KIRKLAND – All around Bridle Trails State Park are reminders of the horse community that’s centered there — and the booming Eastside growth that surrounds it.
Traffic whizzes past “horse crossing” signs on roads that once guided equestrians from one town to another. Teslas are parked alongside trucks with horse trailers at the park’s main entrance. New developments woo potential buyers with descriptions of neighborhoods that were “formerly occupied by equestrian stables.”
For decades, Bridle Trails has served as a haven for the horse community even as the area around the 489-acre park transformed. Deep in the forest, the sound of the cars and development construction fades, and new riders trot their horses alongside experienced equestrians.
But on the trails is yet another reminder of growth, this one relatively new and increasingly frequent: pedestrians.
“There’s a lot more density, lot more traffic, lot more use of the park,” said Jennifer Duncan, president of the Lake Washington Saddle Club, based at Bridle Trails. “It’s busier than it’s ever been.”
With new developments replacing horse properties, there are now fewer horses and more two-footed visitors in the equine park, which borders Kirkland, Bellevue and Redmond. And equestrians say they’ve had encounters with visitors who don’t know how to behave around the large animals — or worse, and far rarer, those who don’t seem to care. They’ve reported runners lost in whatever they’re listening to on their earbuds blithely unaware of their surroundings, off-leash dogs who charge at horses and even the occasional visitor angry over the presence of horse manure.
“People don’t understand that horses aren’t motorcycles with hooves; you can’t just start the ignition and go,” Duncan said. “They’re all about self-preservation. That’s how they’ve lasted this long.”
They stress that the positive interactions they have far outweigh the negative. When park officials looked at at footage from a wildlife camera, they counted 43 dogs on leashes and three dogs off-leash over a one-month period. In another spot, all of the dogs were leashed.
But even the smallest percentage of violations is significant because the risk factor is so much higher with a horse, said Park Ranger Matt Birklid, who has worked at the park for four years. A rider could be thrown off, a pedestrian could be hit, or the horse could run away. In 2015, a spooked horse ran down a trail to the east side of the park and was struck by an SUV. The horse had to be euthanized.
“The risk with equestrians is so much greater, it can feel like a much larger issue, and it is a much larger issue,” he said. “If you were to spook and throw off a rider, that’s a bigger issue than just a dog off-leash.”
Duncan, who lives north of Bridle Trails, says she’s had a few hairy encounters herself. She and her horse came upon a runner with earbuds who didn’t notice the pair behind him until her horse bumped his nose against the runner. “I swear he jumped 2 feet, with this big horse head on his shoulder.”
Before the varying stages of growth spurts over the last few decades, horse culture was common across the Eastside. One former Bridle Trails resident remembers riding from Kirkland to Bellevue Square. She could tie her horse to a light pole and no one would bat an eye. The area was established as a state park in the 1930s and most properties around it had barns and pastures to keep horses. As that lifestyle dwindled, and horse properties were turned into new neighborhoods, Bridle Trails remained one of the top spots in the region for riding. Its proximity to urban areas now makes it that much more unique.
“It was like horse heaven,” Christine Suydam recalls thinking when she moved to the Seattle area in 1992. “It was, and still is, a world away from busy Seattle.”
Sitting on her horse named Socks, Kaye Helton-Anderson takes out her iPhone to show a photo of the Bridle Trails property she once owned, with a house, barn and several horses. She swipes to show a photo she recently took from the same spot. Where her barn once stood are five luxury homes, all built within the past few years and worth at least $1 million each.
She lives in Chehalis, but still comes back occasionally to ride. She misses the area, she says as looks at the spot in the park where she got married decades ago — the bride, groom and officiant were all on horseback.
“I don’t think people understand the value of what horses are,” she said, as a park visitor pets Socks’ nose. “They have a lot to teach us.”
The visitor, Matthew Wetmore, says he enjoys seeing the horses when he comes to the park about once a week from his home in Redmond. The only issue he’s found, he says, is when there’s a blind corner and he doesn’t see the oncoming horse.
“The horses and runners have always been friendly,” he said. “The dogs are the real challenge.”
Signs along the trails remind walkers and runners that they need to yield to horses, and that anyone found with an off-leash dog will be cited, without a warning. Even with good intentions, some walkers don’t understand what to do, so they announce themselves too late or hide behind a tree, even though that worries a horse more. Others will touch the horse’s flank without alerting the rider. The correct way for someone to yield to the equestrian is to stop, make their presence known and step to the side of the trail while the horse passes.
“If you’re two horse-lengths away, that’s not soon enough,” said Sue Wolfe, who runs Bridlewood Stables next to the park. “You have to have enough time to react to the warning, because horses view everything as a potential predator.”
Tom Wolfe (no relation to Sue Wolfe) rides every day, and says he thanks runners for slowing down as they pass one another. But he’s encountered a few who “just blow past you” and don’t react when he yells that they’re in a horse park and they need to alert him. He got upset but knew there wasn’t much he could do about it.
“It’s an exceptional place, quite pristine and beautiful,” he said. “If they don’t want to be around horses, they should use another park.”
The saddle club and the state parks department have created a reporting device on the saddle club website and instructions to access it on on park signs, so visitors can submit complaints about off-leash dogs or bikes (which aren’t allowed), and note what area of the park they were located.
Education, riders say, is the best way to prevent the bad encounters.
“I think of a lot pedestrians who come to the park, they come to see the horses,” Duncan said. “We don’t want to lose that reputation. We need people to work with us, to just follow the rules.”