You Can Build a Horse Trail

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Don't want to buy a trailer to go places? Do you prefer to ride close to your home or maybe you would like to connect to a local trail system?

Many owners of horse properties intend to construct horse trails on their own land or want to connect with a private or public trail system. Others want to help maintain trails they often ride in their communities. Here, we will point out trail construction, repair and preservation ideas that will make maintenance of that trail easier for years to come, while protecting the habitats that riders enjoy.


Where to Begin?

Start by thinking about what kind of trail you would like. Not all people are looking for the same difficulty on a trail system, just as some people are thrilled by the bunny slope when skiing and others look for the black diamond. A variety of difficulty in obstacles, speed, jumps, slope and length of trails will make the trail fun for everyone, and you should post maps and/or signs telling riders when to expect difficulty.

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Winter is probably the easiest time of year to develop new trails simply because you can see through the woods better with the leaves down. But summer seems to be the season when most people are enthusiastic about starting these projects.

You'll find that time spent marking a possible trail with surveyor tape and walking it on foot, then on horseback, will save you hours of work and frustration later in the process. But be cautious. Use gloves and look out for the creatures such as scorpions, snakes and black widow spiders that live in the woods and around fallen obstacles. Most will move away if given the chance and deserve to remain in their forest homes.

Drink plenty of water while you are out there on foot, and always carry a cell phone for emergencies.

Questions to Ask Yourself
Short loop, or a long connector?
Loop trails allow riders to pick their preferred ride based on available time and difficulty. Can there be different lengths of trails that intertwine? Trails in some areas have packed miles of trails into minimal acreage by smart use of the terrain and obstacles.

Single-track or double-track road trails? Most riders prefer single-track trails, which also discourage access by off-road vehicles. These types of trails are easier to build in a short time and require less initial work. However, double-tracks make it easier to remove obstacles and perform maintenance by using an ATV or vehicle to haul in gravel and tools. They also do not get overgrown as quickly.

Trail difficulty? Easy trails should be short, flat and wide. They should also stick to the basic terrain of the area and minimize gradients. Medium trails will be longer and include hills and some obstacles, such as easy water crossings, logs or jumps. Medium trails require some preparation to ensure minimal erosion. Difficult trails will be very long, with many steep hills, deeper or technical water crossings, scary obstacles and lots of jumps and logs. They may wander next to sharp drops, over bridges or along roadsides. Simpler trails that are wider and with minimized slope are great for beginner riders, groups of riders and young horses. The more difficult the trail terrain and length of trail, the more difficult it will be to build and maintain.

Planning Your Happy Trails

  • In planning a trail, consider degrees of difficulty for all rider levels.
  • Mark a potential trail on foot with surveyor tape before trying it on horseback.
  • Trail clearance for a horse and rider should be 10 to 12 feet above the ground.
  • Keep water off the trail whenever possible and minimize the interaction where water and trail must cross.
  • If the trail has an attractive feature, such as a waterfall, design for heavy usage in that area.

Shared or private trail? Private trails should be marked with "No Trespassing" signs to discourage ATVs and public horse and bike use. Public trails may require horses and riders to share trails with bikers and hikers, and design should take all those users into mind. There are many legal concerns for trails, such as suggesting helmets for all trail riders.

On public and some private lands, the trail leadership must work with the land managers to improve designs of trails, make changes in the trails and build new trailheads that will spread out the exploitation of the trails to be more even. It is important to ensure that your volunteer efforts are coordinated with the land managers of that trail property, or you may find that your efforts are illegal. State or federally owned properties often require memorandums of agreement between their volunteers or saddle clubs for legal protection of the trails. Alternatively, all government-owned and some privately owned properties have strict regulations to prevent new trail mileage from being made without environmental assessment or design.

Emphasis on local features? Is there a waterfall, nice meadow, running stream or river, cave, rock outcrop or other terrain benefit that should be featured? Is there an old school, house foundation or special place of historical importance to share? Riders enjoy seeing nature's splendor and local color, so the trail should make every effort to allow them to enjoy these. Keep in mind that at different times of the year there will be changes in the flora and fauna on the trail, so try to accentuate those natural events.

Equipment for Fixing Trail Obstacles

  • Wire saw (rolls up into package) for cutting trees up to 10" in diameter.
  • Foldable saw for cutting branches up to 3" in diameter.
  • Garden hand clippers for cutting small branches up to 1" in diameter.
  • Sheathed machete for cutting vines and small brush. (Never attempt to use the machete from the back of the horse.)
  • Gloves.
  • Length of rope to pull logs out of the path.

Note: Some obstacles cannot be solved with simple hand tools. Chainsaws, axes and hoes are best brought in on foot, as they may scare horses or a sharp blade may hurt someone.

Tips for Clearing Trails
Trails for a horseback rider's height should be cleared up to 10-12 feet high. Many times, this is difficult to do from the ground and may require a rider with clippers to trim the remaining branches. Trim bushes and branches back so that sunlight can get to the wetter areas and dry them out faster. Most trails need to be "groomed" at least yearly to prevent overhanging boughs and limbs that can knock a rider off a horse. Accentuate your original trail-marking tape with more tape to make sure you stay on the trail until it becomes established, or if fallen leaves or snow dims the trail.

After you trim the branches or cut larger branches and obstacles, use them to line the sides of the trail, particularly the lower side. This will help hold the trail's soil. Most single-track trails are only approximately 1 foot wide, so all those hooves are striking a very small surface area and can cause erosion (the geologic processes of picking up soil and moving it, usually downhill).

The best trails are designed to support the number one rule of trail maintenance: Keep the water off the trail. Trails should also be made to follow the terrain contours, to minimize going straight up or down hills. They should also make use of soil types and natural features for an interesting and safe trail. Keep the trail away from naturally muddy or low spots, and at least 20 to 40 feet away from riparian areas (the plants next to watercourses). Preventing a mud problem is easier than solving it.

The second rule of trail maintenance is if the water has to cross the trail, or the trail crosses water, minimize the interaction between the water and the trail. This might require a culvert, a small bridge, or flagging a river crossing so that the riders will go across in a straight line. Even sandy soils and desert trails can still have water-erosion problems if poorly designed. Use water bars to get the water off the trail, or use gravel to stabilize the soil. (Water bars are small trenches that help the water run downhill and help prevent erosion over a larger area.)

What Can Your Saddle Club Do?

Any riding group you belong to can make a big difference in preserving trails. Try sponsoring a local horse trail, volunteering to keep that system clean of trash, donating time and materials to correct trail issues such as erosion, erecting road crossing signs and warnings, and building signage for the trails so that users don't get lost.

Perhaps someone in your group could develop maps of the trails for everyone to use, and include notes about the wildlife, history and terrain features of interest to riders.

Participate in National Trails Day with your club, and consider joining other trail organizations with non-horse trail users, such as bikers, hikers and hunters.

Aim for volunteers to form a crisis team of people trained to use chainsaws and heavy hand tools that can be on call if bad weather (tornado, microburst, ice, hurricane, thunderstorm) knocks down trees and branches to block the trails.

Ride for Positive Trail Effect
When you ride, stay on the trails. New trail mileage is often made by irresponsible users making short cuts between existing trails. If you see illegitimate trails being started, try to find a way to block the new trail on both ends - using natural materials such as logs, branches or rocks. Use signs, if necessary, to inform users that this is "illegal" and degrades the trail system.

Carry small saws and clippers to clip bushes and trees that obstruct the trail at horse-rider height (10 to 12 feet in the air above the trail). If you see branches or other small, movable obstacles on the trail, dismount and cooperate to move them off the trail, making it safer for the next rider. Horse riders are notorious for not wanting to stop their ride and get off to do anything, but it is an excellent patience exercise for your horse, too.

When a group of riders is fording rivers or crossing large creeks, attempt to stay in a straight line across to the trail on the other bank. Allowing horses to make alternate trails causes increased erosion and frustration by the land managers for the property. Only enter the water in designated areas. These are more likely to have a safer footing for the horses and minimize erosion and damage to the riparian border of the stream or lake.

Do not tie your horse to trees. Learn to tie a high line with loops or rings attached to the line to keep the horses away from the trees. Horses will eat the bark, eventually killing the trees in the area. This gives other users a legitimate complaint that in heavy usage areas where riders stop to eat their picnic lunch or view a terrain feature there is obvious destruction of trees and compaction of the trail soil.

Teach your horses to go through the mud, instead of climbing the banks around the mud, which will unnecessarily widen the trail. Report a mud problem to the land manager so that the water can be diverted off the trail with a French drain system, a culvert, gravel or a water bar.

If you come upon an obstacle completely blocking the trail, remember that making new trails around the obstacle will continue to degrade the trail. Can you get off and remove the obstacle? If not, pick a safe trail around the obstacle and flag it for other riders to follow. Report the obstacle for efficient removal by crisis teams.

Considerations for Maintenance
What amenities might you add to a trail to make it survive into the next century and make it really special? Great ideas include well-built or even covered bridges over deep water crossings; French gravel drains and drainpipes under muddy spots in the trail; interpretive maps of historical, biological and terrain features; safe and inviting trail obstacles such as jumps, creek crossings and even beaches at a pond for swimming (horse and rider).

If you need to increase the access to trails, consider opening new access parking areas instead of expanding the original trailhead. This will encourage people to spread the use of the trails to the entire trail system, instead of overwhelming the trails close to the trailhead.

If the trail includes a waterfall, lake or other terrain feature that will attract people, it must be designed for heavy utilization around that attraction. Some trails actually require registration to limit or control the number of users in that manner, and many private trails will require a fee to be a member and ride those trails. Trails in mountainous areas or on highly erosive soils should not be ridden during heavy rain periods of the year.

Manure is an aspect of trail maintenance that all trail riders must consider. Although a horse's organic, fiber-based manure will rot quickly out on the trail, wherever collections of animals occur (trailheads, picnic stops, waterfalls and other terrain features of interest) there may be piles of manure and puddles of urine in the parking lot or at the tie-up area. Smelly piles of manure (with resulting flies) are not attractive to other users who share the trail with you.

Can a manure fork be used to throw all the manure into the grass or tree line? Can someone pour a bucket of water on the puddles of urine to dilute it? Simple solutions like these make better relationships with other users by showing your concern.

Bridges, major construction projects, signage and correct construction of trail mileage takes quite a bit of money. Resources and ideas can be found on the Internet, and you can increase donations by involving other sharers and user groups. All of you can work together on fund-raising, volunteer workdays and construction projects.

Constructing a new trail is a healthy, fun activity that all trail riders should participate in with their saddle clubs or on their own. It will give you a new and great appreciation for the hard work and design that went into the good trails that you ride regularly, and will provide a wider variety of interesting places to ride your horse.