10 Tips for Leave No Trace Horse Riding

How you can hit the trail without harming nature. Here are 10 tips to use anywhere you ride.

by Karen Braschaykoleave no trace horse riding

Many Equitrekkers wish to change the natural world as little as possible, taking nothing and leaving no trace behind while still enjoying the brilliant scenery and thrilling experiences only wilderness riding can provide. The Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics champions this mission and offers educational resources for riders who’d like to leave the outdoors as they’ve found it.

Leave No Trace, based in Boulder, Colorado, is a nonprofit, privately-funded educational organization that trains enthusiasts on how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. The programs cover many skill levels, from frontcountry, or day-type recreation, to true wilderness backcountry users. Leave No Trace has 450 partner organizations and a staff of about 20 people who travel around the country teaching classes about how to minimize overall recreational impacts.

Ben Lawhon, the education director and staff member since 2001, explained that Leave No Trace focuses on all non-motorized forms of recreation, from mountain climbers to kayakers, and horses are certainly part of that mission. Riding horses, mules, llamas and any hooved animals on the trail may be called equestrian use or stock use, and the terms are interchangeable.

While any trail user group can create negative effects if they aren’t careful, Lawhon explained, equestrian use can certainly be an eco-friendly way to enjoy nature. “When equestrians stick to trails that are designated for equestrian use, and when they do what they can to minimize their impacts, it’s certainly a viable, enjoyable and highly acceptable way to spend time in the outdoors,” he said.

Here are Lawhon’s top 10 tips on how to ride without harming the beauty around you.

Find the best trail for you by doing some homework first.

Leave No Trace has Seven Principles on which they base their outdoor educational programs, and the first principle is “Plan Ahead and Prepare.” Lawhon explained that this is a critical step for equestrians, since they have living creatures, trucks, trailers, equipment and their own safety to consider before choosing a location to ride. Weigh out the number of riders in your group, the skill level of all riders involved, and what you’d like to experience on your ride in order to make the best choice.

“It comes down to picking appropriate locations for the type of riding you intend to do,” Lawhon said. “If you’re bringing users who haven’t ridden a lot, there are trails that would be more appropriate for them than a strenuous, rocky, dangerous trail that goes up over a mountain pass and might be better for the grizzled veteran equestrian. It’s thinking about your expectations and what you want out of it, and then matching that with the resources that are suitable, can handle it, and will provide you with what you’re looking for.”

Once you know where you’d like to ride, there are several ways to find a great trail for you. Research what trails will accommodate your group. Learn what facilities are available, such as trailer parking, corrals, water sources, restrooms and campgrounds so you can plan appropriately. Public land is available for equestrian use on federal, state and local levels.

There are federal lands available for riding east of the Mississippi and in vast amounts out West. Many governing entities such as the National Park Service (nps.gov), Bureau of Land Management (blm.gov), and U.S. Forest Service (fs.fed.us) allow equestrians to use their trails. To a lesser extent, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (usace.army.mil) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (fws.gov) also have opportunities for land use by equestrians. Search their websites by state, region, park or forest for more information.

“For instance, if you’re interested in Rocky Mountain National Park, go to their website,” Lawhon said. “Find out if stock use is allowed. If it’s allowed, find out what trails allow stock use. Find out what the facilities are, which trailheads have better parking for trailers, and that sort of thing.”

Numerous state parks have trails for riders as well, and the internet is an invaluable resource for researching riding locations. “So much good information is on the net in terms of locating places to ride, and in terms of locating places that meet your desires and your expectations,” Lawhon said.

Stick within group size limits.

Riding trails can be a very social activity involving many people and horses. All trail users need to do what they can to preserve the experience of nature for others and to protect the ecology itself, but large groups need to be particularly careful.

“We need to ensure that we’re being as considerate to other users out there as possible,” Lawhon said. “Just think about the solitary hiker, cyclist or stock user – how does passing a group of 14 or 20 riders potentially impact them? It’s just giving some thought to that.”

Since overloading trails can do a lot of damage, adhering to the size allowed is a big factor in choosing the right trail for your group. Lawhon explained that many trails allow a certain number of heartbeats as a way of regulating the number of trail users.

“If you do go with a large group, it’s just the idea of doing some research on the internet,” Lawhon said. “Contact your local land management agency, and find out where is the appropriate place if you want to take 30 to 40 people out on a trail ride. Ask them where you can go that would accommodate that type of usage.”

Employ friendly communication to reduce conflicts with trail users.

Social conflicts can occur when different types of users are on the same trails, and basic communication can go a long way to help everyone have a good day. Some trails aren’t designed for shared use, and that’s a management issue, Lawhon explained, but others can accommodate all designated users with a little consideration. Famously, equestrians and mountain bikers may clash, though these users can get along fine if both parties cooperate. Friendly communication is the key and can make all the difference in avoiding misunderstandings, Lawhon believes.

“Over the past two years, I’ve co-taught the five-day Leave No Trace Master Educator Courses specifically geared towards stock,” Lawhon said. “This meant I spent a week with stock users, and what was glaringly obvious to me was that if you don’t understand stock, stock behavior, and stock use, it’s hard to see how that use and whatever thing you are into, such as hiking or mountain biking, is compatible.”

Lawhon pointed out what many equestrians may not realize in the moment – that many trail users simply aren’t familiar with horses.

“Lots of mountain bikers just don’t understand that you’re dealing with an animal,” Lawhon said. “You’re not dealing with a mechanized thing. It’s not a bicycle. It’s not a pair of hiking boots. These are living creatures that have their own free will and their own brains, and they do things because they’re animals.”

Lawhon grew up around horses, since his sister rode hunter jumpers, but even he has learned a lot from teaching about stock use on trails. Why a horse will paw at the ground if separated from his buddy, why making a sliding stop when approaching a group of horses can be dangerous – these are factors a mountain biker may not comprehend.

Passing on the trail is another time when talking is key. “For years we’ve taught hikers and mountain bikers that when they encounter stock on a trail, step to the downhill side. We’ve made a shift in the last few years to simply asking the lead rider, ‘Where do you want me to go? Do you want me to step up or down? What’s best? You know your animals, and I really don’t. Horses are huge, and they kind of scare me. What should I do?’”

Lawhon recommends speaking with other trail user groups if there are conflicts around your trails. “To break down the social barriers, it’s a matter of trying to get folks on the same page. We are all enjoying a finite resource. There’s only so much of it to go around. One of the things that I certainly recommend is reaching out to other users groups in the area and educating them on stock use. Help them understand that it is a legitimate use of the outdoors, and that stock users have just as much right as anyone to be on trails that are designated for stock use. Once other user groups understand that story, why we do what we do, our love of these animals, and the pleasure we get out of experiencing the outdoors on the back of a horse – once other users understand that, there’s so much more empathy among users. I think there’s much more room for that kind of cooperative spirit on lands used for recreation,” he said.

Take care with waste, both equine and human.

We may not think about it when we’re out for a day ride, but waste can gather at trailheads and on trails over time. The impacts of large concentrations of urine and manure are potentially significant.

“Most of the impacts that we see on lands used for recreation are cumulative,” Lawhon said. “So it’s not just the one time that somebody disposed of human waste too close to a water source. It’s when that happens time after time after time, and it’s what actually occurs to that resource or that ecosystem as a result of that cumulative effect.”

Since it’s just part of being around equines, seasoned horse people may not realize that manure can be aesthetically offensive to those who aren’t used to it. Some trailheads have facilities to collect manure, but if bins aren’t around, Lawhon recommends leaving it in your trailer until you get home. It’s considerate to reduce the sensory impact of manure for other users, and it helps the environment as well.

For humans, using the trailhead outhouse before heading out is the best idea. If nature calls later, Lawhon recommends walking 200 feet or about 70 adult paces away from any camp, trail or water source. “Human waste and what we do with it can be one of the biggest impacts that we have on lands used for recreation. We typically recommend what we call a cat hole, a six to eight-inch deep hole for solid human waste, dug 200 feet from any trails or water sources. The toilet paper could be buried deeply in the hole, but it does slow the decomposition process of that waste. We encourage people that if they’re comfortable, pack it out. It’s one less thing that’s not in the woods as a result of our being there,” he said.

Use durable surfaces.

The second principle of Leave No Trace is “Travel and Camp on Durable Surfaces,” and equestrians can help by watering their horses from sturdy locations whenever available. Heavy use can damage water resources with erosion, which is particularly true with large groups, so choose creek crossings and drinking spots carefully.

“With some forethought, you can locate places where it’s suitable to water up, and you can do a lot less damage,” Lawhon said. “For example, an access point that has a rocky area around the bank of a stream or river – that’s much more durable than a wet, boggy type area.”

Keeping off of muddy trails can also prevent erosion and damage. “Consider things like, should we be using wet trails? Should you stay off of wet trails knowing that horses and mules are generally heavy, and when you’re on muddy trails you can cause more impact? When the trails are wet and muddy they’re not as durable. Should we either find a different trail or postpone our ride because of that?” Lawhon said.

Think about stock confinement.

Before leaving home, think about the best way to keep your horses safely wrangled if you’ll be camping or if you need to step away from them for lunch. There are several options, and equestrians should consider what will work best for their horses and their local environment. Portable corrals, portable electric fencing, high lines, pickets, hobbles, cross ties and site-provided facilities are all possible options.

“One thing that we don’t advocate is simply tying to a tree,” Lawhon said. “Never say never – if you’re in an emergency situation, tie your horse to a tree. But we don’t advocate long-term stock confinement where you just take a lead rope and tie a horse to a tree. Lots of damage can be done, not only to the base of the tree but in terms of horses moving around because bugs are on them, and you’ve got this tight rope going back and forth around the bark of the tree.”

Reduce your campfire impact.

For overnight campers, Lawhon suggests limiting the size of your campfire to lessen the environmental consequences. “Things like not having huge fires. I’m not saying don’t have campfires – I’m saying be responsible with fire,” he said.

Of course, avoid burning trash. Anything that goes into the woods with you should be carried back to your home or vehicle. Granola bar wrappers and cigarette butts can take years to degrade, and they may harm wildlife. “The mantra is pack it in, pack it out,” Lawhon said. 

Be careful when riding with your dog.

Many equestrians enjoy riding with their dogs, and there are some aspects to consider before leaving home and while on the trail. Dogs can affect wildlife, and they can potentially distress other people. Do your best to reduce your dog’s impact by not allowing him to chase wildlife. Pack out his waste, or bury it in a cat hole.

“Check with local land management agencies to ensure that dogs are in fact allowed on the trail you intend to ride,” said Lawhon. “Also check on any leash, immunization or pet waste requirements. In many locations, all dogs must be kept on a handheld leash. Other areas, however, do allow dogs off leash. If your dog is allowed, be sure to keep your dog under voice and sight control, meaning your dog can see and hear you. Don¹t allow your dog to approach other trail users without asking first. Your dog may be a friendly obedience champion, but not everyone likes being approached by a strange dog.”

Get further training.

There’s much more to learn about eco-friendly riding and outdoor recreation impacts in general. Leave No Trace offers several programs for equestrians and groups, from the Online Awareness Course to intense, in depth training.

“We’ve recently expanded our highest level of Leave No Trace training, which is known as the Master Educator Course. This is a five-day, field-based course. We worked on the stock-specific course, and we expanded the curriculum to include those aspects associated with equestrians and their enjoyment of the outdoors. So we have a much more comprehensive program in terms of deep backcountry wilderness all the way to frontcountry environments.”

Do what you can.

Lawhon wants to make sure that the Leave No Trace principles don’t discourage people from appreciating the nature around them. “I think a lot of people, when they’re first exposed to it, think, ‘Uh, I’ve got to do all these things all the time, and if I don’t, then I’m not practicing Leave No Trace.’ In my perspective, I’d rather have every single person who spends any amount of time in the outdoors doing something to minimize their impact, instead of just a few people doing all things Leave No Trace all the time,” he said.

No one can be perfect, and accidents happen, but every effort helps to reduce the overall impact of recreation land use.

“I think the cumulative effect of all outdoor enthusiasts doing something, even if it’s small, it helps,” Lawhon said. “Even if it’s just one thing – even if all you did was just pack out your trash, that’s better than doing nothing at all. If you look at state parks and federal lands in the U.S., there are about 1.3 billion outdoor visits per year. That’s a lot of people spending time on lands used for recreation, generally public lands. There’s just so much potential for impact. Anything that we can do to minimize the impact of all those visits is better than doing nothing at all.”

Outdoor experts are still studying, learning and revising their strategies, and all we can do is our best to decrease damage to the environment.

“Leave No Trace is not rules and regulations,” Lawhon said. “It’s not black and white, right or wrong. It is purely about making the best decisions you can about how to enjoy the outdoors responsibly. It’s as simple as that. It’s good common sense that’s based in the best available science in terms of the techniques and how we can minimize the impacts on these places that we collectively love and enjoy. So it’s about making those good decisions for enjoying the outdoors responsibly.”

Learn more about the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics at LNT.org, where you can find information specific to stock users and equestrians.

Karen Braschayko is a freelance writer and horse lover who lives in Michigan.