Stewards for Trail Education & Partnerships

Discover how the 2015 STEP and AQHA grants built trails, moved bridges and brought great improvements to parks.

American Quarter Horse Association

The American Quarter Horse Association launched Stewards for Trial Education and Participations (STEP), a trail conservation program, to increase participation in trail stewardship among equine enthusiasts while casting a positive light on horseback riders to land managers and other trail users. Equestrian groups and individuals are encouraged to participate in trail maintenance and restoration projects. AQHA funds groups or organizations that have the most impact for community involvement and trail sustainability.

In 2015, 19 organizations, including several chapters of the Back Country Horsemen, as well as friends of various state parks, received grants ranging from $150 to $6,000. The money was directed toward trail construction, the rebuilding of creek crossings, signage installation and many more. Read below to learn about some of the grant recipients’ successful projects:

Molly Johnson and her crew of enthusiastic volunteers for the Friends of the Central Cascades Wilderness were awarded $300 for their much-needed and appreciated efforts to repair and remedy trail signs in their local national forests. The trail signage of their local horseback riding and hiking trails of their hometown in Bend, Oregon, were riddled with inconsistencies and were sometimes altogether missing from vital points on the trail’s path, Molly says. She explains that search and rescue missions for lost hikers and frustrations from the trail’s visitors made it necessary for signs to be repaired and replaced. After receiving the STEP grant, the Friends of the Central Cascades Wilderness went to work in the winter months of 2015, gathering material to construct the signs and organize a plan of action. While they waited for the snow to melt, they reached out to their friends and the Bend, Oregon, chapter of Back Country Horseman for further assistance. The combined efforts of these two volunteer groups have made a huge difference in the community’s trail accessibility, convenience and safety. For the first time in about 30 years, the area’s national forests will have standardized signage throughout, making cross-trail navigation safer and easier. The project should reach completion by the end of the summer.

The Friends of Hard Labor Creek State Park in Watkinsville, Georgia, received a grant of $3,200, which was used to repair the most-used sections of the horse trail in the park. On National State Park Work Day, March 13, more than 20 volunteers came out to generously offer their help. Due to severe rain storms the year before, many trail sections were in bad shape, making it impossible for trail riders and hikers to enjoy their time in the park. The Friends of Hard Labor Creek State Park first restored a 60-foot-long trail section, removing an old culvert, grading the area and finally pouring concrete to establish a secure trail bed. All volunteers, as well as the park service employees, were amazed by the end result. One of those motivated volunteers was Dayle Faulkner.

Dayle explained how only one month later, more improvements took place. STEP granted $1,642 to the Back Country Horseman of Middle and South Georgia in Watkinsville. With the help of more than 15 volunteers, they installed grassy pavers to stabilize two creek crossings on the entry and exit trail to the horse trail loop.

“The grant was God sent,” Dayle said. “The floods last year destroyed most of our trails, and without the help of STEP and our strong volunteers, the trails would still be in very bad shape. I cannot tell you all enough how much we appreciated the help. It was an honor to help with both projects in Watkinsville.”

Just one state over, STEP and AQHA granted the U.S. Forest Service in Heflin, Alabama, $480. The grant enabled the rather small district to purchase 12 safety helmets for its volunteers. Most of the trail maintenance is done by volunteers who are required to follow strict safety policies. Activities such as operating a chainsaw and riding ATVs would be impossible without proper helmets. Since the purchase, all volunteers are safe, and the 43 miles of trails in the district are well cared for.

Heflin wasn’t the only Alabama community that made improvements with the help of STEP. The Back Country Horsemen of Alabama in Warrior, Alabama, received a grant of $5,000. The money was used to build five bridges for safer creek crossings in Rickwood Caverns State Park. According to Chad Bowman, all creek crossings had become dangerously muddy. Hikers, as well as horses, sank down to their knees and got stuck in the soggy creek beds. Local 4-H-members, as well as volunteers from the Back Country Horsemen Alabama chapter, pitched in to build the bridges.

In the meantime, other volunteers were working hard in South Carolina. The friends of Kings Mountain State Park in Gaffney, South Carolina, were granted an impressive $6,000 to build, manage and maintain an additional 17 miles of trails in the park. According to former park president Mike W. Byars, this has been a project long coming. Prior to construction, the park had more riders than trails. The trails were in bad shape, and most of them were deteriorating due to weather. With the help of STEP and AQHA, 17 miles of carefully surveyed and well-built trails were added to the park in only 14 months. Mike said he is incredibly thankful for the large number of volunteers and volunteered equipment. A few years back, he never imagined it was possible to build what is now Kings Mountain State Park’s longest trail and one of the first surveyed trails in South Carolina.

Just about two hours south of Gaffney, the Friends of Lee State Park in Columbia, South Carolina, were granted $2,848 to mark existing trails clearly, reroute and upgrade specific sections of trails, and reopen an old trail that had been closed. Their first project was to improve signage in the park.

Marsha Hewitt of Columbia, South Carolina, said, “Before we received the grant, the park was already a wonderful place to ride. However, going to the woods was always a challenge. Like many other people, I wouldn’t ride in there unless someone else led the way. It was too easy to get lost.”

Volunteers marked the perimeter of the park, put up signs and cleared the trails from wood and debris. Dangerous creek crossings were rerouted. Marsha said the grant helped improve the quality of the park, but also brought together horseback enthusiasts, hikers and state park lovers.

Back in the Rocky Mountains, the Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado received a grant of $2,000 to construct a new 4,000-foot section of trail in Cheyenne Mountain State Park. The park is one of the newest parks in Colorado and the only state park in El Paso County. The goal of the trail construction was to connect the existing lower portion of the Dixon Trail to a private property named Top of the Mountain. The Dixon Trail has been a popular equestrian trail; however, prior to construction, it was impossible for riders to climb the latter portion of the trail. Dean Winstanley of Denver said the project was completed by 115 volunteers who donated more than 1,045 hours to trail construction. The newly constructed section includes 1,700 feet of new trail, as well as five “climbing turns” on very rocky and steep terrain. Thanks to all hard-working volunteers, the project was completed in only two days.

During the past year, STEP and AQHA have made dreams come true. With their help, various maintenance goals, which seemed impossible before, could be accomplished. Not only were the grants of great financial help, but they also offered the opportunity to unite hundreds of volunteers and hard-working hands. Everybody gave their all to preserve what they love and what we all have in common: the love for horses and love for exploring our beautiful country on well-maintained paths – some might call them “happy trails.”

Groups or individuals can organize and complete trail conservation projects on any public and/or private land. Simply coordinate with your trail’s land manager, register your project with AQHA and then head to the trails. Anyone who enjoys horseback riding on trails and wants to see these trails preserved for years to come is welcome to participate. Trail conservation projects are great for riding clubs, 4-H groups and youth organizations. STEP has been giving grants since 2004, and last year’s recipients have received more than $56,000 in funding. This year you and your organization could be one of the recipients.

Applications must be received by AQHA on or before August 1 to be considered for funding. Download a printable application.

Learn more about the STEP program, and find out how you and your organization can apply for grant assistance to improve trails near you at www.aqha.com/step.

Photos courtesy of the 2015 STEP grant recipients.