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Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads and Campgrounds

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Chapter 2--Planning Trail Systems

In 2005, 3.9 million horses were used for recreation in the United States, more than a third of the country's 9.2 million horses. All but five States have 20,000 horses or more (American Horse Council 2005). Many of the country's 2 million horse owners seek community and backcountry trail riding opportunities. Recreationists with physical challenges also turn to horses and mules to enjoy outdoor activities that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

The goal of equestrian trail planning is to enable accessible, safe, and pleasurable trail riding opportunities with few environmental impacts. Many communities and agencies are exploring ways to combine trail uses to provide the greatest number of recreation opportunities. Successfully blending horse use with other nonmotorized recreation can maximize opportunities while conserving natural resources. Figure 2-1 shows an example of blended use--a seasonal trail successfully shared by different users. By incorporating universal design principles--those that include all people--planners ensure access for a greater number of users. Chapter 11--Designing for Riders With Disabilities has more information on universal design principles.

Photo of a horse pulling a sled and a cross country skier sharing the same trail.
Figure 2-1--Unused roads have great potential
as year-round or seasonal trails for
compatible nonmotorized uses.

Many agencies and municipalities are developing trail system master plans that include and encourage nonmotorized trail use. Such plans provide a framework for the trail system and identify opportunities to improve or expand offerings. This chapter offers an overview of planning concepts used in some areas of the country. For one useful approach, refer to Appendix D--Trail Proposal and Evaluation Process: Open Space and Trails Program (Pitkin County, CO). The appendix covers issues that must be addressed during the development, construction, or maintenance of most trails.

Benefits of Trail System Planning

Trail systems may be a series of local and regional trails that link with existing or planned trails. Well-planned trail systems increase the quality of user experiences and offer benefits to the broader community. Well-planned trail systems:

  • Conserve the natural environment, native species, and wildlife corridors
  • Provide an alternative to motor vehicle travel by linking other trail systems, parks, open spaces, areas of concentrated activity, and trailheads
  • Provide access to otherwise remote areas that may be difficult to access
  • Provide increased opportunities for healthy physical activity and recreation for all ages
  • Potentially increase land and property values, benefiting local and regional economies
  • Conserve traditional equestrian use areas and neighborhoods, thereby preserving a distinctive lifestyle choice
  • Provide opportunities for funding partnerships and resource sharing

Trail system master planning follows the same general principles used for roads, highways, and bicycle paths. All these routes are linear and link people with destinations. Some trail systems are multimodal, incorporating numerous forms of transportation. The best trail systems provide loops and links, avoid potential issues and conflicts, and offer the public the most travel and recreation choices.

Planning successful trail systems depends on identifying essential elements, including:

  • Existing trail opportunities, issues, and constraints (multimodal, if appropriate)
  • Existing and potential users (multimodal, if appropriate)
  • Existing and potential right-of-way requirements
  • Unsafe corridor conditions and potential solutions
  • Design and user elements that appropriately enhance the corridor
  • Optimal and minimal requirements to operate and maintain the system

User Involvement in Trail Planning

When urban trails are not available, riders may be forced to share roads with motorists. A similar situation can occur along rural roads or highways.

Review existing policies and programs early to determine whether riders can be included in the trail planning process. The planning and development of horse trails often require addressing a broad range of trail user needs.

Thoughtful planning and communication with other trail users, agencies, land managers, developers, and members of the community are imperative. Many existing trails were formed over a long period through informal use and are highly valued by riders. In such cases, rights-of-way, ingress and egress rights, or special-use easements may not exist. Many of these trails are not contiguous because of physical barriers--private property, fences, roads, railroads, rivers, and canals (figure 2-2). Formalizing trail agreements and involving riders before planning and implementation can go a long way toward reducing problems later.

Photo overlooking the ears of a horse at a utility maintenance road.
Figure 2-2--Utility maintenance roads are
often used for recreation trails.

Land Use and Regulatory Framework

Trail planners need to know how regulatory measures will affect proposed projects. In general, State regulations create the framework for local planning through enabling legislation, and local governments guide the nature and character of development. Land use regulations foster excellent trail systems if public transportation and recreation issues are incorporated into local plans and ordinances. There are opportunities at all planning levels to involve riders.


Federal, State, Regional, and Local Agency Environmental Requirements

Trail construction on Federal lands, or lands where Federal funds are involved, must conform to laws such as the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), and the Endangered Species Act (ESA). Specialists should review proposed trail routes to determine potential adverse effects. When Federal funds are not involved, professional ethics suggest voluntary compliance with the intent of the NEPA and NHPA regulations.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers regulates construction in navigable waterways and wetland areas of the United States. The agency's primary concern in wetland areas is to limit the volume of fill and to avoid placing fill where it would interfere with normal runoff entering the wetland. Getting approval for a wetland trail generally involves sending a letter to the local Corps of Engineers district headquarters, perhaps a site visit by a Corps representative, and the issuance of a Clean Water Act Section 402 or 404 permit.

Trails that cross land or water under the jurisdiction of Native American or Alaskan Native tribal governments, U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), U.S. Department of the Interior Fish and Wildlife Service, or similar agencies, may be subject to additional regulations.

Many States and some counties, municipalities, and local agencies also have environmental regulations covering recreation development, including trails. Project managers need to be aware of other laws and regulations that might apply. Occasionally, large areas have been established to coordinate regulations among many towns and counties. The Adirondack Park Agency is a good example. This agency's regulations apply to 6 million acres of New York State's Adirondack Mountains, including all or parts of 12 counties and more than 100 towns and villages. Roughly 45 percent of the land is owned by the State--the rest is privately owned.

Early in the planning stage, determine the regulations that govern development in the area being considered. When many agencies have jurisdiction, the agency with the most stringent regulations usually governs.

Federal Accessibility Requirements

Trails need to be accessible to people with differing physical abilities. All trails don't have to be accessible to all people, but accessibility must be considered for new trail construction and major reconstruction. This is a legal requirement under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Accessibility requirements apply to all sites, facilities, or activities under the jurisdiction or ownership of Federal agencies, and to many State, local, and private sites, facilities, and activities. For more information read Chapter 11--Designing for Riders With Disabilities and Appendix F--Summary of Accessibility Legislation, Standards, and Guidelines.

Smart Growth Plans

Many States, counties, cities, land management agencies, and regional coalitions recognize the impacts of uncontrolled urban growth and are implementing plans that attempt to direct the nature of this growth. Open space provisions and multimodal transportation systems--those involving different types of motorized and nonmotorized travel--are common topics addressed in these plans. Riders must be involved during the preparation of smart growth plans if they want the plans to include nonmotorized trails that meet their needs.

General Plans

The overall blueprint for community planning is in the city, town, or municipal comprehensive general plan. Trail planning is frequently one part of the general plan, along with other broad considerations such as transportation, water, and open space provisions.

Flood Control Plans

Flood control agencies recognize the economic and public relations benefits of including recreation and green space in projects and programs. There may be opportunities to integrate trails into shared use plans. Trails can sometimes take advantage of maintenance roads and open space in flood plains.

Zoning Ordinances

Zoning ordinances guide the character of urban, suburban, and rural areas by dictating allowable uses and densities. Zoning ordinances that assume motor vehicles are the primary mode of transportation may make it difficult to establish a safe and usable trail system. In addition, many zoning ordinances do not require enough rights-of-way to accommodate trail systems. A community's general plan often includes provisions for trail systems, which are implemented through zoning ordinances. Horse-friendly zoning ordinances are necessary to keep equestrian trailbased communities viable.

A rezoning request and the subsequent review by local planners and the community are key times for comprehensive evaluation of transportation needs. Figure 2-3 shows one way of announcing a public meeting to discuss zoning issues. Transportation improvements--and impacts--for horse trails or vehicle routes can best be coordinated during this detailed review. Ordinances often address linking amenities and destinations with separate corridors for trails and motor vehicles. Subdivision regulations may require land developers to build trails or plan for future trails. These regulations can help riders maintain access to public lands and recreation opportunities that may otherwise be blocked by private developments.

Photo of a sign that reads, Zone Hearing.
Figure 2-3--Zoning reviews offer prime
opportunities for planners and the public
to evaluate transportation and recreation needs.

Multijurisdictional Trail Planning

Trail system planning frequently involves more than one land-management jurisdiction. Multijurisdictional and regional planning efforts that encourage links between trail systems can increase recreation opportunities. Trail systems that span the boundaries of land management agencies or communities require interaction and communication between the many stakeholders. Decisions on trail standards, locations, names, maintenance, amenities, resources, and liability can become complex. The earlier these issues are addressed in the planning process, the better. Broad-based trail organizations play an important role. They can contribute a comprehensive vision--helpful when promoting regional trail systems to planning agencies.

Planning multijurisdictional trail systems is a relatively new concept. The lack of clearly defined procedures, processes, laws, requirements, and responses to liability concerns are potential deterrents. Reviewing successful case studies of projects with many partners can help planners understand the process. Raising public and agency awareness of the benefits that come from a well planned trail system can provide an excellent foundation for support. When the framework for a trail system clearly defines the increased benefits, the plan is more likely to garner approval. Chapter 16--Learning From Others includes an overview of several trail system master plans.

Often State and local legislation limits the liability of public or private landowners who make areas publicly available for recreation or education. Consult Chapter 14--Considering Liability Issues for more information regarding liability concerns.

A formal agreement ensures a successful, long term, multijurisdictional trail system. The formal agreement can define important design standards, trail user guidelines, funding opportunities, management and maintenance responsibilities, liability, and stewardship, and can include a schedule for future trail enhancements. Agreements address financial resources, the overall integrity of the project, and long-term commitments.

The Planning Process

A planning process can be simple or complex. It also can be intuitive or highly rational and procedural. Local conditions and politics determine the most appropriate process. The following example uses a complex, rational model that assumes a need for documenting and defending all decisions. The model includes six phases an agency or organization could follow to develop a comprehensive trail plan.

Phase 1--Initial Project Organization

During initial project organization, planners identify the need for an equestrian trail system, develop a public involvement plan, and identify and engage partners--for example, agency representatives, trail user representatives, and landowners.

Federal, State, and local governments should involve the public in planning for trail systems. Public involvement adds a unique local and personal perspective. Local residents and visitors are often best-equipped to identify trail network and access opportunities, as well as potential problem areas.

Provide participation opportunities for all segments of the community. Make efforts to contact trail user groups through a variety of outlets. Be sure to provide plenty of advance notice to community organizations, retailers who offer products or services for trail users, the media, publications serving trail users, and advocacy groups. Post notices on public bulletin boards at places such as local tack and feed stores, restaurants, and gas stations near horse facilities.

Phase 2--Inventory and Data Collection

During inventory and data collection, planners research and map existing trails or potential routes, including relevant jurisdictions, neighborhoods, stables, arenas, destinations, and trailheads. They conduct a public needs assessment, identify desired trail and trail system criteria, and conduct a comprehensive inventory of existing trails and conditions. The inventory contributes to finding the best opportunities for planned trail networks within rights-of-way. Field reviews verify the existing trail conditions and identify the opportunities for equestrian and multimodal trails. Field reviews also identify issues and constraints. Field measurements and photographs support the inventory.

The site-condition data serve as the inventory's foundation. When planning the inventory, identify the potential information source, such as map or onsite reconnaissance. For instance, aerial and general planning maps may provide helpful information regarding major land uses, physical barriers, and drainage patterns. In areas that use the Public Land Survey System, section maps often provide detailed information regarding size and width of rights-of-way, parcels, and easements. Soil maps may be available from the local soil and water conservation district, U.S. Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service, county extension office, or Web sites. A site reconnaissance visit can help identify specific conditions that affect the nature and quality of a trail corridor.

A geographic information system (GIS) database can help organize and manipulate data collected for a trail inventory. If GIS data already exists, the inventory is verified and existing trails and corridors are mapped. If no GIS data is available, record existing trail locations using global positioning system (GPS) data to produce accurate maps.

Field photographs, with location and orientation Resource Roundup coded to a map, support field data collected for the mapping process. It is possible to link them to a GIS database. Photographs also can document structures, vegetation, fences, trenches, or other obstructions that block trail corridors or render trail segments impassable. The value of a trail inventory increases when it is updated and maintained on a regular basis.

Whether or not a trail goes through a master trail system planning process, eventually the proposed or modified route is scouted and mapped. Many of the tools employed during trail system planning also are used for locating individual trails. GIS studies, topographical maps, and aerial photos help identify factors and physical conditions that affect the placement of the trail. Factors include legal and social concerns--ownership boundaries, traffic crossings, and similar considerations. Physical conditions include topography, hydrology, soils, vegetation, wildlife habitat, slopes, and grades. By plotting the relevant factors and physical conditions on the map, control points are established. Once the control points are plotted, on-the-ground surveys will help determine the location and configuration of the trail.

Control points the trail must connect or avoid may include:

  • Topographical features--for example, gaps, passes, outcrops, and water bodies
  • Stream or road crossings
  • Other trails or transportation systems
  • Densely populated areas
  • Points to avoid--for example, hazardous areas, habitat for protected or dangerous species, poor soils, cultural resources, undesirable distractions, or sensitive areas
  • Points to connect--for example, scenic overlooks, waterfalls, and popular recreation areas

Phase 3--Analysis

During the analysis phase, planners develop a vision and goals for the trail system. They search for and evaluate potential project partnerships, and make maps of potential trail corridors, rights-of-way, destinations, and trailheads. Permits are researched and specialists are engaged to evaluate environmental factors, historical and cultural concerns, engineering or construction considerations, and so forth. Opportunities, constraints, and liability issues are determined and a suitability analysis of all potential corridors is conducted. The corridor and the trail alignment depend on each other and must be considered before the land is obtained. The trail corridor is chosen partly because it can contain the trail and the trail alignment is chosen partly to take optimum advantage of the corridor.


A suitability analysis can be used to rate how trail corridors could accommodate horse trails. This is a critical step that bridges the identification of issues, opportunities, constraints, and the selection of the best plan. Use public and professional input to create a list of attributes that will be evaluated. The list could include access to a trailhead, location of stock water, identification of potential trail loops, or inclusion of scenic trails. Local riders can help determine the importance of corridor attributes during public meetings.


Phase 4--Conceptual Planning

During the conceptual phase, planners identify all feasible alternatives and choose the best overall plan. They set priorities for projects needed to complete the system plan based on criteria, goals, and objectives. Planners identify funding and determine project action and implementation plans. This also is the time to develop design guidelines for the trail system.

Phase 5--Plan Adoption

During the plan adoption phase, plans are submitted for approval or adoption by appropriate jurisdictional authorities. Examples of jurisdictional authorities include county boards of supervisors, city councils, and parks and recreation commissions.

Phase 6--Implementation

During the implementation phase, marketing continues and funding alternatives are promoted. As funds become available, project priorities are integrated into annual capital improvement programs and operations budgets. Project managers work to standardize design guidelines across jurisdictional boundaries. If necessary, they develop a process to incorporate trails into the public review process for private development.

The implementation phase also is a time to review, update, and revise the master plan. A master plan provides an agency with a vision and specific direction for a limited period, often 5 years. Changes are inevitable. It is important to adjust the plan according to the local development climate and pace, available budget, and public need. Certain corridors may need to be relocated or modified based on site-specific constraints or as levels and types of use become apparent.

Many communities rely on private development funds or funding partnerships for equestrian trail projects and programs. It is important to integrate horse trails into private developments according to approved trail plans and ordinances. Coordination is essential between all agency departments that develop trail projects and those that review the proposals. Reviewers evaluate development proposals for compliance with zoning and subdivision requirements, ordinance provisions, and the goals and objectives of the comprehensive general plan.

A helpful tool for private trail developers is a checklist of agency submittal requirements. Include general requirements for plan submittal, specific trail requirements, and specific language required for trails. Give the checklist to developers at the earliest stages of a proposal.

Trail System Operations and Maintenance Concerns

A successful trail system requires an ongoing operation and maintenance (O & M) program to ensure that the recreation experience encourages trail use and provides appropriate user safety. O & M programs identify items to be maintained and specify maintenance levels, funding resources, and work responsibility. Successful trail system maintenance may involve partnerships between a managing agency and community organizations, homeowners associations, private landowners, public utility companies, railroad companies, or volunteer recreation groups.

The initial research and documentation during planning forms the basis for subsequent actions. Information about land ownership, maintenance responsibility, and the site become part of the project database and form the baseline for future maintenance programs. Include other relevant management information--prescriptions for vegetation management, hazard corrections, waste treatment and disposal, inspection requirements, maintenance schedules, fire prevention, and so forth. Consider whether separate O & M plans are appropriate for individual sites, or if one plan should cover an entire trail system and related sites. Incorporate procedures to notify user groups and community associations of work responsibilities. Make the program ongoing and cyclical to ensure safe, high-quality recreation opportunities. The steps in this ongoing program include the following:

  • Evaluation--What is the existing condition of the trail and related facilities?
  • Maintenance program--What is required to keep facilities safe?
  • Maintenance schedule--How often is maintenance needed?
  • Response to special situations--What components need repair from damages caused by weather events, accidents, vandalism, or other events?

In some areas, trail classifications and their related components--such as signs, tread surface, and trail width--guide the maintenance program. Some agencies base the frequency of trail evaluations on trail classifications and use levels. For example, high-use trails in highly developed areas may need more frequent monitoring and evaluation than low-use trails in areas with low development.

Manage maintenance frequency for specific trail segments or facilities based on the maintenance plan or unique conditions. The land manager is responsible for overseeing or maintaining all public trail facilities on private land and establishing a consistent level of maintenance and care.

An annual operating budget is needed to fund an ongoing trail operation and maintenance program. Often, operating budgets reflect the development and use levels of trails and facilities. Annual maintenance budgets can be averaged by cost per designated distance, such as a mile (or kilometer), work units, or recreation sites. The average costs are then multiplied across an entire trail system. This approach works best when most trail segments have similar requirements. Other budgetary approaches may look at trail maintenance needs of specific locations.

Photo of parked trucks and trailers and a graphic of a horse shoe.


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