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Conservation Principles for Competition Trail Riders

The most important question for the trail-riding community is this: How can we find a way to continue to compete on trails and secure our access to these trails?

By Brian Bourne and Candace Bourne

Moderator: Gene W. Wood, Professor of Forest Wildlife Ecology, and Extension Trails Specialist, Clemson University, Clemson, SC


  • Brian Bourne, Southeast Endurance Riders Association, Notasulga, Alabama
  • Candace Bourne, Southeast Endurance Riders Association, Notasulga, Alabama
  • Helen Koehler, Sunshine State Horse Council, Morriston, Florida
  • Kandee Haertel, Executive Director, Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, Clarendon, Illinois

    The human-horse partnership lies at the core of American history. The nation's exploration and outward expansion was accomplished by settlers who depended on the horse to carry them and their belongings out into the new world. Those pioneers and cowboys rode through woodlands, deserts, mountains, and prairies on their way to new homes, better lives, and ultimately, a new civilization.

    "As the number of horses on the trails has increased, so has our ecological responsibility to consider the well being of the ecosystem essential to both horse and rider."

    The relationship between horse and rider in America is one of our cultural heritages that we, as equestrians, are able to re-create each time we compete in a distance riding event. That is part of the lure of distance riding. Experiencing the wildlands from the back of a horse recalls our ancestors' experience as they raced their way across this country.

    The sport of distance riding, simply put, is riding a horse in a timed event across a set course with distances ranging from 25-100 miles. It has attracted a variety of people that had a wide range of reasons for participating in the sport. Competition, camaraderie, and the trail experience are just a few of those reasons.

    Distance riders have always ridden regardless of weather or trail conditions so long as it seemed safe for the horse. Until recently, little thought was given to our impacts on the trails on which the competitions took place. However, as the number of horses on the trails has increased, so has our ecological responsibility to consider the well being of the ecosystem essential to both horse and rider.Distance riding encompasses several types of competition. The rules that define each sport makes them independent of each other, but their commonality is trails. Endurance and competitive trail events are probably the most recognized and have the largest number of participants.

    The dramatic increase in competition trail riding may be indicated by comparisons of participation levels of Endurance Riding in 1986 with those in 1999. In 1986 and 1999 there were 646 and 773 endurance rides, respectively, for an increase of 19.6%. However, in the same years there were 8826 and 19044 participants, respectively, for an increase of 116%. It is important to note that participation in events increased six times more than the number of events. This suggests a huge increase in ecosystem impact potential.

    While the sport of distance riding was growing there also was a growing movement to restrict horse access to public lands. Due to pressure from environmentalists, and other outdoor recreation enthusiasts, as well as some obvious adverse impacts on some trails, public land managers began to rethink the impact of horses on trails within their forests. In order to comply with new restrictions, trail closings were inevitable. This, of course, resulted in a negative reaction from most of the equestrian communities.

    With the change in attitude on the part of public land managers, equestrian should have become more introspective and demonstrated a desire to look for ways in which they could harmonize their recreation with that of others and with the resource protection objectives. But more often than not, riders only focused on their loss of access to trails that they had used for many years. Thus the rift began to spread between many equestrian trail users and land managers.

    As equestrians, we need to do some self-evaluation. We can no longer expect to ride in any weather and trail conditions and in greater numbers, without adversely impacting the trails on which we ride. The most important question for the trail-riding community is this: "How can we find a way to continue to compete on trails and secure our access to these trails? The answer can only come from a serious evaluation of our own practices.

    Among the questions we should consider are:

    • How does competition trail riding impact the ecosystem?
    • How many horses can be accommodated under good weather and soil conditions without unacceptable levels of ecological damage?
    • What conditions are environmentally so sensitive that the exclusion of horses is justified?
    • What kind of trail designs may be required to sustain fast horse traffic?
    • How does one decide when the trail tread is in a condition that would necessitate the cancellation of a ride?


    The answers to these questions will be different from region to region, soil type to soil type, forest to forest. Therefore, most of the solutions must be found at the local level. The goal must be to customize trail use to fit the type and level of use each area is able to support. The key point is to demonstrate our willingness to do what is needed to conserve the land where our trails run, and to do that we must put forth some good-faith actions.

    First and foremost, there has to be a good line of communication and cooperation between equestrians and the land management agencies. A willingness to help with maintenance and to accept warranted changes are good initial steps towards that end. Equestrians and land managers should work together to begin the process of determining acceptable conditions that allow competition without adversely impacting the area through which riders will pass. The final question will always be "How do we minimize and mitigate our impact?

    Building a new trail is the ideal way to begin to address this issue. Doing it right the first time would be the way to go. However, many horse trails now in use were established long before the development of an awareness of the need for sensitivity to the ecosystem. A re-evaluation of the existing trail in terms of allowed and desired uses may indicate needs for re-design, new tread preparations, and new maintenance strategies. It may mean trail/stream hardenings, fabric techniques like geo-web or geo-mat, bridges, or even trail relocation. Whatever the situation, irreparable damage to the ecosystem cannot be tolerated. Such impacts will only lead to a breakdown in communication and cooperation with land managers and other trail users. The end result will be loss of our privilege to use the trails.

    We suggest the following guidelines for being an equestrian trail conservationist:






    People have been traveling this country on horseback for hundreds of years. Distance riding gives equestrians the opportunity to re-create that cultural heritage in a natural setting. Using common sense principles, competition equestrians can co-exist with other trail users, and become partners in the conservation and preservation not only of the rider's cultural heritage, but also of the natural setting in which it is re-enacted.

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