COLUMBIA — Aiken-area lawmakers are trying to protect landowners from being held responsible if a horseback rider is injured while riding across private property.
On Wednesday, the House Agriculture Subcommittee approved H. 4475, a bill introduced by Rep. Tom Young, R-Aiken, which would add horseback trail-riding to the activities whose sponsors are shielded by state equine liability immunity law.
The bill is intended to simplify the law to make way for an equestrian trail network in Aiken County, in partnership with community groups, including the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce and conservationists.
Young said his bill would also lessen the volume of required warning signs for about 300 landowners. State law requires people to post, in effect, a “ride at your own risk” sign at specific spots.
Ed Scanlon, the manager of equine development for the Aiken chamber, said that in the past 16 months, community members identified about 600 miles of trails across Aiken County that are being used for horseback riding.
“Now, the challenge we’re facing is to find rights-of-way to connect these trails, so we can have a connected trial system accessible from many different points for people in Aiken who want to be able to trail ride and see the wonders of rural Aiken,” he said. “One of the things we’ve identified as an impediment to people agreeing to allow people to cross their property is potential liability.”
Horses are big business in Aiken County.
A study conducted in 2008 by professors at the University of South Carolina Aiken estimated that every $1 of spending by the equestrian industry results in $1.65 of spending in the local economy. The report’s estimated impacts of the Aiken equestrian industry were 1,814 workers and $19.25 million in labor earnings.
“The idea is to join these trail systems up,” Scanlon said. “But you kind of have to want to be included. We’re not going to compel anybody. This is just to enable a system to be developed so you can enjoy it.”
The bill does not give the public license to trespass, said Young, whose legislation has drawn co-sponsorships from Reps. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, Bill Hixon, R-North Augusta, and Bill Taylor, R-Aiken.
“What’s going to happen in Aiken as part of this program they’re setting up, (is) there’s going to be written permission because there’s going to be an actual granting of an easement that’s going to be done by each landowner,” Young said. “The reality is, every day in this state, there are people who ride on property and they’ve got verbal permission to ride, from a neighboring landowner or a friend down the road ... and arguably the landowner’s not protected under this existing law.”