Riding on clay roads in Burton, Prince County
The Confederation Trail (CT), a multi-use linear park, extends 273 km tip-to-tip across Prince Edward Island, with another ~200 km of spurs, and is very accessible across the province. The Trail is part of the The Trans Canada Trail (TCT), aka The Great Trail, which is the longest recreational multi-use trail in the world. PEI is the only province in Canada that has not made at least some part of the TCT accessible to equestrians. The number of kilometres of the TCT open to horses varies across Canada, with NFLD (~888 km), Manitoba (~903 km), Ontario (~947 km), and BC (~1151 km) having the greatest. (Distances are approximate and are according to the online TCT map as it stood in 2019).
The CT is a rail trail, the development of which was first proposed by Rails-to-Trails P.E.I, now Island Trails, in 1989. It is similar in construction to other trails built on former rail lines, such as the 150 km Iron Horse Trail in Alberta; the 650 km Kettle Valley Trail in the interior of British Columbia; the 122 km Cowichan Valley Trail on Vancouver Island, British Columbia; and the 92 km Celtic Shores Coastal Trail in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, all of which accept equestrians as shared users.
The exclusion of horses from the publicly-funded Confederation Trail has long been a contentious issue between horseback riders and the provincial government, given that the trail is open to other non-motorized users (i.e. cyclists and hikers), and that PEI has no long-distance or widely-accessible managed trail system available for equestrian use. Prior to the provincial government's purchase of the railway right-of-way from CN in 1994, the rail bed was regularly used by equestrians.
Previous endeavours seeking access to the Trail, including at least two pilot projects, have met with failure.
On December 7 2019, a public meeting on the topic was held at Founders Hall in Charlottetown, with an attendance of roughly 50 people. The meeting confirmed a strong desire in the equestrian community for access to the Trail. Attendees expressed concern for the safety of equestrians whose only alternative is to ride on roads and highways, where motor vehicle drivers not infrequently display dangerous behaviour towards horseback riders.
Smaller meetings were held January through March of 2020, to discuss submitting a proposal to the provincial government requesting access to the Confederation Trail, resulting in the formation a Trail Committee in February of 2020. The Committee identified three 10-20 km sections of trail, one in each of Kings, Queens, and Prince Counties, that appeared promising as pilot project locations for inclusion of horses on the Confederation Trail.
Matters discussed also included:
• The issue of manure on the trail and how to ensure that riders are respectful of other users
• Experiences of trail managers in other provinces (including but not limited to the managers of the trail systems mentioned above) with respect to any maintenance costs associated with trail degradation related to equine use
• The need to define a season of use to minimize equestrian impact
• The importance of etiquette signage at trail heads and intersections to minimize user conflict
• Economic opportunities related to attracting tourists
• The pros and cons of implementing user fees for equestrian users
• The pros and cons of developing a paired trail alongside the existing Confederation Trail
• The importance of collaborating with other user groups (cyclists and hikers) and in providing educational materials
Until very recently, two provincial government departments have been responsible for the Confederation Trail: the Ministry of Transport, Infrastructure and Energy (responsible for trail maintenance) and the Ministry of Economic Growth, Tourism, and Culture (responsible for promotion and marketing). The current Minister of Transport is James Aylward; the current Minister of Tourism is Matthew MacKay. The Trails Act does not specifically prohibit horses (other than horses drawing carriages) from the Confederation Trail in the way that motorized use is prohibited. Section 8.2 of the Act states that the Minister of Economic Growth, Tourism, and Culture may determine or prohibit the recreational uses or activities permitted on the trail or part thereof; Section 4 (General Regulations) authorizes the Minister to post signs to permit, regulate, or prohibit use of the trail or sections of it by persons riding or leading saddled horses. The Ministry of Transport alone now oversees the trail.
A meeting was held in October of 2020 between then-Minister of Transport Steven Myers and other department representatives, and members of the Trail Committee. This meeting re-affirmed the provincial government's steadfast intention to exclude equestrians from the Confederation Trail. The Minister and representatives cited trail degradation as the primary reason for prohibiting horses from the Trail. This concern arises from the structure of the tread surface and trail base, which are thought to be unique to the PEI rail trail and is not shared by the managers of the aforementioned equestrian-friendly rail trails in other provinces.
At the October 2020 meeting, then-Minister Myers strongly encouraged Trail Committee members to pursue other options for equestrian trail development, and suggested that the provincial government would be very supportive of such endeavours. While PEI Trail Riders is committed to thoroughly exploring these alternatives, we continued to explore the concept that the Confederation Trail presents the obvious choice for providing equestrians from one end of the province to the other with a safe, accessible place to ride, and prepared a formal proposal for a pilot project as outlined by the original 2020 Trail Committee. "Hooves on the Trail" was submitted to the Ministry of Transport in May of 2021, and received a green light in July.
During the pilot period, horses were allowed on the Confederation Trail from August 15 to November 15, 2021. PEITR will be meeting with the Province in late December of 2021 to discuss the project outcomes, and the future of horses on the Confederation Trail.
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