Crossing Paths

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Riding in a ring is fine, but what every rider really wants is the freedom to roam—perhaps to gallop across an open field, ford a shallow stream or amble along a trail in the woods. However, unless you are a big landowner or your stable happens to sit adjacent to a major park, this freedom to travel may be one service you can’t provide.

Then again, maybe you can. Take the example of Bedford, New York.

Bedford, a semi-rural town well known for its abundance of horses, also has plenty of people. The population is 18,000, up about seven percent in the past ten years and still rising. But despite development pressures, the trail system there is actually growing.

What’s the secret to saving riders a place to ride? It’s called the Bedford Riding Lanes Association (BRLA).

Located about 40 miles north of New York City, Bedford has nearly 25,000 acres, of which some seven percent has been set aside as town and county parkland or nature preserves. By themselves, the parks don’t provide many horse paths. Yet BRLA has managed to stitch together about 175 miles of trails. The great majority cross private property.

Easing Landowner Concerns

“Getting property owners to agree to having a trail cross their land takes a little persuasion,” says Bob Torre, BRLA president. “But once they have the facts, people almost always support us.”

In the past, many people in Bedford had come to think of the trail network as both an intrusion on privacy and a liability. Property owners envisioned legions of horseback riders tearing across their back yards, getting hurt somewhere and then suing for damages.

As it turns out, such fears are generally baseless. Because the trail network is so large, traffic at any one location is light—despite the fact that Bedford has numerous stables. As far as liability is concerned, there is also little reason to worry. According to state law in New York (Chapter 24-A, Article 9-103) and in most states, landowners do not assume liability for people who are passing through their land. As an extra measure of protection, BRLA has taken an insurance policy covering the 198 landowners who host BRLA trails. The policy is issued by Equisure (www.equisure-inc.com).

Keeping the Lanes Open

BRLA traces its origins back to 1920. Looking for safe and scenic routes to nearby towns, foxhunters struck up informal agreements with neighbors to hack through their fields. Once known as the Private Lanes Association, the name changed to Bedford Riding Lanes Association when it became a non-profit organization in the 1960s and threw open its doors to all who wanted to join.

But it wasn’t until the 1990s that BRLA really hit its stride. Goals were established and disciplined budgeting was put in place. Today, the annual operating budget is $100,000. Out of that sum comes money to pay for an office secretary/treasurer, a full-time person to maintain the trails and the equipment he uses, and an annual members’ picnic. The association also pays for a newsletter produced three times a year and a website (www.bedfordridinglanes.org) that is constantly updated.

Fortunately, BRLA is also a proficient fund-raiser. It nets nearly $20,000 apiece from two annual riding events and brings in money from the occasional barn tour. This total comes on top of $50,000 a year in annual dues, which range from $250 for families that ride the trails to $50 for people who only walk on them.

Linda VanKooy, manager of a 24-stall barn in Bedford, calls the dues “well worth it” and asks her clients to become BRLA members. “No one has ever objected,” she says. “Even though we principally do ring riding, my clients think it’s incredible having the trails right here. Every barn should support something like this.”

Between 1996 and 2003, membership in BRLA soared from 143 to 517. Most members are from Bedford, but many live in other towns as well. From this pool of subscribers comes the army of volunteers needed to run events. For example, the riding events—two hunter paces in the Bedford countryside—require 50 people for everything from cooking food to tracking riders’ times.

Important as they are, good organization and financing are not the only reasons behind the popularity of BRLA. The organization has also managed to appeal to many people who have never climbed aboard a horse, and don’t intend to.

Horse Sense

Quite simply, BRLA became fashionable. For a suburb of New York City, the notion of public paths reminiscent of those in the English countryside has won broad appeal.

“The trails add to the bucolic nature of Bedford,” says Irene Murray, manager of Renwick & Winterling Real Estate in Bedford. “And people appreciate the fact that there is an organization to keep these trails in good shape.”

It didn’t take long for land preservationists and environmentalists to find a common cause with BRLA. The constituencies of each added strength to the others so that today, large properties in Bedford have either been put into conservation easements or given away outright to a land trust. The lure of big tax incentives for the donors helped.

Other allies for BRLA came in the form of joggers, hikers and cross-country skiers. All are welcome to join the trails association. In fact, only half the members of BRLA actually ride.

Kandee Haertel, executive director of the Equestrian Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org) of Elizabeth, Ill., notes that linking like-minded organizations is one of the most effective ways to get a trails association up and running. ELCR is dedicated to preserving riding areas in the United States.

Haertel laments that riders in the U.S. are losing access to some three million acres every year. “The loss of this land is a threat to every equestrian activity,” she says, adding, “BRLA should be cloned and spread around the country.”

Model for Success?

So the central question is this: Can BRLA really be cloned? A couple of towns are already finding out. One is the South County Bridal Lanes Association in the oceanfront community of South Kingstown, R.I.

Kim McHugh started the group in 1999 after living a couple of years in Bedford. While South County’s trail system, membership and budget are a fraction the size of BRLA’s, the group is off to a promising start. “We’ve acquired a patchwork of trails that we hope can soon be connected,” says McHugh. “Like BRLA, we are working with land conservation and recreation groups to build support.”

In Pawling, N.Y., about 30 miles north of Bedford, another BRLA-inspired group called the Oblong Trail Association quickly caught on with local residents. In only the past two years, nearly 50 miles of horse trails have been constructed.

Association founder Terri Olson says a lot of Pawling residents understand at least one potential benefit of a trail network: “If we have horse trails, they will help bring equestrians here. And if they get here ahead of the developers, a lot of our gorgeous land can be saved.”