Taking Care of the Trail: 5 Tips for Riders

Hitting the trails this fall? These tips will help you protect and preserve public trail space.

Photo by Kristen Kovatch

Photo by Kristen Kovatch

There’s nothing better than hitting the trail in autumn: the weather is often much cooler and more comfortable for both horse and rider, and in many parts of the country the leaves are changing which makes for stunning scenery. Shared trail space on public land or private land with easements has opened up trail riding for those riders who aren’t lucky enough to have access to hundreds of acres of private land — but there are a few things to remember to keep those trails in good shape and reduce your ecological impact as a rider.

Unfortunately, even for the most careful rider, it’s been proven through multiple studies that between hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding, it’s that latter group that creates the most impact on the trail. The reasons aren’t hard to figure out:

  • Horses are big, heavy animals with four often metal-shod feet, compared to the weight of a hiker or mountain biker, which compacts underlying layers of earth
  • At the same time, the action of a horse’s hoof tears up the top layers of earth, leading to increased erosion
  • Horses will be horses — aka, they’ll defecate when they need to, wherever they need to

Then, there are additional concerns when horses hit the trail — tying horses to trees, for example, can potentially lead to the stripping of bark and then the death of the tree; horses may be allowed to graze on vegetation along the route or at stopping points along the way.

This is not to say that hikers and mountain bikers do not have their own unique impacts on the trail itself and the environment through which the trail passes — but there are steps that we can take as horseback riders to reduce our impact and maintain the health of the trail for all of us who share it.

1. Stick to the marked, main trail. This seems like a no-brainer, but even the smallest shortcuts or go-arounds can lead to increased erosion and breakdown of soil around the existing trail. This can create a compounding issue in which run-off from the “new” trail creates wetter, muckier conditions on the existing trail. This in turn leads to riders and horses attempting to go around the mucky spot … you can see easily how this issue can create a much larger problem quickly.

Trail “braiding” refers to when a trail branches out into multiple paths rather than one main route — this often happens when a trail crosses a field and riders spread out so they can ride abreast. Trail braiding smashes vegetation and breaks down the top layers of soil while compacting underlying layers and changing how water is absorbed.

Keep to existing trails around places such as water sources or vistas — often, there will be an established trail to a lake or stream where you can water your horse or admire the view, so you can avoid creating your own path through existing vegetation.

2. Use trails marked only for equestrian or multi-purpose use. If a trail is labeled for hikers or mountain bikers only, it’s likely to include obstacles or geography that will be impossible for you and your horse to navigate safely, such as a boulder field or a swinging bridge. In turn, avoiding these kinds of obstacles reduces the need for a horse and rider to travel off the trail in order to go around. (The flip side is also true — I was backpacking with friends on what we thought was a multi-use trail and wound up having to ford a very cold river in March with our packs on our heads because we had strayed onto a horse-only trail with no footbridge!)

Essentially, treat other trail users’ spaces how you want yours to be treated — if you’re on a trail marked for equestrian/hiker use only, you don’t want to run headlong into a mountain biker, and the same is true for other trail users.

3. Horses have been found to poop most frequently from the parking lot through the first half-mile or so of the trail. So if your trail system has specific horse trailer parking and a specially-designated equestrian trail to reach a multi-use system, use it! That keeps manure in one specific area (up to a point, anyway). At the parking lot, it’s common courtesy to pick up after your horse and either dispose of manure in designated areas or pitch it into your trailer to deposit at your manure pile at home.

If you’re overnight camping or utilizing a hitching rail along the way, it’s generally a good practice to break up any manure piles your horses might leave while tied. (Those pointy-toed boots are called “$!@# kickers” for a reason, after all!)

Studies have found that there is no noticeable impact from manure spreading invasive seeds into a trail ecosystem — however, many forest systems require certified weed-free hay if you brought yours along. Check locally.

4. Follow the principles of Leave No Trace. Leave No Trace, or LNT, is the set of guidelines that helps hikers and other backwoods enthusiasts enjoy the natural world while helping to preserve it for future users and generations to come. We’ve featured the principles of LNT for horseback riders before — such tips as respecting wildlife, knowing the route ahead of time, and how to safely set up a campfire.

5. These practices work hand-in-hand with regular trail maintenance — so consider volunteering to help upkeep your local system. Many public spaces rely on volunteer help to keep miles and miles of trails well-maintained, including applying gravel to poorly-draining areas, mapping and blazing routes, clearing deadfall (especially in the springtime) and checking the condition of trail infrastructure such as bridges or hitching rails. Check with your local trail system about what volunteer efforts you can join to help keep your public spaces clean and safe for everyone, including your fellow equestrians!

Want to read more about trail erosion and horseback riding? Here are the consulted articles and studies:

[Comparing relative impacts of various trail user groups]

[Research for the Development of Best Management Practices to Minimize Horse Trail Impacts on the Hoosier National Forest]

[Comparing hiking, mountain biking and horse riding impacts on vegetation and soils in Australia and the United States of America]

Go trail riding!

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