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Providing appropriate recreational opportunities for all trail users

Presented at Horse Trails Symposium, Clemson University (November 1998)

By Michael Kelley

This presentation is intended for equestrians and land managers who must grapple with the problems of providing appropriate recreational opportunities to all users, including cyclists and equestrians. It will cover all aspects of relations between equestrians, horses, bikes and bicyclists. The basic thesis is that horses and bikes can, and indeed must, share trails together with other non-motorized users.

photo: Equestrians need to be involved in efforts to care for trails and keep access open.

Kathy Davey with Front Range Backcountry Horsemen helping hikers with packing for Colorado Trail Foundation Work Crews in the Long Gulch trailhead area


Problems are often matters more of perception than reality, and those that are real can almost always be solved with a proactive approach. The basic tools to accomplish this are education, collaborative efforts, and joint events. The most important task is to build a community of trail users and open space advocates into a proactive force to enable them to use trails together, and to ensure that trails will be available for future generations of trail enthusiasts. Some emphasis will be given to the reality that a united trail community is vital, given the pressures for development and extraction which threaten the very trails and open spaces that are so critical to all trail users.

It is often suggested that horses and bikes cannot co-exist on trails together. There have been many "horror stories" of encounters with bikes. This presentation argues that these are most often matters of perception rather than reality, and in the latter situation, that there are effective proactive solutions to employ. Several examples will be given which will show that horses and bikes can and do relate well together. These will be taken from history, as well as from current experiences of land managers and users.

The basic nature of the horse will be discussed, where relevant to interactions with cyclists and other users. Knowledge of these elements of the horse's nature guides bicycling advocates who try to inform cyclists on how to act around horses. The discussion will elaborate on the often heard words that horses were originally plains animals, and know only a "flight" or "fight" response to danger, and that too often, a sudden or unfamiliar stimulus will spark this instinct. Education will always be the primary way to solve problems. Several protocols developed by cyclists in collaboration with equestrians help to educate cyclists on how to relate to horses.

These include topics such as:

1) watching for horses on the trail; communication between cyclist and horse;

2) communication between cyclist and equestrian; how to approach a horse from both front and rear;

3) how to pass horses;

4) how horses should pass bikes and other users, and

5) how to train horses to become used to bikes.

The presentation also will touch on training of horses and of equestrians as to how cyclists, equestrians and land managers can participate in this process. Along with education, joint trail events build trail community, and encourage equestrians and bicyclists to enjoy trails together. Events include incredibly successful joint rides and social events, fund-raisers, competitions that include horses and bikes, and cyclist participation in equestrian events, such as trial rides. In addition, collaboration in matters of trail and open space advocacy will be discussed with examples that show what has worked, and what has not worked.

Environmental and trail construction criteria will be briefly discussed, as they relate to interactions between horses and bikes. There will be ample discussion of the value of multiple-use trails to the user groups, the environment and to land managers. The impact of all muscle-powered users is similar, particularly when compared to motorized users. Any trail suitable for equestrian use, is suitable for bike use. Trails need not be road width to accommodate both user groups. In most circumstances narrower trails are the best solution. There are exceptions around urban areas, and with certain trail characteristics.

There are many reasons in support of a generally open trail system. It accommodates the needs of the most users, and disperses use. It helps to build a trail community with mutual respect. Separate trails breed ill will. A multiple use system is most cost effective, and enforcement is simplified. It facilitates peer regulation to deal with irresponsible users.

Mr. Kelley has been active in the mountain bicycling and trail movement for over a decade. He formed the Bicycle Trails Council of the East Bay in 1987, which was the second oldest mountain bike advocacy organization in the country. In 1988, he helped form the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), and remains on its board. IMBA's mission is to promote environmentally and socially responsible mountain biking. The organization has grown considerably over the past 10 years, and now has its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Kelley also participates in several other trail and environmental organizations. He is Secretary to the Bay Area Ridge Trail, in the San Francisco Bay Area, and has been on its board since it was formed. He is a recovering lawyer, who resides in Berkeley, California, with his wife and 2 children.

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