It's surprising that an area with as much open space as Chautauqua County could be considered unfriendly to horses.
In reality, riders who want to ride on a trail run into many of the same problems as snowmobilers. Land that was previously open and available for riding ends up being sold. That private property is posted for no trespassing and, poof, the open trail is no more.
Given the number of horse owners in the county, it's encouraging to see a dedicated group of volunteers, businesses and several levels of government coming together to create the Chautauqua County Equestrian Trail. Work has begun in earnest on the loop, which is located in the town and village of Cherry Creek and town of Charlotte. Plans are for the trail to connect major hubs by extending from the parking area and trailhead in the northern portion of Boutwell State Forest south through Boutwell Hill State Forest to the Cockaigne Ski Area, east to the village of Cherry Creek and then returning to the northern portion of Boutwell State Forest.
The county was approved for two separate $150,000 grants from the Appalachian Regional Commission for the first three phases of work. That money is being matched with $300,000 of local cash and in-kind contributions to upgrade 25 miles of trails, existing trailhead, parking areas and road crossings, and install picnic areas, kiosks, trail signage, hitch posts and mounting blocks.
Using the snowmobilers as a model, the equestrian trail could eventually be expanded into a regional trail network by connecting to the equestrian trails in neighboring Cattaraugus and Allegheny counties, both of which have been actively developing trail systems for more than a decade. Eventually, guided trail tours are a possibility. And, with a dedicated trail system comes the opportunity for out-of-town riders to visit an area created just for them. Such a lofty goal would create an equestrian trail that rivals the area's snowmobile trail system - which ends up being a tremendous boost to the tourism economy during the winter months.
There is much work to be done before any of those goals are a reality. After all, it took area snowmobilers 20 years to create the area's snowmobile trail system. The work needed on the equestrian trail is harder than one might think, too. One recent project included creating stairs on a water crossing to allow horses and their riders to safely cross a creek and proceed up and down a steep embankment.
The group is looking for more volunteers to pitch in and for some small materials, such as 5 gallon buckets with handles to help move dirt from areas inaccessible to wheelbarrows. For more information, visit CCETS Friends and Volunteers on Facebook.
It's far from horseplay right now - but well worth the effort.