Courtesy for Our Crowded Trails

Communicating with other trail users keeps the outdoors safe, enjoyable, and accessible for us all.
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Communicating with other trail users keeps the outdoors safe, enjoyable, and accessible for us all.
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If you ride out on the trails, you've probably noticed that we riders don't have the wide open spaces to ourselves. We share them with hikers, bicyclists, and others who value outdoor recreation. The simple guidelines in this article will keep your chance meetings with fellow trail users safe and under control for both of you.

There's a second reason, along with safety, for learning and using trail courtesy. Although you and I see riders and horses as a positive presence on the trail, the other guy may not. Maybe his only previous horse-related experience out in the open was stepping into manure left on a shady path or being tripped up by a deep hoof print at a stream crossing. He may feel intimidated by the sheer size of horses and by the way riders look down at him from the saddle. Each encounter a non-rider has with horses on the trail leaves a ripple effect of feelings, positive or negative, that persist long afterward, and that can ultimately help decide whether we riders continue to have access to the trails. So let's do what we can to make those meetings pleasant.

The Rules and How They Work

Hiking and mountain biking are popular activities just about everywhere trails exist. The regulations for multi-use trails on public lands are standard everywhere: Mountain bikers yield to hikers, and cyclists and hikers both yield to horseback riders. This right-of-way rules acknowledges that your horse has special needs and may react unpredictably, so you, the rider, need to call the shots. But it also means that, as the privileged user, you have extra responsibility--for being alert to others, thinking ahead about keeping encounters safe, taking charge of meetings when they occur, tactfully educating those you meet about horse behavior, and creating a positive overall feeling. That may sound like a tall order, but as I'll show you, it's not.

Courtesy in Action

Trail manners are mostly about communication, with the goal of simply getting the other person on your team and giving him a chance to be the good guy. Often, the hard part of communication is just knowing what words to use; so as we talk through some typical trail encounters, I'll share with you the "scripts" that have worked well for me in my 25 years of trail and endurance riding.

OK, you and your buddy are out on the trail. Here's how it works:

Stay alert for others. I often hear other people before I see them. Listen for hikers talking to each other or their dogs, or for the squeak of mountain bike brakes. Watch for people who may startle your horse because he can't see them easily until they're quite close (for instance, a hiker in camouflage clothing is hard for a horse to spot).

Make voice contact. Even on foot, some people--because they're conversing, listening to personal stereos, or simply preoccupied--won't hear your clip-clopping, jingling, leather-squeaking approach on your horse. So don't wait for them to notice you; as soon as you're aware of someone else on the trail, slow to a walk (if you're working at a faster gait) and call out "hello!" or even, "Hey, you! Hikers up ahead!" until you get a response. Call out to mountain bikers the minute you hear bikers ahead of or behind you.

Make eye contact. You want to make sure the other trail user sees you, so you know she or he will see any simple hand signals you use. If she seems startled when she finally does spot you, don't just ride past with a wave and leave her rattled (and, naturally, a little angry). Say something like "I'm sorry; I didn't want to scare you. I've been trying to get your attention. Good thing I wasn't a mountain lion!"

Take responsibility. As the trail user with the right of way, you're responsible for directing the situation to keep it as safe as possible for everyone. If you encounter a fast-moving pack of mountain bikers, for instance, use the same sequence as above--make voice contact, then eye contact--and then use the universal "stop" signal (hand raised to shoulder height, palm outward) to arrest the action. If your horse is used to bicycles, stay on the trail to reinforce your request. (Do you hear cyclists approaching fast around a blind turn? Right of way or not, get off the trail quickly but calmly and in control; a few scrapes or scratches are better than a collision with a mountain bike. The same is true if cyclists see you but make no effort to stop.) Once the group halts, ask that they all move to the same side of the trail while you pass, so your horse (and you) won't feel squeezed.

This pause is also your chance to alert cyclists to other trail users you've seen--a non-confrontational way to ask them to slow down. For example: "Hi! Thanks for stopping. I know you wouldn't want to hurt anybody, so I want to tell you I just passed an older hiker who can't move off the trail very fast."

Be alert to your horse's body language. If, for instance, his ears are pricked hard forward and he's raising and lowering his head a little, suggesting he may spook because he doesn't recognize that a helmeted cyclist or a hiker carrying a full-frame pack is human, ask the other person to say a few words. The strong, confident tone of your voice--this is a good time to joke about equine brain power--and the reassurance of a human voice answering you will both settle your horse ("Oh! It's a human!") and provide a quick moment of cooperation between trail users.

If the trail is too narrow for you and the hiker or cyclist(s) to pass safely (I like at least two feet between my stirrup and the other user), show the other person where you want him or her to leave the trail and wait while you go by.

Think ahead. Keep everyone safe by anticipating what can happen. If, for instance, your trying to give an extra-wide berth to a biker with scary-looking equipment puts your horse in the bushes and he flushes a bird, he's likely to "bounce back" onto the trail and maybe bump right into the hiker. Instead of risking that, look for an extra-wide spot to pass, or a trailside clearing for the hiker to stand out of harm's way.

A similar situation can develop if you're passing on a narrow hillside trail with a bank on one side and a steep slope on the other. By thinking ahead, you realize that taking your horse on the inside--next to the bank--would leave him nowhere to "bounce" except back into the trail (and possibly into the other person) should he suddenly shy. My preference in this case is to take my horse off the trail and make him stand on the slope while the hiker or cyclist goes by safely. If the slope is too steep or unstable, I say so and ask the person to backtrack to a safer spot.

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Educate non-horse trail users. Assume that the other person knows nothing about horses' needs and behavior. Explain to cyclists that they'll spook your critter if they whiz past; that's why you're requesting they stop and wait. If you must ask someone to backtrack to a wider spot in the trail, apologize and explain how much room your horse needs to make a safe rollback.

When someone asks to pet your horse (A great public relations opportunity; I always try to oblige unless my horse is very tense or spooky, in which case I apologize for my refusal), explain that horses prefer to have their necks petted, not their soft, vulnerable noses. Ask the person to approach at an angle to your horse's shoulder, rather than head on. If a small child is doing the petting, ask the parent to provide a lift so the child is well within your horse's sight--and away from his feet. Keep a closed rein on the side away from the person petting so your horse can't take advantage of this mobile scratching post.

Ask if whoever you encounter is part of a larger group. Learning that (for instance) the squad of cyclists who've just overtaken you are the advance speedsters of their group gives you valuable preparation time. You can, in turn, warn them that you and your trail buddy are a few hundred yards behind the rest of your group--their own heads-up to be ready for more horses and riders.

Special Situations

Unfriendly dogs: As the trail user with the right-of-way, you're the one who has to assess whether the hostile dog straining at the end of a leash just ahead is really under control, whatever his owner says. If you're concerned that the dog could lunge frighteningly at your horse as you pass, don't hesitate to ask the owner to take the dog off the trail at a spot you indicate--but once again, try to get him on your team: "I'm sorry, but my horse isn't dealing well with this. Would you please ..."

When you spot a loose dog ranging some distance from its owner, try to get the person's attention immediately so you increase his chance of putting the dog back on a leash. If, instead, you end up with an excited dog circling you and barking and the owner screaming at the dog, stop. Hold up your hand and explain to the owner that you're going to trot slowly past him while he stands in the spot you'll indicate. This may lure the disobedient dog within grabbing distance while it takes you away from the situation--most dogs won't continue the chase past 50 yards or so. Keep your horse on the aids, remain calm, and chances are he will , too. And remember that if your horse kicks out at an aggressive, uncontrolled dog and connects, you're not at fault.

Small children: Invite the parents to direct the situation, so you're both firmly on the same team. "What do you need?" I usually ask. "Where do you want me to be, or how far off the trail would you be comfortable standing with your child while I pass?"

Beyond Courtesy: Horse Power on the Trail
As a trail rider, you may have opportunities to make a positive difference for other trail users. If you're in an area you know well or have a map for, you can provide directions for lost cyclists or point a thirsty hiker toward a flowing spring on a hot day. Your first-aid supplies may come in handy--I once bandaged a cyclist's injured hand with gauze and Vetrap! And if you carry a cell phone, as I do, you become a mobile communication center for others in trouble.

That's the kind of ripple effect we want to create: the good feeling that stays with a hiker who, when she gets up to speak in a land-use meeting two years from now, remembers a trail rider lending her a map and sharing some water when she was lost.

This article originally appeared in the September 1997 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For information on efforts to preserve horse communities and trail networks in Half Moon Bay, Calif., see the "You Can Do It!" column in the September 2003 issue.