Hiking with Shawn’s
Shawnee Safety Guide Series:
Safely Sharing the Trail
with Equestrian Users
Horses and mules are a common sight along multiple areas of the Shawnee National Forest. There are almost one or two horse campgrounds in every county that the Shawnee National Forest resides in. Most of the trails in the Shawnee National Forest are horse trails.
We can thank horse riders (and mule riders) for initially developing, continuing the maintain and support the efforts of many trails throughout the Shawnee National Forest. Organizations such as the mule riders from Indiana, Shawnee Trail Conservancy and the Backcountry Horsemen continue to support efforts to maintain trails throughout the forest.
As tourism continues to increase, more hikers, bikers and equine users will also increase in the process and safely sharing the trail with equestrian users is now more important than ever. This article, the first of a new safety series, will go into detail about how you can safely share the trail with equine users.
Always Yield to Equestrian Users
The golden rule is to always yield to equestrian users. This is nothing new. Most standard yielding guidelines in most National Forests, National Parks and state-managed public lands across the country recommend all users always yield to equestrian users and give them the right-of-way. This is exceptionally due to the fact that a horse and a mule are animals with a mind of their own. It is easy for us to stop hiking. It is easy to activate the brake feature on our bicycles and jeeps, but it isn’t always easy to stop a horse/mule on a dime without any issue.
We often see horses in gated pastures, right? This is because they are stock animals. This means that horses and mules are pack mentality and often rely on a leader which if often the rider. Horses and mules scare easy. They don’t see like we do and anything non-equine will likely be considered a threat to them from the get-go. If they see you hiking, mountain biking or performing other non-equine recreating activities, they may consider you a threat and become fearful.
When a horse or mule is scared, it usually reacts with fear by bucking, attempting to flee and making audible panicking sounds. This is when it becomes dangerous for the riders on top of the horse or mule. If the rider is thrown from the animal, the rider can be seriously injured or even killed during the process. No one wants to see anyone injured or killed while trying to enjoy the benefits of the National Forest.
If you see equestrian users heading your way up or down a trail, please yield to them. Stop hiking. Stop biking. Stop your vehicle. Give the animal and the rider on top a break and let them pass safely to avoid any unintentional accident that could occur. As tourism increases, this safety guideline is more important than ever.
Always Talk to the Rider
Many people make the mistake of yielding to equine users and then not saying anything. To the pack animal, this is panic mode because it sees something odd and doesn’t hear any sounds coming from it. The horse or mule might even think you are predator such as a bear due to your stillness and quietness. Yielding is a safe way to handle the situation, but you also need to talk to the rider if you are able to.
I like to make sure riders know I am there before they notice me. I do that by saying “Howdy” or by forcing a cough once I am in seeing distance of the rider. As the rider approaches me, I talk calmly and in a friendly manner to the rider. I always try to mention the weather for the day and what’s to come. I ask where they’re from and what their animal’s name is. I talk to them until they are safely away from me and then I wish them a positive farewell.
Don’t scream or yell at the rider and move around awkwardly. Talk calmly as if you are talking to a friend. The horse needs to identify you as a human as quick as it can. Talking to the rider calmly is a sure way for the horse to identify you as a human, quickly. Standing still and not talking will only likely put the horse into a panic from fear.
Always Follow the Instructions of the Rider
Sometimes the animals have a hard time coping with other users on the trail. This is especially true with animals not used to trail riding or those that have been poorly trained. When this happens, it usually takes special attention from the rider to calm the animal down. In this case, the rider might ask you to do certain things to help the horse calm down. If the rider yells or orders it in a panic, don’t be upset because they are likely in a panic themselves and are reacting with it. Just be friendly and follow their instructions.
While you should always try to follow the special instructions of the riders, always ensure you can do so safely. If they ask you to get off the trail for a moment, look where you are going before you get off the trail beforehand. You need to ensure that you are not stepping into a hazardous situation. Your personal safely should ALWAYS come before anything else. We want to share the trail respectfully with other users, but we must ensure that we choose safe ways of doing it.
Don’t attempt to calm the horse yourself even if you have been around them and know how to approach them. The rider is usually better equipped to handle their own animal more than a stranger to the animal can. If you intervene, while you may think it could be helpful, it could very well make the situations more dangerous than it already was.
Continue to Enjoy the Forest
This guide should not be seen as an effort to discourage you from enjoying the forest. Hiking, mountain biking and legal jeeping is becoming more and more popular each year. Recently, the Forest Service has even started to talk about designating trails officially for mountain bike use and they should because there is more than enough Shawnee for everyone to share. Those who don’t want to share should stay out of the woods because they ruin it for others. Ignore those people!
Every user of the Shawnee National Forest helps the forest in some way or another. Horse riding activities brings a lot of tourism to the Shawnee. A recent mule event brought more than a thousand riders from dozens of states to the forest. Cycling events do the same as well as trail running and adventure racing. Hiking is becoming more and more popular as well. Hunting and fishing, too! Jeep travel is also a big activity these days. All these users enjoy the Shawnee and usually spend their money locally which help southern Illinois. We need them, we need all of them.
But we can easily all enjoy the National Forest by sharing the trail the smart way. Always yield to equine riders because that animal is harder to control than your feet or a wheel. Be friendly and talk to the rider so that the animal knows you are not a threat. And if the horse is having a hard time, follow directions of the rider so that both of you can get the animal under control.
Special Safety Considerations for Hikers and Runners
It is likely that hikers and runners will be the main user group that horse riders encounter the most. Whether it is one hiker, a few or a large group – a horse will often see the person or people as a potential threat and predator. It is exceptionally important that hikers and runners are aware of a trail that allows horseback riders to use them. These will likely be most trails in wilderness areas and designated trails outside of established recreational and natural areas.
If you bring a pet, make sure you leash the pet. Loose pets are generally not allowed on National Forest trails as a general rule. Other people may have pets and the pet could start a horse or mule and an accident occur. Your pet could even get hurt in the process if the animals defends itself from it. Keep your pet on a leash and attempt to control its behavior when approaching equine users. In some cases, equine users may have loose dogs with them. It is their responsibility to ensure their loose pet isn’t harmful to others or the pets of others. Please keep this in mind when choosing to get on trails with equestrian users on them.
While hiking or running on equestrian/hiker shared trails, it is a good idea to be able to hear everything around you. It is highly recommended to NOT wear ear buds that restrict your ability to hear what’s going on around you. Imagine hiking or running around a bend and meeting a large horse or mule head on. A number of things can happen! You could get seriously injured. The rider could get seriously injured. Even the animal could be seriously injured. No one needs to be injured – use common sense. Restricting your ability to hear activities around you is not using common sense.
Consider a bell! Bear bells are used to make noise while hiking in bear country in an attempt to prevent a trail user from accidentally sneaking up on a bear which can result in a fatal aftermath. While there are no bears (officially) in the Shawnee, the bear bell could still be a safe way to announce yourself on the trail. Horse riders will likely be able to hear the bear bell from a distance and know that something is approaching them. If you hike a night, use a headlamp because people also ride their horses at night.
Special Safety Considerations for Mountain Bikers
Mountain biking the Shawnee National Forest is becoming more and more popular by the day. I officially support the effort to bring designated mountain biking into the Shawnee. I’ve donated money to the cause, support the Shawnee Mountain Bike Association and have publicly voiced my official position on mountain biking in the Shawnee. While I am personally not a very active mountain bike user, I do occasionally mountain bike in the Shawnee. Mountain bike riders can practically ride any trail that isn’t signed to restrict them from riding. You can call the US Forest Service to confirm this. Mountain bikers are not allowed to ride anywhere in a Wilderness Area, any sort of Natural Area or forest roads with close gates or seasonally closed gates. After the pandemic occurred, mountain biking trends have significantly increased as it provides an excellent way to support a healthier lifestyle. Mountain biking in the Shawnee simply makes sense and should be a widely supported user ground.
However, mountain bikers often pose a significantly more hazardous situation for equestrian users than hiking does. This is due to the fact that a bike can get to a horse a lot faster and quieter than a hiker. If a rider turns a corner going fast and meets a horse – the risk for a serious accident significantly increases. It is of my personal opinion that trail designation is the best way to prevent accidents between equine and mountain bike users but not all user organizations support this as they feel it would be more restrictive to keep the two users apart. I am not writing this guide to argue the politics of the situation, though – I am writing it to encourage safety and sharing of the trail.
Like with hiking and runner, I highly recommend using a bear bell and a light on your bike if you plan to ride in horseback riding country. This will allow equine users to hear you coming towards them long before it could be too late. A hazardous contact between a mountain biker and horseback rider will likely often result in serious injury. The equine rider is up higher so a fall for them will be more dangerous. Many horseback riders don’t wear helmets (although common sense says they should) and many mountain bikers do.
Like with hiking, keep the ear buds out of your ear. Enjoy the sounds of nature or consider getting a radio mod that plays on the bike. It would be a good alternative to a bear bell! If you plan to ride fast, consider slowing down at least in the areas where you have poor view of what is to come. A horse isn’t your only danger in the Shawnee. You could be riding fast towards a down tree, a hole or rock that will cause you to wreck or even a hazardous animal such as our common Timber Rattlesnakes that roam the National Forest. You might consider sticking to more common mountain bike areas when wanting to go fast such as Touch of Nature or Lake Glendale/Dixon Springs trails.
Mountain bikers and horseback riders in the Shawnee haven’t always had the best relationship. We need to change this in order for us all to be able to enjoy a shared trail in the future. If we don’t, we are always going to have problems. You can help change this issue by always yielding to equine users. Stop and dismount the bike, move to the side of the trail and allow the rider passage and talk to the rider as if you’re talking to your friend. If the rider is angry and confrontational, kill them with kindness and set an example of a common-sense trail user.
Let’s go over some quick safety tips for safely enjoying the Shawnee with equestrian users:
- Always yield to equestrian users – their animals have a mind of their own
- Always talk to equine riders in a friendly manner to help the animal see that you’re not a threat
- Follow any special instructions the rider may have to help ensure the situation is safe
- Make sure you put your safety first, always and no matter what
- Keep ear bud at home so that you can be aware of what you are getting into
- Be aware of trails that allow equestrian usage and assume they are out there, too!
- Wear a bear bell on your pack or bike to help alert people you are near
- Use a headlamp or flashlight if you plan to be on a trail at night
- Go slow in blind spots so that you don’t rush into a dangerous situation
- Keep pets on a leash and use common sense
What Can Equine Riders Do?
If you’re reading this as an equestrian user, you can also do things to promote trail sharing and safety. You are a part of the community and it takes the entire community in order to be successful. I recommend first that you consider meeting with other organizations that support other user groups such as River to River Trail Society, Friends of the Shawnee National Forest and Shawnee Mountain Bike Association. We all need to be collaborating with one and another in order to truly promote safety and the sharing of trails.
I also recommend training your animal to be able to cope around those walking or on bikes. I’d reach out to equestrian organizations for information and resources on that subject. Maybe that could be something that the two organizations could team up and do? Just a thought!
Lastly, like you, these other users are out there to enjoy the National Forest. If you are frustrated with them be it their inexperience with sharing with horses or whatever, keep cool and keep respectful. If you are friendly to them, they will most likely be friendly in return and it makes for a wonderful opportunity for education from you to them.
In conclusion, we can all share the Shawnee National Forest with one and another safely by using common sense and thinking about the other user group. The old days where user groups would fight about who has the right to the trail is quickly fading away and it is going to take all groups to collaborate with one and another to be able to safely share the trail. As a general reminder-always yield to horseback riders, talk to the rider the entire time you have them in your sight and follow any extra instructions they might have in case their animal is having a difficult time. Always keep safety in mind. Leave the Shawnee with good memories, not bad injuries. Sharing is caring and there is plenty of public land to share!
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Shawn J. Gossman
Shawn is the founder and host of the YouTube Channel, Hiking with Shawn as well as Hiking with Shawn LLC. Shawn hikes, backpacks and visits various forested areas in the Shawnee National Forest, local state parks and other areas promoting outdoor recreational activities to obtain video to show to locals and non-locals alike. Please support Shawn’s efforts by sharing this post and leaving a comment below.
Thank you Shawn! Great article, great information. As an equestrian, I hope everybody reads this and realizes the reasons for yielding to horses and mules as you have explained so well. Thank you again!
Another consideration would be that in some cases mountain bikers would overtake and approach from the rear of a group of trail riders— in my experience the safest way to handle this situation is for the bike riders to move to the side of the trail and allow the horses to turn around and ride back past them to allow them to go safely on their way/-also chatting with the riders during this process—— undoubtedly most horseback riders would also need educated in this courtesy
I am all about sharing the trails . . I’ve been berated by bikers about having dogs on the trail ??? told me it was a BIKE trail 🙁 . . and when I was biking almost ran off the trail by bikers going at a much faster speed downhill, etc. And will say, I’ve never hiked or biked where equestrians are allowed . . but have seen signs that equestrians do go where they are not allowed.
But I do believe you’ve been a bit one sided . . why not encourage equestrians to use “bear bells” and keep their horse under control (like you suggest for dog owners/bikers/hikers) . . maybe keep the horses off the trail if they are “green”/uncontrollable since owners are responsible for the behavior of their animals . . why is it OK for equestrians to have loose dogs but not hikers??
#1 dogs have a mind of their own too, but are expected not to be aggressive or out of control
#2 shouldn’t we all talk to each other in a friendly manner so problems don’t escalate
#6 IMO is really the only tip that is needed . . if we do that (and USE COMMON SENSE from #10) things should go much better
asking folks to not use ear buds, wear bells, no dogs off leash (mine comes when called, and I carry the leash around my waist so I can quickly attach) seems like too much to ask, people like to enjoy the outdoors in different ways . . just ask us to SHARE the space, not INFRINGE on someone else’s safety . . in short, USE COMMON SENSE
I appreciate the time and effort you spend, Shawn but feel there needs to be understanding on both sides.
Excellent article Shawn!! Thank you for taking the time to do this. Your information is excellent. I do have one tiny suggestion…you refer to “poorly trained” horses. This gives a negative connotation. Training a horse or mule is an ongoing process that takes many years. They get better with experience and exposure to new things.. just like children. Every horse has to have that first encounter with a hiker or biker on the trail. Training in an arena setting helps but cannot substitute for actual on-the-trail experience. So my suggestion is better wording such as “young or inexperienced ” horses. This is a better characterization of those animals that might react more severely. A seasoned trail horse or mule is generally an older, more experienced animal. They aren’t born that way. Again…kudos to you on an excellent article!!
Black Hills Back Country Horsemen of South Dakota
Thanks for the comment! I agree with the encounters. Sorry if I made it look negative, I didn’t mean to.
Great article. I’d only add that bikers/ bikers please be on the same side of the trail when yielding, to not be on opposite sides where equestrians would be required to pass Through them. 😀