I was bitten by a horse bug 33 years ago and I have been caring for and riding horses since. Over the past few years I have been most interested in trail riding and enjoying the land with my Morgan horse, Harley. Harley is a great trail horse. Some people think that if a horse is not showing competitively and they are “just a trail horse” that they do not require much training. This couldn’t be further from the truth. For a trail horse to be enjoyable and safe to ride, they must have great trust in their rider and be well mannered. They need to be trained to stand tied, stand while being mounted, easily walk on and off of a horse trailer, step across obstacles no higher than their knees, cross water, cross bridges, and get along well with other horses and people.
Horses can be trained with methods similar to conditioning dogs. The main difference between dogs and horses are that dogs are predators and horses are prey animals. If you take your dog on a trail (even a non-sporting breed), they will actively explore and hunt for critters. Wildlife may be disturbed by their presence. By nature horses are quiet herbivores who remain alert and are ready to “head for the hills,” at any sign of danger. Interestingly, other wild prey animals like deer and moose are relatively undisturbed by the presence of horses. A horse approaching them on the trail smells, sounds, and acts much less threatening to them than a dog or a person on foot. I can personally attest to this. A couple of years ago while riding Harley on Goffstown trails near our home, it began to rain heavily and we picked up a trot to get home. We turned a corner, and there not more than 50 feet away in the middle of the trail stood a moose cow and her calf. I was terrified that Mama Moose would charge at us and I was ready to turn Harley around and gallop away. Mama Moose seemed unconcerned and confident that Harley was not going to hurt her or her calf. She and Harley just looked at each other for a few moments before she sauntered across the trail. Harley must have been wearing his hay cologne that day and all was OK!
All of the local trail users that I have met are very responsible and concerned about being low impact on the land. Moderate horse activity can help maintain a well-designed multi-use trail for hikers, mountain bikers, and equestrians by disturbing the soil just enough to prevent over growth of plants. Horses’ hooves have been demonstrated to not create any additional erosion on the trails if proper trail surfaces have been created in the first place.
Good trail design to create sustainable trails is key for any low-impact use. Trails should be created to follow the contour of the land and never be straight up and down a slope, creating a gully. Of course, to keep trails in good condition, it is important for riders and all other trail users to follow common trail etiquette:
1) Know where it is ok to ride. Common law in NH allows horseback riders and pedestrians to travel on private land without permission unless the land is posted against it, but it is best to be courteous to the land owner or land conservation trust and ask them first.
2) Ride on established trails and stay on the trail. Don’t create or ride on unofficial trails. If you have an area where you would like to create a trail, please contact us at PAT.
3) Don’t ride trails during mud season.
4) Ride along the edge of any fields to not damage crops.
5) Carry-in/Carry-out. In my experience, horseback riders are very good about this because they do not want to leave unsightly trash on the land and debris can be dangerous for horses to step on.
Speaking of debris, I must clarify some common misconceptions about horse waste. Although some non-farming types think that horse manure is icky, in reality it is just a lot of tiny pieces of undigested hay. It breaks down very easily and quickly so likely you won’t see much of it on the trails. There have been numerous studies that show that horse manure on the trail poses no threat to water quality or to human health. Also, horses typically will not urinate on the trail. They prefer to urinate on the comfortable bedding of their own horse trailers or even wait to get home to their own barn.
I think the most important horseback riding trail etiquette rule is the golden rule. Be friendly and considerate to other trail users. Horses in NH legally have the right of way. This means that pedestrians, mountain bikers, and all motorized vehicles should yield to a horse. This doesn’t mean that a rider should move quickly past them with a get out of my way attitude. If possible, ask your horse to step to the side of the trail and face the person. Talk with them and if your horse is agreeable, let them pet your horse. Kids love this. There have been times when Harley didn’t want to leave his new friends (and neck scratches!).
I hope to meet up with you on the trails and if you are interested in joining our local trail group, we would love to have you. We have a fabulous group of trail maintenance volunteers and very generous land owners. Check us out at www.PiscataquogAreaTrailways.com.
By Carrie Finke, President of Piscataquog Area Trailways