More than Horsing Around

July 1, 2012, Department, by J. Earing, I. Schneider, A. Date, K. Martinson

A recent study helps explore the motivations and conflicts in recreational horseback riding.Half of the 9.2 million horses in the United States are used for trail and pleasure riding (AHC 2005). Since 2001, horseback riding has increased 12 percent and recreational trail riding increased 2 percent (Cordell in press).  Recreational horseback trail riding presents unique recreation experience opportunities and management challenges. Despite the status of trail riding, minimal information exists regarding non-wilderness recreational trail riding experiences. Consequently, this study sought information regarding the horseback trail riding experience, emphasizing motivations and conflict situations to inform management and marketing for this niche group.

Minnesota hosts more than 1,000 miles of horseback riding trails managed by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and 200 miles of trails available on other lands.  As of 2005 (the most recent data available), 4.5 percent of the state population participated in horseback riding annually (Kelly 2005). 

To understand the market, a sample of 804 trail pass holders were asked to respond to a mail questionnaire. Questions focused on reasons for participation (Driver 1977) and conflict situations (Schneider 2000). A 60 percent response rate provided 458 questionnaires for analysis.

Most often respondents were female, non-Hispanic whites between 41 and 50 years of age, and earned between $50,000-74,999 (29.3 percent) and $75,000-99,999 (14.7 percent) per year.  Most frequently respondents reported they had attained a bachelor degree (23.3 percent) or completed some college (22.2 percent). 

Respondents had an average of 27 years experience trail riding. Riders rode close to home an average of 38 days in the last 12 months, but the range was 3 to 20 days. Individuals in the seven-county metropolitan area of Minneapolis-St. Paul indicated the most frequent number of days horseback riding within 30 minutes, followed closely by respondents in central and southern Minnesota.

Of the 20 possible motivations for riding, 11 were important or very important to more than 75 percent of respondents, including  “to view the scenery,” “to be close to nature,”  “to get away from the usual demands of life,” “to experience nature,” “to explore and discover new things,” “to relax physically,” “to be physically active,” “to be with people who enjoy the same things I do,” “to rest mentally,” “to enjoy different experiences from home,” and “to get /keep physically fit.” 

The majority of horseback riding respondents did not frequently observe 8 of the 12 sources of potential conflict.   However, more than one-half of respondents did report “hearing other users on the trail” (75.6 percent), “litter on or near the trail” (70.3 percent), or “seeing evidence of off trail/road use” (61.7 percent).  Of those who reported that something interfered with their trail experience (55 percent), only about one-third (31.9 percent) indicated it was with other horseback riders and about half (52.0 percent) indicated that it was stressful.  The most common strategies used to cope with interferences were to “talk to other members of my group about the incident” (47.0 percent), “follow established rules for trail etiquette” (46.6 percent), and “don’t let it get to me; refuse to think about it too much” (41.4 percent). Between 20 and 25 percent left the area or place altogether in response to the conflict and a similar number intended to avoid the area in the future.

Results indicate horseback trail riders are similar to other outdoor enthusiasts in terms of motivations. Their desires to be close to nature and have social experiences are not surprising and are likely in your experience management goals. However, the rider focus on physical activity may be an overlooked opportunity to increase the “healthy parks-healthy lives” initiative. The Center for Disease Control espouses the health benefits of pet ownership, and quantifies caloric expenditures for horse riding and grooming. Including the physical activity opportunity and benefit of participation in marketing and management materials may be advantageous. Similarly, as customer health benefits are calculated, be sure to include recreational horseback trail riders. Furthermore, include their economic impact; in Minnesota, annual equipment spending amounted to $530 million, while trail riding expenditures reached $49.9 million (Venegas 2009).

Half of the riders experienced a conflict that interfered with their experience and was stressful, typically from a non-rider. Although asymmetrical conflict is common, both the conflict level and stress level is high compared to other trail user groups (Schneider et al. 2009). Horseback riders have unique safety concerns compared to other trail users, given the challenges multiple-use trails can present. It is essential that trail etiquette and deference to the riders be clear to all users through effective education. Understanding if conflict is at an unacceptable rate will require site-specific data to identify the root cause of issues imposing on visitor health and quality of leisure experiences.

As park and recreation organizations consider evolving management goals and marketing efforts, we encourage them to take a fresh look at the recreational horseback riders.  The health benefits they are reaping may be undervalued. Similarly, the conflict they experience may be underestimated. Consider applying our questionnaire in your area to find out more about this niche group. Find the full report at  

Jennifer Earing, Ph.D. is a Post-doctoral Research Associate at the University of Minnesota; Ingrid Schneider, Ph.D. is Professor, Forest Resources and Director of the Tourism Center at the University of Minnesota; Andrea Date, M.S., is Social Science Research Analyst, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (UMN graduate student when research project conducted); and Krishona Martinson, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor, Department of Animal Science, and Equine Extension Specialist, University of Minnesota. 

American Horse Council (AHC). 2005. National economic impact of the U.S. horse industry. Accessed March 23, 2012.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. No date. Health benefits of pets. Accessed March 23, 2012.

Cordell, H. K. In press. Outdoor recreation trends and futures. A technical document supporting the Forest Service 2010 RPA Assessment. Gen. Tech. Rpt., U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Southern Research Station, Asheville, North Carolina.

Driver, B. L. 1977.  Item pool for scales designed to quantify the psychological outcomes desired and expected from recreation participation.  Unpublished paper.  USDA Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Forest and Range Experiment Station, Fort Collins, Colorado. No date. About the calorie burned calculator. Accessed March 23, 2012.

Kelly, T. 2005.  2004 Outdoor recreation participation survey of Minnesotans:  report on findings.  Office of Management and Budget Services, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. St. Paul.

Martinson, K., M. Hathaway, J. Wilson, B. Gilkerson, P. Peterson, and R. Delvecchio. 2006. University of Minnesota horse owner survey: building an equine extension program.  Journal of Extension. 44(6). Article Number 6RIB4.

Schneider, I.E.  2000. Responses to conflict in urban-proximate areas. Journal of Park and
Recreation Administration 18(2):37-53.

Schneider, I.E., A. Schuweiler, and T. Bipes. 2009.  Profile of 2008 Minnesota trail users. University of Minnesota Tourism Center, St. Paul.

Venegas, E. 2009. Economic impact of recreational trail users in Minnesota. Department of Economic Development, St. Paul, Minnesota.