By John Toole
---- — New Hampshire officials stepped in a pile of horse manure while making rules about state trail use.
The quick, firm and adverse response from horseback riders, who crowded hearings this fall, forced a retreat.
Officials publicly acknowledged they erred in failing to first get opinions from riders.
“We did not understand the extent of the use and importance of (state) properties to the equestrian community,” the Department of Resources and Economic Development said in a memo prepared for one of the meetings.
State legislators are now pushing a bill, with bipartisan support, to protect the rights of horseback riders to use trails.
“Nothing shall limit the right of the public to pass over any trail in the multi-use statewide trail system for the purpose of horseback riding,” reads draft legislation proposed by Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford.
Horseback riding groups are pressing their legislators to support Sanborn’s bill.
“If Andy Sanborn’s bill becomes law, that will override everything,” said Jane Mallinson of Chester, president of the 40-member Derry Trail Riders.
Mallinson said the rules as initially proposed would have greatly curtailed rider use of state trails.
Riders criticized the proposal for barring them from all but gravel trails or paved roadways.
“The equestrian community rallied against that,” Mallinson said.
The trail rules are still under state review, but gone is a requirement riders said would have forced them to dismount and lug manure from 10 miles deep in the woods.
Riders maintain that not only was unnecessary — manure poses no threat to the public — but also presented safety or injury risks to them from dismounting in remote areas.
Officials, meanwhile, are loosening proposed restrictions riders said would have curtailed trail use.
Riders have estimated the rules, as first proposed, would have limited them to fewer than 10 miles in a popular 100-mile trail network in Bear Brook State Park in Allenstown.
But the rules also could have affected riders on the rail trail from Londonderry through Salem.
The state’s revised rules package is still evolving, but officials now say it would expand equestrian use.
It also would require horseback riders to remove manure from places like trail heads and parking lots, something they have not opposed and say they do anyway.
“We made modifications to the rules based on the public comments we heard,” said Philip Bryce, director of the state’s Division of Parks and Recreation.
A revised rules package will be available for public comment soon and posted on the division’s website.
Bryce said that while more forums aren’t required, the state will schedule time to hear from the public anyway.
Riders said state officials became responsive to their concerns once confronted by the dozens and, in some cases, hundreds, who attended forums.
“They had no idea how many people were out there riding,” said Pat Darmofal of Haverhill, treasurer with the Derry Trail Riders.
“That’s a fraction of it,” said manager Taylor Hole of Shannon Trails riding facility in Salem.
A lot of owners wouldn’t have the time to attend forums because of their time commitment to their horses, he said.
Hole was doing what he could, writing in support of the horseback riders.
“There’s no doubt in my mind that nothing should be restricted,” Hole said.
“Nonsense,” is how he characterized the proposed limits on riders.
A point horseback riders have made with the state is the economic impact of their sport that benefits businesses ranging from veterinarians to feed stores.
Mallinson said equestrians lacked the kind of statewide trails advocacy coalition other recreational have working with DRED, which is why the agency was caught off guard by riders.
One is now forming, she said.
“The bottom line is, I don’t think they had any idea about our use of trails,” Mallinson said.
She credited Bryce with bending over backward to hear from the horseback riders as their concerns surfaced.
“He seems to be responding,” Mallinson said.
Bryce believes riders are on the right trail in setting up a coalition to consult and work with the state.
“We’ve been urging them to do so,” he said. “Had that coalition been in existence, and had we had that ongoing conversation, I think this would have gone a lot more smoothly.”