The Jefferson County Council has taken its first steps toward prohibiting horses in most county parks.

The County Council voted 5-2 on Oct. 28 to give preliminary approval to an ordinance that would ban horses in all county parks except for Big River Saddle Club Park in Dittmer and, once it is developed, Beck Park in the Eureka area in the northwest corner of the county.

Big River Saddle Club, a 10-acre site, hosts horse shows at its arena and pavilion.

Beck Park has been in the Parks and Recreation Department’s land bank for about 25 years and has largely been unused.

The council likely will take a final vote on the ordinance Nov. 12.

For the last six months, several people identifying themselves as horse enthusiasts have protested signs posted prohibiting horses from trails in the county’s Pleasant Valley Nature Preserve, 6701 Twin River Road, near Byrnes Mill Road and Hwy. PP.

The new signs, which reinforced signs posted years ago about bringing horses into the preserve, were installed before construction this spring of a 1.4-mile gravel trail. The trail was built with money from a Jefferson Foundation grant.

Horse enthusiasts, led by Susan Davis of High Ridge, contend that officials with the county’s Parks and Recreation Department allowed horses onto the property more than two decades ago and say the agreement should remain in force.

She and others say disabled people use the trails and have few other alternatives to ride horses as therapy.

Davis operates a wedding venue business, RJ Catering LLC, from the 60-acre Rocking J Ranch that backs up to Pleasant Valley. A nonprofit group that she founded, Hands That Help, among other activities, provides horseback riding, including for people with disabilities, from the ranch. She said Hands That Help and owners of other ranches in the Saline Valley have for more than two decades brought horses through the back of Pleasant Valley through a historic schoolhouse trail.

County counselor: Many reasons to ban horses

However, county counselor Wes Yates, who briefed the council on the ordinance, said parks officials at the time should never have agreed to allow horses in the 38-acre site.

“This (ordinance) is not about horses, it’s not about trails, it’s not about the handicapped and it’s not about accessibility,” Yates said. “It’s about protecting our grants. It’s about protecting the regulations with the federal and state government that should have been agreed to 22 years ago (when the verbal agreement to allow horses was made) and haven’t been, and I’m telling you, they should be adhered to now. It also tries to limit our liability.”

Yates said when the county took title to the Pleasant Valley site in 1979 from the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, the agreement specified what it could be used for.

“We signed a letter of intent (with federal and state officials) that this park would only be used for hiking and walking,” Yates said. “Nowhere in those letters does it say equine use. It stated that adverse effects would be kept to a minimum. We would have to go get the permission of federal and state governments to change the use.”

Parks Director Tim Pigg said signs long have been posted at the nature preserve reading “Horses Prohibited: Trails Too Dangerous.”

“Horses are not grandfathered in, and no regulation or ordinance (to allow horses in Pleasant Valley) was passed back then,” Yates said.

Yates said under federal standards, trails for horses must be 8 to 12 feet wide. The trails at Pleasant Valley are 5 feet wide.

“The present trails do not comply to that standard,” he said. “They weren’t designed for that (when the gravel trails were built earlier this year) and they weren’t designed for that before.

“We have made promises to the state and federal governments concerning how we’re using this park.”

The $74,500 grant from the Jefferson Foundation for the gravel trail also specifies the trail’s use for walkers, Yates said, and that doesn’t include equines.

Yates said he’s been told foundation officers are questioning how some organizations are using their stipends.

“We need the grants from the Jefferson Foundation,” he said.

Yates said federal guidelines call for trails for horses to be at least 5 miles long.

“There are people out there who say they shouldn’t have to go outside the county to ride my horses. I get that,” he said, then pointed out that the smallest of the seven St. Louis County parks that allow equine activities, Sioux Passage County Park, covers 211 acres.

He also said under the federal Americans With Disabilities Act, parks are not required to offer horseback riding for disabled persons.

“The ADA does not apply to horses,” he said. “The act does not require trails in a park to be accessible to any equine,” he said, except for miniature horses specially trained as service animals.

He said the county’s liability insurance carrier, the Missouri Public Entity Risk Management Fund (MOPERM) would not go so far as to say the county should ban horses.

“They said that if something goes wrong (with a horse), the county would not be free from a lawsuit,” he said. “What they would tell us is that if we allowed horses in our parks, they (the horses) need to be licensed by the county and (the county would) need to have at least $2 million in liability.”

Yates said that the South Central chapter of the Back Country Horsemen of Missouri group has agreed to help the county develop trails suitable for horses in the 127-acre Beck Park.

“They (members of the group) said that land as small as Pleasant Valley should not be used for horses,” he said.

Yates said his purpose for drafting the ordinance was not related to his – or any other county official’s – opinion on horses.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight. I don’t care if horses are in Pleasant Valley or not. What I’m trying to do is prevent the county from having to answer to the federal and state governments concerning why we’re not following the terms of the contracts we agreed to and to limit our liability.”

The opposition

Before the vote, 13 people spoke about the ordinance, mostly to implore council members to allow horse riding in Pleasant Valley.

“This ordinance will not work,” Davis said. “The problem is it excludes an entire class of people – the disabled and the aged – who get their mobility and their enjoyment from getting on the back of horses. You don’t want an ADA lawsuit.”

Davis said the new gravel trail has been damaged over the last few months, but not from horses.

“There are ruts and washouts on the trail, because there were no ditches and culverts installed. When the rains come down, it washes the gravel into the fauna in the forest. I agree that we want to protect the fauna, and that was one of the reasons given why horses shouldn’t use the trails. But horse people want to stay on the trails.”

Pigg said the issue of the gravel runoff is being addressed.

“When you put a new trail in, you’re not going to know how the water is going to affect it,” he said. “You can account for a normal rainy season, but we’ve had several severe storms,” he said.

He said already, Parks Department workers have installed a culvert in the lowest part of the trail that should alleviate some of the problems.

“If they say that the trail was not engineered correctly, well, it was not engineered for horses. It was never meant to be. It was designed for foot traffic,” Pigg said.

Suzette Dunnegan of Dittmer said horse owners are taxpayers and should be allowed equal access to the parks.

“Why are you coming after horses?” she said. “Why not fishermen? I fish, and I work alongside the local stream teams to clean up all the debris from the streams.”

Nancy Jordan of High Ridge said the ordinance is unfair.

“We pay taxes just like any other person. Why is the county discriminating against one sport? Does the County Council or the Parks Department have a study on the damages the horses have done? I doubt it, because one has not been produced,” Jordan said.

“You cannot deny us. We pay for that right. For the county government to take our sport away without facts, that’s just power tripping.”

Dunnegan and others said the ordinance was unclear where horses would be banned.

“Even if it’s only on the county park roads, what about weddings? What about parades? What if the Clydesdales want to attend? They wouldn’t be allowed to do that.”

However, Yates said the ordinance clearly specifies that horses only would be prohibited from using trails and roads in county parks, except for the two exemptions.

“The ordinance is clear on its intent,” he said. “It doesn’t apply to any other property in the county. It doesn’t attempt to change the traffic code. It’s not an attempt to prohibit the public from riding a horse down the middle of A highway if that’s what you want.”

Linda Van de Reit of Eureka said the ban would encourage horse owners to relocate.

“People will move and take their tax dollars and go to Franklin County if they can’t ride here,” she said.

If the County Council approves the ordinance on Nov. 12, once the ban takes effect – in a little more than a month – anyone found in violation of riding a horse in any county park other than Beck Park (once opened for that purpose) and the Big River Saddle Club could be found guilty of a misdemeanor in the county’s Municipal Court and sentenced to jail for up to a year, fined up to $1,000 or both.

Council members Renee Reuter (District 2, Imperial) and Charles Groeteke (District 4, Barnhart) cast dissenting votes on the first reading of the ordinance.

“A lot of people use the (Pleasant Valley) park and use it for horses,” Reuter said. “They’ve been doing it for 30 years. I don’t know why they’re making the changes now. They haven’t done anything significant that has required a change.”

Reuter said she didn’t consider the installation of the gravel trail a significant change.

“I’m not convinced that horses are doing damage,” she said. “At the end of the day, parks are for people. If that’s what they want to use it for, they should be allowed to.”

Groeteke expressed similar sentiments.

“I don’t see the problem with allowing horses in the park,” he said. “My vote is on the side of the citizens.”