Paths of Least Resistance

Just like your riding arenas, riding trails need periodic upkeep and maintenance.

The U.S. boasts more than 10 million nature trails, according to the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors—and that doesn’t include the miles of horseback-riding trails blazed by private landowners. They all need regular upkeep.

Stable managers who offer trail rides should protect their clients—and their horses—by keeping their trails properly maintained. The first Saturday in June marks National Trails Day, so what better time to embark on a thorough maintenance program than now?

Assessing the Damage

Several general signs indicate when some good old-fashioned trail work is in order. The best way to look for these indicators and assess the damage is to walk or ride the trail with a tape recorder and dictate the problem areas and their locations as you go. The recorded assessment can be put on paper later and used as a reference tool for planning trail work.

Classic signs of trail deterioration include:

  • bootleg trails, often shortcuts that users have blazed to other parts of the trail. Bootleg trails often are not the safest routes for horse and rider, and, furthermore, they can damage surrounding plant and animal habitats.
  • freeways, areas in which multiple users have turned two-lane “county roads” into six-lane Interstates. Freeways often contain multiple degrees of trenching (see below), which makes them precarious for horses to negotiate.
  • road blocks, obstructions such as fallen trees, dead/broken limbs and branches, exposed tree roots and rocks that can trip horses or encourage them to stray from the path.
  • deep trenches, which run down the center of a trail. High traffic can cause this condition, which impedes water run-off and encourages trail erosion.

Drawing Up the Plan

Strategy is the key to creating a successful trail maintenance program. If you have multiple trails on your property, prioritize by determining which trails need immediate attention and/or the most work. Safety concerns always should take precedence, particularly if the trail is highly trafficked. Calculate how much manpower and time the trail work will require, and then decide what kinds of materials and tools you’ll need to get the job done.

Keep records of the original trail assessment, the proposed work plan and—once the work has been completed—the resources that were required to carry out the plan. This detailed maintenance history will save time in future years, and it also will prove useful to future owners should you ever sell the property.

What Exactly Needs Maintenance?

A good amount of labor and sweat goes into every well-groomed trail, even if the original design is flawless. Mother Nature and trail users inevitably leave their marks on the terrain over time.

Typical maintenance includes retreading pathways; clearing water drainage structures or creating new ones; clearing rocks, brush and fallen trees; pruning vegetation; blocking bootleg trails; repairing or adding trail markers; and educating users on trail etiquette.

1. Dragging spurs is no fun.

Horseback riding on earthen trails can wear a trough down the center of the trail and build up dirt on the path’s outer edges. This build-up is called a berm, and it should be pulled back into the tread of the trail on a regular basis. If left unattended, water will be forced to run down the center of the trail, turning it into a gully. Before you know it, the gully will become so deep you’ll be dragging your spurs on the trail’s outer edges! Although scooping the berm back into the tread is a chore, it’s easier to accomplish if done frequently, before vegetation has an opportunity to take root.

2. A wet trail is a poor trail.

Your trail’s?No 1 enemy is standing water, because it causes erosion, which leads to uneven tread and unsafe riding conditions. Plus, horses are likely to step around water on a trail, which threatens adjacent vegetation and creates the freeway effect.

Drainage structures, such as water bars and drainage dips, are great tools in routing water off a trail. Bars and dips are intermittently laid into the trail at 60-degree angles to direct water over the side of the trail. Vegetation or clusters of rocks should be placed on the downslopes of the drainage structures to decelerate the run-off and prevent further erosion on the trail’s outslopes.

Drainage dips are simply manmade depressions in the trail, while water bars are built up from rock or wood. When installing water bars, in keeping with the natural habitat, native rocks and timber should be used, rather than generic landscaping materials. Rocks should be placed together like roof shingles, and each one should be too heavy for a horse to kick out of place.

Once dips and bars are installed, it’s critical to clear them of debris frequently, or they’ll fill in and become useless—or worse, they’ll exacerbate the problem. It’s best to consult an authority, such as a park service official or trail maintenance book (see box), to ensure you install bars and dips correctly.

3. Be on the cutting edge.

Before you clear overgrown vegetation along a trail, know what you are cutting. Learn about native plant species and what roles they play in the natural habitat. For instance, many vines serve as a food source for animals and should be spared whenever possible. Once you’ve determined which plants to prune, however, don’t be overly cautious in your cutting. Most low-lying, ground-covering plants grow back rather quickly, and a conservative cut will reap short-lived results.

Clearance for a horse and rider should be about 10 feet minimum, according to Becky Kalagher of the Bay State Trail Riders Association in Massachusetts. “Tread width can be as narrow as 18 inches,” she says. “But if that’s the case, the brush growing along the sides should be no higher than 2 feet, to accommodate the rider’s legs around the barrel of the horse.”

If you cut branches and limbs, make the cut flush with the first wrinkle of the branch. A flush cut or a large stub are both invitations for tree diseases. Discard cut or fallen limbs and branches by placing each piece on the ground to encourage decomposing. Do not stack debris as it creates a fire hazard.

4. The signs of a good trail are everywhere.

A confused trail rider is a bootleg trailblazer in waiting. To keep riders on the trail, make sure all your trail markers are present and visible. Signs should be at eye level and in a spot where vegetation is unlikely to cover them. To further acquaint riders with your land, provide maps in addition to the markers. Maps also are a good communication vehicle for educating e your clients about trail etiquette, such as “pack out what you pack in,” “don’t tie horses to the trees” and “stay on the designated trails.”

Trail maintenance can be an arduous task, but the payoff is worth it. A clearly marked, user-friendly path means happy trails for both your riders and your horses.

The Tools of the Trade

Here’s an overview of some of the more useful tools for trail maintenance.

1. Fire rake: An industrial-size yard rake commonly used by fire fighters to clear debris, but it’s also good for grading and fine-tuning tread.

2. 18-pound crow bar: Useful for prying obstructive rocks and trees.

3. Lopping sheers: Loppers can cut through stems and exposed tree roots up to three-quarters of an inch thick.

4. Shovel: The best ones have rounded heads set at an angle. These are good for sweeping and brushing debris as well as digging.

5. Pulaski: Named after fire fighter Ed Pulaski, this tool is an axe on one end and a hoe on the other. It’s a nifty digging tool because you can cut through vegetation with one end and excavate dirt with the other. It’s ideal for creating drainage dips.

6. Bowsaw: This small, hand-held cutting tool is good for removing small tree limbs.

7. Pick mattock: This is a combination tool, like the Pulaski, but it has a pick on one end and a hoe on the other. It’s ideal for working in rocky soil conditions.

8. Chainsaw: This power tool comes in handy for larger trees.

9. Brush whip: This tool is handy in whacking about a foot of brush at a time. It has a long handle with a serrated blade at the tip.

Recommended Reading

Recreational Trail Design and Construction, by David M. Rathke and Melvin J. Baughman. This 28-page introductory booklet is ideal for private landowners who need a basic overview of trail planning, design and management.

Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook, by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Technology and Development Program. This illustrated guide on natural surface trails covers everything from diverting water off of the trail to crossing a stream. It includes case examples to keep it interesting.

National Park Service Management Handbook, by the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Denver Service Center. This comprehensive pocket manual is ideal for stuffing in a backpack while on the job. —KF






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