Brave New Mexico’s High-Altitude Trails
Equestrian trails on private property are in danger of disappearing. Concerned riders need to organize to protect their endangered trails — the sooner, the better!
CCreating a trail organization is a great start to focus efforts, incentivize volunteers, create enthusiasm, and produce a tangible result. Here, I’ll discuss three successful trail-organization models for trails on private property. Then I’ll outline six key issues to address early as you develop your trail organization.
In my area of the Carolina foothills, three main models of trail organizations have been successful. Here’s a rundown of each one. • A loose network. Formed by agreement among neighbors to use and maintain the area trails, a loose network works best when there’s low usage and density, and good relationships among landowners of similar interests. Advantages: No formal legal organization is necessary. Limited participation in trail upkeep and no membership regulation requires little work. Disadvantages: Trails are easily destroyed by irresponsible users or development. A loose organization can make trail maintenance, communication, legal protection, and accountability a problem. There’s no revenue to cover costs. • Landowner-only. Organized through homeowners’ associations or neighborhoods, the landowner-only model is often used in equestrian developments and wherever there’s a high concentration of equestrian landowners. Advantages: More clearly defined “membership” facilitates communication, usage rules, accountability, trail maintenance, and legal liability issues. Trails can be permanently protected by development deed restriction and covenants. Disadvantages: Often, very limited riding potential. Work and expense for maintenance is concentrated on a small number of users. There’s a slower turnover, so volunteers may age out or burn out. “If I can’t use your trails, you can’t use mine” retaliation may prevent members from using trails outside of the defined area. • Open-use. The open-use model is open to non-landowners, with membership. Often, this model is a natural extension in areas with a long equestrian history. Advantages: More available volunteers for organizational functions. Greater usage revenue generates income to pay maintenance, insurance, and other expenses, creating greater landowner satisfaction with equestrian use. The trail system may become a valuable community asset, increasing land values. Landowners are more likely to qualify for Recreational Use Statute legal protection. Disadvantages: Requires greater organization to establish and administer. Need to limit numbers to sustainable levels by quota or residency restrictions.
6 Key Issues
Here are six key issues to address early as you develop your trail organization. • Legal liability. This is the biggest concern for landowners. Properly drawn and executed liability release/indemnification agreements protecting the landowners delivered by every user are absolutely necessary. Recreational Use Statutes in every state lower the landowners’ duty and provide the best statutory liability protection to landowners who permit uncompensated recreational use. But legal precedent has required “public use” access to achieve this level of protection. Equestrian Activity Statutes in every state define what’s “not negligence,” but they don’t change the ordinary negligence standard and require strict adherence to statutory requirements. Liability laws are different in every state. Check with your state’s horse council for EAS requirements and equine-attorney referrals.
• Helmets. One bad accident can spook landowners and lose trails, so prevention is the best defense against liability. Riding on private property is a privilege, not a right. Requiring ASTM approved/SEI-certified helmets will lower landowner risk. • Respectful usage. “Entitled” attitudes and inconsiderate usage lose trust and trails. Landowners have reasonable expectations that they and their property will be treated with respect (e.g., polite, respectful riders; helmets required; no loose dogs, smoking, littering, or drinking, etc.). Rules and consequences must be clear, and riders held accountable. Members mustn’t ask for “special exemptions” to the rules, as this can increase landowner liability and make enforcement difficult. • Dues. Assess dues to cover reasonable expenses. For liability reasons, dues shouldn’t be tied to the amount of usage. All users, including landowners, should pay dues. • Trail use. Will the trails be equestrianonly or multiuse? It’s really up to the landowners how their lands are used, but address this issue early. Be flexible regarding nonequestrian use. In my “home” trail sys- tem, our members only have a right to ride or carriage drive. Many landowners allow walking, running, and dog walking, but restrict biking and motorized vehicles as too dangerous. Other systems allow all users. • Commercial use. Private-property owners usually don’t want their trails used to make money for other people. Commercial trail riding, short-term rentals, and bed & barns can be a problem because of usage regulation, landowner consideration, and privacy and liability issues.
For more about what you need to create, maintain, and sustain a successful private trail system, you can access a prerecorded webcast, Creating and Maintaining a Private Trail System on the My Horse University Webcast archive. Go to www.myhorse university.com/resources/webcasts. TTR
Based in the Tryon, North Carolina, area, with a lifelong interest in horses, agriculture, and nature, Dot Moyer has represented and served on the boards of many community-based nonprofits during her career, including the Foothills Equestrian Trails Association. Now retired, she focuses her efforts on preserving land and equestrian access.
The Equine Land Conservation Resource is the only national not-for-profit organization advancing the conservation of land for horse-related activity. ELCR serves as an information resource and clearinghouse for land and horse owners on issues related to equine land conservation, land-use planning, land- stewardship, best-management practices, trails, liability, and equine economic development. For more information, call (859) 455-8383, or visit www.elcr.org.
Concerned riders need to organize to protect their endangered trails — the sooner, the better! Creating a trail organization is a great start to focus efforts, incentivize volunteers, create enthusiasm, and produce a tangible result.
PHOTO COURTESY OF ELCR Will the trails be equestrian-only or multiuse? It’s really up to the landowners how their lands are used, but address this issue early. Be flexible regarding nonequestrian use.