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Jeremy Gaston/Herald-Chronicle
A member of the Kansas Bureau of Investigation stands armed and ready atop a Hummer during a manhunt Tuesday morning along U.S. 75.

Jeremy Gaston | Editor

A group of riders brought a new level of use to the Flint Hills Nature Trail this week, crossing Osage County as part of a horseback on a six-day forwarding ride.

The ride was organized and led by Carol Retzer and Rick Antisdel of Salt Creek Ranch, near Lyndon. The couple invited 20 riders for nearly 100 miles of riding, primarily along the converted Kanza trail.

“Our goal was to include as much of the Flint Hills Trail as we could,” Retzer said. “It isn’t all complete, but we rode where we could.”

The group camped just west of Osage City after riding 17 miles, almost entirely along the trail, becoming one of the bigger groups to cross the recently opened pedestrian bridge spanning U.S. 75 along the trail.

“It felt very secure,” said Linda Eichorn, Emporia. “I didn’t feel like the horses were going to jump off.”

Eichorn’s horse, Blue, crouched down when a semi and trailer passed below the bridge, but was otherwise okay. Most of the horses were broken-in to such rides, and passed with ease.

In addition to the ride, several members of the group were also using the experience to help train horses in a live environment.

“It’s an opportunity to really work some of our horses outside of a pen,” said Jon Kinsey, Las Vegas, N.V. “I’m impressed with what they’re doing with the railroad.”

Kinsey rode with his father, Mike, who runs a horse and rider training school in Belton, S.C. Two of his interns also joined the ride, Lori Childress, Greenville, S.C., and Yasmine Ouertani, Bordeaux, France.

Mike Kinsey had joined a previous trail ride with clients and another with his daughter. This time he rode alongside his son.

“I get a chance to meet my kids this way,” Mike Kinsey said.

Childress hoped any exposure of the ride would entice more people to the trail.

“Maybe more people will see it and get some use out of it,” Childress said.

The experience has kept Retzer involved in trail rides for 20 years, organizing three rides in recent years.

“I’m addicted to the horse side of it, along with the people and history,” Retzer said.

Retzer is a regular rider and user of the trail. As much as she can, she takes a bicycle or horse to work, a 4.5-mile ride down the trail from her home to Rural Water District No. 3 in Vassar.

“It’s one of the prettiest parts of the trail, in my opinion,” Retzer said. “I’m seeing more and more involvement. I see a lot of walkers and bicycles. I’ll see a tree that needs trimmed or something that needs fixed on my way to work, and plan to get to it on my way home when I have more time, and it’ll be repaired before I get to it. It tells me the right clientele are using the trail.”

The Rails to Trails program has its opponents. Cases misuse along the route, including unsafe fires, vandalism and dumping, have been fueling their cause.

“I don’t blame them,” said Sandy Wilkes, Stillwell, on of the riders in the group. She felt the situation has improved as rail beds are being converted into usable trails.

“Conscious users is not the issue,” Wilkes said. “It’s also better now that it’s developed.”

“Since the railroad isn’t there, they think they can drive right up onto it,” said Joleen Day, who joined the riders west of Osage City Monday evening. Day lives along the Flint Hills Trail at the Morris-Lyon county line, about seven miles east of Council Grove. She has experienced minor issues with trespassing since the railroad cleared the right of way.

“Our biggest issue has been having to lock our gates,” Day said, noting that the problems do not necessarily justify closing the trail. “It doesn’t keep me from riding on it, but it makes you think about it.”

Day and the others were to ride through the area toward her land on Tuesday and Wednesday.

“I’m excited about riding it,” Day said. “It’ll be our first time to see what that section of land looks like.”

One solution to the associated problems has been to install posts at entrances to the trail from roads, but they too come with caveats.

“The barriers prevent cars, but also block wagons,” Wilkes said, noting that similar trails have been operating successfully in the northeast states for years. “Places where they have lots of trails, they learn to live with them.”

Many of the riders in the group shared the opinion that the solution to keeping the wrong people off the trail is to keep the right people on it – maintaining and using it for its intended purpose.

Retzer believes the area between Osage City and U.S. 75 is one of the areas needing the most work.

“It needs people willing to take an hour on a Saturday to clip branches,” she said. “It doesn’t take any training, it’s good exercise and it would be a wonderful contribution.”

The riders appreciated the trail and sung the praises of those who maintain it.

“They’re very good trails,” said Denise Valdois, Haven, who was making her first forwarding trip with her husband, Mike. “I’m jealous. I wish we had some close to us.”