Mountain bikers, horsemen at odds: Meetings on trails often have disastrous outcome
PRESCOTT - Carol Ross remembers her Aug. 8 horseback trail ride on Trail 347 at Granite Mountain very well.
That's the day she and two friends, Debbie Vernam and Kelly Schwartz, encountered a fast-moving mountain biker as they rode.
The horses, spooked by the bike, threw all three riders. Ross was knocked unconscious when she hit the ground.
"When I came to," Ross said, "the horses were all gone," having run back to the trailhead.
One horse was seriously injured when it panicked, scraping the skin off its leg when it hit an obstacle during the frenzied flight.
Ross recovered, as did the horse.
That incident points out what Prescott-area horsemen describe as a growing problem: horses and mountain bikes are increasingly running into conflicts on the trail, and, they say, the horse riders invariably lose, sometimes sustaining injuries.
The problem is caused by the nature of both horses and bikers. Horses are a "flight animal," conditioned by centuries as prey for predators like big cats to run when they sense trouble. The mountain biker typically rides head-down, looking at the trail just ahead of him to watch for obstacles in his path.
When a fast-moving bike rounds a turn and comes upon a horse and rider, the horse is startled and reacts, usually by dumping its rider and running. It is too late by that time for the biker to slow down.
The situation is getting worse, said Clare Ross, because of what he describes as "out-of-town" mountain bikers who "race down hills."
"We are getting a lot more out-of-town bikers because the mayor (of Prescott) is promoting the area as a bike haven," Clare said.
Donna Crisfield was riding Trail 345 near Williamson Valley in April with a friend when a bike "just popped out from around a blind corner," she said.
Again, both horses reared, threw the riders, and ran.
In the process, Crisfield's horse stepped on her back, causing an injury.
The pair had to walk out and find the horses.
The mountain biker "wasn't doing anything particularly wrong," Crisfield said. "There's just bad line-of-sight on that trail."
Crisfield said the fact that the bikes are fast and quiet - "silent," she said - makes for unexpected encounters.
"It's getting worse," she said. "The Prescott City Council is pushing for bike traffic here, and the more bikes, the worse it's going to be."
Crisfield has her own solution, though.
"I am just not going back," she said.
Mountain bikers met with horsemen at the U.S. Forest Service office in Chino Valley on Aug. 16 to address the growing number of encounters.
"We recognize this is a shared trail system," said Brad DeVries, of the Prescott Mountain Bike Association. "We need to figure out ways for everyone to use the trails as safely as possible."
DeVries said the meeting was "very constructive." The goal, he said, was to be proactive, before government steps in. "Everybody realizes that if we wind up with a segregated trail system, we will all lose. Some of our favorite trails won't be available anymore."
He said several possible real-world solutions came up. One idea was to modify the trails so they're not arrow-straight. "Add a little chicane in the trail, and (bikers) will have to slow down to do that," he said, noting that such a change would be a plus for the bikers as well. He also mentioned improved sight-lines as a possible fix.
DeVries rejects the idea that "out-of-town" bikers are the problem. "I don't think that Prescott trail users are markedly more or less courteous than people from other places."
He suggested that it isn't 100 percent safe on the trails in any case. "There's a level of risk that everybody accepts when they step off the pavement. Part of the reason we go up there is to accept that risk."
Diana Norris was at that meeting.
In July, she was riding on a trail near Groom Creek when her horse sensed a biker around a blind corner before she even saw him.
The result was predictable: The 5-year-old horse reared and threw Diana to the ground. She ended up with two compression fractures to her spine and $10,000 worth of medical bills.
"I do not blame the biker at all," she said. Instead, she and her husband Tom decided to find out how the two mounts - flesh and metal - could peacefully coexist.
"I am amazed at the results from that one meeting," Norris said. Two weeks later, U.S. Forest Services volunteers were at the trails in Williamson Valley with a handheld GPS, mapping potential conflict hotspots. Signs went up, too, warning riders of the danger.
"We ride 1,000-pound prey animals," she said. "You have to understand that."
When Ross' accident happened, someone called 911 and Yavapai County Sheriff's deputies responded along with emergency medical personnel.
Clare Ross wanted the bike rider, who stayed at the scene, to be cited.
But, according to YCSO spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn, there is no law that applies to the situation.
"If the bike rider had been disorderly, that would potentially constitute a violation," D'Evelyn said, but even Ross admits that wasn't an issue.
"Riders always assume some risk on designated multiuse trails depending on their ability in relationship to the training and trail worthiness of their horse," D'Evelyn said. "Not all horses react the same, nor can every situation along a trail can be predicted, especially when bike riders may not understand their effect when in close proximity to a horse."
Ross said the situation is at a tipping point now. "This is only going to get worse. If something isn't done, somebody's going to get killed."