By Carmen Scruggs
The multi-use Clinton-Ionia-Shiawassee Trailway in St.Johns will provide trails for the public to bike, walk and run on, but does not allow access for horseback riders.
The section of the trail that runs through St.Johns to Sleepy Hollow State Park would provide a convenient route for horseback riders, if equestrians were allowed entry. Currently those riders cannot commute from St.Johns to reach the 13.5 mile equestrian trail in the state park. Equestrians must load their horses and equipment and drive to the park’s trails instead.
Sleepy Hollow Trail Riders Association President (SHTRA), Marsha Putnam, said the opportunities for trail riding in mid-Michigan are limited due to the absence of off-road equestrian trails. Aside from Sleepy Hollow, there are no other equestrian trails in Clinton County. The next closest areas open for horses are Rose Lake and Ionia Recreational, which are within an hours drive.
“There aren’t that many places for equestrians to ride and that’s why it is very important to have this trail mileage that the rail trail offers and to connect the trails that are at Sleepy Hollow,” stated Putnam.
The addition of an equestrian trail on the rail trail would provide novice riders a safe place to ride, said Putnam. Horseback riding would also allow recreational use to people who cannot easily walk or ride bikes by letting “the horse be their legs.”
Tim Machowicz, Sleepy Hollow State Park Superintendent, said although equestrians would like access from Sleepy Hollow to the rail trail, finding a safe route and funding to do so is challenging.
“Our proposed non-motorized facilities plan includes equestrian access via low traffic and county roads, but the discussion of widening shoulders of paved roads to provide equestrian access has not been initiated,” said Machowicz. “The involvement and support of the County Road Commission is needed since they have the funding and means to improve access.”
Little public interest also inhibits the construction of the equestrian trail. St.Johns’ residents are unsupportive of horse access through the city because some people that are unaccustomed to horses see them as dangerous due to their size. Others are troubled by potential horse manure on the trails.
“Public surveys have indicated that equestrian access through St. Johns is not desired due to safety and health concerns,” said Machowicz. “At this point the city of St. Johns opposes horse access through the city.”
The lack of public interest and funding hinders the equestrian trail’s planning. But the construction is more feasible due to low financial costs.
“The proposed non-motorized facilities plan includes a recommended paved lane for hiking and biking along the county road with the shortest access from the park to the rail-trail,” stated Machowicz. “From a financial and logistics standpoint, it is much more ‘doable’ than a formal linking trail for equestrians who have more needs and restrictions than hikers and bicyclists.”
If the proposed addition of the equestrian trail is approved, St.Johns and Sleepy Hollow State Park would benefit socially and economically.
“The communities near the rail-trail and Sleepy Hollow would have another draw to bring in new visitors who will spend money in those communities,” said Machowicz.
The equestrian trail would also allow trail riders in the SHTRA to have more group rides and social events, said Putnam. Riders of all ages and interest levels would have more opportunities to ride recreationally on new off-road trails, rather than on private land.
Sleepy Hollow State Park would also profit from the addition of the equestrian trail.
“Having a linking trail between the park and the rail-trail has the anticipated benefit of increasing attendance at Sleepy Hollow as well, which is good for the State Park system,” said Machowicz. “Providing some linking trail for hikers/bicyclists and equestrians would allow them to take advantage of overnight camping facilities at Sleepy Hollow.”