Horses & Hikers: How to Share the Trail

Courtesy of Horsewaysi
By Madalyn Neff, Communications specialist


Trails have seen an increase in use across the country, and our trails in the Wissahickon are no exception. It has been wonderful that folks are flocking to trails for recreation, peace, and comfort during this public health emergency. But the increase in trail use has also shown us that we can do more to show kindness and care for the people (and animals) that use the trails.


If you’re new to our trails, here’s something that you may have already discovered: we share our trails with equestrians (horseback riders). In fact, before the region was as built-out as it is today, and the landscape was dominated by farms and pasture, equestrians were much more commonplace on trails. Horseways is a local non-profit equestrian club that preserves and maintains area equestrian trails, many of which have existed for over 100 years. Horseways is a long-time partner of Wissahickon Trails, helping us to maintain and improve many of our trails.


Trail Etiquette 101 – Right-of-Way


It’s worth a reminder that when it comes to the rules of the trail, equestrians almost always have the right-of-way. Horses are the largest sized trail user we have and can be a bit skittish. Because of this, hikers and dog walkers should give them a wide berth, speak calmly, and avoid quick movements.


If you’re not sure what to do, communicate! Talk to your fellow trail user and make sure everyone is safe and comfortable.


We recommend this article from Washington Trails Association to learn more about Right-of-Way on Trails.


Let’s Talk About Poop


At Wissahickon Trails we have received questions about horse poop on the trails. Specifically, why must dog poop be picked up but not horse poop (also called “road apples”)?


This is a fair question and the answer isn’t as simple as you might think.


To start with, horses are vegetarians and don't eat meat or anything derived from meat. This means that horse manure is relatively “clean”, with a low prevalence of bacteria, parasites or viruses; particularly the two waterborne pathogens most harmful to humans, Cryptosporidium, and Giardia, as well as things like E. coli, and Salmonella. Dog poop, on the other hand, is very toxic and can contain a lot of those pathogens. 


Because horse manure is essentially undigested plant material, it breaks down easily and pretty quickly, and as it biodegrades, can actually enrich the soil. Since dog poop isn't plant-based, it sticks around a lot longer, and the pathogens it contains can leach into groundwater, creeks, and reservoirs, contaminating drinking water. Dog waste is actually one of the main sources of fecal coliform bacteria in our waterways, which is a type of bacteria that can make people sick (as well as dogs), if they consume contaminated water. Given these environmental health issues and the high frequency of dogs using the trails, we ask dog owners to pick-up their dogs’ poop.


Narrow Trails and Wide “Road Apples”


Our trails are generally quite narrow, just wide enough for 2 hikers to walk side by side. Which means that any horse poop, or “road apples,” hikers might encounter could take up a significant portion of the trail.  This can negatively impact the trail experience of hikers, particularly children and people who cannot easily step over the poop. Hikers sometimes need to step off the trail to go around the poop, and this is damaging to the adjacent habitat and increases their chances of picking up a tick. Poop from carriage horses in cities and parade horses is often caught by special bags that are attached to the carriage and the horses.  These manure bags are also designed to work with saddle riders and we ask that, when possible, riders use a manure bag when using the Green Ribbon Trail and our other preserve trails. Otherwise, we ask that if a rider realizes that their horse is about to go, that they lead their horse to the side of the trail.


Whether you are an equestrian or a hiker, as a trail user you know first-hand how important reciprocal trail etiquette is to a positive trail experience.  We hope the information in this article is useful in highlighting actions you can take to ensure all visitors have a pleasant and safe experience. Thank you for the important role you play in keeping our trails an enjoyable place to spend time.


For a complete list of trail rules, visit our Before You Go page.


About Wissahickon Trails & Horseways


Wissahickon Trails is a nonprofit organization working to connect land, water, and people in the Wissahickon Valley.  In our 63-year history we have protected nearly 1,300 acres of open space, manage and care for 12 nature preserves and 24 miles of trails.  Our preserves and trails are private property that we make open and accessible to the public, so that hikers, runners, equestrians, and dog owners can all experience and enjoy the beauty of our local environment. Please support this work by making a donation today.


This piece was written in partnership with Horseways, a group that has been active in the Lower Gwynedd and Whitpain communities for more than 40 years. In addition to their work on trail maintenance and preservation, they educate people about caring for horses, and partner with like-minded organizations and individuals to make sure there's always space for horses in the community.