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