Wheels, feet and hooves: Etiquette for the multi-use trail

Picture it, you’re bombing down a smooth, non-technical descent. Wind is wistling a little in your ears and all you can think is how fun this is when suddenly there looms in front of you a fleshy obstacle.

Is it a mountain biker climbing up? A hiker? A trail runner? A horse? On a multi-use trail, it could be any of these. The question is, what do you do?

Official étiquette

Bikes always yield to pedestrians and horses. If it’s another bike, the rider traveling downhill yields to the rider climbing uphill. That’s the official version. Now let’s talk about reasons and reality.

Reality on the trail

Etiquette regarding other mountain bikers should be obvious: You know how hard it can be to start again if you’ve stopped on an incline as opposed to picking back up on a wicked descent. So, common courtesy is to give the climber the right of way as she grinds up to the top. In reality, I’ve been the one climbing and gladly took the break to let someone descend past me, but it was my choice to make. A strong climber is likely to keep going and keep their right of way.

Hikers and trail runners get the right of way based on danger level. Let’s face it, running your bike into either is dangerous. Here again, many hikers and some trail runners will jump off the trail for you if they know you’re coming as a courtesy, but don’t assume they should.

Take our local trail system Stringer’s Ridge for example: There are plenty of fairly blind curves that, if you’re a good mountain biker, you can swing around at a pretty serious clip. Hikers and runners on the same trail are directed in the opposite direction, so any conflict will likely be head on. Mind, not all hikers pay attention to trail directions. When on such a trail, your best bet is to be watching ahead. Making noise (here’s where bells come in handy!) isn’t a bad idea to warn anyone ahead you’re coming. Most people are more accommodating when not frightened out of their wits by the sudden appearance of fat tires. It doesn’t mean they have to get out of your way, but there’s a chance they’ll let you know they’re there before anyone gets hurt.

Horses. Horses are the most misunderstood trail hazard for runners, hikers and bikers combined. In part because at all times, the horse has right of way. Let me explain…

At all times, the horse has the right of way. There is a simple reason for that. Horses usually weigh in the 1000lb range and are armed with sharp, hard hooves that could on accident* cleave through your bike helmet and kill you, or more likely, seriously injure you, its rider, and itself. They may be large, but they are prey animals and as a result, can be very twitchy and easily frightened by the unexpected. Think of them as like very large autistic children. The horse might be fine with a mountain bike normally, but change the color jersey to a shade they’ve never seen on a bike before and it can make the whole thing different and threatening. So you have a one thousand pound animal with a human on it’s back that only has such control as that animal grants her (Is any autistic child fully controlled? No? Exactly!) that might be spooked by the plastic bag you forgot is poking out the bag of your jersey at an odd angle and is capable of killing you or the rider without intending to in it’s panic. Yeah, you bet they get right of way.

What to do, when you meet a horse on the trail:

1) Say something. Speak calmly and normally, but that way the horse has a chance to recognize you’re human and not some strange predatory cyborg out to eat it for dinner.

2) Ask the rider what she needs you to do. Normal etiquette is to dismount and step off the trail, preferably on the lower side. With pedestrians and cyclists you’d step to higher ground, with horses that’s a predator’s position (Where do mountain lions attack from? Right, above.) so if the horse is looking twitchy remember it’s easier to fall down hill than to take a hoof to the head.

As an equestrian, I am often willing to ask my horse to step to the side and allow a mountain biker to go past if they’re going the same direction. It saves everyone some frustration, and I’m fortunate that my horse is not generally spooky around bikes. Not to say he can’t be spooked by one on a bad day, but it would probably be after something else already had him feeling nervous. Like a dog chasing after us. Or high wind. Or someone had a plastic bag flapping. I’ve also been very fortunate that all my encounters, be it on foot, bike or horseback with other trail users has been positive.

We all know there’s a bad seed in every group, however. You’ll probably meet several. Hikers complaining about the dangerous speeds of mountain bikers that scared the willies out of them and yelled something at them (possible “get out of the way” but also possibly an “excuse me” that just wasn’t heard right because the hiker was too busy being terrified to process it). Mountain bikers railing against hikers that wouldn’t get out of the way fast enough (because they don’t realize who has the right of way much like some drivers forget that people not in cars have a right to the road as well), any of the above upset at the equestrian that galloped up on them out of nowhere (you can’t always hear them coming, much like bikes). Equestrians mad at cyclists who yell at them to “control your horse…” There are plenty of stories on any side if you care to listen. Let’s not add to those stories, but instead strive as Vixens to be courteous to any and all that care to be outside and active, regardless the form that takes!

A few multi-use trails in the Chattanooga area that allow both bikes and horses are:

  • Cloudland Canyon Connector (at Five Points)
  • Dry Creek
  • The Snake on the Pinhoti
  • Lookout Mountain: Upper & Lower Truck & Guild trail
    In VERY rare cases horses are spotted on Lookout Mountain. By VERY rare I mean if you see a horse there, it’s 3 out of 4 going to be me on a day I’m desperate to ride a trail and all of the others are too muddy. It’s happened twice.

This is not a comprehensive list, just the ones I personally am aware of.

Hikers and trail runners are everywhere. Truly, everywhere.

written by Velo Vixens Cat, a avid trail runner, horse rider & mountain biker

One response to “Wheels, feet and hooves: Etiquette for the multi-use trail

  1. I really wish more people would heed these rules. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen bikers fly by horses… And the rest of us cringe, waiting to see what may happen next.

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