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Trail users and land managers unite for sustainable equestrian trails

Education and partnerships are the keys to preserving opportunities for trail riding.

From the Fall 2008 issue of American Trails Magazine

By Debbie Caffin

EQUESTRIAN TRAIL RIDERS ARE BECOMING more organized and better educated about trails both as users and as trail stewards. They are really stepping up and learning about trail design, construction, and maintenance. They understand that our capacity as land managers to provide quality trail experiences is directly dependent on their ability to volunteer and help the agencies build and maintain the trails.

photo of horse and bicycle
Equestrians and mountain bikers at a workshop at the California State Trails Conference, 2006

The American Quarter Horse Association’s STEP Program (Stewards for Trails, Education and Partnerships) is an example of a program helping to increase participation in trail stewardship among horseback riders and encourage partnerships with land managers. Recently, the Back Country Horsemen of America have significantly expanded their chapters and members in the Southeast, increasing the volunteer capacity in that area.

Land management issues

The issues surrounding horse trails on National Forest lands are similar to those for most of the other types of trails— proliferation of user-created trails, erosion and its affects on water quality, concerns with the introduction of non-native invasive species, and constant pressure to provide more trail opportunities in the face of declining funding. Yet, equestrian trail users are one of the most diverse user groups. This provides additional challenges to managers trying to provide quality riding experiences to meet the wide variety of needs such as driving (carts, buggies), endurance, day trips, overnight camping, etc.

Importance of sustainable trails

The Forest Service is working to focus efforts on providing great riding opportunities for our equestrians. Many of our trails are in locations that are unsustainable and require lots of manpower and money to keep them maintained. Many were user-created trails we adopted into our official trail systems.They were constructed years ago before people really understood good, solid trail construction techniques. We are recognizing that we can be more efficient and effective if we work to redesign or relocate some of these trails to more sustainable locations.

However, sustainability also has a user component. The best designed trail can still have issues when weather causes the trails to be wet and vulnerable. Riders need to be aware and look for alternative activities during the times their use can cause the most damage. Clubs and organizations also need to continue to help us educate riders in the principles of Leave No Trace and trail user ethics. There are more and more trail users of all types out there trying to share a limited land base. Everyone needs to be respectful of each other, work together, and try and share as much as possible. We’ve seen many successful partnerships formed between equestrians and other users such as mountain bikers and hikers.

Debbie Caffin was a presenter at the 2008 Southeastern Equestrian Trails Conference. She has worked with recreational trails most of her career and has always enjoyed horseback riding. “However,” Debbie notes, “since becoming a horse owner and a user of our horse trails, I have learned so much more about trail design and function.”.

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