It’s a warm, clear Sunday afternoon in Lory State Park and you’re out enjoying some time on your mountain bike. You’ve had a good ride so far…started from Soderberg lot in Horsetooth, got a great warm-up riding north through the valley trails, had a fast and flowy ride north on East Valley (knowing you easily could have a new Strava PR for that section since the trails have been completely empty), climbed to the top of Timber, negotiated the tight switchbacks on Howards, and now you’re enjoying all the efforts of the day ripping down the lower Mill Creek Link. The bushes are whizzing by at eye-level, making it feel like you’re going much faster than you probably are. You’re just about at the bottom, and you know you want to carry a little bit of speed and momentum into the slight climb back up to Arthur’s parking lot before you descend east South Valley to the south. You come around the last corner to tie into the South Valley Trail, look up, and there are 2 riders on horseback already on the little bridge right in front of you. BRAKES!!!!!!!

Now imagine yourself on top of that horse on the little bridge…what do you do???  

Last month I was invited to speak at the Larimer County Horseman’s Association monthly meeting.  Another avid mountain biker, who is also a horse owner, joined me for the discussion (thank you Steph Hoke!).  We were able to present multiple scenarios from a mountain biker’s perspective and hear the same scenarios from an equestrian’s perspective.  What we learned at the end of the night is that we really are pretty similar.  We all share a love of the outdoors.  We love to be out riding trails.  We dislike negative and dangerous encounters when on the trails.

Then there are the obvious differences, like sitting 6 to 8 feet high on a 1200lb live, natural-prey animal versus sitting 2 ½ feet high on a 28ish-lb high-performing mechanical masterpiece. In the scenario above, what happens to the biker if (s)he can’t stop in time?  Maybe bails off the trail or lays the bike down and slides a bit.  What happens to the equestrian?  Potentially gets bucked off, or the horse panics and falls off the bridge.  Either way, bad news for the biker, the horse and its rider.

Just as when driving a vehicle, some accidents are unavoidable; however, most probably are.  The same holds true for trail encounters.  We can be the best trail stewards around and do everything right, yet at some point we will still most likely be startled by or startle another trail user.  When it comes to encounters with equestrians, there are several key things we as mountain bikers (and all trail users) can do to help make it a pleasant encounter for everyone.

When encountering an equestrian on the trail, the biggest thing to remember is…Communicate!  Communicate!  Communicate!

  • Begin speaking to the rider as far back as possible for them to hear
    • The horse will most likely already know “something” is approaching but may not know what.  The silhouette of a fully geared-up human being riding a mountain bike is quite a bit different than what a horse is accustomed to seeing.  Allowing the horse to hear a human voice is important.  Since they are natural prey animals, lessening its fear of being attacked and eaten is generally a good thing.
    • While the horse may already know something is approaching, its rider may not.  Alerting the rider to your presence is just as important as alerting the horse.
  • Once verbal contact is made, simply ask the equestrian what they would like you to do.  This could include getting off and walking the bike around, stopping and stepping off either the uphill or downhill side of the trail, or simply continuing to ride past at a slow speed.  Just ask how they would like you to proceed.
  • If stopping to let the equestrian pass, generally try to step off the downhill side of the trail.  As mentioned several times already, horses are natural prey animals.  When they are attacked, the other animal most-often attacks from above.  This is just another piece to help lessen the horse’s anxiety.  BUT, always ask the rider on which side they prefer you to be, as they should know the personality of their horse.
  • If able, stop for a quick chat with the rider.  This should continue to be somewhat calming to the horse, but it also lets everyone communicate better.  Ask about the trail conditions encountered so far.  Ask about the number of other bikes or horses encountered prior so each will have an idea of what to expect during the remainder of the ride.  Ask about their route for the day so you’ll know whether you can expect to pass them again.  Each will almost always appreciate the info and the quick chat.
  • You’re then able to part ways with a friendly “enjoy the rest of your ride!”

That 1- or 2-minute encounter can make a huge difference in the quality of experience for everyone involved.  That’s why we all go out on the trails to begin with…to have an enjoyable experience.

Happy Trails!

Kenny Bearden

Club Administrator – Overland Mountain Bike Club