By Sarah Evers Conrad
Trail riding is a favorite past-time of equestrians regardless of breed or discipline. There is nothing like hitting the trail and immersing oneself with nature and one’s mount while taking in fresh air and sunshine. Plus, getting out of the arena for a relaxing trail ride can be good for both rider and horse alike since it can help reduce ring sourness.
To be able to have trails to ride on, it’s important to maintain horseback riding trails for the safety of riders and to minimize the impact we have on the land and wildlife that live in the area. Most trails need to be groomed and maintained at least once per year.
Because many horseback riding trails are on public or community land, trail maintenance is often handled by volunteer organizations, such as a state horse council or a local chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America (BCHA). Approval often needs to be obtained from trail officials/owners beforehand before a maintenance weekend is set and volunteers are organized.
Below are some of the ways trails should be maintained.
Debris Removal: It’s inevitable on many trails to have fallen trees or limbs on the trail. It’s best to make sure that these are removed so that riders don’t try to ride around this debris and go off trail. Going off trail can cause problems with erosion, and if they venture into a brush- or leaf-covered area next to the original trail, a rider might not be able to spot hazards, such as a hole.
Erosion Issues: Anyone that has ridden down a trail with major ruts caused by erosion knows that there is increased risk for the horse to place a foot wrong or to slide or trip and injure himself. In addition, erosion can totally destroy a trail. Therefore, fixing erosion issues becomes key when dealing with riding trails.
Gravel can be added to areas where water erodes the trail to create a more stable surface that water won’t be able to move as easily as dirt. Synthetic materials can also be used in erosion-prone areas, but not every budget will allow for the installation of these more expensive materials. These materials may also need to be professionally installed or it may be necessary to hire a trail maintenance expert.
Other ways to help hold loose soil in certain areas might be to place logs or branches along the edges of the trail.
Standing Water Issues: Hopefully the trail was originally designed to follow the contours of the terrain and not situated along places of natural water run-off or along a steep uphill or downhill climb. Running water can be quite powerful, and standing water can cause issues with footing, support of the trail, and even loss of the trail itself. Remember that water follows the path of least resistance.
If standing water becomes an issue, then a trail expert may be needed to determine what can help with a particular area’s issues. A drainage ditch, knick (an outsloped drain), a waterbar (a diagonal channel across a trail that diverts surface water), grade changes or reversals, outsloping/cross sloping (leaving the edge of a hillside trail lower than the inside to help shed water), or a rolling grade dip (a knick with a long ramp up on the downhill side) might be strategically placed to deal with the issue. It’s important to understand all of these options since using them incorrectly can cause water issues to worsen or cause issues as water runs to other undesirable locations, such as into another spot on the trail or into a fresh water source.
In addition to the methods above, simply trimming vegetation so sunlight can break through and dry out wet areas could help with standing water issues.
If an area becomes too wet for the foot traffic of horses and riders, it may be necessary to consider re-routing the trail to find drier terrain. Preventing mud through proper trail placement is often easier, and possibly cheaper, than trying to solve continuous issues.
Hazard Removal: One of the biggest hazards and nuisances for riders includes branches that have encroached into their riding space. These can be painful if a rider rides into the branch or if it is accidentally swung back into them or the horse.
Trail maintenance crews need to remove any hazards high enough that the tallest horse and rider can ride through uninjured (think 10 to 12 feet high). In addition, it’s important to consider removing any branches that could also start sagging for any reason, such as when winter snows weigh them down. Vegetation should be cut back in a manner to maintain the health of the plant.
The right tools need to be taken on the trail to remove any form of branch that becomes a hazard. Some tools to take with you include:
- Chainsaws and axes, for removing logs and really thick branches
- Garden hand clippers, for cutting small branches up to 1” in diameter
- Pole saws, for cutting branches high in the air
- Wire saws, for cutting trees up to 10” in diameter
- Gloves, to protect hands while working
- Rope, to pull logs out of the way
- Hoes and shovels, for displacing dirt or for widening a path
Trash Removal: While it is always important to avoid leaving any trash behind in the first place, this principle is not always followed by everyone in nature. Therefore, trash removal becomes an important aspect of trail maintenance…not only for aesthetics, but also for the safety and health of wildlife in the area.
In addition, offering a sturdy and stable trash receptacle at trail heads or public areas can be important for helping trail users remember to keep nature clean.
Trail Markers: It’s important to make sure the trail is marked in all areas if it is not a clearly obvious and established trail. If signs and maps have become faded, fallen over, or gotten lost, make sure replacements are made and put in place as soon as possible. A rider lost in the woods can be a scary thing for them and loved ones awaiting their return from a ride. If tape is used to mark the trail, ensure that vegetation has not obscured it in any way. Ensure that fallen leaves and snow have also not become an issue for riders who need to spot markers.
Speaking of signs, it’s a good idea to add a sign with the trail’s name, the land owner’s name, and who to call in case of an emergency, if applicable.
Water crossings should also be well marked to minimize foot traffic across a water source and should aim to cross in a straight line if it is safe to do so. Sometimes water crossings might require a culvert or a small bridge.
And finally when thinking about marking trails, it may be necessary to block off any illegitimate trails that trail users may have started so that the entire trail system doesn’t degrade with the creation of these unplanned trails. Allowing horses to create alternate trails can lead to erosion or anger property owners who wish for riders to stay on marked trails only. It can also help riders avoid becoming lost by not allowing them to veer off of known trails, which would also make a lost rider harder for rescue crews to find.
Our final point is to always keep safety in mind when doing trail maintenance. While it may be easy to trim small branches from horseback, this should only be done from a steady, calm, reliable horse. Sharp blades and tools should never be carried by horseback. In addition, it’s important to ensure that you can safely transport tools to where you need to use them on the trail (again, not by horseback) and that you know how to safely use each tool. Make sure to follow typical safety precautions for each tool (e.g., using eye protection if you are using a weed trimmer).
If you wish to inquire about helping with trail maintenance in your local area, you can contact your state’s horse council or the Back Country Horseman of America (BCHA) to find a local chapter. In addition, with their motto of “Keeping Trails Open for Everyone,” BCHA has an abundance of information on protecting access of public lands to equestrians online at http://bcha.org.
Happy Trail Riding!
Sarah Evers Conrad is currently the Digital Content Editor at Horse Illustrated and Young Rider magazines. She also owns All In Stride Marketing. She is an award-winning equestrian journalist with a background in magazine publishing, feature writing, news and event coverage, editing, digital marketing, social media, and website management. Conrad has been published in equine publications such as The Horse, Blood-Horse, Equestrian, Arabian Horse Life, USDF Connection, the American Quarter Horse Journal, Paint Horse Journal, Off-Track Thoroughbred, Stable Management, Camp Business magazine, Lexington Family magazine, and HorsesDaily.com and DressageDaily.com. She is also the current editor for the Certified Horsemanship Association’s official publication, The Instructor magazine. Conrad has also edited several books, including CHA’s “The Equine Professional Manual—The Art of Teaching Riding.” Learn more at www.equestrianjournalist.com.