Bill and Julie Tetrick stand with their horse, Boston Mac Seeker, near where the Tweetsie Trail runs across their property. (Tony Casey/Johnson City Press)
A lively and drawn-out online debate over whether horses should be allowed on the Tweetsie Trail shows the issue has not yet been resolved, though things are unlikely to change for the time being.
When an Aug. 7 article was published in the Johnson City Press and on its website telling of Mountain States Health Alliance’s sponsorship of one of the trail’s bridges — never once mentioning the word “horse” or anything horse-related — the more than 70 online comments predictably — judging on responses to past stories — centered around the trail organizers’ decision to keep horses off the trail.
An Aug. 30 grand opening is scheduled, with the Tweetsie Trail Trek fun run and walk being its first major event. The Tweetsie Trail task force has adopted a no-horse rule for several reasons. To alter this rule, members said they would have to see how the trail’s chat, or fine crushed stone, settles in and if it could withstand horses’ weights. Once Johnson City public works crews put down the chat, it became clear there had been, along with cyclists, runners and walkers, horse traffic on the trail.
Public Works Director Phil Pindzola then called this rule violation “disrespectful” and damaging to the trail, leaving unsafe ruts for everyone else, as well as breaking down the trail.
The weight and impact of the horses is just one of the issues related to allowing them on the trail, the task force said in past meetings. They’ve also talked about the possibility of horses getting spooked on the trail, which is more narrow than other rails-to-trails projects due to its former railroad’s narrow-gauge layout.
In a space tighter than other similar trails, Johnson City, the owner of the 10-mile track between the city and Elizabethton, might be liable if a person was to get injured in an accident. That’s something its unwilling to want to risk, especially with the recent near-completion of the trail along the long curved bridge over the Elizabethton Highway, which is only a few feet wide.
This bridge, task force members have mentioned, could put a horse and a cyclist or a walker with a baby stroller in a face-off on the middle of the bridge, which could cause potential problems.
What would happen with the animal’s feces, where horse trailers would park, if the 7-mile initial trail would be worth it to horse enthusiasts and other horse-related topics have all been found in the comments in previous articles as well as at public meetings.
Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin says he spent time as a horse owner and acknowledges some of the challenges facing the possibility of reversing the no-horse decision. This could come, he said, after the surface has been able to settle for about one year, after which there could be a trial period to see how horse activity mixes with all aspects of the trail.
“The real concern is how ridership mixes with the other uses of the trail,” Van Brocklin said.
Van Brocklin said the most pressing issue with horses is the damage they could do to the surface, and then after that, how the animals would mesh with people using the trail.
He said a horse he had in the past spooked easily, and a situation where a horse is spooked on a bridge could have severe consequences for all involved and needs to be considered seriously.
Bill and Julie Tetrick have property that houses their five horses directly on both sides of the trail. In fact, the Tetricks have a tunnel that travels under the Tweetsie Trail so their horses can pass into the other portion of their property, but Bill Tetrick also acknowledges issues raised by those who think keeping horses off the trail is the right move. He disagrees with barring them entirely, though. He cites his experience on the Virginia Creeper Trail, upon which horses are allowed, and doesn’t see why everyone wouldn’t be able to get along with horses.
Julie Tetrick said it’s been suggested that horse owners like herself just drive the extra distance up to the Creeper, but says with horses it’s not such a simple task, especially when she sees walkers, runners and cyclists passing by their family’s pastures.
When the project began, Bill Tetrick said was a big supporter of having horses on the trail, since he has horses directly next to the trail. Tetrick said the trail could be a new place to ride with his family. He said he understood it to be a Creeper Trail-like trail that allowed horses as well as runners, walkers and cyclists.
As money and support was being raised, Tetrick not only handed out fliers and offered to use his business’ access to cheaper-than-cost plaques for the cause, but also pledged to donate $30,000, paying $2,500 per yearly quarter. After the third quarter payment was already made and Tetrick’s $7,500 was collected, the group decided to disallow horses in early July.
This prompted Tetrick to discuss the financial matter with his family, citing his frustration of not being allowed to bring horses on the trail, and stopped paying on the $30,000 he previously pledged.
“We feel disappointed,” he said. “We’re brokenhearted right now.”
Tetrick said he’s not the only one who understood the trail to be accepting of horses and that others along the trail and away from it are equally as frustrated.
For the time being, Tetrick is going to stay away from the trail, but he said he wishes he could use it like everyone else.
“I understand they want to keep the trail pristine for the runners, but how will they know for sure until they put horses on there?” he said.
He said he would be willing to negotiate, perhaps not bringing horses over the longest bridge over Milligan Highway or having special rules for horses, but for now he said he can’t understand why it can’t work out for everyone. The Tetricks feel like a year is going to be a long time for them to wait.
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