Volunteers paving way for horses, riders at Jennings State Forest

By Kylie Cordell For Clay Today
Posted 1/12/23

MIDDLEBURG – With more than 25,000 acres along the floodplains of several creeks that drain toward the St. Johns River, Jennings State Forest remains a significant destination for equestrian …

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Volunteers paving way for horses, riders at Jennings State Forest

Posted

MIDDLEBURG – With more than 25,000 acres along the floodplains of several creeks that drain toward the St. Johns River, Jennings State Forest remains a significant destination for equestrian riders. Because of the substantial mileage of its trails, including four equestrian-optimized loops, Jennings State Forest means plenty of exploration.

And nobody knows that better than Julianne Philip.

“I am an endurance rider, which is basically a horseback rider that goes long distances on their horse for competitions, so I am always drawn to the different forests, and I especially like Jennings because it’s something like 26,000 acres and it has a really nice trail system with good footing for the horses,” she said.

During her evening strolls, Philips noticed many of these trails had become overgrown at intervals, particularly during late spring and summer, making it nearly impassable.

“When I first moved here, the trail was still marked, but the markers have faded over the years, and many of the trails have overgrown. You could walk around it and lead your horse around downed trees, but you couldn’t pick up a faster pace, So I knew the trail, but many new riders would get lost.”

With the help of many forest volunteers, Philips, a Back Country Horsemen Florida member, set out to restore the 18-mile Yellow Trail at Jennings Forest off Live Oak in Middleburg. “I talked to the volunteer coordinator, Justin Rodgers, and gave him my application for volunteering, and during our talks, he and I talked about what we wanted to do,” she said.

They set up a volunteer day with two-hour increments starting in September. Restoring the trails has been a three-month-long project, Philips said.

“Through the process, I’ve met some very selfless individuals who have mostly retired folks that put in hours in the forest to keep it maintained for hikers and equestrians,” she said.

One of the volunteers is Blane Wilson, who asked how he could help with the equestrian trails. With minimal suggestions on how to update the markings, he immediately went to work. Philips said the trial system should be completed by the end of the month.

“I gave him a paper map and told him where the trail makes turns, and we figured out a couple of key points. I would go out there occasionally and do a few markings, but essentially he ran with it. He would email me that he had completed this huge part. I didn’t expect that from him,” she said.

Eagle Landing resident, Blane Wilson, a retired military veteran, volunteered with the Florida Forest Service for three years, working mainly on the Equestrian trails on the East side of Jennings Forest.

Although Wilson isn’t a rider, he grew up around horses his whole life. Originally from Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, he worked on multiple farms with horses, followed the hunt trail activities with Pickering Hunt Club, attended Devon and Ludwig’s Corner Horse shows, and worked at a farm that raised racehorses in Schuylkill Township, Pennsylvania.

“It was called Mooney’s Farm,” he said.

What Wilson loves most about the trail work is being in nature and reconnecting with his childhood roots. “I love being out in the woods and being in the environment. Nature is freedom. That’s the defining moment for anyone who goes out there.”

Now, he dedicates his time to restoring places like Jennings State Park, so that others can enjoy it as well.

“I met Julliane at a couple of meetings we had for the forestry service. We had an event, and she said she wanted my help redefining the horse trails,” he said. “I erected directional signs and marked the trails with Julianne Philip, who had a better sense of the routes in that many markings had faded or disappeared over time.”

Wilson has worked on the horse trails for about 55 hours in the last three months, mostly on foot or on his electric bike. “Some of the places I can’t get to. I can get into most places, but the problem is you can’t carry a lot of supplies on a bike,” he said.

Many parts of the trails were cleared by FFS staff. “After doing some of the trail work, the forest service has kicked into gear- mowing a huge portion that has overgrown,” he said.

He does what he can to clear branches, which he said is a continual process. Now, Philips and Wilson plan to reroute the equestrian trails where gravel and rocky terrain make it difficult for horses to pass.

“The horses have sensitive feet, and the trails near the roads have big rocks out there. They can’t tolerate that with their hoofs, so we’re going to try to remake the trails so they are softer and the horses won’t injure themselves,” he said.

They also plan to reroute some of the trail spurs, or trails that branch off the main trail and lead to a dead end. Many of these trails are where the hikers and equestrian trails meet. However, they still need to get permission from Florida Forestry Service.

“We’re pretty much complete with it. Every once in a while, there might be a tweak here and there, and now we’re looking at restoring some of the shorter trails,” Philips said.” There are quite a few trails that need to be worked on. There’s a whole other set on the other side of the forest, as well as the blue trails.”

If you would like to get involved, Jennings State Forest is seeking the community’s help in caring for their Equestrian Trail System. A volunteer work day will be held from 8 a.m. to noon on Saturday, Jan. 21, to address trail maintenance needs. The group will meet at the Live Oak Trailhead on 2A Live Oak Lane. Participants are asked to register on Backcountry North Florida Horseman’s Facebook page.

“They can message me on Facebook or write on the post they are attending so I can get a head count,” said Philips.

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