It’s been said that horses have the mentality of a 4-year-old. They can be the biggest 1,000-pound babies in the world. So, what do you do when you meet them on one of the world-class Methow trails?
When my husband and I first started riding our horses on the trails in Mazama, we were a little nervous about meeting bicyclists and hikers and how the horses would respond. We followed suit of other longtime valley riders who would courteously ask bicyclists, hikers and runners to speak to us and to step aside to let the big animals pass by. On our maiden ride by ourselves on Jack’s Trail, we politely asked a bicyclist, who was barreling at us on a mountain bike, if he would please stop and walk his bike past us. We told him that our horses were young and not used to bicycles yet. It was our first encounter with a grumpy rider. He grumbled at us that if our horses weren’t used to bikes, they shouldn’t be on the trail. Ouch!
That’s when I thought of the U.S. Forest Service trail courtesy signage (sometimes provided by the International Mountain Biking Association) seen on many of the multi-purpose trails: the inverted triangle depicting who yields to whom. Hikers and runners yield to horses. Bicyclists yield to hikers, runners and horses. Horseback riders have the right of way. The Rules of the Trail ask hikers, runners and bikers to move off the trail and downhill when being passed by horses. There’s a very good reason for this.
Unpredictable, horses can spook at the most innocuous things: the butt end of a freshly sawn tree, a big white rock, or a newly placed sign. (Recently, our horses balked at the new sculptures that have been placed on the Methow Community Trail near Mazama.)
Even scarier to them are moving objects that they instinctively deem to be “very dangerous” since they are prey animals.
It doesn’t matter that a hiker carrying a walking stick doesn’t look anything like a bear or a cougar, the horse responds as if it might be. That’s the reason for asking the person to speak as the horse passes, as they do recognize human voices.
The reason for asking another trail user to move to the downhill side of the trail is a safety issue. Should a horse spook passing that trail user and the horse is on the downhill side, there could be a wreck. Horse wrecks can do significant damage to the rider. We have broken bones healing all over the valley caused by horses shying at anything from an unexpected dog to a stationary sheep camp wagon.
In three summers of riding the Methow trails, most all of our encounters have been pleasant and courteous, as one would expect, since we all have this spectacular trail system at our disposal. Happy trails to all!
Other trail news: Methow Valley Backcountry Horsemen is a hard-working, dedicated bunch of horse lovers who devote many tireless hours keeping trails open and usable for multiple purposes. They work in conjunction with other trail groups and agencies to remove downed trees, repair bridges, and maintain (and build) horse camps. The brand new North Summit Horse Campground on the Loup is now open for use and the completion of Phase One will be formally celebrated on Oct. 5 at noon at the camp. Members of the public are invited.
Last month, Cathy Upper, president of the local chapter, and eight others, including John and Libby Sunderland from Mazama, spent three days on Cedar Creek Trail cutting out 80-90 trees, clearing brush, and treading out the last half mile to Abernathy Pass. The beautiful trail, which is just 5 miles from Mazama Junction, is open to bicycles as well as horses.
Next up: pests in the hood and trail etiquette follow-up, hiker’s perspective. I’ll be at the Mazama Store from 2:30-3:30 p.m. on Wednesday (Sept. 18). Stop by and tell me of news, events, or just a good story. I’d also like to hear trail etiquette from a mountain biker’s perspective.