Staff from Hampshire County Council’s Countryside Service attended a busy equestrian access workshop day organised by The British Horse Society’s Hampshire committee in conjunction with the British Driving Society (BDS) and the Hants and West Sussex Borders Bridleways Group (HWSBBG).
Emma Noyce, Countryside Access Team Leader, worked with the organisations to plan the workshop, and brought 17 of her team along, including office-based planning staff and field-based path maintenance teams. “It was really important to me to bring a mix of people from across the service,” explained Emma, “not just those in the field who actually work on the bridleways, but also those who are in charge of prioritising and planning works”. There were also attendees from the Forestry Commission, another highly important agency in terms of equestrian access in Hampshire.
The delegates met at Grayswood Carriage Driving Centre, at Fishers Pond near Eastleigh, where they split into three groups to rotate around three different activities. One group went by minibus with Sue Montilla of HWSBBG and Gail Johnson of BDS to visit bridleways and byways in the area and look at some of the issues equestrian users can experience. “This exercise, and indeed the whole day, was about getting across how equestrian users can encounter problems that, to a non-equestrian, may not be at all obvious. We wanted to give the Countryside Service an equestrian user’s perspective, and getting them out on the ground with us to talk about issues was a great way to do this,” said Kayti Harvey, chairman of BHS Hampshire. At one bridleway, for example, the importance of how junctions with roads are sited and how the vegetation is cut back was shown – with the aid of a mop! At one very blind exit, for example, the mop was used to demonstrate a horse’s neck and head, so that delegates could see how far out in to the road a horse’s head must get before a rider themselves can see down the road.
Meanwhile, back at Grayswood, another group was shown how really simple adjustments can make a huge difference to equestrian users. HCC had kindly provided a couple of different bridleway gates which a volunteer demonstrated opening and closing on horseback. Positioning of the latch, the type of latch, and which side the gate opens were all topics of discussion, and the delegates could see how horses reacted to certain things. One gate was positioned with the latch almost buried in a hedge, for example, and the rider struggled to get her horse’s head close enough to be able to open it. “I had no idea that a horse wouldn’t like that, but it was really clear to see that it was much easier for the rider when there was room for the horse’s head at the latch end of the gate,” said one of the field staff.
Delegates then took turns to pull a lightweight exercise cart down a mock path full of obstacles marked out in the field, to see how hard it is to manoeuvre a carriage over rough ground, between narrow gaps and around tight bends, which again proved to be a valuable eye opener for them.
Finally, the teams were taken out around local rights of way by horse and carriage, driven by Grayswood proprietor Roger Page, Area Commissioner for the British Driving Society, and some of his staff. The teams saw first-hand the challenges of negotiating very narrow gaps at path entrances and rough terrain, but also simply experiencing the pleasure of being out in the countryside with horses, before travelling down the main 50mph road back to Grayswood in order to see exactly why equestrian users value their off-road access so highly.
A group discussion highlighted how useful the experience had been for the Countryside Service, along with the benefits of seeing horses in action and talking to equestrian users. “The variety of the exercises today has given the teams a greater depth of understanding of the needs of equestrian users, and really put things in context. Seeing a horse close up navigating low branches, difficult gates or narrow gaps is such a useful exercise and the day has been hugely valuable for all those who attended,” said Emma Noyce.
The British Horse Society wishes to thank Hampshire County Council Countryside Service and the Forestry Commission for their support of the workshop, and The British Driving Society, Hants and West Sussex Borders Bridleways Group and Grayswood Carriage Driving Centre for their help in organising the event.