Open Letter to Mountain Bikers

The recent opinion piece in High Country News sparked a viral amount of dialogue on that magazine’s site and on other platforms that picked up the piece, like Adventure Journal. It begged a follow-up on improving understanding for all who use multi-use trails.

yield-trail-sign-tempeBelieve it or not, bikers and hikers must yield to horse riders on many trails. This rule isn’t some snooty, “we were here first” deal. It’s just common sense. It’s much easier for hikers and bikers to yield to horses than the other way around.

Horses are prey animals. Bikes approach like predators, quickly and silently. Even the best-trained horses can spook, bolt, or jump sideways when they encounter bikers or hikers with big packs.
The results can be harmful to all. Think of a moose-vehicle collision. Now, take away the vehicle.

To avoid collisions and flared tempers, take these simple steps:

Download a pdf and share it with your local bike shop.

•    Announce yourself: Once you see horse and rider, let them know you’re approaching as soon as you can. No yelling necessary, just a friendly “Hey, how are you?” will do.
•    Slow down or stop: Ask the rider if she’d like you to stop and step off or if slowing down and passing is okay.

•    Keep talking: Being friendly and communicative isn’t just nice manners, it lets the horse know you are a person, not a predator.

•    Anticipate around corners: Avoid tearing around blind angles. There could be large, dangerous animals around the bend! If you can’t slow down, make noise to alert possible trail riders.

•    Take the low road: If you’re on a grade and are trying to move past a horse rider, take the downhill side.

trail-clipart-TRAIL6Horse riders are not victims here. Nor are they guilt-free when it comes to trail conflict. Let’s recognize our contributions to the problem:

  • Be a polite advocate. As we noticed in the comments on Adventure Journal, mountain bikers have plenty of stories of rude, entitled horse riders. Don’t be one of them!
  • If it’s been rainy, stay off trails where horses can do serious damage. It can take a long time to renew and repair trails that have been trashed when horses move up and down them in wet conditions.
  • Got a horse who’s spooky around bikes? Practice. Expose your horse to bikes in a more predictable environment. Make it a positive experience.
  • Assume the worst. Don’t put yourself or your horse in a position where things can go sideways. If you see or know of mountain bike presence, set yourself up for a safe encounter. If this means hustling off the trail, so be it.

Have fun sharing the trail!

The Case for Cowboys

Not everyone thinks cowboys are the pillars of good horsemanship. In some quarters, they have a historical reputation of neglectful, even abusive handling and care.

12356830_10153722668739266_5116921407129544647_oBut as an observer of several years, I can testify to the contrary. Indeed, on average, I’ve seen better care out here in the West than I have in New England. (My status as proud Maine native notwithstanding.)


As Elijah Moore, a Utah horseman who’s lived in Maine for 30 years, told me once: folks in the East love their horses to death.

  • Owners like to put them in stalls.
  • They like to blanket them and give them grain.
  • They like to separate them into individual quarters.

These are all management and care decisions that go against “what nature intended.” The strategies also go against what current research tells us is best. Martin Black and Dr. Steve Peters, co-authors of Evidence-Based Horsemanship, will discuss best practices at their November IMG_3360seminar.

There are, of course, plenty of New Englanders who keep their horses simply and naturally. But I’ve found those owners almost apologetic that their routine is so low maintenance. One Maine acquaintance called her care “affectionate neglect,” as if her neighbors thought spending more time and money would necessarily be better for horses.

There is no apology here:

  • Most horses live in pastures with their buddies.
  • They eat hay, grass, and little else.
  • They have access to water, a salt block, and (sometimes but not always) shelter.

They seem content and look healthy.

There’s also something to be said for the life of a working horse and the mentality of a working cowboy.

I had the privilege of helping move cattle several times this summer. I experienced first hand what every clinician tells me: jobs can benefit the horse and rider partnership tremendously. Indeed, side-passing, galloping, long trotting, quick starts and stops all came more easily when the focus was on something else.

Tom Weaver

Tom Weaver

Cow work demands mindfulness and an ability to adjust to what each situation brings you. Last weekend, I headed out with my friend, Tom, to move about fifty head. He said, “I don’t have a plan.”

Tom did have a plan, of course, but what he expressed was the need to make spontaneous choices and changes depending on the cows, the road traffic, and whatever else came up.

Being in the moment is an essential aspect of successful horsemanship. Just ask WiseAssWallace.

I chatted with Peters and Black about it. Coincidentally, Peters had just reviewed research for his day job as a neuropsychologist for Intermountain Healthcare. He said humans generally take one of three approaches to accomplish a task:

  • They’re on automatic pilot. (Just going through the motions.)
  • They follow a rules-based approach (Do A, then B.)
  • They use a knowledge-based approach, requiring awareness and flexibility. It’s a problem-solving mode that can adapt to novel situations.

Not surprisingly, he said, the greatest number of hospital errors occurs with a rules-based approach. Black said he sees the same pattern with horsemanship successes and failures.

My friend, Tom? He clearly uses the knowledge-based approach.

To Master Horsemanship, Stay in the Flow

shelleyThanks to Shelley Appleton for this guest blog post.

Appleton is a lecturer at the School of Pharmacy at Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, a dressage rider, and horse training coach.

Read her article on Emotion and Intellect in horsemanship.

Read her article on successful horsemanship learners.

She writes:

Have you ever wondered why you ride horses?

It’s time-consuming, difficult, expensive, and potentially dangerous. Even if we compete, the rewards in most horse sports are of little monetary value, nowhere near the compensation of time and effort. But still we do it!

Why? Most of us will say we “enjoy it.” But it can be stressful in so many ways and for so little obvious reward, that it appears to defy the usual things that people are motivated to invest time and effort in.
We are not being crazy.

shelleyWhen we work with a horse we can enter a curious and fascinating conscious state. We become immersed with an energized focus and we experience the wonderfulness of being alive.

This state in the western world is known as “flow.” Concepts similar to flow have been discussed and written about in eastern religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. They describe states necessary for spiritual development.

Understanding yourself and your human nature can improve your ability to access flow and, correspondingly improve your horse work. We spend so much time focused on horses that we end up neglecting our own skill development, decision-making abilities, and flow consciousness.

So what is flow?

People experiencing flow commonly describe three characteristics:

  • Intense and focused concentration on the present moment where actions and awareness become one and the little voice inside your head, your self-consciousness, self-doubt etc. is silent.
  • A lack of anxiety about losing control. It is thought that this characteristic is one of the reasons why experiencing flow can be so enjoyable and rewarding. Your worries in life are silent.
  • Altered sense of time. When we are in flow, we have little mental processes available to focus on time Typically, time seems to pass quickly.
Shelley Appleton

Shelley Appleton

But how can understanding flow improve our ability to work with horses?

Three key conditions for experiencing flow:

  • Clear goals. Flow tends to occur when we have purpose and direction. This tends to channel our attention so we can structure the experience. Therefore, people need to have a clear understanding of what they are doing, how to do it, and why they are doing it.
  • Balance between the challenge of the activity and one’s skills. Self-doubt and anxiety increases when the challenge exceeds a rider’s skills. Horses may sense the stress or have learned behaviors that increase their difficulty to be handled. Research shows that support and education can keep a person within their “flow zone.”An excellent way of improving skills, for example, is for an instructor to help improve a rider’s ability on the ground and then progress to riding.
  • Feedback. One needs to be able to “see” the horse’s feedback and accurately evaluate it to know whether to maintain or alter their course of action. Again, education and support can help improve one’s ability to see and interpret feedback from the horse.

Ultimately, experiencing flow is about experiencing the sheer enjoyment of being alive and it happens in the space bounded by boredom and anxiety where there is a balance between your skills and the challenge.

Horses and riders struggle for OR respect

Photo by Joshua Hutchins. Used with permission.

Photo by Joshua Hutchins. Used with permission.

The cover of a recent outdoor gear catalog showed two men riding horses. Marvelous, I said to myself. An outdoor recreation company acknowledges horse riders!

Alas, the story inside made no mention of riding. We assume the pretty steeds delivered the men to a remote fishing location in Argentina. But who knows? From a rider’s perspective, the company, Patagonia, was only using the horses as props.

But the incongruity serves to highlight one of my biggest concerns as a horsewoman and a outdoor recreationalist: in the outdoor community – among mountain bikers especially – riders don’t rate. We get no respect on the trail or in the trade. You’re just fine as props, they seem to say.

More respect and understanding in the form of collaboration and trail etiquette would benefit all parties.

Many don't understand the need to yield to horse and rider

Many don’t understand the need to yield to horse and rider

Consider outdoor recreational marketing:

Along with about 27,000 attendees, I’ve been attending the Outdoor Retailer (OR) event in Salt Lake City for years. It’s a major buying event for retailers and a major networking event for everyone else.

I wear cowboy boots and jeans and explain my vantage point:

  • Horse folks are in the wilderness as much as bikers, hikers, runners, and boaters.
  • We are outside, in all elements, getting dirty, and working hard every day, not just on sunny Saturdays.
  • Horse owners tend to be deep-pocketed, conscientious consumers. Compared to your average 20-year old adrenalin junkie, we will spend more and remain more loyal to companies with quality products.
As horse owners, we tend to work outside every day. We're smart and spend good money.

As horse owners, we tend to work outside every day. We’re smart and spend good money.

Mostly, people react with polite courtesy.

After the event, the Outdoor Foundation sends out emails to survey the types of recreationalists attending the OR. There are dozens of activities to check, including skateboarding, bird watching, and car camping. Horse riding is not listed. [number here on riders]

Other outdoor folks write off riders, despite the fact that historically we pioneered the trails and routes that they (hikers, mountain bikers, ATV riders, and runners) now populate.

I visited with the president of a Utah non-profit, dedicated to improving trail systems, especially for mountain bikers. She snorted when I mentioned the need for collaboration with the horse riding community. Horses, she said, were simply hazards and pooping machines.

Mountain bikers can evoke the flight or fight response in horses because they approach quickly and silently, like predators. Bikers, riders, and horses can all get hurt. Think about the car damage a moose can cause. Now, take away the car.

The worst place for mountain bike/horse incidents is in the wilderness surrounding Seattle, said Back Country Horsemen of America executive director, Jim McGarvey.

Typically, he said, young guys hell bent on an adrenalin rush have no horse-smart trail manners. Bikers

If only this sign was REALLY obeyed.

also show disparagement and ignorance in online forums.

“The 28-year old know-it-all’s: they have an attitude that’s kind of bad,” said McGarvey. As the elevation and grade increase, so do biker speed and the potential for dangerous encounters, said McGarvey, whose 174 chapters spent over 300,000 volunteer hours doing trail maintenance on public lands last year.

Education and advocacy have been uphill battles, so to speak. When we see mountain bikers, it’s best to bushwhack off the trail immediately because most lack trail courtesy.

This attitude and practice stands in stark contrast to policy in places like Acadia National Park in Maine where hikers and bikers yield to equestrians.

“Being a back country outfitter requires a certain amount of knowledge and experience. They’re a rare breed,” said Corey Simpson, with a tone of admiration. The Patagonia public relations representative said the cover image was “simply a great shot and not intended as a prop to entice readers.“

Some say we’re a rare and vanishing breed. Three generations ago, everyone had a horse or two. Now, even ranchers and wildlife biologists are swapping them for quads. It’s admittedly hard for young people to jump up in the saddle if they haven’t grown up horse-y. The entry point for committing to a bike is lower, educationally, emotionally, and financially.

Nonetheless, we’re still out there. In three Western states (New Mexico, California, Colorado) surveyed by the Humane Society, a total of a half million horses are used recreationally. And someday riding may be your only option for accessing remote country, as those fly fishing Patagonia boys discovered.

Greater understanding from fellow trekkers could reduce resentment and injury on all sides. We could move forward issues of mutual concern, like trail maintenance, search and rescue, and access to public land and open space.

For the sake of the wilderness, can you show some respect and get to know us? And to mountain bikers, specifically: please slow down and be nice.

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