For horse owners, spring is the season for conditioning their animals, after horses spend a long winter in the barn and the pasture.
"Anytime the rain stops, maybe there's a weekend with a two-hour window of sun, people grab their horse and go. You grab every opportunity you can to get on the trail," said Barbara Thomas, work party coordinator for the Washington Trail Riders Association, who's been trail riding for more than 22 years.
Horse-centric community groups
• Back Country Horsemen of Washington: The Mount St. Helens chapter maintains the Rock Creek and Kalama horse camps, often organizing longer rides around the region. The group meets at 7 p.m. the first Monday of each month at Round Table Pizza, 616 N.E. 81st St., Vancouver. For more information, visit its website.
• Clark County Saddle Club: The club, at 10505 N.E. 117th Ave. in Vancouver, helps promote horse-riding sports and activities, including barrel racing and the annual Vancouver Rodeo. For more information call 360-891-7922 or visit its website.
• Clark County Executive Horse Council: The council helps promote and support the horse community in Clark County. They run the Adopt-A-Horse program, which helps neglected horses recover and find new homes. Their online directory includes local trainers, barn rentals and more. The council meets at 7 p.m. the first Wednesday of the month at the Clark County Saddle Club. For more information, visit its website.
• Washington Trail Riders Association: One of the older equestrian-focused clubs in the area, it helps maintain many of the main local horse trails. Meetings are 7 p.m. every fourth Thursday at the Clark County Saddle Club. For more information, visit this website.
• Whipple Creek Park Restoration Committee: The next work party is April 5-6. The committee meets at 6 p.m. every third Thursday at the Mill Creek Pub, 1710 S.W. Ninth Ave., Battle Ground. For more information, visit its website.
• WSU Clark County Extension: The extension supports the local 4-H Clubs in Clark County, including horse-focused clubs. For more information, visit its website.
A 2004 equestrian survey estimated there were 35,000 horses in Clark County, with an average of four horses per equestrian household. The study, conducted by the Clark County Executive Horse Council, ranked the county at the top in the state for horse ownership.
"If you drive around the county, you're going to see horses," said Alice Heller, president of the executive horse council. She suspects there's been a substantial increase in horses over the past 10 years, even with the recession. The horse council plans to conduct another survey this year, to take a measure of how the equine community has evolved.
"I think everybody likes to get out with their horses, even if they do mostly horse shows," Heller said. "(Trail riding) is a nice, relaxing way for your horse to just be a horse."
Thomas recommends that people interested in trail riding contact local riding clubs and their experienced riders.
Tips for sharing trails with horses:
• Say hello. It helps the horse identify you as a human and not a scary predator.
• Stay calm and slow down, especially if you’re on a bike.
• Step off the trail on the downhill side to let a horse pass.
• Give the horse plenty of room on the trail and in the parking lot.
Source: Washington Trail Riders Association
"You should hook up with someone who can teach you the trails and the ropes. Horses feel secure when there's another horse that is calm and confident to follow."
East county riding
Battle Ground State Park is the most heavily used horse trail in Clark County and one of the few trails in the area that can be used all year round. On average, 100 horses will traverse the trails each week in the summer.
Battle Ground Lake features a campground with horse corrals, plenty of space for horse trailer parking and five miles of trails that weave through the 280 acres of forests.
More than 15 years ago, Battle Ground State Park was a mudhole.
"The mud would be 6 to 8 inches deep in some places," Thomas said.
Web links to trail maps
The Washington Trail Riders Association was established in 1979 with the primary goal of repairing the local trail systems. It helped restore Battle Ground State Park, established the Kalama Horse Camp, and maintained the Bells Mountain trail system, which includes the ever-popular Rock Creek Horse Camp.
"Ninety percent of the work has been done by volunteers," Thomas said. And the volunteers aren't just part of the riding association; members of the Back Country Horsemen of Washington and the Washington State Trails Association pitch in at trail work parties.
"The more we work (on the trails), the more they use it, the more we work. It's an endless cycle," Thomas said with a laugh.
The west side
Whipple Creek Park is hoping to follow in Battle Ground State Park's footsteps. Anita Will, the site leader of the Whipple Creek Park Restoration Committee, envisions the 350-acre park to be the west-side equivalent for horse riders.
"It's a job of love. It's just something you do to give back," Will said. "As horse people, we've got to work on the trails so they don't close, that's why we volunteer."
The park is in a second-growth forest featuring many native wood species, which grew back after a large fire in 1904, Will said. The biggest expense in fixing the trails has been gravel to build up the trails' foundations. Before restoration, Will said, the trails were "two feet of mulchy mud."
More than five miles of mixed-use trails in the area include a main ridge loop, and a newly established connecting trail between Whipple Creek Park and the Fairgrounds Community Park.
Will said she would like to create a trail course in the area of Whipple Creek and the Clark County Fairgrounds. Ideally, it would be an obstacle practice course of logs and rocks that would be aimed at all trail users, not just horses, Will said.
"If we could do that, it would really add to the trail system. It would take some pressure off the trails in the winter months," Will said. "That's sort of the dream."
Thomas said Whipple Creek has the potential to be as popular as Battle Ground Lake when the improvements are finished.
Preparing to ride
Though the Salmon Creek Greenway and Frenchman's Bar are on the list of local trails that allow horses, the paved surfaces aren't ideal for riding. "You have to be careful with horses' bones and legs," Will said.
Access is another issue for trail riding. Riders usually have to take their horses by trailers to the parks, which can be its own obstacle course.
"We take more parking, since you have to be able to get to your trailer," Will said. There's nothing worse than coming back from a ride and finding a car parked right behind the trailer, she said.
Horses also need to be exposed to the many objects and people they might encounter on the trail. From falling branches to garbage cans placed near the trail, the instinct of an inexperienced horse is to run away from the unknown.
If you're a hiker or biker encountering a horse on the trail, saying hello to the horse is mandatory.
"People think if they're quiet and stand really still, that's best, but it's the worst thing you can do," Thomas said. A hiker carrying a big pack with that morning's bacon and eggs on their breath signals "meat-eating predator" to a horse's brain. When you speak, a horse can identify you as a human, and it will relax.
"The horse has to make up its mind (about an object) before it gets there," Will said. "You have to direct the horse and make sure it feels safe."
That said, a walk on the trail helps a horse break free from its daily routine.
"Horses get bored just like everybody else. My horse comes back from the rides, and he acts like he's king of the world," Thomas said. "It's a big confidence builder for them."