Advocating for Horse Use on Canada's Provincial and Regional Trails

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Compromise and Cooperation

By Tania Millen

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” - Margaret Mead

Horseback riders across Canada are advocating for horse use on provincial and regional trails. In Ontario, Alberta, and British Columbia (BC) that often means resolving potential conflicts with other user groups. On Prince Edward Island (PEI) it’s meant trying to gain access to the Confederation Trail — a 470-kilometre stretch of Canada’s Great Trail, previously called the Trans Canada Trail, which follows a former railway bed across the island. 

“There’s a long history of horses not being allowed on the Confederation Trail,” says Sylvia Hall Andrews, a BC resident who has trailered her horse east across Canada to her family’s home on PEI several times.

“The reasons cited are that horses are going to damage the trail, there’s going to be too much manure, or there’s going to be user conflict,” says Andrews. The trail is currently open to walkers and cyclists in summer plus snowmobilers in winter.

The initial understanding by PEI’s horseback riders was that the trail would be multiuse and open to horses. In the 1990s, PEI equestrian Yogi Fell donated to fundraising efforts to purchase the former railbed, with the understanding that horseback riders would be allowed on the eventual trail. In 2000, Fell drove her Newfoundland Pony along the Confederation Trail during its official opening. The following day, horses were prohibited.

When Andrews learned of this, she decided to pursue the matter and in 2019, she and others met with the PEI Ministry of Transport.

Related: The Lost Trail Ride - Horse Riding in Canada's Rockies

“In the first meeting we had with government I said, ‘Horses can share the trail with cyclists,’ and they looked at me like I was from another planet, like I was crazy,” says Andrews.

Accordingly, the group provided information about multiuse rails-to-trails across Canada that welcome horses: Cowichan Valley Trail and Kettle Valley Rail Trail in BC; Iron Horse Trail in Alberta; Rossburn Subdivision section of The Great Trail in Manitoba; Celtic Shores Coastal Trail in Nova Scotia; and T’Railway in Newfoundland.

In 2021, the ad hoc group organized as the PEI Trail Riders and affiliated with PEI Horse Council.

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Above: Sylvia Hall Andrews (left) and Angela Whelan on the first day of PEI’s Confederation Trail pilot project in August 2021. Photo: Jim Whelan

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Above: A horse, a dog, and a cyclist share a portion of Confederation Trail in a pilot project conducted by the PEI Ministry of Transport to evaluate the integration of horses and their impact on the trail. Photo: Sylvia Hall Andrews

“We needed a unified voice,” says Andrews, who is the organization’s interprovincial trails representative. “That way, only one group of people is talking to government.”

The group has a strong advocacy mandate and about 40 members. They’re dedicated to preserving and promoting equestrian access to public land; maintaining and preserving existing equine-accessible trails; working with recreational groups, government agencies, and the general public to foster cooperative trail use; and, promoting education about trail safety, courtesy, environmental stewardship, and safe sharing of PEI roadways.

In 2021 and 2022, they convinced the PEI Ministry of Transport to conduct pilot projects on specific portions of the Confederation Trail, allowing horseback riders to use the trail for the first time. In 2023, the Ministry will decide whether horses will finally be allowed on the trail.

Related: What To Do In Remote Emergencies with Horses

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In PEI, a 470-km stretch of Confederation Trail follows a former railway bed across the island. The initial understanding was that the trail would be multiuse and open to horses. PEI equestrian Yogi Fell, who donated funds towards purchasing the railbed, is shown driving her Newfoundland Pony along Confederation Trail (previously called the Trans Canada Trail) during its official opening in 2000, for which she received a participation certificate. The next day, horses were prohibited from the trail. PEI Trail Riders, with a strong advocacy mandate to promote equestrian access to public land, has been working to convince the PEI Ministry of Transport to allow horses back on the trail, with the final decision expected sometime in 2023. Photo: Yogi Fell (top); Sam Doucette (bottom).

Advocacy work like this is needed across the country. However, few provincial equestrian sport organizations have the mandate to advocate for recreational horse access or staff dedicated to assisting recreational members. That means volunteer groups are navigating the challenging corridors of advocacy work, with varying levels of success.

Volunteers with the Ontario Trail Riders Association (OTRA) are discouraged. The 80-member organization spent more than three years advocating for continued horse use on trails that have become popular with mountain bikers in a 1,200-acre provincial forest.

“They (mountain bikers) were adamant that they could not share the trails with horses,” says Sonja Wyss, the President of OTRA. “So, horses are no longer allowed on any single-track trails. Riders are only allowed on the wide, boring trails.

Related: Canada's Wild Horses - An Uncertain Future

“We’ve found that you lose it if you don’t use it,” says Wyss. “So, we’re making sure that we show our presence in areas where we want to continue riding, by riding the trails and helping with clean-up efforts after storms.”

The Atlantic Canada Trail Riding Association (ACTRA), which has been promoting distance riding in the Maritime provinces since 1980, does similar work.

“We appreciate the trails we use and work hard to help upkeep them and maintain relationships with landowners and other clubs that use them,” says Nicole Mattatall, a board member of ACTRA.

Out west, the Alberta Trail Riding Association (ATRA) promotes trail riding in central and northern Alberta.

“If you’re riding horses in Alberta, you’re going to have to share the trails,” says Doug King of ATRA.

Hence, ATRA funds trail projects in collaboration with other regional equestrian groups using money they receive from casinos in Edmonton.

“Over the past decade, we’ve spent $25,000 to $35,000 per year on trail maintenance projects,” says King.

Non-equestrian organizations are collaborating, too. Bragg Creek Trails Association (BCTA) works to ensure all users have access to the popular West Bragg Creek Trails system (WBCT) near Calgary, which they manage on behalf of the Alberta government. The trails host almost 300,000 mountain bikers, hikers, dog walkers, horseback riders, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers annually, of which about one percent are equestrians.

Related: Exploring the Historic Telegraph Trail

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A winter’s day ride following Alberta’s Bragg Creek Trail, which sees close to 300,000 users annually. Photo: Jason Edworthy

“We’re in partnership with the Alberta government and their mantra is that all trails are multiuse,” explains Conrad Schiebel, President of BCTA. “Horses have an equal place on the landscape here. But we’ve seen an increase in interest in trails and recreation by all users, so we’ve been challenged with how to reduce conflict between them.”

Due to an explosion of winter fat-biking on snowy groomed trails at WBCT, winter horseback riders were displaced, as hoofprints were damaging trails that a much larger number of mountain bikers wanted to use.

Related: Trekking Horses: What Breeds Do Outfitters Prefer?

“For the last four years, we’ve been trying to solve the puzzle of how to accommodate equestrian users,” says Schiebel. “It opened up real conversations between government, ourselves, and other groups about how to manage equestrian use.”

Compromise, pilot projects, education, and creating a 10-year plan with public input has resolved the problems for now but Schiebel admits there were some heated discussions. The Alberta Equestrian Federation (AEF) was aware of the issues and in 2022 hosted a half-day educational meet-and-greet at WBCT to help educate non-equestrian users about how to share the trails with horses.

“It’s our responsibility as equestrians to reach out and help educate other trail users about horses, trail riding, and safety issues, for us as well as other users,” says Jason Edworthy, a regular rider at WBCT and AEF President Elect.

BCTA now has volunteer trail hosts who explain rules and help educate trail users. But after years of struggle, Schiebel recognizes that horses and other users don’t always mix.

Like BCTA, the Great Divide Trail Association (GDTA) is not an equine organization. They promote use of the unofficial Great Divide Trail (GDT), which traverses 1,200 kilometres of Canada’s wilderness Rocky Mountains.

“The original 1976 GDT planning document identifies hikers and horseback riders as compatible users,” wrote Brad Vaillancourt, the GDTA’s Trail Information Manager, by email. “The GDTA upholds these original principles, and we greatly value our partnerships with equestrian organizations in BC and Alberta.”

The Back Country Horsemen of British Columbia (BCHBC) have over 1,000 members who advocate for recreational horse use.

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“All the trails were once built for horses, but many have been taken over by other users,” wrote Rose Schroeder, BCHBC provincial secretary. “But the attitude of ‘I’ve always used that trail so it’s my right,’ doesn’t fly anymore and in itself creates a barrier with other users.”

“When we don’t communicate, and find fault with others or try to force our opinion on others, no one benefits,” says Schroeder. “It just takes one organization to reach out and bring others to the table.”

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Founded in 1989 and now with 21 chapters, the Back Country Horsemen of BC is a province-wide society with the overarching mandate of providing a safe and enjoyable trail riding and wilderness experiences for horses and riders, and a focus on environmental stewardship, trail building and maintenance, and fun. Shown are BCHBC members packing up to clear trails (above, left), building paddocks (above, bottom), carrying posts (above, right) into Skimikin Trails in BC’s Shuswap area, and horses packing supplies (below).

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BCHBC began in 1991 and now has 21 chapters throughout the province. They advocate for horse use by communicating with other recreation groups, and more importantly, being a face at the table. BCHBC collaborates with many organizations including the Outdoor Recreation Council of BC, Vedder Mountain Trail Association, Hope Mountain Centre, Shuswap Trail Alliance, Armstrong Spallumcheen Trails Society, and Yellowhead Ski Club. Some of their activities include providing grants for trail and horse camp projects; partnering with organizations working on trails; educating BCHBC members about responsible use of the trails; adding information to the Horse Council BC Trails Database; and building relationships with BC Parks, Recreation Sites, and Trails BC, plus other motorized and non-motorized recreational trail users.

“Communication, safety for users, trail sustainability, and doing what’s best for the environment are key aspects of our work,” wrote Schroeder.

It’s a belief that’s keeping horses on trails across BC and something that other groups can use to resolve recreational user differences. In an age when recreational trails are in high demand, it’s apparent that equestrians across Canada need to get involved in advocating for continued horse use or risk losing access.

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Packing fence posts (above, top) and pruning branches (above, bottom) along the Bragg Creek Trails system near Calgary, Alberta. Photos: Jason Edworthy

How to Advocate for Horse Use

  1. Collect the facts. Find out who governs the area, the laws governing use, and who the user groups are. 
  2. Contact the provincial equine sport organization and regional equine organizations. If they’re working on the issue become a member and volunteer. Consider creating a non-profit organization with an advocacy mandate if there isn’t a suitable club. 
  3. Form a group. Make a plan. Divvy up tasks.
  4. Identify organizations doing similar work. Ask for advice. 
  5. Discuss issues with user groups and governing representatives. Develop allies.
  6. Work for change. Educate non-horse users and equestrians. Conduct a pilot project. 
  7. Be in it for the long haul.

Related: The Trail Horse's Mind

Related: Complex Rules Protect Canada's Horses


To read more by Tania Millen, click here.

Main Photo: A beautiful autumn day on the Bragg Creek Trail System near Calgary, Alberta. Credit: Alf Skrastins


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