Rebuilding Horse Trails

By Kimberly Whitton

Located in southwestern Ohio, Great Parks of Hamilton County, besides maintaining 21 parks and nature preserves and managing 17,000 acres of green space, is home to the largest public horse-trail system in the county. The urbanization of greater Cincinnati, with 2 million people, has made these horse trails a valuable commodity for area horse enthusiasts. For over 30 years, the park system has partnered with horse lovers in keeping the almost 20 miles of horse trails open for public riding. However, due to high rider usage, design flaws, erosion issues, lack of funding, and a series of severe storms that dropped trees on the trails, approximately 8 miles of horse trail located within the Miami Whitewater Forest had fallen into disrepair.

Strengthening Partnerships
The park system developed a horse-trail reconstruction plan, obtained cost estimates, and presented the plan to the horse community at a town-hall meeting. Staff members were surprised and somewhat dismayed to encounter some initial push-back from a community that was accustomed to providing Great Parks with volunteer trail labor hours but who were now being asked to help provide funding for trail maintenance. Change is always difficult, and needless to say, the new partnership got off to a rocky start.

Two months later, support for the horse-trail project was found in a small group of key community volunteers. They embraced the partnership with Great Parks, possessed important community connections, and embarked upon the mission of securing the necessary funds and volunteer hours needed to rebuild the horse trails. In the spirit of cooperation, the park system pledged and provided 1:1 matching funds for the $65,000 trail project, and the Great Parks Foundation established a Bridle Trail Fund to accept and recognize tax-deductible donations earmarked for the reconstruction project.

Volunteer Efforts
Working hand in hand with the park system, the volunteers’ first action was to create awareness by informing the horse community about the condition of the Miami Whitewater Forest trails. The second action was to raise half of the total funds needed to pay for the project and place the money into the Bridle Trail Fund. A total of $35,000 was secured through grant-writing efforts, and pleas via letter writing, newspaper, and horse magazine articles, speaking engagements, email distributions, and individual requests. Additional donations were obtained by the sale of horse equipment, silent auctions, raffles, bake sales, and the sale of a “Support Your Great Parks Horse Trails” decal. The final action was to walk the horse trails in order to photograph and record trail conditions, to participate in horse-trail maintenance days, to assist with flagging new trail corridors, and to install trail markers along the rebuilt trail system.

The Project
As soon as funding was in place, Great Parks started the reconstruction process:

·         Realigning over 5 miles of trail located in flood-prone areas

·         Expanding sections of horse trail into more scenic areas of the park

·         Providing improved creek crossings

·         Improving width of trails

·         GPS mapping and flagging 8 miles of horse trail at .1 mile distances

·         Purchasing and labeling over 80 trail markers to be installed along the trail system

·         Updating the Miami Whitewater Forest horse-trail maps to depict the new trail system

·         Renovating two trailhead areas to become one large, attractive, highly sustainable and safe area. A large permanent trail sign features the new horse-trail map, donor acknowledgements, and additional park information.

The entire project was a learning experience. There are some important elements worth sharing with those who may be looking to take on a similar project.

1) Instead of employing a typical general contractor with a bulldozer, find a trail specialist to help build trails. There are plenty of details that trail builders know that can make trails more sustainable and enjoyable. These include proper ways to drain trails to avoid collecting water and causing erosion, working with the existing topography to avoid steep downhill trail sections, ways of crossing creeks, and armoring to avoid trail damage.

2) Compile a team of dedicated staff and volunteers. One of the more timely aspects of trail reconstruction is the physical element of flagging appropriate trail corridors. Since the trails run through park land, extra attention must be spent on identifying sensitive natural areas and wildlife habitats in order to route the project around these areas. This involves utilization of GPS and returning throughout the year to observe habitats in different seasons. Our portion of the project could not have been accomplished without help from various members of the horse community who volunteered their time to walk the trails and flag corridors.

3) Have a trail-maintenance plan. Know how to handle unplanned (and planned) trail nuisances like fallen trees and flooded creeks. It is necessary to keep the trails cleared, repaired, open, and safe for riders.

4) Monitor the trails on a regular basis to determine if and when they need to be closed because of weather conditions. Horses can destroy a trail quickly if the soil is wet and soft. It is best to designate one person who will be responsible for closing the trails when they’re not rideable.

5) Put safety first. Safety and convenience are important when considering users who may be miles out on a trail. The addition of .1-mile trail markers are a simple addition that will give riders a better idea of where they are and also a reference point for emergency responders should a situation arise. The mile markers are also shown on our trail maps to help guide riders.

Celebration Of Completion
On May 18, 2015, Great Parks of Hamilton County and Great Parks Foundation joined over 60 attendees representing 14 horse organizations, seven businesses, and numerous individual donors in celebrating the opening of the 7.6-mile-long, newly renovated Miami Whitewater Forest horse trails. The celebration included a picnic-style dinner, music, horse carriage rides, and the unveiling of an attractive new trailhead sign. The project took 6 years from the initial town hall meeting to opening the renovated horse trails.

Present And Future
The purpose for rebuilding the trails was to preserve the county’s largest public horse-trail system as a community resource, to provide a recreational avenue for the horse enthusiasts of greater Cincinnati, and to help promote an appreciation for the natural world. Trail maintenance is ongoing, and maintaining a partnership between the county and the horse community is critical in preserving the Miami Whitewater Forest trails. Volunteers provide Great Parks with funding and labor for trail maintenance, recording trail mileage data to demonstrate trail usage, and monitoring trail conditions. Two potential volunteer trail-maintenance activities include allowing certified volunteers the use of chain saws to clear fallen timber off of the horse trails and to operate a trail mower to control unwanted vegetative growth infringing on the horse-trail corridor.

Kimberly Whitton is the Marketing Communication Coordinator with Great Parks of Hamilton County, Ohio. Reach her at