COLUMBIA — Lucie Hess loves to ride her horse on the trails in Boone County. The 55-year-old Columbia resident enjoys seeing the "beautiful valleys, wildflowers and rock formations."
The area features plenty of spots for pleasure riding, Hess said. Riders have access to more than 50 miles of trails and the 750 acres in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. But Hess said mid-Missouri horse riders lack access to cross-country courses, which use natural obstacles such as logs and creeks to let riders and their horses practice jumping.
"Those courses that are around are private and don't open up to the public," she said.
The Columbia Parks and Recreation Department initially included a public course in the southeast regional park plan, but it was cut in favor of a natural preservation area after local environmental groups opposed it.
Department officials originally thought restricting the horses to 17 acres would limit their impact on the environment, but they decided the "the wide open and dispersed nature of the activity" was too difficult to manage, according to the proposal presented at the Feb. 1 Columbia City Council meeting.
The report noted that water laced with horse manure could travel into caves and springs, causing ecological problems.
Because Columbia lacks any public cross-country courses, Hess drives two hours to Greensfelder Park in St. Louis County to use the ones there. The county also has another public course at Queeny Park. These are the closest public courses she can find.
The Queeny Park courses are closed to riders from the public when the private Queeny Park Equestrian Events group holds shows there. In 1980, the equestrian club struck an agreement with the parks department: It would recruit volunteers, build courses and maintain trails in exchange for access to the land.
The organization provides about 50 volunteers to help with park maintenance.
"It's worked out beautifully to have the park," Mary Wessel said.
The Queeny Park club uses profits from private events to host more events, to maintain courses and to build new ones, said Dick Wessel, a board member and Mary Wessel's husband. The parks department gets none of the money, but it owns the courses once they’re built.
The agreement benefits the parks department because it gives equestrians from the public a place to have fun, operations manager Brian Schaffer said. “It's in an area of Queeny Park that's not highly used except for the horses."
In Columbia, the parks department examined the southeast regional park — which comprises A. Perry Philips Park and Gans Creek Recreation Area — as a potential location for a cross-country course because of its proximity to the trails at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, parks services manager Mike Griggs said.
In an arrangement similar to the one at Queeny Park, equestrians in Columbia would be charged with building their own courses, but the parks department would keep the area mowed and maintained. Because the department decided against the southeast regional park location, Griggs said the city might look at another.
Griggs said the city hadn't identified any particular group to work with at this point, but he expected a private group to step forward.
From Dec. 10, 2008, to Jan. 31, 2009, the parks department reviewed 537 survey responses during the plan's initial public input phase; 176 people ranked the equestrian area as their favorite part of the plan, while 142 people said it was their least favorite. Supporters generally said that there was a need for the equestrian area but that 17-acres was too small. Respondents who didn't want the equestrian area cited the environmental threat.
In a September 2009 Web-based survey, 45 people said the equestrian area was a low priority while 27 called it a high priority.
"Maybe there is a need for that, but maybe at another site without the environmental problems," Griggs said.
All trails have a certain amount of environmental impact, said Sue Holst, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Natural Resources state parks division.
"The key is to make sure they're designed in an area appropriate for equestrian use," she said.
The state parks division examines the terrain, soil type and geography before determining whether an area is suitable for horses, she said. If problems arise, she said, the division works with equestrian groups to re-route trails.
During public input at a Feb. 19 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, representatives of the Columbia Audubon Society, Friends of Rock Bridge State Park, Missouri Parks Association and the Osage Group of the Sierra Club all supported removing the equestrian area from the plan.
But Richard Shanker, a member of the Osage Group and the Columbia Audubon Society, disagreed with the department's assessment of how horses would affect the area.
"As soon as you use the 'd word' — development — it's going to cause problems," Shanker said in a previous Missourian article. "To say a few horses riding on 17 acres is going to impact more than the hundreds of acres of ball fields, bathrooms, parking lots, in my opinion, is relatively naive."
The department won't move forward with any park development until at least May, Griggs said. In April, it will ask residents through a citywide phone and mail survey about their greatest parks needs. Griggs likened the state of the equestrian area to that of disc golf courses in the past. In a similar survey, residents asked for a disc golf course at Stephens Lake Park. The department later found a better location at Indian Hills Park, where disc golfers have access to an 18-hole course.
Although the Columbia area lacks any public cross-country courses, several trails are open for pleasure riding, Hess said. She even moved south of town because her home is within five miles of three access points. She takes her three horses to the different trails whenever it's dry. She won't ride when the ground is wet because she wants to limit the horses' damage to the trails.
Hess has been riding on the 36 miles of trails in the Cedar Creek Ranger District of Mark Twain National Forest for nearly 30 years. She helped build the seven-mile "Moon Loop" trail in the mid-1980s, aptly named when soil erosion created a clay landscape, making it look like the moon.
Hess and her husband, Rick Sommers, spent 13 years riding on that trail together; he on his mountain bike and she on a horse. He died in a car crash in 1997, so she bought markers to be placed on the trail in his memory.
"We both loved to go out there," Hess said. "It was just an activity that we enjoyed together."
Horse riders have three other public places available to them:
- A 10-mile trail in the Rudolf Bennitt Conservation Area
- An eight-mile trail in the Three Creeks Conservation Area
- A 750-acre Gans Creek Wild area in Rock Bridge Memorial State Park
Hess said equestrians love to ride because they get to see natural areas that aren't usually visible to those who won't hike several miles into the forest.
"They love to see the scenery: the rock outcroppings, the wildflowers," Hess said. "Missouri is really pretty."