Equestrian Trails

“Michigan is known as a state that welcomes and promotes equine trail recreation. Trailheads and camping facilities are dispersed throughout the state in such a manner that from any point within the state, there will be day riding opportunities within a 2-hour drive, overnight equestrian opportunities within a 4-hour drive and signature equestrian centers within an 8-hour drive.” 

--Michigan Department of Natural Resources Statewide Trail Network Plan

But the trail plan has no mention of hot-pink muck buckets, one of the eye-catching amenities that draw media attention to the connectivity, boardwalks, and successes of the multi-use equestrian trails managed by Oakland County Parks and Recreation. Here’s the rest of this trail tale of how one park agency galloped ahead of the state’s planning curve with the Addison Oaks Trail Connector and miles of other trails.

In March 2010, the Parks and Recreation Division (PRD) of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources began an internal assessment of the equestrian opportunities and needs on PRD lands in the southern part of the state. Equestrians were biting at the bit for more access. And that was not surprising with the large number of horse-owning residents, especially in Oakland County with more than 7,000 horses and adjacent Lapeer County with nearly 5,000 horses.

The United States Forest Service is the primary federal-land owner in the State of Michigan, and horse and pack animals are allowed on trails and campgrounds unless closed to equines. Lands administered by the National Park Service prohibit “The use of horses and pack animals outside of trails, routes or other areas designated for their use, such as the Alligator Hill Trail located within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Lower Michigan.” In southeast Michigan, where federal forest lands do not exist, county and regional park systems provide equestrian trail opportunities. One example is Oakland County Parks—an agency headquartered in Waterford, a 45-minute drive north of Detroit that administers 7,000 acres and is the proud home of hot-pink trailside muck buckets. 

Sharon Greene, the executive director of public relations for Oakland County’s Highland Equestrian Conservancy, is an outspoken woman with strong land-conservation ethics and equine interests. When asked about the new trails, she did not hesitate to say that “horse people” had felt locked out. “Horses and horse pastures are the last line of defense against sprawl. Once small farms are pushed out, development takes over and the green spaces that we cherish are lost. But we are blessed here … to have county park management that understands how to protect and conserve natural areas, and [the county] incorporates awesome trails for all user groups to appreciate beauty right in our own backyards.”

Equestrian-Friendly Oakland

Highland Township in Oakland County was recognized as the first horse-friendly community by both the state and the county in 2005. In March 2006, Highland was honored as Michigan’s first “equestrian-friendly” main street—making shopping in its downtown a unique experience.  However, county riding trails remained limited in scope, access, and all-important connectivity. 

“The horse industry … was overlooked for many years until a small band of about 15 equestrians, trail riders, and conservationists presented ideas about preserving green space, creating a network of non-motorized interconnected trails, and shared information about the local horse industry to the Highland Township officials in November of 2002,” says Merle Richmond, Oakland Equestrian coordinator. The following spring, Ralph Richard—then director of the county parks—was approached about the county purchasing a 216-acre parcel of land in Highland Township. In September 2007, the property was formally dedicated as Highland Oaks County Park, one of thirteen parks now managed by the county.   

Today, county parks have 70 miles of trails for multiple-user groups, including 17 miles of equestrian trails that are, in a word—beautiful—5.3 miles at Rose Oaks County Park, 2.6 miles at Highland Oaks, and 9.4 miles at the ever-popular Addison Oaks County Park. Libby Dwyer is an active member of the Addison Oaks Trail Riders, a friends group that works to promote park use by equestrians, performs ongoing trail maintenance, and organizes special events, including the first-ever equestrian campouts offered within the county parks. “After being involved in trail-building with other government entities for almost 30 years, my experience with Oakland County Parks is an example of how successful a partnership between special-interests users and parks should be,” Dwyer says.

The trails at Rose Oaks and Highland Oaks are increasing rapidly in popularity while maintaining their rural character and winning support from industry, government, and friends groups. International Transmission Company is funding colorful, trailside interpretive signs that add to the educational value of the trails. Universally accessible boardwalks, fishing docks, and wildlife-viewing platforms along the trails were funded in part by a Natural Resources Trust Fund Grant from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. 

“This project is significant because both Highland Oaks and Rose Oaks are bisected by significant wetland complexes, and now allows trail accessibility to areas not previously opened to the public, and especially those with disabilities,” Stencil says. “Our vision is that someday a hiker, bike rider, or equestrian could make their way from Highland Oaks to Rose Oaks to Springfield Oaks in Davisburg and beyond. This is an important step to creating trail connectivity.” And the dream continues to gain support. The Highland Equestrian Conservancy purchased a 4-acre, half-mile-long linear parcel to start the trail connection between Highland Oaks and Rose Oaks, and has committed funds for the installation of water pumps at those two parks. 

Hot-Pink Muck Buckets

Aesthetics and good housekeeping are important in maintaining nature’s beauty and trail comfort for all user groups. Trail riders Aunna Lippert and Craig Riggs are members of the Rose Oaks Equine Adventurers. The couple donated eight sets of hot-pink muck buckets with matching pink manure forks to the county parks to encourage riders to remove horse “gifts” from the boardwalks. Signage on each post requests that the buckets be used to transfer manure to the adjacent uplands. 

Addison Oaks Connector Trail

Oakland County Parks strives to maximize the value of its land for all residents, and one way to accomplish this is to promote multiple-user groups whenever possible. The 2.4-mile Addison Oaks Connector Trail is an 8-foot-wide pathway of crushed gravel with wide grass shoulders; it is the newest link in the expanding trail network. “We’re especially pleased with this project because our guests consistently rank trails as the number-one amenity in our surveys, and the fact this trail extension is a collaborative effort with multiple agencies speaks volumes about the commitment to future connectivity via trails,” Stencil says. Principal Planner Jon Noyes of the county parks adds, “The new connector trail provides safe and appropriate access between our parks and other locations for pedestrians, equestrians, and mountain bikers.” The project received a $228,800 Michigan Natural Resources Trust Fund Development Grant, and the county parks funded the remaining $383,596. But perhaps, most importantly, the trails and the boardwalks that span almost 1,300 feet of wetlands are appealing to, and designed for, all users. Birders love the wetland overlooks, young parents push big-wheel baby carriages along the fully accessible trials, and when autumn leaves fall, specially permitted bow-hunters follow the trails to reach their tree stands. When winter returns, cross-country skiers follow the connector trail, adding to the growing list of friends who support the efforts of the parks.

Heaven On Earth

When it comes to managing a successful trail system that embraces multiple uses, partnerships and friends are essential. The Addison Oaks Trail Riders, working with park staff, has finalized plans for the third equestrian trail campout to be held in autumn 2015 as park planners explore the possibility of a future horse-camping site. Equestrian Sharon Greene says it best with her thoughts about the increased equestrian access and connector trail: “If heaven on earth was blessed with horses, it might look like the 1,140 acres of Addison Oaks County Park.”

Jonathan Schechter is a Nature Education Writer for Oakland County Parks. Reach him at schechterj@oakgov.com.