Donna Lee is worried about what might happen if P.E.I. continues to restrict where horseback riders are allowed to ride.
"I'm afraid that it's going to take the death of somebody before something is done," the Union Corner woman said.
As president of P.E.I. Trail Riders, a non-profit group advocating for the province's horseback riding community, Lee believes that if riders were permitted to use sections of the Confederation Trail, they'd be much safer. But currently, there's a $1,000 fine, leaving riders to use the side of the road or make arrangements with private property owners.
Riding roadside has resulted in some dangerous situations for riders. While some horses are more reactive than others, motorists can cause them to become agitated and run off, forcing their rider to adapt and hold on tight, Lee said.
"It's just not a safe situation because you don't know what you could run into."
Lee's group had met with P.E.I.'s Department of Transportation last fall to propose using sections of the trails, but they were denied due to the potential damage horses could cause to them. While alternatives were suggested and are being explored, she's not convinced that horses would pose a threat to the former railway.
Neither is Dr. Sylvia Hall Andrew, a veterinarian from Nanaimo, B.C., who said about 75 per cent of the Great Trail – which runs across Canada and includes the Confederation Trail – is open to equestrians.
She has roots on P.E.I. and had hauled her horse from B.C. to P.E.I. for an Island getaway in 2012. She was astonished to find that she wasn't able to ride anywhere and has been working with P.E.I. Trail Riders by doing research ever since.
"We're not buying the claim that trail degradation is an issue," she said. "It's intensely disappointing and mind-boggling that the answer is consistently no."
P.E.I. has a comparatively substantial budget for trail maintenance, and Andrew Hall doesn't see enough evidence that P.E.I.'s unique soil is an issue. She believes there'd be little harm in accepting the group's proposal for a pilot period to see whether it'd be sustainable or not – assuring that rider etiquette would be a necessity.
"Obviously we'd choose a season that's not the wet season to preserve trail integrity," she said.
On Jan. 27, The Guardian contacted the Department of Transportation, at that time led by PC MLA Steven Myers, asking: what damage horses would potentially do to the trails, whether factors such as weather and time of year are part of the concern and how the Confederation Trail may differ from off-province trails that permit horses.
On Feb. 2, a spokesperson emailed The Guardian stating no one was available for comment and that the P.E.I. Trail Riders had never submitted any proposals for use of the Confederation Trail.
"(And) they have not come back with any solutions as Myers asked. He is still open to hearing them if they do," the email read, a few days before Myers was moved to another department in a cabinet shuffle.
In a Jan. 20 story for CBC P.E.I., Myers credited the reason for not permitting horses was his staff's recommendation. The main concerns listed were the maintenance required and horse's hooves creating "bumps and ruts" that would be unsafe for other trail users, such as walkers and cyclists.
Lee noted the department's suggestion following her group's denied proposal was to upgrade the Forest Hill trail near Dundas instead, as riders have used it in the past. One representative in those discussions told Lee that, upon inspecting Forest Hill, they never would have suspected equestrians once rode there.
"And that's not a railroad bed, you know. That's out in the woods," she said.
Blaise MacEachern, chairman of the Celtic Shores Coastal Trail in Cape Breton, N.S., said his network was also a rails-to-trails network, making it quite similar to the Confederation Trail, except it permits horses.
Having been on the P.E.I. trail before, MacEachern noted that so long as it has good water and vegetation maintenance the trail bed can be kept dry because of how it was ditched.
"The infrastructure far exceeds most trails because of the initial infrastructure that was put in. It was there to handle trains," he said.
If there were a high volume of trail-users at once, then that may be a different story. But MacEachern has seen groups of 15 to 30 riders travelling at once on his trail, and damage is minimal. It's also an amazing sight to see, he said.
Horses can even help improve the trail for cyclists, as their hooves keep mounds and vegetation from forming in the trail's middle. The Cape Breton trail is volunteer-managed, and riders are allowed to use it year-round, so long as they leave it as they found it.
"We look at it as a privilege," he said. "And all users have equal privileges."
For the foreseeable future, P.E.I. riders will have to make do with Island roads. It's hard to pinpoint the exact number of riders as people of any equestrian discipline would likely go for trail rides with their horse if it were an option, Lee said.
That's partly why P.E.I. Trail Riders was recently formed – to legitimize Island rider's desire for trail access, particularly the Islandwide Confederation Trail. But they plan to continue working with the Department of Transportation on alternatives, which is headed by PC MLA James Aylward as of Feb. 4.
The group has also been in touch with P.E.I.'s ATV and cycling groups to see about partnering with them and using their trail networks. Lee notes they have been very positive to work with.
"(All) we're looking for is somewhere safe to ride the horse," she said.
Daniel Brown, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Guardian