Saturday, June 5, 2010

Horsemen and hikers and bikes, oh my!

I had a conversation last night with an anonymous commenter in response to my "What A Community" post that I think is worth sharing with everybody.  The poster was concerned about the multi-use concept of this trail - she hadn't spent a lot of time sharing trails with mountain bikes and was concerned about how those interactions would go. Since there isn't currently any actual mountain bike trail around here, she's probably not alone.  

There are a lot of things that trail builders can do to help prevent user conflicts between horses and mountain bikes, and since this is a new trail we're incorporating a lot of lessons learned elsewhere. One of the real keys is in trail design... you can design a trail to keep MTB speeds in check, and to make sure everybody sees everybody else in plenty of time to act accordingly. Those two things alone will resolve about 95% of user conflicts.

Some of it, too, is in education, and that's also part of what I'd like to see accomplished here. It is my dearest wish to get mountain bikers and horsemen working side by side building and maintaining the trail, so that each can learn from the other about how they use the trail - and each can learn that the other folks aren't bad people, just people enjoying the trail differently. Nobody wants to cause wrecks, either for horsemen or bikes.

As far as protocols go... everybody yields to horses, bikers yield to everybody. That isn't always practiced... a lot of times it's easier for a hiker to step off the trail than for a biker, and they often do. But that's the protocol and most people follow it, especially if you remind them with signage.

The standard protocol for a mountain biker approaching a horseman is for the biker to stop a ways from the horse and talk to the rider, finding out what the rider needs to have happen to pass safely. The biker usually steps off the trail with his bike, preferably to the downhill side, while the horseman rides past. That lets the horse see and smell the human under all of that sweat, and keeps the bike downhill where it won't "pounce" on the horse.

Every trail user needs to be responsible for his own actions. Mountain bikers need to understand that horses are prey animals and react accordingly. If a horse doesn't know what that scary-looking thing is, it is going to react like any other animal that thinks it's about to be eaten. In all likelihood, too, the horse's rider is now scared to death and the situation can spiral out of control. By increasing education and understanding among mountain bikers, and by designing a trail to keep speeds slow and sightlines good, those kinds of wrecks can be avoided.

Horsemen have responsibilities, too. Their primary responsibility is to be certain that their horse is ready to be ridden on a multi-use trail. A lot of times a horseman lets his animal stand around for a month at a time, gets on for an hour or two, and wonders why his horse doesn't trust him and/or misbehaves. A horse on a multi-use trail needs to be thoroughly desensitized, and he needs to trust the leadership ability of his rider. Even if you're in the wilderness where there are no bikes, there are plenty of things for a horse to spook at and cause wrecks. In the last couple of weeks, for example, I've flushed about a dozen grouse up there. They spooked me, never mind a touchy horse. There will be deer up there, cows breaking out of the brush, mules and llamas (a lot of horses don't like either), hikers with big backpacks, loose cinches and turning saddles - all kinds of things that will give a spooky horse fits. A rider that accepts his/her responsibilities as a trail user will ensure that his partnership with his horse is strong enough to be on a trail of this nature.

For what it's worth, I own five horses.  There's only one of them right now I'd take on this trail.  With some work on my part, three of the others would likely be fine.  But I'd never try it without spending some time desensitizing.

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