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Maintaining and Acquiring Horseback Access to Public Land, Trails and Facilities

By Denise Y. O’Meara, RLA | May, 2015

In the upstate areas of the New York City watershed, equestrians are losing access to trails on land newly acquired by the water authority. Often, the trail segments lost to use provide connections that can’t be replicated by detours as they cross long stretches of land. The New York State Horse Council is taking steps to understand why these trails have been closed to horses, and what they can do to regain access.

Publicly owned open space, lengthy trail corridors and a variety of landscapes create the backbone of our riding and driving needs. Managing public agencies range from municipal parks and woodlands, to state parks and natural resource areas, to federal parks and the vast natural resource zones. Ownership and management of these lands may also be jointly undertaken between multiple agencies.

A What to Do Guide

No horses allowed on trail

Photo Courtesy of National Park Planner,

Get to Know Public Land Policies through the Agency Land Manager

If you are riding on public land, you should know not only the government agency or agencies involved, but their rules and regulations, their planning and decision-making processes and schedules, and the specific land managers for your region.

Keeping up with changes in access and other policies is a continual task, but one that must not be overlooked. When government agencies create policies that are unfriendly to horses, it is critical to gain an understanding of why these changes came about. To do that, horsemen and women need to develop lines of communication with public land managers.

Create an Organization or Club

Riding clubs and organizations can be of great value in creating public land manager relationships and in providing conduits for communication:

  • Establish a relationship with the public land agency’s local land manager. Find out what the equine use regulations are and what current access policies are.
  • Participate in policy and land use planning processes, including public input periods and direct meetings with land management staff;
  • Establish rules for riding in keeping with the agency’s regulations and rules. These may include:
    • Where you may park and camp
    • Where you may ride, as well as restricted areas
    • Trail behavior rules – carry in/carry out; safety considerations; weather/surface conditions; trail days/hours; etc.;
    • Acceptable feeds;
    • Rules for safety, parking, equipment storage; horse health rules and requirements, etc.
  • Maintenance budgets are low. Participate in maintenance activities with your group or with local chapters of Back Country Horsemen, International Mountain Bicycling Association and other user group organizations.

Build Your Knowledge Base to Educate Decision Makers

Learn about the basic issues that land managers must deal with regarding equine access. There may be concerns about water pollution from horse manure, soil loss through horse traffic, carrying in of invasive weed seeds, lack of maintenance due to low budgets, disturbance of wildlife, etc.

Once you know what the issues are, you can find information on scientific studies that alleviate concerns about manure, seed carrying etc.

Promote the use of public lands for equine access by informing decision makers about the economic benefits of equine and other user recreation in your area. Always be well-informed and considerate in your communications!

Important Connections and Actions

Local Agencies – Counties and Towns may be contacted through their planning departments or their parks and recreation departments. These will be listed on the public websites.

  • Learn about comprehensive and other plans that affect access.
  • Build relationships with and educate your public land managers and planning decision makers.
  • Provide your group’s input during the planning process.
Kentucky Horse Park entrance

Photo courtesy of Doug Prather

State Agencies – Your state Parks and Recreation department is a good place to start. Other governmental divisions oversee agricultural, historic, natural resource and other land uses that are state directed, or that may be jointly directed with federal agencies.

  • Learn about the agencies, their needs, regulations and laws about land access.
  • Build relationships with the agencies through the land managers.
  • Provide input at the legislative level –land use and access laws.
  • Utilize your organization’s strength in numbers and lobbyists when needed.
  • Give your input at the planning level.
  • Educate yourself to educate land managers and decision makers about your equine access needs and facts about equine use.

Federal Agencies – Many of these have local, regional and state offices, and include:

  • Learn about the agencies and their policies, regulations and national interests.
  • Build relationships with agency land managers. Volunteer for maintenance activities.
  • Participate in planning input periods as agencies plan for land use changes.