A riding trail designed and built with an eye toward environmental and social sustainability allows riders to explore beautiful landscapes with minimal impact. Conversely, a poorly built trail or one that was simply created through unplanned user activity can lead to a lackluster experience. A bad trail is not only unpleasant, it can be downright dangerous.
The purpose of a sustainable trail is to provide users a way to access natural areas on a defined path that is resistant to erosion and causes minimal damage to the environment.
Water is the primary cause of erosion on trails, summarized neatly by trail building professional, Mike Riter: “Water always wins; the trick is in not letting it play the game.” Many trail building techniques have been developed to minimize the impact of water on the trail.
A sustainable trail does not follow the fall line (the steepest route of descent down a hill), but rather goes with the contour of the land. This keeps water off the trail and minimizes erosion. It is relatively easy to route a trail in the lowest elevation area of a particular landform. However, this is where water will naturally pool and the trail will remain wet and unusable for long periods after a rain event. Whenever possible, design and build trail on a side slope.
If damp ground must be crossed, hardening the surface or raising the trail tread above the ground will make the trail last longer. Several rock armoring techniques can be found at www.imba.com/resources. If bridges are necessary, design and construction for horses require special consideration including load, approach and tread surface. Bridge load limits are a critical factor as the weight and way of travel by horses is far more significant than pedestrian or other trail users.
Natural Paths Not Always Ideal
Native animals will often wear a path traveling from food to water to shelter, but this should not be considered a “trail” for horse and human recreational use. Usually game trails run too steeply down the fall line, so a more sustainable route should be chosen.
It can be human nature to want to follow the path of least resistance when building a new trail. Plotting the new trail where the brush and thorns are the thinnest does not constitute good trail building design and planning. It is important to build the trail with the contour of the land and with the use of a clinometer to determine the appropriate location for the trail based on the slope of the land.
Doing the hard, time-consuming work right from the beginning of the trail project pays off with less maintenance in the future. Proper construction greatly reduces the need to continually repair and maintain trails, which allows you to spend more time riding. The adage, “Do it right the first time” applies to trail building as well.
Even the best built trails need periodic maintenance. Once a season, or as needed, trim back branches and vegetation that encroaches on the travelled space and remove fallen trees to encourage riders to stay on the designated trail. For the health of the trees and shrubs, it is important to trim limbs properly. Tree branches should be cut back to the next main juncture, all the way to the trunk if necessary. Do not allow stray branches to “poke” into the trail, as these can cause serious injury to the horse or rider. The recommended clearance height for horse trails is 10-12 feet of vertical or overhead clearance.
If puddles form on the trail, corrective action is needed. Cutting a small channel in the dirt is ineffective as doing so will simply fill in the channel with silt and eliminate the intended effect. Instead, install a wide, shallow drain (called a knick) and/or a rolling grade dip (RGD). A knick the same size as the puddle will keep the area drained in the future. The RGD is a modern and more sustainable alternative to the water bar. On an older trail that is too steep, installing an RGD forces water off the trail by creating a raised mound of dirt immediately downhill of a knick.
Proper Use by Trail Riders
To extend the life of a sustainably built trail and to reduce the need for trail maintenance, follow this simple rule: don’t use trails when they are wet and muddy! Riding wet trails causes significant damage because it greatly magnifies the erosion process. Additionally, “post holes” that are left behind by hooves can also harden over time and lead to trip hazards for horses.
Failure to follow this rule and lack of funds for maintenance is what often forces public land managers to close trails to equestrian use.
To help keep horse trails open:
- ride on trails designated for horses
- stay off trails when wet
- assist the land owner/manager by participating in sustainable trail planning, building and maintenance activities
Your participation in the sustainable trail activities will help create a win-win situation for all equestrian trail users and the landowners and agencies on whose trails we ride.
Susan Stormer, founder of S&S Trail Services, LLC (sstrails.com) is an avid mountain biker and equestrian. Deb Balliet is CEO of the Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org).