and you re­sume your calm ride.

The drone was fly­ing high, and it didn’t ap­pear that the pi­lot was at­tempt­ing to cause harm. Still, your friend is shaken and ready to head home. It seems too crowded to­day; this isn’t the re­lax­ing ride you’d planned.

PRESS­ING IS­SUE: Pop­u­la­tion is on the rise in subur­ban ar­eas, squeez­ing out open space for trail rid­ing. Cen­sus data has shown that while city growth has stalled, pop­u­la­tion ex­pan­sion is ac­cel­er­at­ing in the sub­urbs around Amer­ica’s biggest cities. This pop­u­la­tion boost means more peo­ple shar­ing al­ready-busy “front coun­try” trails and open spa­ces—that is, trails that in­ter­face with de­vel­oped ar­eas.

Trail rider Lisa St. Pierre Sow­ell has rid­den around Colorado’s Front Range for more than 40 years. “I be­gan trail rid­ing as a teenager in the early 1970s, long be­fore moun­tain bikes were even a ‘thing,’” she says. “Now we have the drone is­sue, too. I’ve wit­nessed peo­ple of all ac­tiv­ity types break the rules and be in­con­sid­er­ate to oth­ers. This in­cludes

my fel­low horse per­sons, cy­clists, hik­ers, and drone pi­lots.

HOW TO PUSH BACK: Join an association that mon­i­tors trail ac­cess, ed­u­cates other users about horses, and ad­vo­cates for eques­trian safety. Such groups work to help keep eques­tri­ans safe as they ac­cess trails in pop­u­lated—and all— ar­eas, says Denise O’Meara, di­rec­tor of ed­u­ca­tion for Eques­trian Land Con­ser­va­tion Re­source ( elcr.org).

Rather than de­mand­ing that other users stay off a trail, she says, find out how you can work to­gether. As a horse owner, you share trails with other out­door en­thu­si­asts. Non-eques­trian trail users have equal rights on the trail, as long as they fol­low trail ad­vi­sories and yield to horses as ad­vised. Well-or­ga­nized groups rep­re­sent­ing moun­tain bik­ers, all-ter­rain-ve­hi­cle rid­ers, drone pi­lots, and more can ac­tu­ally be al­lies in your ef­fort to keep the trails open and avail­able for all uses.

“We’re all out here to­gether,” points out Mark Him­mel of the Back Coun­try Horse­men of Amer­ica ( bcha.org), which rep­re­sents all trail rid­ers, whether they ride in the front coun­try or the back­coun­try. If any­one gets hurt on a trail, it doesn’t mat­ter what sport you were par­tic­i­pat­ing in, Him­mel points out. It stops ev­ery­one’s recre­ation when all on scene be­come first re­spon­ders.

O’Meara also rec­om­mends join­ing a local rid­ing club, and ap­point some­one to fol­low town growth plans. “Gather forces, and show up at the town level, the city level, and the county level.”

Sow­ell agrees. “We horse peo­ple need to stick to­gether—even when we don’t agree on a spe­cific topic,” she notes. “I’ve seen too many trails closed to horses over the years, so I’d be care­ful about de­mand­ing any­thing.”

While eques­trian groups aren’t as big as or­ga­ni­za­tions for moun­tain bik­ers and even drone pi­lots, they have a pres­ence. Grow­ing the num­ber of eques­trian-association mem­bers can en­sure that horse own­ers have a voice be­fore trails are built—or closed.

ELCR pro­vides fact sheets to help you talk to your local plan­ners about the ben­e­fits of horses. When you es­tab­lish re­la­tion­ships and learn about new trails and parks, you can help en­sure that horses will have ac­cess and ed­u­cate other trail users about how to recre­ate with horses present.

Pub­lic-Land Con­cerns

THE SCE­NARIO: Your fa­vorite trail winds along a creek bot­tom that’s home to cut­throat trout. Area bi­ol­o­gists are wor­ried about the fish pop­u­la­tion. Gravel loos­ened by horse hooves has caused sed­i­ment in the wa­ter, and trout eggs won’t hatch when they’re cov­ered. The trail is to be closed to help the fish pop­u­la­tion re­cover af­ter an­glers re­ported the de­cline. But this trail is the per­fect train­ing ground for horses new to the trail. With 18 wa­ter cross­ings, green horses can learn to cross wa­ter on the oth­er­wise easy trail. You want to help keep the trail open to horses, but you un­der­stand that the fish pop­u­la­tion is im­por­tant, too.

Your local BCHA rep­re­sen­ta­tives talk with the United States For­est Ser­vice to form a plan. They’ll re­con­struct the ap­proaches to the wa­ter­ways and in­stall steps down to the wa­ter to elim­i­nate gravel slides and stop fur­ther ero­sion. Once in­stalled, the new paths and steps elim­i­nate the sed­i­men­ta­tion. But the work isn’t slated to be com­pleted for at least two years.

PRESS­ING IS­SUE: Shrink­ing pub­lic-land re­sources. The For­est Ser­vice man­ages 154 na­tional forests and 20 grass­lands. It’s charged with main­tain­ing trails with a con­sis­tently smaller bud­get. In 2018, the bud­get was to be cut by an­other 10 per­cent. While many pub­lic lands are open to trail rid­ing and For­est Ser­vice per­son­nel want to keep trails open, the trails must be cleared and main­tained to be safe for all users.

“In Montana’s Lewis and Clark Na­tional For­est, we used to have 24 For­est Ser­vice work­ers in an area to keep trails main­tained,” says Him­mel. “Now there are six.

“We get along great with the local

work­ers but they’re hav­ing to do more with less bud­get,” Him­mel con­tin­ues. “That’s how the BCHA got started. The For­est Ser­vice was go­ing to stop do­ing main­te­nance on some trails, and rid­ers in the area stepped up to carry the load. We have a strong part­ner­ship and friend­ship with the For­est Ser­vice mem­bers. I see more peo­ple re­tir­ing and not be­ing re­placed. I think that’s go­ing to put more pres­sure on the vol­un­teers in the years to come.”

To­day, the BCHA’s 20,000 mem­bers work with local For­est Ser­vice per­son­nel and land man­agers to clear trail ob­sta­cles and im­prove the tread on trails. They also help ed­u­cate other trail users about horses and teach horse own­ers how to ride safely with oth­ers on the trail.

HOW TO PUSH BACK: Join a local rid­ing group, and keep tabs on trail con­di­tions. Set up so­cial-me­dia groups so rid­ers can re­port poor foot­ing or a downed tree. (Face­book’s Town Hall short­cut can help you find your rep­re­sen­ta­tives with one click to “fol­low all.” Search for “town hall” in the search bar.) Se­lect an ad­vo­cate from your group to con­tact the For­est Ser­vice or your local BCHA chap­ter. Find out who your local and na­tional gov­ern­ment rep­re­sen­ta­tives are, and let them know For­est Ser­vice fund­ing is im­por­tant to you. Set up times your rid­ing group can vol­un­teer to help main­tain trails. Con­sider ap­ply­ing for a grant from the Amer­i­can Quar­ter Horse Association’s Stew­ards for Trails, Ed­u­ca­tion & Part­ner­ships pro­gram (or STEP; aqha

.com/step), which pro­vides grants to help vol­un­teers main­tain and de­velop trails on pub­lic and pri­vate lands.

Pri­vate-Land Crunch

THE SCE­NARIO: A local fam­ily’s farm bor­ders a na­tional for­est. The trail from the na­tional for­est land crosses over a small por­tion of the fam­ily’s pas­ture, then con­nects to an­other na­tional for­est trail. Over the years, the fam­ily started wor­ry­ing about trail users. What if some­one were to fall off on that stretch of pri­vately owned trail? Will rid­ers know that they’re on pri­vate land and respect the fenc­ing? The fam­ily’s worry has now turned to fear of be­ing sued— even if the law is on their side. They de­cide to close the trail.

PRESS­ING IS­SUE: Dis­ap­pear­ing pri­vate lands for eques­trian use. ELCR re­ports that pri­vately owned land is the most at-risk for trail rid­ers. As de­vel­op­ment in­creases, more fam­i­lies are sell­ing off big farms to be sub­di­vided. If the land isn’t sold, change in own­er­ship from one gen­er­a­tion to the next may trig­ger ques­tions of li­a­bil­ity and whether the pub­lic should be able to ac­cess pri­vate land.

HOW TO PUSH BACK: At­tor­ney Julie R. Fer­sht­man spe­cial­izes in equine law. She sug­gests trail rid­ers help re­luc­tant land own­ers to un­der­stand how they can limit their li­a­bil­ity while al­low­ing ac­cess. She notes that rid­ers can be asked to sign a re­lease be­fore ac­cess­ing pri­vate prop­erty. Rid­ers can also pur­chase li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance, called “per­sonal horse owner’s li­a­bil­ity,” and show the land owner that they have cov­er­age.

Fer­sht­man also points out that each state has recre­ational-land-use laws to pro­tect land own­ers from li­a­bil­ity (ex­cept in cases of ex­treme neg­li­gence). Find out what your state al­lows, and present it to the land own­ers. Land own­ers can then post the act’s lan­guage to no­tify rid­ers of the de­tails of land own­ers’ lim­ited li­a­bil­ity.

A con­ser­va­tion ease­ment is an­other op­tion. Con­ser­va­tion ease­ments are legally bind­ing agree­ments that limit the fu­ture use of a sec­tion of prop­erty and of the land it­self. The land in an ease­ment must ben­e­fit the pub­lic, such as al­low­ing a trail to pass through. Un­der the ease­ment, the land owner can con­tinue to farm the land as long as the ac­tiv­i­ties align with what the land is be­ing con­served for.

Fi­nally, be a cour­te­ous and well-pre­pared rider. Reach out to local land own­ers in your area to get per­mis­sion to ride on their prop­erty instead of ask­ing for for­give­ness later. Sign any waivers and abide by the land owner’s wishes.

Be a cour­te­ous and well pre­pared for all sit­u­a­tions and land users when you're out on the trails. Find fel­low trail rid­ers who you can work with to the ben­e­fit of all trail users.

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