Access on multi-usage trails has always brought about tension among, hikers, mountain bikers, horseback riders, and people that use ATV's and/or snowmobiles. Each use of a trail has its unique advantages and disadvantages, and each use has a unique impact to the trail condition.
Horseback riding on trails provides interesting impact. Most active hikers that have used multi-usage trails shared with horseback riders have probably complained at one time or another about trail conditions or the deposits left behind by horses. What most hikers and mountain bikers alike do not understand is the very integral part horses and horseback riding plays in trail maintenance in today's national and state parks, as well as public access trails.
It is common practice to allow horseback riders to use trails set aside for hikers or hikers and mountain bikers only. The horses provide a number of beneficial services, including keeping the trail clear of brush in a non-mechanical, low impact way by trampling the vegetation as they pass through. Some light access trails would become unusable if it were not for horses providing this service. If you are a hiker ask yourself, would you rather have the forest silence shattered by brush mowers and tractors, or would you rather have a group of trail riders go through and renew the trail.
In other cases, horseback is the only way vital supplies can reach remote areas of trails and parks. As a matter of fact, in some remote locations in the desert southwest, the mail is still delivered via horseback or mule team to reach remote communities that would otherwise not have any service.
The National Park service along with the Department of the Interior are currently experimenting with using horsepower for low impact logging, clearing, and construction in remote areas our National Forests and National Parks. The dilemma that faces the modern National Park is balancing the protection of the land, while still providing access for the millions of visitors that use the parks every year. Cutting roads through virgin forest to build privies, lodges, campsites, and interpretive shelters goes against everything the National Park service stands for.
Recently, horses have been used for a variety of services in this area. Able to negotiate their own path through rough terrain or forest, horses are used to drag materials on sleds or haul them on carts in and out of remote construction sites. The impact to the environment is vastly lower then using mechanical vehicles, and with the exception of extreme weather conditions, can continue to access remote areas where muddy conditions would bring normal vehicles to a dead stop (or cause tremendous damage). Horses have also been used recently in low impact, selecting harvesting of trees. Again, the horses require far less room to move then vehicles, and bring the lumber out on sleds or carts with far less impact than mechanical vehicles. In recent limited experiments, the cost of using horses was less than mechanical vehicles and the end impact to the surrounding terrain was almost unnoticeable!
Any irresponsible use of a trail can cause tremendous damage and impact. Hikers can setup camp on trails (which general is not allowed), illegally collect materials, and forge their own trails and/or shortcuts (resulting in erosion). Most horseback riders are very responsible, and exercise leave no trace ethics, and make strong attempts to keep their impact low while on the trail.
The horse has played an extremely important role in the development of modern society and the United States. It is a symbol of our rugged past and general use trails would not be the same without their presence. Horses provide a number of critical and valuable services, and without them, obscure and remote trails would disappear, the impact to development within public lands would be more severe, and the old trails of the United States would not be the same, with one of itís original users not present.