Sharing the Trail
by Alix Whitener
As much as we all enjoy the peaceful experience of having the trail to ourselves, chances are we’re likely to be sharing the trail with others, many of whom use different modes of travel.
Depending on the trail, the list of trail-users can include hikers, mountain bikers, dirt-bikers, trail-runners, backpackers, equestrians, dog walkers and more. There is a similarly impressive list of winter trail-users as well.
The point is, trails are out there for nearly every type of trail-user, and it’s our duty as public land owners to share these trails.To get to the elephant in the room, or at least acknowledge its presence, many people have a bias against equestrians. I explained recently to a fellow trail runner who was not a fan of horses and who believes horses cause the most trail damage that, when trails are wet, horses, mountain bikers, and hikers all cause trail damage. Horse hooves, mountain bike treads, and boot shoes all cause damage. My point was not to say that one sport was worse than others, but to to point out that we share a common responsibility. We’re all out on the trails for similar reasons (enjoyment), yet if we’re not careful, all of us can damage what we came to enjoy.
Even though I’m more likely to be seen on the trail as a runner, hiker, and dog walker these days, I grew up riding horses in the foothills surrounding Appleatchee. Trail riding is a form of therapy
and an escape from the stresses of life for me. It is also an escape for my horse from the monotony of arena work. Every time I want to ride, I’m faced with a decision. Rain? Muddy trail? That’s a no-go. Dry trail? Yeehaw! Let’s go!
On the trail, I have had many encounters with different trail users, some positive, others not. I often feel like I’m trapped between two worlds. My mountain-bike friends complain about the damage horse hooves cause to wet and muddy trails while my hiking and trail running friends complain about horse poop on the trail (more on this later), and then there’s me — a person who enjoys all these modes of travel.
Navigating these often charged conversations is stressful. However, if we all observe accepted trail etiquette (as well as a few other pointers I’ve mentioned), there really shouldn’t be such conflict.
Trail Etiquette and Equine Behavior
Modern domesticated horses, Equus ferus caballus, have been around for roughly 5,500 years but have retained many of their instincts. I bet you can guess what they revert to in stressful situations.
I’ve been on trails as an equestrian and had wonderful encounters with people with or without leashed dogs who were friendly and yielded properly. We exchanged friendly ‘hellos’ and off we went on our separate ways. I’ve also had encounters with hikers who screamed at their off-leash dogs to ‘COME!’ while my horse danced nervously. This is stressful situation for a prey animal.
Not long ago I had a particularly interesting encounter with someone whose heart was in the right place and knew trail etiquette, but who lacked an understanding of equine behavior. This woman and her dog yielded to my horse and me, but then crouched behind a large sagebrush, waiting for me to pass. My horse was certainly not having any of this. He pranced but would not move forward. I asked the woman to stand up. As soon as she did, my horse settled and moved forward. I had a very nice conversation with the woman about what would have made our encounter go more smoothly. All we needed for this good encounter was basic courtesy and a willingness to learn from each other.
Compared to dog poop, horse poop doesn’t last long on the trail, degrades quickly, and doesn’t contain significant levels of pathogenic microorganisms harmful to humans. Horse droppings are essentially mulched-up grass — I grew up around the stuff and often walk right through it. I realize not everyone feels this way, but because the scientific evidence shows these droppings degrade quickly and present no health problems, I believe it’s not that hard to step or bike around horse poop. It desiccates and breaks down quickly. This being said, it’s also up to horse owners to keep their animals from pooping in or near water sources and not to contribute to noxious weed problems by making sure they use certified, weed-free hay with horses used for trail riding.
Pointers and Suggestions
- Work with others. Whether you’re an equestrian, mountain biker, hiker, or some other type of trail-user, I encourage you to get involved with different trail-building or trail-maintenance groups. There are many local opportunities to help maintain or build trails we care about. When we’re using trails, we might be looking for solitude. When we maintain or build trails, however, we’re working together as a team. Trail-building and trail-maintenance groups provide a platform for us to converse and get to know one-another while contributing toward something we all love!
- Review trail etiquette each year. Even as a well-seasoned trail-user, it’s actually pretty easy to forget some of the rules of the trail like who yields to whom, or which trails are open to whom, or when you should stay off trails. Make it part of your ritual to refresh this knowledge each year, and do your research to see if the trail you want to use is open to your type of trail-use. Most importantly, adhere to the accepted practices that help us get along and help us preserve the trails.
- Be nice. This applies to those who are calling others out, and those who get called out. I am still learning how to navigate such conversations. I’ve found that merely pointing out that dogs are supposed to be on leashes on particular trails or that cutting switchbacks is bad form can be met with defensiveness and conflict. Through questions and casual conversations, I’ve found that people are more receptive to what might be new information to them.
- Introducing a newcomer to a trail? Take some time to read the trailhead signage together. Those of us who use trails frequently usually know trail rules. Folks who are just getting into trail-related recreation need to learn the rules and the accepted code of behavior. Reading signage with newcomers will encourage them to do this again at the next trailhead visited, and it’s great review for you.
Ultimately if we all strive to become educated trail users, help educate each other, realize others are out to enjoy themselves, and show each other courtesy, we’ll all enjoy the trails equally, even if we travel them differently.
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This comment is from Priscilla Selden: Thank you, Alix, for your thoughtful article! I, too, am a multi-use trail user: hiker, mountain biker, equestrian. If we are all as thoughtful and considerate as you, we can share our trails with enjoyment and delight! 98% of my encounters are positive! Some places divvy up use – allowing hikers and equestrians only on Mon-Wed-Fri, for example, and adding in mountain bikers on Tues-Thurs. “Time-sharing.” My biggest issue is TRASH! We are all noticing greater use of our trails. I’m hoping the ethic to pack out your own trash, as well as what you discover out there, will become the standard. Thanks again!