A South Carolina House of Representatives vote Thursday helps clear a major hurdle for the Aiken region to begin creating a network of horse trails.
Officials with the Greater Aiken Chamber of Commerce say there are already 600 miles of public and private trails in the area that could become linked together into one system. An independent citizens group, the Equine Support Council, is working with the chamber to make the ambitious plan a reality.
However, they say there’s a weakness in state law that’s keeping private landowners from jumping onboard. They would not be protected from a lawsuit if a rider was injured while traveling on their property.
“It only takes one bad outcome in a liability lawsuit to bankrupt a landowner,” said Ed Scanlon, the chamber’s equine development manager, “Once that happens one time, every other landowner who might be willing to allow people to traverse his property is going to pull the plug.”
Local legislator and board member Rep. Tom Young (R-Aiken) agreed to sponsor a bill last year that would shield landowners from any liability due to horse riding on their property. Clubs, classes, and stables are already protected from lawsuits under an existing law dating back to the mid-1970s.
“The current law does not cover a landowner who grants permission to someone to ride a horse on their property,” Young said.
The House unanimously passed the bill Thursday. It now heads to the Senate.
Under the bill, signs would also be required at access points warning riders that they use the trails at their own risk.
“A good liability law protecting landowners is essential or you’re never going to get common-use trails,” said Scanlon, whose own property includes some private trails, “It just isn’t going to happen.”
Young said he was not aware of any instance where a landowner was sued over an injury that occurred on their property, but said the protection was necessary to move forward with the trail network.
The equine industry is the primary draw for visitors in the region. A recent study by the University of South Carolina-Aiken estimated a $19 million impact on the area’s economy.