“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!”
The woman riding the big bay horse, which is currently taking up the entire fire road, is, to put it mildly, freaking out.
“I need you to get off your bike,” she says. “Get off. Nice. And. SLOW. Okay, good. Good. Stay right there.”
“Huh?” is about all I can manage because I’m way past confused. A second ago I was grinding up the mountain at a glacial pace, thinking happy thoughts inside my little pain cave, breathing hard and looking forward to that part of the ride when I’d be doing the exact opposite thing. Then I rounded the corner and happened upon the shouting woman in the western shirt and cowboy boots. Now, I am slowly—slowwwwly—dismounting my bike and carefully laying it on the ground.
I have this feeling that I’m probably supposed to raise my hands in the air at this point in the encounter, but then I remember that I haven’t actually robbed a bank, which is funny because I certainly feel like a criminal right now—a really sweaty criminal, who made the mistake of committing a crime while wearing lycra bib shorts.
I’m not a horse hater
I’m not about to go into a long anti-equestrian rant. Let me be clear on this point: there’s enough trail out there for all of us. People who suggest otherwise aren’t actually arguing that there are too few trails out there, but rather, too many people who use trails in ways that they don’t approve of. Mountain bikers have been on the losing end of that conversation since the 1970s. We mountain bikers, it’s been argued, don’t appreciate the great outdoors: we rape and pillage Mother Nature in our mindless pursuit of speed. We are wheeled locusts.
This line of reasoning, however, is just narrow mindedness hiding beneath the thinnest possible veneer of environmentalism. There’s more than one way to appreciate the great outdoors. I may not rock the crusty hiker uniform (the one that includes knee-high, wool socks and general-issue Druid’s staff), but that doesn’t mean I value our public lands any less, or lay down a heavier footprint than the average birdwatcher.
So, yeah, I believe there’s plenty of room for all of us out there—even the horses. But as I did my best to talk down the equestrian from the mental ledge she was standing on, I had to wonder—What if my bike was your horse?
Bear with me for a second. Imagine for a minute that your mountain bike weighed a thousand pounds and could become frightened by the sound of a horse or a hiker or snake. Furthermore, when your bike got frightened, it might throw you off its back and injure you or it might even charge other trail users. Would everyone be cool with your bike if that were the case? And let’s say that your bike had this quirky tendency to leave piles of crap, willy-nilly, in stream crossings, on the trail and at the trailhead. Let’s take this thought experiment a step further: let’s imagine that you almost never picked up those piles of feces. Would everyone still champion your right to ride your mountain bike if it had this penchant for poop? And what if your mountain bike had this tendency—no matter how gentle you rode it—to leave tracks in muddy trails that looked a lot like miniature fence-post holes. You know, fist-sized holes punched through the trail tread every couple of feet. Would that be okay too?
I wonder these things, not because I think horses are evil or that they don’t have a place on trails. I ask these questions because, frankly, I’m baffled that mountain bikers are often seen as the trail-abusers, while equestrians, on the other hand, generally float along on a cloud of good will. I’ve never been to a land-use meeting and seen people rail against horseback riders. Never seen that happen. Want to ride your horse in a wilderness area? You can do that. Want to ride your mountain bike in wilderness? Never going to happen. Never. Ask IMBA—they aren’t even advocating for the overthrow of that ruling at this point in the game.
Horses and horseback riders must have the world’s best public relations firm working on their behalf. Power to them, I guess. Clearly, we mountain bikers need to get the number for that PR agency.
I was thinking all these things as that horseback rider eventually made her way down the trail. Getting off my bike and attempting to look more harmless wasn’t a huge imposition. If that’s what it takes for her horse to feel safe, I can do it. And, to be fair, most equestrians exert greater control over their horses. No doubt about that. I just wonder how that horseback rider would have felt if the tables were turned. Would she climb down from her calm horse, so that my panic-prone bike could handle the encounter? And if that were to happen, would I still be able to ride my bike wherever I wanted? I wonder.