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Horses and the land: Geosynthetics help to improve riding trails

Case Studies | February 1, 2007 | By:

Professor worries animal that helped tame America labelled as enviro outcast.

Clemson University professor Gene Wood has two great passions—horses and the land. He hopes the two are never separated because of a dispute over natural resources.

“The horse is burned into the American psyche,” said Wood, a forest wildlife ecologist. The horse carried the pioneer westward and provided, along with the mule, “horsepower” on the farm.

No longer the beast of burden it once was, the horse today is used for recreation. About 45% of the nation’s 9.2 million horses are used for that purpose.

“Probably a higher percentage of the 93,000 horses in South Carolina are for pleasure, primarily for trail riding,” he said.

That’s where trouble begins.

“We take these 1,000-pound animals that are bred, raised, and cared for as livestock, but thought of as pets, and use them on portions of the landscape that we have reserved for natural resource conservation purposes—in places like national and state forests,” Wood said.

In his opinion too many riders don’t know what a horse can do to the land.

“Of all the non-motorized trail users—hikers, mountain bicyclists, and horses—the horse is the hardest on the trail,” he said.

Over time trail riders often leave behind gullies, eroded stream banks, silted streams, angry land managers, and environmentalists calling for a ban on horses on wildlands.

It doesn’t have to be that way, according to Wood, who owns five horses and enjoys a good trail ride himself.

“We can preserve the ecological integrity of the forest and use our horses out there for recreation at the same time,” he said.

The keys are well-designed, well-constructed, and well-maintained trails along with appropriate behavior by horse riders.

“Farmers learned to plow on the contour to reduce erosion. Trails should fit the contour of the land as well,” he said.

One technique tested on the Clemson trail system—and elsewhere around the country—is the use of geosynthetic materials such as geotextiles and geocells filled with gravel. These materials help hold the aggregate in place so it won’t be displaced by horse hooves.

(For example, photos 3 and 4 show trail construction in the Geauga Park District in Ohio, as described in the Feb./Mar. 2006 issue of Geosynthetics magazine. Photo 3: Installation of 6-in. geocells directly on the trail to promote reinforcement and proper drainage. Photo 4: And then trail completion with cover aggregate and horizontally installed water-bar timbers.)

Wood has been figuring out the details since the early 1990s by working with the 100 miles of shared-use trails in the Clemson Experimental Forest and organizing national and regional trail conferences.

Finally he has put what he has learned into a book—Recreational Horse Trails in Rural and Wildland Areas.

Funded by the Federal Highway Administration’s Recreational Trails Program with funds channeled through the American Horse Council to Clemson University, the book will be published by the USDA-Forest Service Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) as a public property.

The book is expected to be available free on the MTDC Web site this year. Hard copies will also be made available for free by the USDA-Forest Service.

Wood teaches the basics of ecology in the first chapter, showing horse owners that soil is not just dirt.

Soils vary in sensitivity.

“In some situations you can use the horse a lot without damaging anything,” he said. “If a trail has little or no stone in it, and it’s muddy, riding a horse at a fast pace will destroy that trail.”

Wood’s book contains advice on proper trail construction. The worst trail is one that goes straight up a down a slope, a fall-line trail. It will always turn into a gully. he said.

Wood also said that to protect the natural resources riders should not ride up and down streambeds. They should stay off stream banks as much as possible.

He encourages land managers to learn how to construct appropriate stream crossings for horses for hydration.

Wood believes that the key to preserving the privilege of riding on public lands is for horse users to become as sophisticated about natural resources as organizations such as Ducks Unlimited and the National Wild Turkey Federation.

Wood has been spreading his message nationwide since 1998 when Clemson University hosted the National Conference on Horse Trails in Forest Ecosystems. From that event, Wood developed a plan for an annual Southeastern Equestrian Trails Conference.

It was hosted by Clemson from 2000 to 2002, then rotated among other Southern states. It will return to South Carolina in 2008.

Original article written by Tom Lollis of the Clemson University Extension Service; edited for Geosynthetics magazine by Ron Bygness.


Shepard, Kathy, “Happy Trails: Erosion control and effective drainage,” Geosynthetics, February/March 2006 (Vol. 24, No. 1), pp. 26-29.

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