Florida Trails Expo inspires young equestrians to action

Florida Youth Equestrian Trails Expo is designed to inspire young equestrians to become active trail users, encourage advocacy and volunteerism on behalf of equestrian trails, and offer education in land conservation ethics.

by Alexandra H. Weiss, Recreational Trails Program Administrator, Florida Office of Greenways and Trails

Involving youth in today’s and tomorrow’s land stewardship issues is critical to the success of this country’s greenways and trails efforts. It is incumbent upon public agencies, and our nonprofit partners, to reach out to the public and instill the beginnings of a land stewardship/land conservation ethic. We must assist youth and youth group leaders in order to make this happen. Many already do this as part of their charge. But it needs to be raised in priority.

The Florida Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT), in partnership with the Florida Division of Forestry, U.S. Forest Service and Southern Trailriders, Inc., hosted the country’s first two-day Youth Equestrian Trails Expo in February 2010. The Expo was designed to inspire young equestrians to become active trail users, encourage advocacy and volunteerism on behalf of equestrian trails and offer education in land conservation ethics.
With the 2009 Southeastern Equestrian Trails Conference to be held in Gainesville, Florida

in July 2010, I approached conference chair, Helen Koehler, with an idea of including a SETC session on how we can engage youth in equestrian trails and land conservation. Helen loved the idea, and so the panel discussion entitled, “Pony Club, 4-H and Our Future” became reality. Simone Faas, Tuscawilla Pony Club, spoke on the 5 Fs - what it takes to involve youth in equestrian trail activities. Deb Balliet, Equestrian Land Conservation Resource, brought it all together. Then I delivered the final challenge to the audience, “What are you going to do to involve youth?” As many in the audience were graduate Pony Clubbers, 4-Hers and Future Farmers of America members, this seemed a logical challenge. The answer was surprising— few had even thought about involving youth in their trail work crews or advocacy activities.

After the session, Sue Noyes, President of Southern Trailriders Association, inquired “Well, Alex, what are we going to do about this?” The decision was to create and implement a workshop focused on USPC and 4- H standards. OGT Director, Jena Brooks, approved a planning group for the country’s first Youth Equestrian Trails Expo. The collaborative effort, coordinated by OGT, included the Florida Division of Forestry (DOF), U.S. Forest Service (USFS) and the Southern Trailriders Association, Inc. (STA). The planning partner representatives, were equestrians, who worked diligently over the next few months to determine the message, site, funding, exhibitors, registration items, signage, and food. Following Simone’s 5Fs of Fun, Friends, Family, Food and Fuel, helped ensure the program would be a success.

The USPC and 4-H educational standards guided the group in developing talks and handout materials. All exhibitors and speakers were provided with copies of the standards so that they could develop pre- Expo workshop materials. Each exhibitor and speaker submitted at least three questions, with answers, relating to their talk. The questions focused on their take-away points. The questions were used to develop both a take-along question card as well as door prize questions.

Although the first year’s Expo focused on USPC and 4-H members, all equestrian youth were welcome to participate.

photo credit: Alexandra H. Weiss, Recreational Trails Program Administrator, Florida Office of Greenways and Trails
Checking out a stream crossings on Fort Braden recreation area

Checking out a stream crossings on Fort Braden recreation area

Event announcement and registration materials were sent via email, provided on the internet, and posted at local equestrian related shops. The event was advertised via the OGT Alert distribution list and targeted emails; announced on the OGT, USPC, and ELCR websites. The Wakulla 4H Agent shared it statewide. Expo internships were offered to older USPC and 4H members to shadow OGT, DOF and USFS staff during the event.

The Lake Talquin State Forest’s Ft. Braden Tract, with its equestrian trails, was chosen as the workshop site. It’s close proximity to Tallahassee allowed the planning committee to meet on a regular basis, both on and off the site.

On a very cold and drizzly February weekend morning, the 34 participants were greeted at the Ft. Braden trailhead by nine land managing agencies and nonprofits. At registration they received a color coded name tag and a DOF drawstring back pack, with an OGT water bottle which they filled for their walk down the trail, some handouts, and the question card. Parents also received materials in an OGT tote bag. While waiting for opening remarks, they could enjoy equestrian trail focused exhibits as displayed by the Northwest Florida Water Management District, Florida Park Service, Florida Cracker Horse Society, The Conservation Trust of Florida, Leon County Parks, STA, OGT, DOF and USFS. One exhibit, developed by an Ochlockonee River Pony Club member, focused on helmet safety and Florida’s new helmet law.

The weather had a definite impact on the event. Final registration included 24 children, and 10 adults. At least 15 confirmed youth participants withdrew due to travel conditions and site weather. Most of these children, and parents, would have traveled over two hours to the event. As organizers, we understood.

Opening remarks were provided by OGT’s Assistant Director, Jim Wood, DOF’s Marti Miller, USFS’s Jim Schmid as introduced by STA’s Sue Noyes. Each gave a short introduction of their agency’s mission, how it related to equestrian trails and hoped the children would become active trail users and advocates.

The participants divided into their respective groups. Parents were separated from their children. At a prescribed time, they departed down the trail under the leadership of an STA volunteer.

photo credit: Alexandra H. Weiss, Recreational Trails Program Administrator, Florida Office of Greenways and Trails
The author speaking to the expo participants

The author speaking to the expo participants

Seven stations were positioned along a portion of the equestrian trail. OGT staff, DOF staff, USFS staff, Florida Trail Association crew leader, and STA volunteers shared their passion for trails and land stewardship as the different groups moved thru the trail stations. The stations included interactive discussions of how land managers plan trails (and where you can enter the discussion); trail layout & design; trail crew “tailgate safety” talk; work on terracing project, work on trail reroute project; environmental impact focusing on stream crossings and materials that can be used; Leave No Trace land stewardship activity; trail etiquette. Station specific materials were given (properly placed in their bags).

"Burma Shave" type signs, relating to open space, land preservation, trail riding, horses were placed along the trail. These provided an opportunity for each group’s leader to engage the participants in discussion as they walked between stations.
Each participant took their bright yellow question card and pencil throughout the event. Questions were jumbled, and required everyone to not just listen or look, but to ask questions of the land manager to learn the answers posed on their card.
While the groups were out on the trail, some Florida Trail Association members stopped by to participate in specific components. As they left, we knew the Expo was groundbreaking and needed. Howard Pardue, retired FNST acquisition administrator, told me how much he enjoyed it and that “all trail user groups should consider doing such an event for their trail use.”

At lunch, the kids could be observed in deep discussion while completing their question cards. The after lunch speakers included Kristianna Lindgren, The Conservation Trust of Florida; John Frank, Florida Park Service; Pat Plocek, Leon County Parks; and Jamie Levy, Florida Cracker Horse Society. Alex Weiss conducted the closing activity with the kids answering the Question Card questions and additional follow-up questions designed to assess the event’s success as a simple post-test assessment tool. Door prizes, collected by STA and Ochlockonee River Pony Club, were given for correct answers.

Lunch and snacks were provided via monetary donations secured by STA, a 501(c)(3). Many local tack shops, feed stores, equine veterinarians and farriers gladly donated towards a program focusing on youth.

On Sunday, the Expo participants returned to Ft. Braden Tract. This time with their horses. STA led a trail ride along the trail which the kids worked the day before. Conversations about land stewardship continued, with many families wanting to volunteer on the Ft. Braden trails as well as join Southern Trailriders Association.

Overall, the event was a huge success. Planning has already begun for the 2011 Expo. Leon County Parks & Recreation Department has joined the planning committee. Several Pony Club members have expressed an interest in having a more active role in next year’s Expo. Definitely a good sign for all trails.

About the Author

The Office of Greenways and Trails (OGT), within the Division of Recreation & Parks, provides statewide leadership and coordination to establish, expand and promote non-motorized trails that make up the Florida Greenways and Trails System.

Contact: [email protected]

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