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The Valley’s beautiful desert trails are appealing not only to bicyclists and hikers, but also to many equestrian users. Learn the ABCs of safely sharing the trail.

The ABCs for safely sharing the trail with a horse and rider

Safety, Active Transportation

Julie Ducharme and her daughter Lauren navigate the trail at the Scottsdale Sonoran McDowell Preserve. The Valley’s beautiful desert trails are appealing not only to bicyclists and hikers, but also to many equestrian users. With more than 1,600 miles of multiuse trails and paths in the Maricopa region, it is important for all users to know how to safely share the trail.

Every horse has a different level of trail experience. Some are veterans, others are green as grass, but any horse can be unpredictable, especially if exposed to a new situation. As prey animals, horses may spook at things that move and make a noise. Their instinct is to run away to escape the “predator.” This sudden flight can be very dangerous for the rider, who may fall as a result of the horse’s abrupt movement, resulting in serious injury or even death.

Here are a few simple tips that may keep both animals and humans safe and allow everyone to enjoy their trail experience.

Approach horses carefully. Always let the rider know you are there, especially when you approach from behind. Clopping hooves and squeaky saddles can make it difficult for the rider to hear quiet bikes or hiker footfalls. Simply calling out “Bike behind you,” or “Can I pass?” will let both the horse and rider know you are there and prevent the horse from being startled. Bike bells also work. Sometimes joggers or cyclists will come up quietly on the horse’s tail because they are afraid if they call out they will spook the horse, but voice warnings are preferable to being surprised by the sudden appearance of a person or bike. Bicyclists also should ask if they need to dismount and walk their bike past the rider (especially on narrow trails where they need to pass in close quarters). The rider will likely let you know if you can pass by without dismounting.

Be patient. The equestrian is just as interested as you are in sharing the trail and passing safely, but on narrower trails it can be difficult for them to find a space that is wide enough to pull off the trail. Usually, an opportunity will present itself within a short distance. Wait until the rider is completely off the trail and signals they are ready for you to pass.

Comply with the rules of the trail. Most designated trails will have a sign at the entrance noting that bicyclists and pedestrians both yield to horses. In other words, horses always have the right of way, although often the rider will move the horse off the path if a bicyclist or hiker is coming toward them to enable them to pass if it is safe to do so.

Horseback riders passing a hiker on the trail.Dogs can be dangerous. Just as horses can be unpredictable, so can dogs. Dogs must always be on a leash on trails. While you may think your dog is well trained, you may not know how it will react when it sees a horse. Even if your dog is familiar with horses, remember that not all horses are familiar with dogs — in fact, horses can be quite terrified as they see dogs as predators. The horse may kick or strike out in defense. There are many tragic examples of serious injuries to the horses, dogs and riders as a result of these encounters.

Enjoy the experience. Horses are a longstanding fixture of the West, and most riders are happy to promote understanding of their equine companions and the unique relationship that exists between human and horse. Many riders also serve as trail stewards and carry extra water or supplies for trail emergencies. If you need help, ask.

Finally, many trail users ask why riders aren’t asked to clean up their manure while dog owners must clean up after their pets. Mounting and dismounting on the trail can be dangerous for the rider and creates a safety hazard. Also, horses usually eat natural foods like grass and grain, allowing their waste to quickly break down and biodegrade. Their feed also is free of the chemicals that are consumed by dogs in dog food, which prevents dog waste from readily breaking down.

Thanks for sharing the road, and happy trails!

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Published October 1, 2021