There around 10 deaths and over 100 traffic accidents on the road involving horses, many more riders suffer head and spinal injuries. No wonder then that riders are desperately trying to find off road places to ride.
Where can you ride off the roads?
In England and Wales you are allowed to 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). There are also paid-permit toll rides (See tollrides.org.uk).
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. This fantastic service links national trails to accommodation making it possible to do long distance rides easily. There are currently some 18,500km or routes.
Bridleways and byways are public rights of way that are protected in law from being obstructed or moved. These routes are recorded on Ordnance Survey maps, but may have been diverted if for instance, they go through land which has been developed. A Definitive Map is available at your local council office.
Motor vehicles including motorcycles, may only use roads or byways that are open to all traffic; horse-drawn carriages may use these and restricted byways. Bicycles may use bridleways but are required by law to give way to pedestrians and horse riders.
What is the law regarding footpaths?
This is shaky ground. You may ride on a footpath, but maybe trespassing unless you have the permission of the landowner, unless there are unrecorded higher rights on the path. If you damage the path by riding it could constitute an act of criminal damage.
Many footpaths may carry higher rights so if you discover that anywhere is commonly ridden locally, but is not recorded as a bridleway or byway. Please correct the record by informing your local bridleways officer.
What is the law regarding common land?
Common land are areas of land where people other than the landowner can use it, traditionally for grazing, to gather fuel, bedding material, or to fish. Many public access on foot and some have rights for riders, particularly in urban areas. Check with your bridlepaths officer or the local council to see if you can ride there.
What if a bridleway is obstructed or in very bad condition?
Obstruction can be anything from wilful – such as locking a gate, to accidental such as a tree being blown down that the landowner may not yet be aware of. The way may be difficult to use because of boggy paths or overhanging trees but legally a right of way has become difficult or dangerous to use.
You are legally entitled to go off the path to pass an obstruction. The owner of the land is responsible for keeping the bridleways or byways free from obstruction, from crops and for ensuring gates are easy to use. Unfortunately, electric fencing remains a contentious issue. 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. This means that you as a rider have to take action and ensure that the council, or bridleways officers are informed otherwise the route could be lost.
A bridleway may be ploughed but must be reinstated to a minimum width of 2m within fourteen days so it is reasonably easy to use. Bridleways along field edges and all byways must not be ploughed at all and must be left at least 3m 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 not to sow for the width of the path, or to cut back the crop to a height of 6 inches.
If the path is obstructed and you know the landowner a polite request may be all that is needed. However, some landowners may try to quietly hope people will stop using the path and that eventually it will fall out of use. If the access remains a problem contact your local council or bridleways officer.
Dodgy bridges can be a deterrent to riders. Legally the bridge should be 1m above the maximum known flood level. The bridge structure should be stable have a non-echoing non-slip surface with no gaps through which the river can be seen.
If you have a bad experience on a bridlepath – motorcycles or the like, write down as much of the incident as you can remember, dates, vehicle registrations and make sure you report these to your local bridlepaths officer.
We all need to sit up and pay attention because 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.
Just because you currently ride on a route doesn’t mean it’s recorded and protected from extinguishment.
The BHS has produced a 2026 Toolkit so that you can protect your local bridleways from closure. It contains all the information you need to check whether the routes you ride are recorded, and if they aren’t how it explains how you can protect them after 2026. It explains how you can mark up your local routes that aren’t currently shown on the OS map, and how to gather the evidence you need to back up the existence of your route. It is very important that we all do this rather than just hoping someone else will.
Working with the toolkit is an exciting process that will give you a deeper insight into the history of where you live and ride. You can check that the routes that you currently ride are safe from closure and how to save a route that may not even be open at the moment.
For more information have a look at these links
Article via Lavender & White Publishing
Image Credit: Pixabay