These answers apply to England and Wales. Access to the countryside in Scotland and Northern Ireland is very different, so please direct questions on access in those countries to Helene Mauchlen (Scotland) at firstname.lastname@example.org or Susan Irwin (Northern Ireland) at email@example.com.
Where can I ride?
You may ride a horse on public bridleways, restricted byways, byways open to all traffic and roads; permissive bridleways; some commons; tracks in some Forestry Commission land (check locally for permit schemes); on paid-permit toll rides such as those provided through TROT. Motor vehicles may only use roads or byways open to all traffic; horse-drawn carriages may use these and restricted byways; bicycles may use bridleways, but are required to give way to pedestrians and horse riders.
Bridleways and byways are public rights of way that are protected in law from being obstructed or moved. They are recorded by county or unitary councils on Definitive Maps, which define where each way goes and its status (who can use it). Any changes, such as a diversion for a new development, are done by a legal process through the council and the map is then updated. The routes shown on Ordnance Survey maps are taken from Definitive Maps, but may not be up to date. You can check the Definitive Map at your local council office (you may need an appointment).
The British Horse Society's National Equestrian Route Network (NERN) is a digital, constantly evolving, network of linked routes (linear and circular) and areas (such as commonland, forestry and beaches) which can be searched and viewed to find where to ride, carriage drive, cycle or walk. Many link to national trails and trunk routes (such as The Pennine Bridleway and The Great Dragon Ride), and to accommodation such as Horses Welcome Approved Establishments and local amenities. The network currently stands at 18,500km, many of which have route descriptions, and can be viewed on RideMaps UK.
Is it illegal to ride on a footpath?
Unless a traffic regulation order or relevant bylaw prohibits equestrian use, it is not a criminal offence to ride on a footpath. You may be trespassing unless you have the permission of the landowner, unless there are unrecorded higher rights on the path. If riding caused significant damage to the path, it could constitute an act of criminal damage.
BHS Access and Bridleways Officers work closely with local authorities to ensure equestrian rights are recorded, so that bridleways or byways are open to riders and carriage drivers. Many footpaths may carry higher rights, so if you discover that anywhere commonly ridden locally is not recorded as bridleway or byway, help to correct the record. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps helping as a volunteer, too.
What is common land and can I ride on it?
Common land is a complex topic. Commons are areas of land which have been subject to rights of common for many centuries, that is rights for people other than the landowner to use land, usually for a certain quantity of livestock grazing, to gather fuel, bedding material or to fish. Many commons have open access on foot and some have rights for riders, particularly in urban areas. This varies depending on the common, so you are advised to check with your highway authority as a right may be suspended by bylaws.
Can I get a map of all the public rights of way in my area?
Your highway authority should be able to provide a copy of a small portion of its definitive map of public rights of way, but it may make a charge.
Ordnance Survey (OS) maps that show public rights of way can be bought online, from bookshops or outdoor equipment shops. However, there may have been changes to the network since publication of the OS map, but these should be well marked.
What are 'green lanes' and can I ride on them?
'Green lane' is not a legal definition for a right of way; it is a physical description of lanes that are largely vegetated underfoot ('green').
Councils or vehicular users for unimproved unclassified roads, but many bridleways and byways fit the description 'green lane'. Those green lanes that are unclassified roads with rights higher than footpath may be ridden.
Obstructions and Out of Repair
A bridleway/byway is obstructed or in very bad condition. What can I do about it?
An obstruction may be anything which prevents you from using a bridleway or byway. It may be apparently deliberate (wilful) obstruction such as a locked gate; accidental, such as a windblown tree which the landholder may not be aware is blocking the path; or disrepair where a path is difficult to use because of poor drainage or a collapsed gate. Responsibility varies but that is for the local highway authority to sort out – the problem for you, the user, is the same – a right of way is made difficult or dangerous to use by someone’s action or inaction.
Common obstructions include:
- gates that are locked or difficult to use
- cultivation – ploughed or growing crop
- intimidating dogs, a bull, stallion, horses, other livestock preventing easy use of the path
- encroachment on width by fencing, collapsing wall, adjacent vegetation or building
- overgrowth or low overhanging branches
- intimidating signs – e.g. Keep Out, Private Road, Danger, Bull in Field
- poor drainage causing deep mud
- missing, damaged or inadequate bridges
- rutted, slippery or otherwise dangerous artificial surfaces
- sports on or adjacent to the path e.g. shooting, ballooning, golf, archery, paintballing, model aircraft flying
Whatever makes it difficult to use the right of way, the answer is the same:
You are legally entitled to deviate from a path to pass an obstruction (technically only on the same owner’s land but that is rarely information available to you), or to remove as much of the obstruction as necessary to pass provided you do not compromise livestock security.
A landholder is responsible for keeping public bridleways or byways free from overhanging vegetation, from encroachment or obstruction, from crops and for ensuring gates are convenient to use. A highway authority is usually responsible for the surface, including natural vegetation (not a crop) growing from it, and for the way being clearly marked and available.
If you know the landholder and you believe the obstruction is their responsibility, a polite request to him or her may be all that is needed, especially if it is something that could have happened by accident or they may not yet be aware of.
Otherwise, contact your local highway authority (which will be the county council, unitary authority or national park authority), informing it of the situation, preferably by letter or email. It is important to keep written records of your attempts to get the problem resolved. Report the situation as accurately as possible, with a clear description of the location (preferably a grid reference) and the problem.
Report the problem, even if you think someone else may have done so. Reports help authorities to prioritise resources because of a clear indication of demand.
If a problem is not resolved within a reasonable period, or you are not satisfied with the response from the highway authority, you may wish to ask for the assistance of the parish council, your county councillor, or, if the severity of the situation justifies it, your MP.
BHS Access and Bridleways Officers work closely with local authorities to ensure rights of way stay clear and convenient for use by all equestrians. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps helping as a volunteer, too.
Are farmers allowed to plough out bridleways?
A cross-field bridleway may be ploughed, but must be reinstated to a minimum width of two metres within 14 days of the disturbance to a state that is reasonably convenient to use and so the way is clear. If the field is subsequently cultivated again that cycle, the path must be reinstated within 24 hours.
Bridleways along field edges and all byways must not be ploughed at all and must be left at least three metres wide.
Hedges next to field edge paths must be cut back, so the full width of the path is available.
Crops (other than grass) should not grow on or overhang a public right of way.
Farmers are recommended to stop sowing for the width of the path (and the height of the crop to each side of it to prevent it blocking the path if it collapses), or cut back the crop as it grows more than a height of about 150mm (six inches), so the path is clear and easy to follow without brushing through the crop.
A farmer has erected barbed wire next to the bridleway I use. Is there anything I can do about it?
If the barbed wire is causing a nuisance you should contact your local highway authority (the county council, unitary authority or national park authority), preferably by letter or email, informing it of the situation. It is important to keep written records of your attempts to get the problem resolved.
Section 164 of the Highways Act states that where there is barbed wire fence on land adjoining a bridleway and the bridleway is a nuisance to the highway, the authority can serve notice on the occupier of the land to abate the nuisance within a time period not being less than a month nor more than six months from the date of service of the notice.
BHS Access and Bridleways Officers work closely with local authorities to ensure bridleways stay clear and convenient for use by all riders. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps helping as a volunteer, too.
A field crossed by a bridleway is being strip-grazed using electric fencing. There is a spring-pull handle in the fence but it is very difficult to use. Can anything be done?
Electric fencing across a bridleway is an obstruction and should be dealt with by contacting the highway authority. Either the field must be strip-grazed parallel with the bridleway so it is not affected, or a convenient gate must be installed if the authority decides the fence can be authorised, which is unlikely if the fence keeps moving.
There is an electric fence alongside a bridleway. Can anything be done?
Unfortunately, there is no clear law on electric fencing. British Standard 5709 guidance states no electric (or barbed wire) fence should be within one metre of a gate or manoeuvring space. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affiair’s advice to farmers, and that of the Health and Safety Executive, includes guidelines for lagging electric fencing close to gates, routing it around gates, warning notices, siting of energisers, etc.
Although there is no legislation for enforcement, in most cases pointing out the dangers and potential accident risk should be enough for any farmer to reconsider the situation in respect of his liability to the public on his land and his insurance policy. If the fencing is intended to deter users of the bridleway, the highway authority can take action as the fence is a common law nuisance to prevent use of the public right. What can be done is likely to depend on the specific circumstances and whether it is considered that there is enough space for users to be safe.
How wide should a bridleway be?
Bridleways and byways vary in width depending on their history, there is no set rule. In some areas, the legal record held by highway authorities includes a width for each path in a statement, although many are known to be inaccurate, they do enable the authority to take enforcement action to that width.
Where the path is bounded on both sides by walls or fences, the width is probably the whole of that between the boundaries.
The 1990 Rights of Way Act specified widths for reinstatement of paths on arable land and, as these were accepted by Parliament as reasonable, they are often also applied to any land as a reasonable assumption of width where there is no recorded width. They are:
- Bridleways: minimum 2m across a field, 3m field edge (alongside a vertical boundary)
- Byways: minimum 3m both cross-field and field edge
I need a specification for a bridleway bridge.
Details are given in our Advisory Note on Bridges. In brief:
- Live load 5kn/sq m
- Point load 8.12kn
- For crossing major roads or rivers, we recommend DfT specifications
- BD52/93: parapets being 1.8m (6ft); infill at the bottom 0.6m (2ft); solid parapets preferred
- Desirable width 3m (10ft), minimum 2.2m
- Over streams and ditches (span up to 8m) the width should be 3m with a solid kickboard at bottom 225mm; the parapet must be 1.2m minimum
- River (span more than 8m) or byway crossing, the width should be at least 4m with a kickboard of at least 250mm
- Kickboards approx. 25mm above the deck to allow surface run-off
- The bridge needs to be 1m above the maximum known flood level, as per Environment Agency instructions
- Structure should be stable and decking substantial, non-echoing with no gaps in the decking through which the river can be seen
- Surface must be non-slip
How are bridleways and byways recorded?
Public rights of way are recorded on the Definitive Map and Statement, which is maintained by each highway authority (county council or unitary authority) for its area and provides conclusive legal evidence of the existence of each public right of way recorded, relating to a specific date (the relevant date). The Statement is a schedule (description) that complements the map by describing the position of the rights of way, usually with details of restrictions or limitations on the public's rights such as gates or widths.
In some areas there are very few bridleways, for various reasons, perhaps because a rich area tended to upgrade bridleways to roads, sometimes because bridleways were only recorded as footpaths.
This is bad news for equestrians and the BHS works closely with local authorities to increase bridleway provision or record rights omitted from the Map. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps helping as a volunteer, too.
When I bought my property, my solicitor told me there were no bridleways on it and I have the papers to prove it. Local riders are trying to claim that there is, doesn’t that mean it is too late for them and I am in the clear?
When you bought the property, the solicitor you employed to investigate the land may not have checked exhaustively. Commonly, a solicitor will refer only to the record held by the relevant council (Definitive Map of Public Rights of Way).
Although this is the most up-to-date map available for reference, it may not be wholly correct. There are many bridleways in use or with evidence of use that are not shown on the definitive map, but still exist.
A bridleway I used to ride has been blocked by locked gates and another rider has been told it is not a bridleway and the new landowner has stopped it being used. It’s an important link for us. Can we get it back?
First check with your highway authority (county council or unitary authority) whether the bridleway is recorded on the definitive map and statement. If it is, ask the council to take action to open it again quickly. It can do this by enforcement, if necessary.
If it is not recorded, tell the council that it has been ridden and ask for guidance on applying for a modification order to legally define it as a bridleway. BHS Access and Bridleway Officers may be able to help you. Join the Society to support this crucial work and help as a volunteer, too.
What is a modification order to legally define a bridleway?
The definitive map of public rights of way is a legal document that defines the existence of the bridleways and byways recorded on it. If a right is not recorded (including the right to ride along a route that is recorded as footpath), a case must be made to establish that the bridleway or byway should be recorded and has been omitted from the map. Such a case results in a Definitive Map Modification Order.
The case is made by gathering evidence of use, by historical documentation or statements by current or past riders/carriage drivers.
Highway authorities (county council or unitary authority) make modification orders. BHS volunteers throughout the country help riders to make successful claims for modifications of the definitive map.
Correctly recording bridleways and byways preserves those routes for all riders or carriage drivers forever. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps volunteering yourself.
Is it true that in 2026, the public highway rights over unrecorded paths will be automatically extinguished?
The 2026 ‘cut-off date’, introduced by the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, will extinguish unrecorded rights of way if they came into being before 1949. It is vital that any currently unrecorded bridleways or byways are recorded before 2026, or they could be lost forever. You can help the BHS in this crucial work by joining the Society and perhaps volunteering to help in your area.
There is a bridleway on my land that has not been used for years. Doesn’t it cease to exist after 20 years?
No, that is not true. Public rights of way exist indefinitely even if not used unless the land they cross is destroyed (for example by coastal erosion) or the rights are removed by a legal event (court order or similar).
How should you open a gate when out riding?
Watch our video to find out how to open gates safely on horseback and the heels to hinges method. Remember to leave gates as you find them.
I have had a bad experience on a bridleway with wire/a gate catch/self-closing gate/bog/water crossing/dogs/mountain bikes/motor bikes etc. What should I do?
Any incident, whether it results in injury or not, should be reported to the highway authority so that they know about it, even if there is no action they can take. It is often helpful for them to have a record of incidents so that if action is required at a later date, they have supporting evidence.
Report any incident on the BHS online database.
Statistics are very powerful in making change so the more comprehensive the record of incidents, the stronger the case the BHS can make for legislative change to improve safety.
What are highway authorities?
Highway authorities, either county councils or unitary authorities, are responsible for the management and protection of all public highways in their areas, except those managed at a national level such as motorways and trunk roads.
Bridleways and byways are minor public highways. A highway authority may delegate the management of some of its highways, especially rights of way, to another local authority such as a district council or national park authority.
Are motorbikes or vehicles allowed on bridleways?
Some bridleways run on tracks that also have private access rights with vehicles for landholders or other right-holders. If you meet a motor vehicle on a bridleway, it may be there by private right (so avoiding starting with accusations), but there are bridleways where use by motor vehicles is a problem and is illegal. That is a matter for the police, because a bridleway is a highway in the same way as any road and only the police can enforce against traffic offences.
What permission do I need to organise a fundraising ride for local riders to raise funds for our Access Fighting Fund?
It will depend entirely on what you plan to do and where you plan to hold the event.
When you are not using public rights of way, approach the landowner for permission. Even when you are using public rights of way it is courteous to inform the landowners. Make sure that you have up-to-date insurance, and that you have notified the BHS in writing of your event – an email will do. Good guidance on this is available from the Best of Both Worlds website.
How do National Trails differ from ‘regular’ rights of way?
National Trail is a non-legal designation promoting a specific route, largely along public rights of way. Rights of way are managed by local authorities whereas National Trails each have an officer, funded by Natural England, responsible for their management and although these officers may be part of the local authority's Rights of Way department, they have an independent budget for maintenance and promotion of the trail at a higher level than most rights of way. Visit National Trails and RideMaps UK for more information.
Problems can arise for riders as the majority of National Trails are promoted for pedestrians but may use bridleways, byways or minor roads as well as footpaths.
Designation as a National Trail on foot does not affect the legal right to ride or drive where that exists.
I have an idea for a National Equestrian Route Network (NERN) project. How can I make this idea a reality?
The first thing to do is contact the BHS Access Department. We coordinate route projects for the National Equestrian Route Network, and would be glad to hear from you via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on 02476 840581. You will need a team of people to ride and check the routes. We can advise you on checking the routes, finding local sources of funding, and help you promote the routes you have created when they are ready for public use.
For more information, please contact:
Access and Rights Of Way Department
The British Horse Society
Warwickshire CV8 2XZ
Updated May 2013