Stryder looks at the clear running water of the Lower Tamarack River, deciding whether to get his hooves wet. I think of past years when I led my horse to water but could not make him cross, and I give a quiet cheer as he steps carefully into the river. He's never been a fan of mud or water crossings, but we've worked hard at this, and he's willing to do whatever I ask of him now. I appreciate his caution on the steep and sometimes slippery trails of the St. Croix State Forest, two hours north of the Twin Cities. It is early spring, still cool enough to not be battling the biting insects that plague summer riders. We have the trails virtually to ourselves.
This is what we love to do. We don't rope or barrel race or compete for ribbons in the arena. Instead, most weekends from May to November, you'll find us exploring Minnesota's state lands for no reason but the love of the trail—and maybe to see if we can find the critter that made those tracks, or discover the view from the other side of this hill. Stryder comes from rugged gaited mountain horse stock and I hail from four generations of hardy Minnesotans, and we both love a good outdoor adventure.
Something for Everyone.
In this area, you can ride for days and never see the same scenery twice. The trails we're riding are part of a 75-mile-plus system of horse trails that includes St. Croix State Park, the St. Croix State Forest, the Gandy Dancer Trail, and the Matthew Lourey State Trail. The trails range from flat, wide, and meandering to rocky singletrack with numerous water crossings, bridges, steep hills, and even steps. Luckily, horses are strong, agile, and steerable—they can and do manage most types of terrain.
This is my favorite thing about Minnesota's public horse trails: The sheer variety allows riders and horses with different styles, skills, and terrain preferences to all find their ideal trail.
Horse Trail Safety for Everyone
Riders need to know and respect their own abilities and limitations, as well as those of their horse.
It is safest to not ride alone. Be sure someone knows where you are, which trails you will be riding, and when to expect you home. Carry your cell phone on your person but don't rely on it—many public horse trails have a poor or nonexistent cell signal.
Most of Minnesota's public horse trails are multiuse and shared by hikers and others. Be sure you can control your horse and condition it to other trail recreational uses before riding on shared-use trails. In Minnesota other trail users are supposed to yield to horses, but few people know that. Stay alert for others, and don't assume anyone you meet knows the first thing about horses. If possible, pull to the side of the trail when you hear other people, and keep your horse's hindquarters away from them. Be prepared to tell people how to safely pass or approach your horse.
Many of the roads to access state horse trails and campgrounds are challenging if you aren't confident in your trailering skills, and not all areas have pull-throughs.
Horses are thousand-pound prey animals that worry about their safety a lot. Wild horses stayed alive by running first and asking questions later, and a spooked horse can be dangerous to its rider and others. The best thing you can do when you encounter a horse and rider on the trail is to say hello immediately, so you don't startle or frighten the horse. Most riders will respond by telling you how you can pass or approach their animal safely.
Hikers. Stay calm and behave normally; don't run or try to hide. If you can, step off to the side of the trail.
Kids and dogs. Keep them close. Even a well-trained horse can get anxious over an excited child, and injury is always a risk.
Same for dogs. Horses can panic over loose dogs and may respond with what can be a dangerous kick. For the safety of both people and animals, keep your dog on a short leash. (It's also the law for state parks, state forests, and state trails.)
Bicycles. Horses and bicycles are a dangerous combination because bikes are silent and fast and easily startle both horse and rider. To approach head-on: Say hello to be sure you've been seen, stop your bike at the edge of the trail, and wait for the horse to pass. To approach from behind: Stop, call out your desire to pass, and wait for the rider to turn the horse to face you.
Off-Road Vehicles. Stay alert on the trail. You don't know if there are horses on it, and it's easy to make a turn and be faced unexpectedly with a half-ton animal right in front of you. Stop and turn off the engine to let horses pass safely.
Minnesota is home to around 40,000 horses, according to data compiled by the St. Paul Pioneer Press in 2015. The Department of Natural Resources manages more than 1,000 miles of horse trail, and the average trail rider uses the state-maintained horse trail system 33 days a year.
As a general rule, horse trails in state parks or on state trails are often wider and more frequently groomed than trails in state forests, with flatter terrain and fewer challenges—perfect for riders who like to visit as they meander down a trail side by side, or for those who like long stretches where they can get their horses into a sustained gait or canter. State forest trails can be longer, narrower, and significantly more rugged, delighting riders who prefer difficult terrain.
The Magic of the Ride.
For me, much of the allure of trail riding is the chance to see and hear nature up close. Animals that flee at the sound of human footsteps often stay put when it's hooves they hear, and from the back of my horse, eight feet above the ground, I can spot animal tracks I would never notice on a hike. Horses have a better sense of smell and can hear at a higher frequency than people, and it is usually Stryder who first notices the fox with her kits just off the trail, or the newborn fawn hidden in the weeds.
Today he stops and waits patiently for me to find what he sees, and we watch together in silence as the killdeer hops onto the trail, dragging her "broken" wing to guide us away from her eggs. In these moments my horse and I are bonded in a way that is difficult to explain to non-riders, and they become special memories I will carry throughout my life.
Trail riding not only helps me maintain my connection to the land, it also connects me to history and to my ancestors' way of life. Many of the horse trails maintained by the state are in areas where early Dakota and Anishinaabeg peoples once traveled, and where the region's first European residents settled after arriving by horseback and horse-drawn wagons. I think about this heritage as we glide down the trail, feeling a deep connection to the families who once worked and traveled this same land with their horses.
The Horse Pass.
Minnesota's state horse trails and campgrounds rely on revenue brought in by sales of the Minnesota Horse Pass, which equestrians age 16 or older are required to carry when riding or driving an equid on state land, except for forest roads or forest rights of way. The pass is good for one calendar year and goes with the person, not with the horse. Horse pass dollars go exclusively toward improving horse trails and facilities. In 2017, $187,400 in horse pass funds paid for such projects.
Trail maintenance is also supported by the many horse enthusiasts who contribute their labor and their dollars. The Minnesota Trail Riders Association helps secure grants to help care for horse trails and campgrounds. Back Country Horsemen of Minnesota organizes volunteers to help with the boots-on-the-ground work, and the Minnesota Horse Council also contributes significantly to the state's horse trail system.
Camping with Horses.
Three months later, I am with a group of trail riders camping at Forestville/Mystery Cave State Park near Spring Valley. Many of them have gooseneck horse trailers with comfortable living quarters and electricity. On muggier nights I will envy them, but tonight I am happy sleeping in a hammock next to my little bumper pull trailer, my horse nickering softly nearby. We gather in the assembly area for storytelling and a shared meal over the campfire before turning in.
In much of the state, the riding season stalls from late June to mid-August when many insects are bad, but here in Fillmore County there are no natural lakes and the insects are more manageable. The blufflands of southeastern Minnesota become a kind of summer mecca for equestrians, and the electric sites at the horse campground are often full on weekends.
Thirteen state parks and 19 different locations in state forests have dedicated horse campgrounds. Campsites may have features including trailer back-ins, vault toilets, or picket or high-tie lines; others may have wide-open assembly areas, pressurized water, corrals, manure bins, or pull-through sites and electricity for trailers. At minimum, all equine campsites have a cleared area with a place to tie a horse, a fire ring, and a picnic table. A few allow portable corrals.
After the horses have been fed and watered, horse camps turn into social hubs where strangers become fast friends, everyone bonding over their shared love of trail riding and camping with horses.
In the morning we saddle up and ride the 17 miles of trails surrounding historic Forestville. As with many of the horse trails in southeastern Minnesota, the terrain is steep and covered in crushed limestone. I am an advocate of not shoeing horses that are able to remain barefoot, but this is the kind of trail that demands some sort of shoe for most horses. Stryder is rocking his blaze-orange plastic hoof boots on this ride; they cover his entire hoof and protect it from stone bruises while providing traction on slippery terrain.
We ride all day and return to camp dusty, tired, and exhilarated in a way only another equestrian fully understands. It's time to load the trailer, head for home, and start planning our next adventure on a Minnesota state horse trail.