On the road to happier trails

Robin Rene is using her brightly-colored horse Spotty to promote education about horses and trail etiquette.

Row River Trail encounter leads to educational solution

Robin Rene leads her horse Spotty around a bright pink Cadillac Eldorado fitted with bull horns, periodically pausing for a photograph. 

Spotty herself has been gussied up in pink tassels and fur and a bright red and pink saddle to complete the theme.

A striking combo, Rene is hopeful the photos will catch some eyes online and direct people to Spotty’s Facebook page where Rene is taking a lighthearted approach to help educate people on trail etiquette when encountering horse riders.

“There have been some incidents,” said Rene. “We’ve run into some rage on the trail from other people. And it’s getting kind of scary sometimes, so we thought we’d try to meet it with humor.”

Spotty, who is aptly named for her spotted complexion, frequently gains moments of celebrity from passers-by and Rene figured she could use the fame to educate.

Rene’s riding partner, Jamie Levitan, is an active member with the Eugene Chapter of Oregon Equestrian Trails (OET), a volunteer group which builds and maintains trails and horse camps.

The need for education, according to Rene and Levitan, stems from problems on the trail mainly involving cyclists who whizz by, pass between horses too quickly without warning or even get close behind the horses and begin beeping.

The two women say they have also run into problems with cyclists failing to notice the horses until the last minute because some bikers tend to cut off sound and vision with heads down and earbuds in.

“Really, on a trail that’s mixed-use, you should only have one earbud in and the music should not be so loud that you can’t hear other users on the trail,” said Levitan. 

On the Row River Trail specifically, Rene said they run into an issue “almost every time we come,” whether it’s an angry word or someone who doesn’t slow down or fails to make eye contact. 

“A lot of people don’t feel safe to ride their horses on these shared, mixed-use trails, which is a shame,” said Levitan.

The women have set out to bring attention to the issue because of a particularly traumatizing incident which took place recently.

Around three weeks ago, Rene and Levitan said they were riding on the Row River Trail together heading up to Dorena Lake when they noticed a bicyclist heading toward them going the opposite direction.

Levitan said she began waving and calling to the cyclist to get his attention, but he did not respond.

“He was going to ride straight into us. He was not stopping,” she said.

Because the trail was narrow at that point, the bicyclist eventually was forced to stop. Then he began yelling.

“It just sort of escalated,” Rene said, adding that the horses were getting spooked and started dancing.

The man first threatened to call the sheriff and took their pictures, claiming that the horses were not allowed on the trail.

However, BLM confirms on its website that horse riding is allowed on the Row River Trail.

Other trail users, who were not in the man’s party, stopped to witness the outburst.

“It went on and on for a long time,” said Rene.

“And he proceeded to tell us that if we were on the trail the next day, that he was going to be there and he was bringing his gun,” said Levitan.

She felt the man was seriously intent on using the gun based on the manner in which he spoke. 

“It’s been bothering me ever since,” said Rene, whose nervousness has led to nightmares about a man shooting her horse. She also fears she might run into the man in town.

“I didn’t want to come back here (the Row River Trail) until we got this plan to do something about it,” she said.

“Honestly, we’re trying to forget about it,” said Levitan.

Neither felt that reporting the incident to law enforcement would yield any results. Levitan said she just wants people to be able to enjoy the trails together.

Levitan said 90 percent of encounters with cyclists are pleasant, but “there’s a good 10 percent of bicyclists that are very angry at us even though they don’t know us. They have animosity towards us.”

The women said they are bewildered by the amount of negative experiences they have from cyclists.

“I don’t know if they feel threatened by us or they think we’re elitist — which we’re not,” said Levitan. “We don’t know why there’s so much animosity when we both want the same thing — we want to go enjoy nature outside.”

The women attested that they see the same problem everywhere, whether it’s the beach or trails.

“And it’s not just in Oregon. It’s in California,” said Levitan. “I was attacked two different times in California.”

In one case, Levitan describes cutting through a subdivision on to county roads, which allow horse riding.

A developer on the subdivision, who was apparently unhappy with her use of the road, approached her and suddenly began punching her horse in the face then tried to pull the horse over to make her fall off. 

The scuffled resulted in a scar on her leg.

As she screamed, Levitan recalled one of the developer’s helpers coming over. She thought he would help her, but he instead grabbed the tail of the horse and tried to help pull it down.

“He actually broke the bottom two inches of my horse’s tail,” said Levitan.

Finally, a neighbor who she knew came out and the men let go. Though police came to the scene, the developer told them Levitan had attacked him.

“And so they couldn’t prosecute it because they called it ‘mutual aggression’ because there wasn’t anyone who saw it besides us,” she said.

She stopped riding for six months following the incident. It also lent to Levitan’s lack of faith in calling police to settle such matters and, in the case with the firearm threat on Row River Trail, neither woman felt law enforcement would take the time for an incident in which no one could be identified.

“Honestly, I didn’t think that they would come out for that kind of incident — especially with the pandemic going on,” said Levitan.

Meanwhile, the women are focusing on solutions.

Levitan points to the “Share the Trail” program, which has been launched in cooperation with OET, the US Forest Service, Central Oregon Trail Alliance, Back Country Horsemen of Oregon and the Sisters Trail Alliance.

The program encourages trail users to “stop, speak and smile” when encountering others. Trail courtesy suggests that hikers yield to horses, bikes yield to both hikers and horses and downhill bikes yield to uphill bikes.

Levitan added that it all comes down to communication.

“Always acknowledge the other trail user before passing,” she said.

One of the big challenges for horse riders is, Levitan said, “People just don’t know what to do when they see a horse.”

As one easy tip, she recommends that people make their presence known with a resounding greeting, which will actually calm the horses.

“The best thing you can do is say something,” she said. “As soon as they say something, they go from being a possible predator in the horses’ minds to ‘Oh, they’re human. They’re talking.’ And it deescalates the whole situation.”

For more information on the Share the Trail program, visit www.oregonequestriantrails.org/share-the-trail-program.

Spotty’s Facebook page can be found by searching for “Spotty’s Spot” in the Facebook search bar.

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