The brand new trail at Leith Hill, home of some of the best mountain biking in Surrey, has been temporarily closed as investigations are made into whether or not the route could endanger horse riders.
The MTB trail snakes through the wooded area of Leith Hill, and at one point runs parallel to a sunken bridleway. It is this area in particular that is causing problems, as horse riders are worried that the presence of speeding, jumping cyclists nearby may spook the horses, potentially leading to an accident.
Others suggest that this may in fact be a case of people anticipating a problem that might not actually arise, with the trail having been designed so that MTBers slow down when approaching cross roads and paths.
Commenting on the situation, cycling charity the CTC said: “There are bridleways and tracks all over Surrey that are quite happily coexisting at the moment without too much anguish and they respect each other.”
The issue arose as a result of a complaint by Bob Milton, common land adviser to the British Horse Society, who believes the new track is not lawful: ” [This] does show what a complete lack of understanding the council has of the legalities and ramifications of an access agreement under the National Parks and access to the Countryside Act 1949. It is the prerogative and duty of the council as scheme managers to act only under the agreement with respect to public access which excludes vehicles of any sort, ie cycles.”
The horse path in question is a bridleway, one of the few types of path that cyclists are legally allowed to use, so it is quite likely that horse riders may in fact encounter bike riders on the same path as them in any case.
In the UK, cyclists are not permitted to ride on public footpaths, but are allowed on roads, bridleways, cycling trails and some common land areas. This is very different to Scotland, where the ‘Right to Roam’ access laws mean that walkers and cyclists can ride more or less anywhere.
With the Surrey Hills being one of the most famous and accessible areas in the South East for mountain biking, we hope the situation can be resolved quickly.
Rob Fairbanks, of the Surrey Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty Board, said: “It is not feasible to ban biking in one of the most popular areas in England. We want to work with the BHS to educate cyclists about the priority that needs to be given to horse riders.”
Mutual respect and understanding of each party could be key; if mountain bikers understand how to behave safely around horseriders, the risk of spooking the horses and potentially causing an incident can be minimised, and the area can continue to be shared enjoyably by everyone.
We all just want to enjoy the countryside, whether we do it on horseback or two wheels.
What to do if you are approaching a horse:
1. Call out nice and calmly, or ring your bell if you have one, to alert horse and rider to your presence. Wait for them to call you past.
2. Approach slowly and leave plenty of space if you overtake.
3. Or, alternatively, pull over to the side and wait patiently for horse and rider to pass.
4. Cyclists on bridleways must give right of way to horse-riders and pedestrians.
5. If you are approaching a bridleway or crossing point, slow down to ensure it is safe to cross.
For more information on how to ride around horses, on road as well as off, visit the Horse and Road Safety Awareness site.
The Code of Conduct for Horse Riders and Cyclists by the British Horse Society is also worth reading, as it explains why you need to behave in certain ways around horses.