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Horse trails planned for Jacksonville's Forest Park

An equestrian group with experience in building horse trails will work with Jacksonville Forest Park volunteers to establish an 8-mile equestrian loop in the park west of the town.

Jacksonville city officials closed the park to all horse riding earlier this year after three incidents where riders caused damage to trails designed for hikers and mountain bikers. Previously a trail had been available to riders in the upper reaches of the park.

Rogue Valley-based Sourdough Chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of America began discussions with Jacksonville officials on expanding horse-riding options in the park over a year ago. Equestrian use is listed in the park’s mission statement, but little development of that has taken place.

“We’ve got people who are good at building trails,” said Cate Bendock, president of the local chapter. Under agreements with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management, the group has built and maintained horse trails, including the westside trail in Illinois River Forks State Park.

Development of Forest Park, a 1,080-acre area in the city’s watershed, was started in the first decade of this century by volunteers, who provide most of the improvements and maintenance. The park now has 40 miles of trails for hikers and mountain bikers.

“Currently we need to do a little bit of work on some of the trails to get from one road to another to make the loop. We had planned on doing some work this spring, but COVID slowed things down,” said Max Woody, Jacksonville public works director. Plans have been developed and work may begin later this fall or during winter, with riding becoming available next spring.

Information found on the chamber of commerce and park websites led Cyndi Rach, a Sourdough member and avid hiker, to explore the park to find the horse trails.

After seeing many signs on trails closed to equestrians, she found one near the top of the park that allowed the use. But to get there, riders needed to share a road that is filled with mountain bikers and people trailering motorcycles to an area above Forest Park owned by the Motorcycle Riders Association. She said horses and wheeled vehicles is not a good mix.

Under the plans, the Nordling Trail would provide riders access to the current horse riding path higher in the park. Previously created fire roads blocked off to the public and new links between the fire roads will create the loop. The horse group will raise money and seek grants to cover costs of building the links as well as supplying volunteer workers.

Paths designed for mountain bikers and hikers are not built to sustain the wear produced by horses, which can weigh 1,000 pounds, not including saddles and rider, said Clayton Gillette, who heads trail building for the Forest Park volunteer group. There are also concerns about the paths being too narrow to allow for safe passage of both riders and users.

Volunteers spent 120 hours over the past two years making repairs to trails damaged by horses, said Gillette. There were three instances of damage this spring, but a couple of those riders joined in the restoration efforts. The soil types contribute to paths that can be prone to damage.

“A lot of that is shale and granite. It’s not soil that handles a lot of weight. It tends to slump and wash down the hills,” said Gillette.

Previous signage may have been a bit confusing, he said. Once an equestrian loop is built the trail would probably be open from May 1 through October before wet weather hits.

“We are trying to accommodate their season within reason. I think it’s going to be a good working relationship,” said Gillette. Creation of additional horse loops may happen in the future.

Both Rach and Bendock said equestrians nationally are concerned about the need for what is called “front country” riding closer to urban and suburban areas.

“Horses are becoming more and more limited in terms of trail access,” said Rach. She said she was surprised to find a lack of equestrian access near urban areas when she moved to the Rogue Valley compared to her former home in Phoenix, Arizona.

“We really do need a horse trail in that park. We will do it any way they want to,” said Bendock. “We are lacking a lot of that (front country) for the people we have in the Rogue Valley area.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

Clayton Gillette walks along the Norling Trail in Forest Park near Jacksonville.Mail Tribune File Photo