Equestrians and Cyclists in the Shawnee National Forest

So there has been a bit of flack online recently created by some equestrians about mountain bikers in the Shawnee National Forest.  Now I’m biased about this, I’ll freely admit it.  I don’t ride horses, not do I have any interest in horseback riding.  I do appreciate that without horseback riders many of the trails in the Shawnee would become overgrown.

The fact is that the Shawnee is horseback territory, there are several horse camps and lots of money being poured into the activity. Some the best parts of the forest are designated federal wilderness areas.  There are strict laws about what sorts of activities can occur in wilderness areas .  For example, hiking is perfectly fine, as long as the group is not larger than ten people, then it’s breaking the law, same for horseback riding, mountain biking is totally off limits.

Everywhere else in the forest cycling is not a recognized activity and the forest service doesn’t have have an official statute banning it.  I know that I’ve been riding for a long time and never encountered a conservation officer and never heard of anyone getting a ticket for mountain biking.

Well there are a few people upset, they don’t like bikes in the forest, bikes are too dangerous.  They often back this up with stories from far off places where an Adrenalin fueled “ROUGE CYCLIST” slammed into a group of equestrians causing massive injuries or death.  It seems that the equestrians wish to paint all cyclists the same, even those who ride respectfully.  It’s not very fair to damn an entire class of trail user over the actions of a few people.

I’ve been on many mountain bike rides and I’ve encountered many horseback riders.  If I’m alone I typically march way off the trail and stay well away.  If I’m with a group we get off our bikes and move several feet off the trail so the horses can go by.  Sometimes the horses need a bit of coaxing but it’s never a problem.  Almost every horseback rider is friendly and has control of their mount.

I’m only aware of one accident, which happened a few months ago.  I didn’t see the accident as it happened a distance away from us.  A group of around 8 cyclists were standing around at the intersection of two forest roads, a big wide open area.  One of the riders got on his bike and did a little circle around us, in the distance I heard a man yelling.  Around 100 feet away and man was on the ground yelling.  Apparently when his horse saw the bike rider down the trail it spooked and he fell off.

The one rider who saw the accident said when the man fell off his horse he knocked the girls that were with him off their horses which then bolted.  We hated to see these people’s day end up like this, all all felt bad it happened, but I don’t think any of us felt any blame.  The man who fell told us he hadn’t been on a horse for 5 years and absolved us of any blame.

It’s certainly true that people on bikes scare some horses, though I’ve also been hiking or trail running and spooked horses.  I’ve seen some rider/horse combinations that probably wouldn’t be spooked by a mountain lion.   I personally couldn’t imagine riding something that would throw me off if we encountered another person.  I certainly wouldn’t knowingly take that animal into the woods where other people are likely to be, but that’s just me.

Despite the apparent danger of riding a horse statistics show it’s a relatively safe activity, far safer then driving the horse trailer to the woods.  Fishing is a far more dangerous activity, around 4 people die by getting hit by lightning while fishing every year.

I’ve ridden places where horses aren’t allowed to ride, the trails are like magic, buttery smooth, they aren’t full of mud holes, and they aren’t covered in horse poop.  In short they were pretty nice, but they just didn’t feel right.  They felt “phony” yeah I know that sounds stupid, but when you’re on a trail in the Shawnee you know you’re “in it.”

I’ve noticed that many of the most vocal online critics of mountain biking in the Shawnee are from other areas, perhaps more city type areas, where just maybe cycling might be more popular then horseback riding.  They’ve seen cyclists get power in their area and screw up their trails, adding stupid stunts, armoring the trail with rocks, and essentially making them “phony.”  I feel you there guys, I wouldn’t like that either.

The mountain bikers who put thousands of man hours into making a trail system like that get pretty ticked when a herd of horses come through and decimate their “sweet flow.”  They get the horses kicked out, much like what a few equestrians would like to see happen to us.

I can guarantee you that won’t happen here.  The Shawnee is a place were equestrians and cyclists can coexist.  I don’t speak for all mountain bikers, but I think almost any cyclist you meet is more then happy to get off the trail and let horses go by.  Running blindly into horses around corners has never been a problem in the Shawnee.

Secondly there simply are not enough us around for there to be much of a problem.  Mountain biking in the Shawnee is an “insiders” game.  There’s not much support, and the trails are hard to follow if you’re not familiar with them.  Many rides of 3-5 hours will pass without meeting a soul.  It’s a big, mostly empty forest.

Thirdly, we want everyone to have access to the trails, hell I’ll even stop talking bad about side by sides.  Please come to the Shawnee, bring your horses, bring your bikes.

Sadly the vast majority of us cyclists can’t control the behavior of everyone in the woods and therefore we can’t be held responsible for it.  But we can do our part to educate.  On all rides we warn riders to keep their speed in check going downhill and keep an eye out for horses.  We tell all riders to dismount and give the horses plenty of room to pass.  We tell riders that talking will help calm the horse.

Lets all enjoy the forest.

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About Matt Gholson

Cycling, school teaching, husband.
This entry was posted in Barn Door Cycling, Mountain BIking, Stories and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Equestrians and Cyclists in the Shawnee National Forest

  1. Dennis O says:

    I bicycle and do not ride horses. My daughter bike rides and rides her horses. She and her horse friends and my bike friends get along fine.I agree, if a person can not handle their horse, they need to get some training before going out in public. Springfield,MO

  2. Jim Russell says:

    Welcome to the battle for the Shawnee. Hikers, backpackers, equestrians, loggers, campers, ATV riders, Sierra Club members and the US Forest Service have their own opinion on how the Shawnee Forest should be utilized. Disputes have been heated over the years and even lawsuits have even been filed. I’ll keep my opinions to myself but the forest cannot be come a free for all with no regulations or management. I believe mountain bikers have been left along due to such a small number of riders. I have hiked literally hundreds of miles in the last 10 years and only seen a total of 2 mountain bikers; but as biking becomes more popular they may be dragged into fight. We will see.

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