Talk it out: How mountain bikes, horses safely share trails

Bob Silbernagel shares the trail with mountain biking friends Terry and Sherry Christensen on a trail near Palisade.

On a sandy, narrow trail in Rabbit Valley last spring, as my friend and I exercised our two geldings at a brisk trot, our horses suddenly tensed. We stopped, and they perked their ears and turned their heads toward a bend in the trail. There we soon spotted the heads of two mountain bikers struggling hard to pedal up a small, steep rise in the trail.

Soon, their bodies and bicycles came into view, and our horses watched cautiously. Then the bikers did exactly the right thing: They started talking.

When bikers are quiet, especially if they’re coming up from behind, horses often perceive them as predators, said Terry Gray, president of the Grand Mesa Back Country Horsemen and a long-time trail rider in Mesa County. “But if they talk, then the horses know they’re just people.”

Once the mountain bikers spoke in the encounter last spring, my horse and my friend’s horse relaxed. We moved off to the side of the trail to allow the bikers to pass, and they politely thanked us.

Later, we followed them at a safe distance up a long, rocky section of trail. At the top, they sat in the shade to recover from the climb. We stopped and chatted a few minutes, our horses barely noticing them.

That encounter was typical of the sort most of my equestrian friends and I have had with mountain bikers on the trail. Both parties were courteous and cognizant of the others’ requirements. Both sides took appropriate action.

But there is no question there is more traffic on trails in and around the Grand Valley. Trails that were long used almost exclusively by horseback riders, livestock and a few hikers are now being visited frequently by motorcycles and off-road vehicles and more and more by mountain bikers. Many are locals, but increasing numbers are from out of the area.

Not all horse-bike encounters are as amicable as the one I described.

Sharon Roper, who has been a trail rider in Mesa County since the 1960s, said she experienced such an incident in April on a trail not far from her home on Little Park Road.

She was riding with two elderly friends and “we were going around a steep, rocky area,” she recalled. “This guy came flying down a hill and one of my friends’ horses spooked. I yelled at him to slow down because we had horses.”

The bike rider came down the trail to where Roper and her friends were stopped, she stated. “He said, ‘You don’t own the road.’ Then he got off his bike and he shoved it into my horse.”

Roper said she turned her horse around to put its back end to the man as he attempted to grab her. He then jumped on his bike and rode away, she said.

Roper said she reported the incident to the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department and was told by the person who took her call that the department is hearing more and more about these types of conflicts.

A check with the Sheriff’s Department found no report of Roper’s encounter, but that’s likely because there wasn’t enough evidence to pursue the case, said Heather Benjamin, spokeswoman for the department.

But Benjamin also checked with deputies and their supervisors, and they all said there have been very few reports of horse-bike confrontations.

The sort of anger and ignorance that Roper reported is extremely unusual. But sometimes problems occur even when no one is intentionally confrontational. A recent edition of Trail Rider magazine described such an event last year in Arizona, in which horses and riders both suffered injuries when mountain bikers came upon them without warning on a rocky trail where there was little room to maneuver.

The Boulder County Horse Association, in conjunction with Colorado State Parks, puts out a brochure titled “Sharing Trails Safely With Horses” in an effort to avoid such events.

Locally, we’ve been fortunate to have few encounters that cause problems.

Catherine Robertson, head of the Grand Junction Field Office of the BLM, said, “I think it’s been remarkable the cooperation that’s been there. Certainly the mountain bike use has been growing in areas that have been traditionally used by equestrians, but that seems to have worked out. We haven’t heard of any major or minor problems.”

Robertson also said the BLM “could do a better job informing people, particularly newcomers, about sharing the trail and the fact that mountain bikers need to yield to equestrians and pedestrians.”

On the cyclists’ side, Amy Agapito, the coordinator for Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, said, “I’ve heard of a few sporadic instances of horse-bike confrontations. I met a couple of people on the Lunch Loop last year, and they gave me examples of some problems.” Those people were Roper and her husband, Dave Dashner.

As a result of that conversation, Dashner wrote a brief piece on maintaining safe horse-bike relations, which Agapito published in the association’s newsletter last year and posted on Facebook.

Although she has received few reports of any problems, Agapito said, “I know that we definitely have a lot of out-of-towners who ride mountain bikes here. I’ve always thought it would be a good idea, on a kiosk or at trail heads, to give information about rules and safety.”

Gray said it’s also incumbent on equestrians to get their horses and mules accustomed to mountain bikes so they are less likely to spook when they see them on trails.

And, he noted, “We have our own inconsiderate people” among the equestrian community — people who empty manure from their horse trailers in parking lots instead of cleaning up what their horses leave, for instance.

Gray hopes agencies such as the BLM will provide more signage to educate everyone about proper trail protocol.

But for the most part, everyone mentioned in this article agreed problems can be avoided if people are willing to share the trail and are considerate and educated about the safety issues involved.


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