The most common reason that private landowners refuse permission for riders (and others) to use their land? Liability: the chance the owner could be found at fault-and financially responsible-if a rider is injured on the property.
Most states now have "recreational use" laws protecting owners who allow recreational activities (including riding) on undeveloped land, providing the land is open to the public (not just to a selected group) and no fee is charged. Some states also have equine limited-liability laws under circumstances specific to the horse industry. To see whether your state has such statutes and what their provisions are, contact your state Horse Council (findable through the American Horse Council-phone 202-296-4031; Website www.horsecouncil.org).
However, limited-liability laws still leave enough holes in the safety net to make litigation-conscious owners leery of opening trails, says California attorney Sandy Tozzini, and equine-law specialist who edits the bimonthly Horse Law News. First, she points out, laws vary from state to state, and state courts' interpretations add another layer of uncertainty. Second: "Some laws say a landowner remains responsible for any malicious conduct, or for failure to warn if he has actual knowledge of a dangerous condition for use." Third: "The fact that a statute gives immunity from liability for recreational use doesn't mean people can't sue you. Who wants to go through litigation to make a point?"
Some trail organizations try to shift the liability burden from landowners to themselves. Essex County (Massachusetts) Trail Association spends several thousand dollars a year on insurance, in hopes that any lawsuits by participating riders will name the association, not landowners on whose property trails are located. Rides sanctioned by Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association (ECTRA) often combine public and private trails to achieve routes of 25 miles or more. Ride managers such as Robby Vizard, who needs twenty landowners' permission to run her 30-mile Roundtop Rally in western Pennsylvania, can allay those owners' fears with ECTRA liability insurance covering participants for the day of the ride.
For casual trail riders, however, the liability question is a shadow hanging over access to private trails. Riders can bolster property owners' willingness to tolerate their use of trails by observing common rules of safety and courtesy, and by wearing safe riding clothing, especially ASTM-approved helmets.
Editor's note: The information above is not intended to render a legal or other professional service. If you require legal advice or other expert assistance, please seek the services of a competent professional.
This article first appeared in the March 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine.