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Equestrian Design Guidebook for Trails, Trailheads and Campgrounds

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Chapter 3--Designing Horse Trails--Continued

Shared-Use Trails

Unless designated otherwise, recreation trails are shared-use trails. The two basic types of nonmotorized shared-use trails are:

  • Trails with a single tread for all users
  • Trails with multiple treads to accommodate specific user groups

Single-tread, shared-use trails work well when all user groups are compatible. Trail and tread requirements vary by jurisdiction or area of the country. Figure 3-12 shows a typical section of a single tread trail in DuPage County, IL. Multiple treads in a single trail corridor allow separation of uses that might conflict. In areas where stock may encounter motor vehicles, other considerations apply.

Riders and their stock, hikers, runners, bicyclists, people with disabilities, and other users can safely share the same well-designed trails. For example, joggers and riders are usually compatible. Both groups appreciate unpaved tread and slow trail traffic. Bicyclists and horses or mules may have conflicts. Road bicyclists--as opposed to mountain bikers--usually appreciate pavement, a surface that is not best for stock. Because the sudden appearance of bicyclists may unnerve stock, many people recommend separating bicycles and stock. This is not the only solution. Different communities and organizations resolve conflicts differently. Some put all trail users on one path, others provide separate treads or separate routes.

No matter which approach is selected, involving all user groups is imperative. If separate treads are chosen, beware of the someday syndrome--building one tread and putting off development of other treads until someday--when more funds are available. This practice can alienate whole groups of trail users.

Shared-Use, Single-Tread Trails

Single-tread trails are generally restricted to areas where the potential conflict between trail users is low. Riders and pedestrians are user groups that generally are compatible on single-tread trails. Single-tread trails can have single or double lanes--or tracks. On single-track tread, trail users walk single file. On double-track tread, two trail users can walk side-by-side or in opposite directions. Figure 3-13 shows a single-tread trail with a double track and shoulders.

Drawing of a man walking and a horse and rider from behind on a trail surrounded by vegetation. In the drawing the text reads, Trail tread, 10 ft min. vertical clearance 12 ft preferred, Tread width, Tread plus shoulders, Physical barrier If solid, no higher than 54 in.
Figure 3-13--A shared-use, single-tread trail with double track (two lanes).

Shared-Use, Separate-Tread Trails

As the number and frequency of trail users increases, so does the demand for two separate treads to reduce conflicts. Part of the appeal is that an unpaved tread offers a different trail experience than a paved tread. Another factor is that riders, joggers, people with disabilities, and other recreationists who travel at low-to-moderate speeds often prefer separation from faster trail users, such as bicyclists. An example of separate treads is a paved path for bicyclists and other wheeled users and an unpaved tread nearby for equestrians and joggers (figure 3-14). It is possible to designate each tread for single use, if the conditions warrant. For example, if the trail has two unpaved treads, one tread could be designated for riders, and the other tread could be designated for pedestrians.

The most highly used trails require trail users to pass each other. Treads can be separated by distance and by visual screens. High- and moderate-use trails sharing highly developed trail corridors often have separate treads divided by at least a 6-foot- (1.8-meter-) wide vegetation buffer or barrier. In some areas, the treads are separated by an elevation change.

Photo of a pavement nonequestrian tread and a dirt equestrian tread seperated by trees.
Figure 3-14--Trail corridors with paved and
unpaved treads accommodate multiple users,
such as riders with horses, pedestrians, joggers,
and bicyclists. Vegetation and distance help
separate users and minimize conflicts.

The alignment of separate treads can be different--each tread following its own optimum route for grades, curves, sight lines, obstacles, attractions, and so forth. When the trail corridor width is constrained and trail use is moderate, a less desirable--but workable--approach is to locate hard and natural treads side by side with little--2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meter)--or no buffer area between them. Unpaved cross trails can connect separate trails or treads at convenient locations. Unpaved spur trails can access points of interest. Occasionally, separate unpaved treads merge into a single tread at road or bridge crossings, separating again on the other side of the constriction.

Trail User Separation

There are many methods of separating trail users, including time, distance, screening, barriers, or some combination of these factors. An example of time separation is a trail used by cross-country skiers in winter and by riders in summer. Trails also can be used by different groups on alternating days. A variation would be alternating groups during the week and on weekends.

Multiple Treads Separated by Distance

When riders must be separated from other trail users, the preferred method is by physically separating the trail treads. In areas where there is adequate space, include vegetation in the separation (figure 3-15). Preserve existing plants or use new landscape materials to visually separate the two treads. When landscaping, don't plant trees and shrubs so densely that stock cannot see what is on the other tread. Well spaced vegetation will provide some visibility, and stock will be more comfortable.

Drawing of a trail with a vegetative buffer. In the drawing the text reads, Tread with paved surface for nonequestrians, Tread with unpaved surface for equestrians, Corridor boundary, Vegetative buffer, and Cross trail.
Figure 3-15--A shared-use
trail with multiple treads--an
unpaved tread for riders
with animals and a paved tread
for other users.

Multiple Treads Separated by Barriers

When other types of separation are not appropriate, a barrier between treads may help prevent conflicts or reduce hazards (figure 3-17). When considering barriers, consult governing land agency requirements. Barriers also must meet applicable safety requirements.

Drawing of a physical seperation from a trail and a road. There are drawings of a road with a car seperated by vegetation. Then there is the nonequestrian tread, a barrier, the equestrain tread, and more vegetation. In the drawing the text reads, Road, Physical seperation, Nonequestrian tread, Barrier if solid, no higher than 54 in, 10 ft min. vertical clearance 12 ft preferred, and Equestrian tread.
Figure 3-17--A shared-use, multiple-tread trail using physical separation
and a barrier as separators.

Trail Barriers, Walls, and Bollards

Barriers improve safety for all trail users--they can prevent a scared animal from running into the path of others. A substantial barrier between trail users also reduces the risk that people unfamiliar with horses and mules will frighten them. The barrier must be sturdy and tall enough to gain a horse's respect or the animal may attempt to run through or jump over it. Chain link or split rail fences are not adequate, and may even be dangerous. When designing barriers, avoid sharp edges, protruding fasteners, or vertical supports that could hurt riders or stock.

Barriers and Walls

When barriers (figure 3-18) are necessary, options include low walls, fences, and railings. The accepted height for most equestrian barriers is 54 inches (1,372 millimeters), similar to the AASHTO (1996) requirements for railings on equestrian bridges. Solid barriers higher than 54 inches severely limit a trail animal's peripheral vision and sense of security. High trestle bridges, overpasses, or other potentially dangerous situations may require higher barriers. Consider adding railings to low walls if more height is needed. Consider adaptations when solid walls end abruptly. One method is to taper the wall height gradually, allowing the animal to get adjusted to the view.

Drawing of two diffent types of barriers. In the top drawing the text reads, Wall, Combination wall and railing, Railing, and Common Barrier Types End View. The second drawing is of a Combination Wall and Railing Elevation View. In the drawing the text reads, Railing 8 in max. spacing recommended between rails, Solid barrier (wall), 48 in or according to governing agency standard, and 54 in or according to governing agency standard.
Figure 3-18--Common styles for horse-friendly barriers.
The barrier must be sturdy and tall enough to gain
a horse's respect or the animal may attempt
to run through or jump over it.
Caution: solid barriers higher than 54 inches
severely limit a trail animal's peripheral vision
and sense of security.

When solid walls are used, vegetation on the side facing the trail can soften the structure's appearance. Figure 3-19 shows treads separated by a railing that has vegetation. Near urban areas where crime may be a concern, trim adjacent trail vegetation to less than 3 or 4 feet (0.9 or 1.2 meters) high to minimize hiding places.

Barriers that separate trails from a pasture or livestock enclosure may pose challenges for riders. Pastured horses and mules frequently run to meet approaching trail users, causing some inexperienced stock to run away. Many horses and mules fear aggressive dogs and unfamiliar livestock, including llamas, cattle, goats, sheep, and pigs. Keep the trail away from potential conflicts with farm and exotic animals, if possible.

Drawing showing an equestrian tread and a nonequestrain tread seperated by a physical barrier with landscaping.
Figure 3-19--A trail with multiple treads separated by a barrier with landscaping.

Barriers also are useful for keeping riders and other trail users away from hazards. For example, stock may be more comfortable along steep drops and precipices than their riders. From a horse's perspective, the edge is a safe place to be--predators are not likely to come from below. Design barriers in such areas with smooth, continuous surfaces that cannot catch the load, a rider's foot, or the stirrups.


Barrier posts--or bollards--frequently are installed on nonmotorized trails to block motorized use (figure 3-20). One bollard is usually enough to let motorists know the trail is not open to them. If more than one bollard is needed, install an odd number. Two bollards may confuse riders, possibly channeling them into the center of the trail or contributing to conflicts with other trail users. Three bollards send a clearer message. Placing bollards 5 feet (1.5 meters) apart allows mounted riders to pass between them with relative ease, but may not keep out all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). Because most ATVs for adults are at least 4 feet (1.2 meters) wide, bollards would have to be spaced 3 to 4 feet (0.9 to 1.2 meters) apart to restrict motorized access. This spacing is too narrow for a trail animal to go through comfortably, unless the bollards are no taller than 3 feet (0.9 meter). Bollards that high won't catch in stirrups and are tall enough that they won't become tripping hazards. Bollards at vehicle intersections must meet applicable regulations, such as AASHTO requirements. Bollards should be placed where they will not interfere with sight or stopping distances. Bollards may have lights to guide trail users after dark, and they may be lockable, removable, or recline to allow authorized vehicle access.

Photo of three bollards blocking a trail entrance from motorized vehicles.
Figure 3-20--An uneven number of bollards
is less confusing to trail users than an
even number.

Trails Adjacent to Roads

When trails are next to busy roads, there is always a chance that a trail animal will become excited and run into traffic. In areas with low or moderate development, or in places where traffic speeds are relatively low, a comfortable distance between road and trail may suffice (figure 3-21). Places where traffic moves more quickly require greater physical separation. It may be best to provide a sturdy barrier. Trails with barriers along streets and highways must not only meet the needs of stock, but also the safety requirements for motorized traffic. The barriers can be costly and they need regular maintenance.

Drawing  of a car on a roadway and a horse and rider on an equestrian tread both seperated by a physical seperation or barrier.
Figure 3-21--Distance separates a horse trail from an adjacent road.
A safety barrier could be used instead of distance.
Roadside barriers must meet the safety requirements for motorized traffic.

The accepted height of most equestrian barriers is 54 inches (1,372 millimeters). To reduce the risk that a horse might jump the barrier, make it at least 60 inches (1,524 millimeters) tall. Choose barriers that can withstand the force of a trail animal attempting to run through them. An example of an acceptable barrier is a steel railing. If a railing is used, include vegetation at the bottom to screen traffic from the horse's view. Avoid railings with posts or edges that can injure a trail animal or rider.

Occasionally, it may be necessary to completely block the horse's ability to see the source of noise. An example would be a trail that is immediately adjacent to high-speed roads where the sight of oncoming traffic would probably alarm the horse more than just traffic sounds alone.

Alternative Shared Corridors

In many areas of the country, existing corridors could serve more than one purpose. Consider incorporating horse trails into alleys, utility rights-of-way, and public or private roads with private access. These corridors serve as alternatives for horse trails if they are wide enough, don't have pavement, and the governing authority approves their use. Other potential trail routes include abandoned roads and inactive railroad corridors.

Photo of multiple riders crossing a bridge and a graphic of a horse shoe.

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Updated: 10/20/2015
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