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A Story that Leads to Trails


Trail riding credit Caledonia Conservancy

Photo credit: Caledonia Conservancy

Martha and Steve purchased a 430 acre farm in the rural, mid-western county where Steve had grown up. Raised on a crop and cattle farm, Steve’s family owned several horses. Most of these horses had inexplicably found their way to the farm and lived out their days ferrying Steve and his three siblings, with baling twine bridles and bareback, to various points of interest on the farm. Riding stuck with Steve as a favorite pastime.

The family farm, located close to the burgeoning county seat, had been sold several years back and developed into subdivisions, professional offices and shopping centers. So when Steve returned to the area to live as an adult, with a job that required long hours, he kept his single horse at a local stable, riding when he could.

He met Martha, a trainer at a large show stable, on a weekend camping and trail riding trip. The two were soon married. They quickly discovered that they each had the same secret dream – to have their own horse farm, where they could train horses, give lessons and offer trail rides to budding equestrians.

As a first and major step in fulfilling their dream, Steve and Martha purchased a slightly run-down farm that had been on the market for three years. The sturdy old barn, small comfortable house and extensive woodlands would make an ideal place for them to start their own horse business. They refurbished the barn and house, built lesson rings and a gravel parking lot.

The farm was near a county park with some horse trails that, at one time, extended through the farm. The couple mowed pathways and cut low branches, and the trail system quickly become the most popular and enjoyable part of the operation. They found that there was a real desire on the part of outside riders to connect to other trail segments through their land. The couple saw that an extensive trail system could be the real draw to their horse business. They needed to expand the trail system on their own land and reconnect to the county park trail system, but they had used all of their financial resources to accomplish the repairs and upgrades to date.

How, they wondered, could they fund additional trails on their private land?

Why are equestrian trails on private lands important?

While there are no formal statistics on the actual miles of trails lost for equestrian use each year, the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming.  Trails near population centers are the most threatened.

In general, as land is developed, existing trails are harder to hang onto. Trails that are located in near residential areas are very important to equestrians. Driving long distances on a regular basis to care for and ride their horses is very discouraging to equestrians, and it becomes more difficult for new and young riders to access and enjoy riding and the equine environment.

Trails on public lands are under increasing pressure as types and numbers of users increase. In addition, public land managers have fewer resources for trail building and maintenance. In some areas equestrians are banned from trails under the usually mistaken impression that they harm sensitive ecological areas by churning up trail surfaces, leaving manure and spreading invasive seeds and plant diseases. Research has largely shown this to be inaccurate, but this perception adds to the battle to keep public trails open to horse use. In fact, trail systems can provide the habitat linkages that are often lost when development splits these areas apart.

The relationship between public and private lands is rapidly growing more important for recreational needs, especially trails. Linking trails on limited public lands through private land corridors is essential to maintaining the connectivity that is important to the riding experience. If two public land areas have trails but there is no way to get from one to the other, the trail experience is reduced.

Connected private and public land trails can provide links to destinations such as campgrounds, public parks and historical elements, and adjacent communities.

What are the risks of allowing public access to my land?

Liability is the first thought that comes to mind for landowners. To reduce liability risk for public access to their trails, owners must monitor the use and condition of their trails, paying attention to surfaces, bridges and other built elements. They need to carry out maintenance chores, and make improvements as needed. A landowner must monitor their livestock, crop areas and any habitat and sensitive lands and waterways on their property.

An additional risk is potential loss of privacy. If trails are too close to the home and are not buffered from the home, the perception of living in a fishbowl may interfere with the owner’s quality of life.

How can risks be reduced or eliminated?

Landowners need to understand their state recreational laws and equine liability laws. Even with the protection these laws afford, landowners should still procure good liability insurance coverage.

In addition to monitoring trail conditions, landowners may limit access to members of riding clubs, with whom they have agreements for behavior. Those behavior rules should be visibly posted at each end of the trail and as needed along the trail. They should require liability waiver agreements and work with riding clubs to secure volunteer trail maintenance commitments.

How can I fund the building and improvement of trails on my land?

The funding available for public trails is generally not available directly to the private land owner to design and build trails. However, there are many other possibilities to look into.


volunteers for trail maintenance credit Central Kentucky Back Country Horse

Volunteers for trail maintenance. Photo credit: Central Kentucky Back Country

One source of funding, donated materials and volunteer labor is through the establishment of partnerships. These might include:

  • Private partnerships with riding clubs and equestrian associations
  • Partnerships with corporate and community sponsors such as civic clubs, etc.
  • Partnerships with community agencies, especially municipal or county parks agencies,
  • Partnering with municipalities and utility companies to piggy-back trails with utility or green infrastructure projects that may run through your land.
  • Partnering with or applying to local or regional water conservation agencies for funds or grants, or to piggy-back trail projects as part of an overall pollution prevention and treatment project. You may be able to trade certain stormwater best management practice mechanisms on your property that can be used to improve the local watershed’s stormwater quality for inclusion of a trail on the project land.

Government Agencies

Work with federal and state government agencies to take advantage of the resources that are available to provide public recreational, environmental and tourism opportunities to the American people.

For example, if your private land can be connected to or provide a link along trail systems on public land, your trails may be eligible for funding programs. Again, the key is for your trail to be integral to a public land trail or trail system, and having an easement that allows for public use of the trail is paramount.

Can your trail be designated as part of a National Recreational Trail (NRTP)? While the program does not offer direct funding for private trails, the advantage of NRTP designation can establish your trail as an important recreational and economic element for your community, which may help you secure funding from your local parks authority or regional park system.

Fundraising Activities

You may be able to partner with local clubs and agencies to hold fundraising activities. Check to see if you or your partnering groups need to have non-profit status to avoid tax issues.

Loans and Grants

Grants may be available from your state recreational and tourism agencies, especially through agritourism or adventure tourism programs, if active in your state. For example, New Hampshire’s Parks and Recreation Department, through its Bureau of Trails, provides guidance and financial support to private groups and public agencies for a variety of trail projects and issues.

Check with your community, county and state trails organizations or foundations to see if there is a loan and assistance program for trail businesses. These loans will usually be low interest and have certain environmental, public recreational access and other requirements.

Leasing Agreements

Lease agreements, in relation to recreational uses, are formal contracts between the private landowner (a person, corporation, utility, etc.), a state or federal agency, and/or a local agency or club, acting as the tenant. The contract spells out the terms of the agreement, including the time period of the lease; tenant, owner and agency responsibilities for finances, liability and maintenance; acceptable uses and user behavior; and owner rights. A lease agreement may or may not result in fees paid to the landowner. Here is an example of how a leasing agreement can work to fund horse trails:

A private landowner could potentially fund trail maintenance and/or development with fees provided for in a formal lease agreement, which would also include liability insurance. A trail riding club might form a corporation or non-profit to secure the lease, as the tenant, if there is no government agency involved. The cost of the lease is would be determined through negotiation and local equine related businesses could be approached about funding the initial lease year. Other businesses or individuals may want to donate either the insurance coverage or a portion of the lease, receiving recognition by trail users and user groups for their support.

Equestrians can learn from other trail user groups such as IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) and NOHVCC (National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council), which are well organized, well-funded and work diligently with communities and government agencies to advance their interests. This example scenario, developed for Off Highway Vehicle activity trails could be developed in a similar manner – to fund equestrian trails as part of an overall public trail system – on private lands:

North Dakota recently utilized a trail lease program to acquire private land easements for a legal OHV trail system within the Pembina Gorge Recreation Area, augmenting Federal Highway Administration funds granted to North Dakota Parks and Recreation to develop the trail system on public lands. Payment to landowners is based on miles of trail.

And another gain for equestrians: Non-motorized hiking, biking and equestrian recreation became a beneficiary of the program when ND Parks received a grant to improve existing trails and provide trailhead amenities in the Recreation Area’s Tetrault Woods State Forest, accommodating equestrians in the process. North Dakota Parks & Recreation, Forest Service and Game & Fish Department, along with private landowners collaborated to reduce damage to private land by illegal OHV activity and give OHVs a place to legally ride.

Placing Conservation Easements

Placing a conservation easement on your property requires careful consideration, legal advice and documentation and involves donating or selling the development rights to your property. Conservation easements usually cover all or a large portion of the property, not just the trails on the property.  Once established, the easement is held by a land trust or governmental agency in perpetuity.

Donated easements may have tax advantages that would free up dollars to help fund your trails or other improvements that will help your equine business to advance. Selling development rights through Purchase of Development Rights (PDR) programs generates cash which could be used to fund the design and building of your trails. In addition, federal or state funding may be available through the land trust to protect and preserve ecologically, historically or culturally important areas, which could include the development of trails for access and maintenance.

Reaping the Benefits of Your Land-Based Business

Setting up a trail riding concession or charging equestrians to access your trails can generate funding for your trails and your farm-based business.  Operating your trails as a business opens many revenue-generating opportunities, including hosting judged trail rides, providing trail-related services like camping, offering nature walks or historical tours as appropriate to your property, and hosting special trail events for equestrian groups.  All of these activities will help to raise trail building and maintenance funds and help you to form partnerships.

Consult a liability specialist to make sure that you are appropriately covered for paying activities.

Trail volunteers credit Deb Balliet smaller

Trail volunteers. Photo credit: Deb Balliet


Don’t forget that one of your best resources for building and maintaining trails is through volunteer hours provided by the riding club members that will utilize your trail. If you allow biking or other use, those groups may also participate. Back Country Horsemen of America and their local and state chapters are well known for providing trained, committed volunteers to build and maintain trails.

An Ongoing Story

Steve and Martha have made progress with their trail refurbishment and expansion. They contacted local riding groups and clubs, who agreed to a series of volunteer work days, and a relationship between a club member and a local gravel yard resulted in several loads of drainage gravel to improve low lying trails.

The couple worked with the club membership, and a liability waiver system was set up. Trail entrances were signposted for club members only, giving contact numbers for the riding club and owner, inviting ‘newbies’ to join, or signing up with the owners for a guided trail ride.

In the near future, they will contact the county parks department to pursue assistance with trail design and creating connections to the park trail system. They are also considering a conservation easement for the entire farm and have contacted the county planning department and a local land trust to that end.


Interesting Reading:
Developing Trails and Tourism on Private Lands in Texas (PDF)


Local Agencies:
Your community’s Planning and Zoning Department or Council
Your community’s Mayor’s office
Your County or Township Judge Executive’s office
Your County Parks and Recreation Department

State Agencies:
Department of Recreation/Tourism
Department of Parks
Trails Bureau or Department
Heritage Bureau or Department
State Department of Natural Resources (DNR)
State Community Affairs or Financial Assistance office

Federal Agencies:
USDA Forest Service
US Army Corps of Engineers
US Fish & Wildlife Service
National Park Service – Rivers, Trails and Conservation Assistance Program (NPS-RTCA)
Rivers, Trails and Conservation Programs
Bureau of Land Management

Associated Recreation and Trails Organizations:
Back Country Horsemen of America and BCHA’s state/local chapters
IMBA – International Mountain Biking Association
NOHVCC – National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council
ROHVA – Recreational Off Highway Vehicle Association
Rails to Trails Conservancy
SORP – Society of Outdoor Recreational Professionals
Professional Trail Builders Association
National Trails Training Partnership