Lorenzo Semple

The local horse community is trotting out an interesting argument for keeping mountain bikes off of the newly acquired Sutey Ranch property (pronounced “shooty,” adorable, aint it?) outside of Carbondale. As an avid mountain biker, to me their proposal is intriguing and entirely plausible. 

There’s a part of me that thinks with the glut of mountain bike trails in the valley — more than most of us could ride in one summer — what’s the harm in letting the horse community have one sanctuary for themselves? It’s almost an olive branch of goodwill from one hated user group to another. If it weren’t for those pesky federal laws, it might just be a good idea.

Mea culpa: I’m in full-throated favor of the Crystal Valley Trail connecting Carbondale to Crested Butte — even for horses — and all trails in general. I also think that Aspen/Pitkin County Open Space and Trails and the Roaring Fork Mountain Biking Association along with Roaring Fork Outdoor Volunteers do an outstanding job of outreach, coordinating, accommodating, building and maintaining trails for everyone. 

That being said, as Colorado swells up like a sprained ankle, the future of non-motorized multi-use trails is one-directional loops and trails that separate out user groups. That’s the only way to prevent trail conflict — which, by the way, is pretty rare here in Aspen.

On some level, horse folks have it made. Not only can they ride their horses in any wilderness area where mountain bikes can’t go, they can also ride on boss trails like Government, Sunnyside and Lenado. When it comes to riding on BLM land, technically they don’t even have to ride on the trail. They can gallop across meadows, rear up on a ridge or just mosey along into the sunset like the Marlboro Man. 

Mountain bikers also have it made. If you live in Aspen, there are miles of trails to ride before you sleep, right out your front door. Your options have options.

The horse lobby’s request for Sutey’s duties is understandably rooted in the valley’s equestrian past, unassuming present and future. If ever there was a “we were here first” argument, equestrians have that one won. You won’t see hieroglyphs and cave drawings of mountain bikes. Horses? Yes. 

It’s amazing to me how disorganized, yet how wealthy, the horse alliance is. Generally speaking they are a more conservative user group than mountain bikers. There has to be all sorts of psychologically rich inner turmoil there; conservative-leaning equestrians chiefly vote for people who want to decimate vast stretches of wilderness for the sake of resource development, yet they want to ride horses undisturbed by mountain bikes and dirt bikes in those same areas. That’s a tough one.

If you are a mountain biker read this part: When you see a horse, stop and get off your bike. Establish verbal contact with the rider and wait for instruction. And never, ever, ride up behind a horse or pass from behind unannounced. Holler out from a distance; ring your bell. If you don’t have a bell get one. They give them away for free at the city’s parks department office over by Cemetery Lane. Be an ambassador of your sport. Your trail etiquette will be much appreciated, especially by equestrians. They’ll be so surprised by your politeness it’ll make both of you feel good.

Though you rarely encounter horses out on the trails, they are at the top of the right-of-way pyramid (horses/hikers/bikers) for good reason. The big furry fellas are downright unpredictable and can throw the rider off if spooked by a mountain biker, causing serious injury or even death. If a horse rider opens up a can of verbal whoop-ass on you when you fly by oblivious on a mountain bike, you now know why.

Horse people absolutely loathe mountain bikers, yet their distain for their two-wheeled foes doesn’t stop there; it carries seamlessly over to road bikers. You’ll hear their country-twanged rants about anything to do with spandex or two wheels from the Woody Creek Tavern all the way up to the Snowmass Rodeo grounds. 

For me, the angst is one-sided. As a mountain biker I like and appreciate horses and the people who ride them. The perceived trail damage to me is minimal. Ever ridden down a single-track a herd of elk has just stomped? It’s like a paint-shaker. Horse manure is surprisingly benign and breaks down quickly. To use one of their favorite phrases — “cowboy-up,” mountain bikers! And learn how to interact with equestrians, the few and far between times you come in contact with them. 

At the end of the trail, equestrians’ and mountain bikers’ shared interests are more in line with each other than you’d think. Creating separate trails for each non-motorized group on a multi-use Sutey Parcel is a reasonable compromise that should make everyone reasonably happy.