The government must allow horse riders access to England’s publicly funded woodlands, equestrian groups have said.
Those who ride horses are banned from many scenic countryside routes, including many footpaths, meaning that most are severely restricted in their access to nature.
Rachel Thompson, from The Trails Trust, which works to create multi-function public rights of way, has been campaigning for riders to get the same rights of access as cyclists and walkers.
She said: “Seventy-nine per cent of the right of way network is footpath so it is only open to walkers. The bridleway network is very fragmented and disconnected, a lot of routes that should be bridleways are not recorded as bridleways. All the coastal path is for walkers, not riders.”
Thompson and other equestrians have pointed out that riding is a majority female sport, and they think this could be partly why they have been ignored in access to nature discussions.
“There is a very heavy delivery of what I call ‘white man walking’ – it’s middle aged white man walking routes which are being delivered. A lot of women ride. They don’t necessarily own a horse, they borrow a horse. You don’t have to be rich to ride. They don’t want to walk, they don’t want to cycle. They feel safe in the countryside on a horse,” she said.
“Equestrianism is largely a female pursuit, a lot of women riders are people like teachers, nurses and social workers. It’s a relief against a lot of the mental problems they have in their jobs.
“People have the view that we are all rich toffs but we aren’t – it’s not true any more.”
Even for walkers, there is a right to roam over only 8% of England. The Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 gives a legal right of public access to mountains, moorland, heaths, some downland and commons, alongside the more recently created England coast path.
Campaigners have asked for this to be extended to cover rivers, woods and green belt land. Ninety-seven per cent of rivers are off limits to the public, and tens of thousands of acres of woodland remain publicly inaccessible despite benefiting from public subsidy.
Equestrian groups were invited to give evidence to the government’s shelved review into access to green space last year.
They were asked alongside groups representing more than 20 million people who are active outdoors, including ramblers, canoeists and mountaineers, to speak to officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Treasury.
A submission to the review, given to the Guardian after a freedom of information request, shows that horse riders had grave concerns about their access to nature.
The document, from the Trails Trust, says: “Equestrians, particularly in the south of England, consider themselves to be unfairly treated and discriminated against by Forestry England. The actions and attitude of this government arms-length body is in sharp contrast to the messages being put out by Natural England that ‘the Countryside is for everyone’.
“Equestrian activities are mainly local but mainstream recreational, sporting and green travel activities that are particularly favoured by women, girls, elderly and disabled people. Local forests with gravelled tracks/green rides are ideal for these activities. We are all taxpayers and the government-owned forests belong to us all.”
The letter goes on to say that Forestry England sometimes bans riders – but not walkers or cyclists – from its woodlands, and sometimes equestrians have to pay extra costs to use the tracks.
Thompson told the Guardian: “The government should lead by example on its own land. Why is it asking others to improve access without improving its own? It is very difficult for us to access much of government-owned land.
“The message to government is get your own house in order and show other landowners what can be done.”
Hannah Gardner, who works on the Horse Access Campaign, has written to the government to ask them to include riders in their discussions.
She said: “The language from central government is not good, it’s all about walking and cycling when we should be talking about multi-use. It’s not just equestrian, it’s disabled users as well, they are not mentioned at all.
“It’s a shame really. In my spare time I’d prefer to be out and about in the countryside rather than writing another letter to the government asking to be included.
“In the north of England, access to Forestry England sites is fantastic, but you go into the south-east where the major population is and you have to get a permit and pay to use their woodlands and they insist you have your own insurance. Why do mountain bikers not have to pay for insurance and permits? This is all public land it should be open to everyone.”
A Defra spokesperson said: “We engage frequently with a wide range of stakeholders with an interest in public access to nature, including equestrians – and through Farming in Protected Landscapes we have delivered several projects aiming to diversify visitors to green space. We engage regularly with the British Horse Society and the government’s response to the landscape review was accompanied by a public consultation which was open to all and received over 15,000 responses.”
A Forestry England spokesperson said: “The nation’s forests have 2,690km (1,670 miles) of public bridleways and byways well-used and enjoyed by many horse riders. On top of that, where we can, we also provide additional access on our forestry roads, on permissive bridleways and to link to other popular routes.
“We use permits and permissions in a limited way for horse riding because some places need them and they allow us to have access rather than stop it altogether. For example, it means we can manage the impacts of horse riding in areas with sensitive or protected habitats. The modest amount of money from these permits is channelled back into the woodlands we manage to help maintain trails and other facilities.”