Sharing Trails Safely with Horses

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This brochure was produced for statewide distribution by the Boulder County Horse Association with funding from the Colorado State Parks Off-Highway Vehicle Program, the Colorado Horse Development Authority and Larimer County Horseman’s Association, and with the cooperation of the Boulder Area Trails Coalition, Boulder County Parks and Open Space, Jefferson County Open Space, and the Colorado Off- Highway Vehicle Coalition.

Trails on public lands are among Colorado’s greatest assets. Population growth and new technologies mean that trails historically used by hikers and equestrians now support diverse enthusiasts.

A positive trail experience requires cooperation, understanding and courtesy by all trail users. The principles outlined here are intended to help you make informed decisions on how to share the trail safely with horses.

Education is Everyone’s Responsibility

Each user group needs to share responsibility for educating and monitoring its own members. Be aware of conditions. It is your responsibility as a trail user to know the rules of the trail and apply them with courtesy. Speak up when you see someone who does not know the rules. Regulations may vary among land management agencies. Check at the trailhead before heading out, or call the agency for clarification if you have any questions.

Approaching a Horse on the Trail
The most critical moment is when you approach the horse.  When approaching from the front, stop and check with the rider. If necessary, step off the trail on the downhill side to allow the horse to pass. The equestrian will often have the best suggestion about how to pass the horse. When overtaking from behind, call out to the rider and horse when you think they can hear you. Continue calling until you get a response.

Suggestions for Approaching a Horse Safely

  • Speak to the horse in a normal tone of voice to identify yourself as a human.
  • Make yourself visible.
  • Keep calm and avoid sudden movements which could startle a horse.
  • Allow the horse to be on the uphill side of you and the trail where it might feel safer.  Something unfamiliar from above a horse may trigger an instinctual fear of a predator jumping down on it.
  • Be alert for instruction from the equestrian (rider).  Each horse is different and has its own personality.  What spooks one horse might be “old hat” to another.

Safety Tips for All Trail Users

Taking time to check your equipment before starting out reduces accidents.  All trail users should make sure their gear is lashed down securely.

Equestrians – check your horses feet and tack.
Cyclists – check your tire pressure, brakes and chain tension.
Hikers – check your packs and footwear.

Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) operators are advised to check your tire pressure, chain tension, filters, and fluid levels, frame and suspension, brakes, and controls.  Be sure your vehicle is in good mechanical shape.

Know Your Limitations

All trail users need to be prepared for difficult terrain if you are unfamiliar with the trail. OHV operators and cyclists need to keep your speed within safe stopping limits, especially going downhill. Equestrians must make sure you and your horses are in condition for the type of terrain the trail covers. Allow adequate time to complete your route before dark, unless you are prepared for nighttime trail. Recognize and respect different levels of ability, even within a group.

Equestrians need to let others know if special care is needed to pass your horse safely.  Slow to a walk when approaching other trail users, including other equestrians. Start a conversation as soon as possible. It may be advisable for you to find a place to get off the trail, facing oncoming traffic. Horses tend to feel safer on the high side of the trail. Although horses have the right of way, a horse leaving the trail briefly may have less impact on the terrain than another type of user doing so. For example, when feasible, horses may yield the right of way to OHVs coming uphill since stopping or shutting off engines on a steep grade may be risky. Take responsibility for your horse’s training. Expose your horse to a variety of situations to desensitize it to potential threats before you encounter them on the trail.

Off – Highway Vehicles operators must be alert to slower traffic, and need to understand that the sound and vibration of your vehicles can scare horses. It may be best to shut off your engine if horses are spooking and let horses pass. Having the engine off also makes it easier to communicate with other trail users. Because they travel at higher speed, OHVs may require greater stopping distance than others on the trail. Drivers should slow down around blind corners and anticipate the presence of other trail users. While your engine is running, be especially alert visually to compensate for your limited hearing ability. OHV operators may find that removing your helmet helps calm horses by showing the horse that you are just a human in there.

Bicyclists may not realize that bicycles are swift, silent, and low to the ground in ways that resemble natural predators to a horse. Thus, they can trigger a flight response in a horse that may override even years of excellent training. For safety reasons, bicycles should yield to horses and foot traffic. When approaching horses from any direction, make verbal contact by speaking calmly. Pass only when a rider has told you it is safe. Stop your bike and do not advance until you get a definite signal from the equestrian. If the right of way is yielded to you, pass slowly and cautiously. Resume speed only when you have passed safely. It is your responsibility to be in control. Do not let your brakes cause skidding, as the sudden noise and dust may frighten a horse.

Hikers can help calm a spooking horse by slowly removing your backpack, since the pack may disguise the fact that you are a person. When you encounter a horse, speak to the rider as soon as practical. Having your dog along is fun, but dogs are not permitted on all trails. Never let your dog chase livestock or wildlife. Leash your dog, or have your dog under voice control, when you see a horse approaching. If you are hiking with children, horses can be both interesting and scary. Check with the equestrian before approaching a horse. Ask permission for your child to pat the horse; most equestrians will be happy to oblige.

General Guidelines

  • Downhill traffic yields to uphill traffic
  • Keep right, pass left.
  • Stay on designated trails or follow travel management regulations.
  • Avoid muddy trails.  Try to use an alternate trail.  Otherwise, muddle through the middle of the puddle.
  • Respect private property.
  • Never ride alone. If you must do so, tell someone where you plan to go and when you think you will be back.
  • Maintain a safe distance between riders.
  • Leave gates as you find them.
  • Carry out your trash, and that of others.
  • Volunteer for trail building and maintenance projects.
  • Join a trail advocacy group.  There is strength in numbers.
  • Let the appropriate land manager know about any concerns you may have about the trail.
  • Share your appreciation about good trail experiences.

Our goal is to help us all be good trail citizens together.  It’s in our mutual best interests to work together for successful multiple-use trails.  Be aware of each other’s needs on the trail

Be courteous, be safe, and have fun!