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Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads and Campgrounds

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Chapter 3--Designing Horse Trails

Once trail analysis and planning are completed, planners know how the trail relates to existing transportation systems and recreation opportunities. The next step is trail layout and design. The design should protect the setting, use an appropriate level of development, meet the needs of trail users, and minimize trail user conflicts.

Trail Settings

The setting is the overall environment of the trail. Three commonly used settings are wildlands, rural, and urban. The terms and definitions may vary from area to area and between organizations. The definition of the setting helps planners and designers make decisions on matters such as the suitability of particular construction methods or maintenance levels. Settings also affect esthetic decisions.

Wildland Settings

Riders place a high value on riding in wildland settings (figure 3-1). These areas are generally minimally developed or dispersed multiple-use areas, such as forests, swamps, deserts, or alpine areas. Many National Forest System lands have wildland settings. In some cases, rural road rights-of-way are used for wildland trails. Wildland settings often present the most design challenges because of topography, distance from services, and hazards. When trails are not accessible by motor vehicles, tools and materials may need to be packed in--a significant challenge. In this guidebook, the wildland settings category does not include recreation opportunities in designated wilderness.

Photo of a group of trail riders.
Figure 3-1--Trails in wildland settings generally
have minimal development and offer
the most challenge for trail users.

Rural Settings

Rural settings often incorporate some combination of rivers, creeks, unimproved drainages, hillsides, undisturbed open space, and other natural features.They often include open spaces and preserves near highly populated areas or in moderately developed rural regions (figure 3-2). Unusual--but often viable--resources in some areas include contributed rights-of-way and fence setbacks by cooperating neighbors. Safety concerns for riders in rural settings include visibility, interaction with other recreationists, and natural hazards. Rural trails may cross or run at grade parallel to roads with vehicular traffic, a significant safety concern.

Photo of multiple horse riders on a grassy path next to a stream.
Figure 3-2--Trails in rural settings often take
advantage of public rights-of-way, such as
canals or utility corridors.

--Courtesy of Kandee Haertel

Urban Settings

Urban settings usually are highly developed or congested areas. Trails in urban settings (figure 3-3) often accommodate many different user groups and frequently require many facilities. Urban trails may share routes with other modes of transportation and often take advantage of roads, utility corridors, developed drainage corridors, and similar rights-of-way. Safety is a significant consideration when animals must mix with motorized traffic and adjust to other aspects of city travel.

Photo of two people using a path alongside a roadway.
Figure 3-3--Shared-use paths in urban settings
serve many different user groups.

Appropriate Levels of Development

The appropriate level of trail development is based on local needs and conditions. This guidebook uses the terms low, moderate, and high development as subjective classifications to describe the degree of development. Specific definitions aren't assigned to the terms, because level of development is relative. For example, high development in a wildland setting may be considered moderate development in a rural area, or low development in a busy urban area. On the other hand, a simple neighborhood trail in an urban area could be similar to a low development trail in a wildland area. Levels of development also may vary on different trail segments within the same trail corridor. Planners usually generate their own definitions based on local conditions and input. This guidebook focuses on development with modest to substantial improvements.

Riders' Needs

Equestrians include youngsters, elders, leisure riders, professional riders, organized groups, novices, people with disabilities, and working ranchers (figures 3-4 through 3-8). Riders recreate singly or in groups, and for many reasons--including pleasure, exercise, or challenge. Popular group trail events include social trips, competitive trail rides, and endurance races. Riders ferry loads or camping gear using packstrings or packtrains--a group of packhorses or packmules tied together single file and led by one rider. Less common are the drivers of stock that pull carts or carriages. Well-designed horse trails consider the setting of the trail system, the needs of all user groups, and the specific needs of stock and their riders.

Equestrians include:
Photo of a man holding a pony with a child on it.
Figure 3-4--Children...
Photo of three horse riders on a trail ride.
Figure 3-5--...leisure riders...
Photo of a group of riders.
Figure 3-6--...organized groups...
Photo of two helpers and a disabled rider riding on the beach.
Figure 3-7--...organized groups...
Photo of a rancher and his horse fixing a broken fence.
Figure 3-8--...and the working rancher.
--Figures 3-4, 3-5, and 3-6 courtesy of the Forest District of DuPage County, IL.

Some riders prefer gentle, wide trails, and easy trail access. Others prefer technically challenging situations. The designer uses local guidelines when determining the opportunities to offer trail users.


Stock, hikers, runners, and bicyclists sometimes share trail corridors that are modified to meet each user group's requirements. However when conflicts seem likely, land managers may separate trail users on different trails or on different treads separated by buffers. The Trail Scenarios section in this chapter has more information about separating trail users.

Motorized traffic is one of the most dangerous hazards to stock. Collisions or conflicts can cause serious injury or death to people and stock. Design that considers the needs of all users is vital.

Trail Hierarchies

Some agencies and municipalities find it useful to assign a hierarchy to trails, ranging from trails with a major regional significance to trails that access neighborhoods or areas with sparse traffic. Trail classifications can reflect the functions the trails serve, their scale of development, their level of use, and their location in a larger trail system. The Forest Service, MetroGreen, and Scottsdale trail classification systems are discussed in this section.

The Forest Service considers specific trail uses when designing, constructing, and maintaining a trail. Forest Service Trail Classes are basic categories that reflect the desired management of each trail, taking into account other management activities in the area, user preferences, settings, and protection of sensitive resources.

Trail classes also help determine the cost of meeting the national quality standards. The five trail classes range from minimal development to full development as shown in table 3-1. Most of the trails discussed in this guidebook would fall into Forest Service Trail Classes 3 and above (more developed trails).

The Forest Service also uses Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (ROS) and Wilderness Recreation Opportunity Spectrum (WROS) classifications (see Chapter 7--Planning Recreation Sites).

Trail Classes Vary-Examples of Trail Classification Systems Table 3-1--Forest Service trail classes with trail attributes. The general criteria apply to all Forest Service system trails. Most of the trails discussed in this guidebook would fall into Forest Service Trail Classes 3 and above. ROS and WROS classifications are discussed in Chapter 7--Planning Recreation Sites.
Trail Attributes Trail Class 1 Trail Class 2 Trail Class 3 Trail Class 4 Trail Class 5
General Criteria: Physical characteristics to be applied to all National Forest System trails
Tread & traffic flow
  • Tread intermittent and often indistinct
  • May require route finding
  • Native materials only
  • Tread discernible and continuous and rough
  • Few or no allowances for passing
  • Native materials
  • Tread obvious and continuous
  • Width accommodates unhindered one-lane travel (occasional allowances constructed for passing)
  • Typically native materials
  • Tread wide and relatively smooth with few irregularities
  • Width may consistently accommodate two-lane travel
  • Native or imported materials
  • May be hardened
  • Width generally accommodates two-lane travel, or provides frequent passing turnouts
  • Commonly hardened with asphalt or other imported material
  • Obstacles common
  • Narrow passages; brush, steep grades, rocks and logs present
  • Obstacles occasionally present
  • Blockages cleared to define route and protect resources
  • Vegetation may encroach into trailway
  • Typically native materials
  • Vegetation cleared outside of trailway
  • Few or no obstacles exist
  • Grades typically <12%
  • Vegetation cleared outside of trailway
  • No obstacles
  • Grades typically <8%
Constructed features & trail elements
  • Minimal to non-existent
  • Drainage is functional
  • No constructed bridges or foot crossings
  • Structures are of limited size, scale, and number
  • Drainage functional
  • Structures adequate to protect trail infrastructure and resources
  • Primitive foot crossings and fords
  • Trail structures (walls, steps, drainage, raised trail) may be common and substantial
  • Trail bridges as needed for resource protection and appropriate access
  • Generally native materials used in Wilderness
  • Structures frequent and substantial
  • Substantial trail bridges are appropriate at water crossings
  • Trailside amenities may be present
  • Structures frequent or continuous; may include curbs, handrails, trailside amenities, and boardwalks
  • Drainage structures frequent; may include culverts and road-like designs
  • Minimum required
  • Generally limited to regulation and resource protection
  • No destination signs present
  • Minimum required for basic direction
  • Generally limited to regulation and resource protection
  • Typically very few or no destination signs present
  • Regulation, resource protection, user reassurance
  • Directional signs at junctions, or when confusion is likely
  • Destination signs typically present
  • Destination signs typically present
  • Informational and interpretive signs may be present outside Wilderness
  • Wide variety of signs likely present
  • Informational signs likely (outside of Wilderness)
  • Trail Universal Access information likely displayed at trailhead
  • Wide variety of signage is present
  • Information and interpretive signs likely
  • Trail Universal Access information is typically displayed at trailhead
Typical recreation environs & experience
  • Natural, unmodified
  • ROS: Often Primitive setting, but may occur in other ROS settings
  • WROS: Primitive
  • Natural, essentially unmodified
  • ROS: Typically Primitive to Semi-Primitive setting
  • WROS: Primitive to Semi-Primitive
  • Natural, primarily unmodified
  • ROS: Typically Semi-Primitive to Roaded Natural setting
  • WROS: Semi-Primitive to Transition
  • May be modified
  • ROS: Typically Roaded Natural to Rural setting
  • WROS: Transition (rarely present in Wilderness)
  • Can be highly modified
  • ROS: Typically Rural to Urban setting
  • Commonly associated with Visitor Centers or high-use recreation sites
  • Not present in Wilderness
--Adapted from Trail Class Matrix (U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service 2005b) at

The Metro Green Alliance--seven counties in the Kansas City area--uses a different approach. Design Guidelines for MetroGreen (Mid-America Regional Council and others 2001) incorporates five trail classes that address different levels of development, amount of use, and user type, as shown in table 3-2. The trail system used in Scottsdale, AZ, consists of primary, secondary, local, and neighborhood trails in natural and built environments (table 3-3).

Trail Classes Vary-Examples of Trail Classification Systems (continued) Table 3-2--MetroGreen Alliance trail types with trail user characteristics. The MetroGreen Alliance has more than 1,400 miles (2,253 kilometers) of trail, classified into five major categories. MetroGreen Type 3 trails are the only ones designated for riders and may be restricted to equestrians only. When riders share Type 3 trails with other users, a separate horse tread is provided. Type 3 trails provide riding opportunities along multiuse trail corridors within greenways and accommodate a steady flow of two-way horse traffic during peak use. MetroGreen Type 3 trails would have moderate to high levels of development, based on the information in this guidebook.
Trail Type 1 Trail Type 2 Trail Type 3 Trail Type 4 Trail Type 5
No facility development Limited development, low-impact uses Multiple-use, unpaved trail development Multiple-use paved trail development Bicycle and pedestrian facilities with the right of way
  • Very low volume of use is expected.
  • Hikers.
  • Bicycle use should be restricted in most cases.
  • Generally a very low volume of users is expected.
  • Hikers, joggers, and perhaps crosscountry skiers.
  • This trail type is not intended for cyclists or other wheeled users.
  • Low-to-moderate volume of users is expected.
  • These trails are restricted to pedestrians, bicycles, and equestrians. Equestrian users require a separate trail so that horses do not damage the trail surface.
  • Wheelchair users and persons with strollers can use unpaved trails if they are designed to ADA [Americans with Disabilities Act] standards and surfaced with compacted crushed stone or other firm surface.
  • Moderate-to-very high use is expected.
  • Several users groups can enjoy the trails, including bicyclists, joggers, wheelchair users and rollerbladers.
  • Moderate-to-high use is expected.
  • Depending on the specific facility, this trail type serves pedestrians, bicyclists, rollerbladers, etc.
--Adapted from Design Guidelines for MetroGreen (Mid-America Regional Council and others 2001).

Trail Classes Vary-Examples of Trail Classification Systems (continued) Table 3-3--Scottsdale, AZ, trail classes and environments. Scottsdale trails are part of a large, multimodal trail system, including 100 miles (161 kilometers) of trail in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and 224 miles (360.5 kilometers) elsewhere in the city. Scottsdale trails would be considered moderately to highly developed, based on the information in this guidebook.
Environment Primary Trails Secondary Trails Local and Neighborhood Trails
Built environment
  • Canal banks
  • Powerline corridors
  • Scenic corridors
  • Standard corridors
  • Drainage corridors
  • Built open space
  • Roadside
  • Nonstreet easements
  • Drainage corridors
  • Built open space
  • Roadside
  • Alleyways/nonstreet easements
  • Drainage corridors
  • Built open space
Natural environment
  • Washes
  • Natural open space
  • Washes
  • Natural open space
  • Washes
  • Natural open space
  • Roadside with adjacent natural environment
--Adapted from Scottsdale Trails Master Plan (Todd & Associates, Inc., and others 2003).

A trail's degree of challenge depends on the user. Defining trail challenge--or trail difficulty-- requires a subjective look at an average trail user's physical ability and skill. Difficulty takes into consideration trail condition and trail elements such as alignment, steepness, elevation gain and loss, and the number and kinds of barriers that must b crossed. Trail length is not considered a difficulty factor, although it is an important consideration. Snow, ice, rain, and other weather conditions may increase the level of difficulty. Because of their subjectivity, trail ratings are not recommended. Instead, provide appropriate information at the trailhead or trail junction so trail users may make informed choices. Visitor information stations can include a map and trail length, maximum grade, sustained grade, elevation change, obstacles along the way, and other relevant information. See Chapter 12--Providing Signs and Public Information for further discussion on this topic.

Trail Scenarios

The trail scenarios presented in this section are design approaches that commonly work for riders. These are not the only possible solutions--designers are encouraged to learn about stock and rider needs, and then mix and match trail elements to best fit local conditions and requirements.

From the rider's perspective, trails must have enough room so their mount feels at ease. Stock tend to stay a comfortable distance away from other trail users and from walls or fences they cannot see through or over, sometimes even moving to the far side of the trail to avoid them. Accommodate this behavior by widening the trail, routing it away from disturbing objects or activity, locating the horse tread on the far side of the trail corridor, providing a physical separation or visual screen, installing barriers, or increasing the horizontal distance--also called the shy distance--from the discomfort. Shy distance is in addition to tread width.

Equestrian-Only Trails

Single-tread trails reserved exclusively for horses and mules--also called bridle trails, bridle paths, or bridleways in urban settings--are uncommon in the United States. Figure 3-11 shows a trail that could be designated for equestrians only or for shared use. Most public trails are designated for shared use, although there may be instances where a trail is not appropriate or safe for all users--for example, a narrow and winding recreation trail with a steep dropoff.

Drawing of a horse and rider on a trail surrouned by vegetation. In the drawing the text reads, Load clearance, 10 ft min. vertical clearance 12 ft preferred, Vegetative buffer, Equestrian tread, and Easement width.
Figure 3-11--An equestrian-only trail for riders and their horses and mules.
Such trails may be called bridle trails, bridle paths, or bridleways.

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