Most parks are segregated. For instance, bikes are not allowed at all, or are only allowed on some trails in most parks. National Parks, City parks, County Parks have varying degrees of “not allowed” rules. Wilder Ranch State Park is a very exceptional park in that it allows everyone from hikers to horses to bikers on all mountain trails. (Beach trails being the exception) I for one would like to keep it that way! And almost without exception, judging by the folks I encounter on the trails, most Wilder park users agree with me. I have spent countless hours in Wilder on foot, on bike and on horseback. Thus I come from a very unique perspective of being able to see from every viewpoint, and I love that Wilder State Park has evolved the way it has, so everyone can and does enjoy it! Historically, a few groups have worked very hard to create this atmosphere. Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz (MBOSC) have held an annual “Carrot Fest,” traveling the park on bikes with carrots for horses, helping desensitize horses to bikes! Wilder Horse Patrol, a group of volunteers dedicated to helping make the park user friendly, work hard at creating a harmonious bike/horse/hiker relationship. And…just because Santa Cruz is the type of community it is, most park users are overboard helpful and friendly. So, in an effort to continue to keep our park open to all….let me “hat” you up on horse, hiker, biker etiquette, so you know what to do when encountering others on the trail in Wilder so everybody has fun and stays safe.
First off, a little education about horses. Horses are prey animals. Being prey animals, they have eyes on the sides of their faces, not closer to the middle like predators. Thus they have bilateral vision like deer and rabbits, and not binocular vision as do predators such as mountain lions and humans. The purpose of prey animal eyes being placed more on the sides of their heads is so they have a wider range of vision to see predators with who want to have them for dinner….literally! One drawback however, is that they have a blind spot directly in front of their faces which can make them spook. Horses also utilize flight and fight for protection. They can run fast and far if need be. If cornered they can kick, strike and bite….whatever they think they need to do to survive being eaten. Lastly, horses are not afraid you are going to hurt them….they are afraid you are going to eat them. Their fear and reactions are much greater oftimes than need be….it’s how they have survived for eons against such a variety of predators as earth has. All of this in the wild points to survival. In domesticated horses, this points to necessitating a knowledge of how to handle them to keep them from behaving like prey animals…and more like partners. Horses you see out on trails in Wilder for the most part have been desensitized to bikes and are great partners to their riders, and unless you come sliding in the gravel behind them on a bike trying to stop, not only aren’t they bothered by bikes, but often will look upon bikers as leaders. I frequently will ask a biker or hiker to walk slowly across a bridge so that my mare will find comfort in their leadership and cross willingly after them without a long “discussion” convincing her the bridge is safe. My point of all this is that a horse afraid can be dangerous for everyone…not just the rider. But, it isn’t the norm, and it doesn’t take much effort to keep everyone having a good day. So, here are some basic courtesies:
1-When coming up behind a horse and rider, please speak up when you are still a fair distance back….about 20 feet or so would be helpful. Once the horse knows you are not only there, but are human and not a mountain lion, they won’t care if you pass, and the courteous rider should be moving over and giving you room to come on by!
2-If you are approaching a narrow spot, either wait for the horses to go through, or ask if they can wait so you can go through. Horses are claustrophobic by nature as it’s not safe for a prey animal to be cornered, and they can get quite nervous if you try and squeeze by them. Generally the trails in Wilder are wide paths and this won’t be an issue, but occasionally it can be, so keep yourself and everyone else safe.
3-When a horse is going by, is not the best time to take off your sweater or jacket or make big sudden movements…wait a minute and let them get a little distance from you.
Finally, by all means bikers, don’t stop on an uphill for horses! With the rare exception of a young horse or a horse “green” on trails, it really is not a problem for you to ride on by. If there is an exception like a young horse, the rider will ask you whatever favor they need from you to keep everybody safe. And noone wants you to stop on a hill and disrupt your bike ride! Just give a shout and horses will move over for you! Everybody can and has been having fun together in Wilder. Let’s keep it that way!:)