He knows where each trail goes — the bends and the inclines, the rock outcroppings and the wetlands, where the trails cross the road, and where to stand if you want the best view.
He and his wife, Barb, led a project to build many of those trails over the past 12 years, in an effort to connect all three parks and provide equine camping space at the Pleasant Hill location.
To date, the trail covers about 80 miles, with only 900 more feet to go. It cuts through some of the most scenic places at all three parks.
“One look at this and you just feel what is around you,” said Mike Gerard.
Mike, 76, grew up with horses and trail riding for most of his life. He hired the woman who would later become his wife, while working for a farm equipment company in Mercer County.
The couple moved to the Wooster area in 1978, and have enjoyed trail riding across the state. But no trail means as much to them as the one at Pleasant Hill.
Learn more about the trails here.
The trail was a major undertaking that began with a dream, and then a lot of meetings, beginning in 2005. Mike and Barb had to propose their idea to managers from all three parks, and convince various state government leaders that the trail was a good idea.
Mike worked closely with all the parties, especially at Pleasant Hill, in what he said became a good relationship — with a lot of trust. He designed the plans for the trails and camping area and vetted those with state engineers.
“If it wasn’t for the Gerards and a lot of his volunteers, we wouldn’t have any horse camps or any of the trails,” said Bill Martin, park manager at Pleasant Hill Lake.
One of the challenges with building the campsite was the proximity to the lake — which made the site more attractive, but also required some attention to elevation and grading.
Mike also had to plan ways of going over wetspots on the trails, mitigating runoff during heavy rains, and leasing small sections of private property, to keep riders off roads and to get around natural obstacles, like the waterfalls at Mohican State Park.
But the biggest challenge, arguably, was clearing the land itself. Much of it was undisturbed, virgin woodlands, and although horses need only a few feet to clear, the trail had to be built wide enough to allow emergency response equipment, should it ever be needed.
The Gerards used a skidsteer-like machine donated by the Rayco Co., which operated on tracks, chopping and grinding up trees in its way. The Gerards tried to avoid large, mature trees, and tried to disturb the scenery as little as they could.
But even with the machine — there was plenty of hands-on work, and at times, more than 100 volunteers came to help — many whom were part of the Ohio Horseman’s Council, a 4,300-member organization that represents the equine industry.
Arden Sims, president of council, said the Gerards brought their experience from working on other trails, and their determination to make the project happen.
“He’s quite a taskmaster,” Sims said. “He (Mike) gets it done.”
Sims said Mike also represents the OHC before state agencies, such as the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and said he’s a good spokesperson for horse owners.
When Ohio was forming its livestock care standards, in 2010, Mike represented the horse industry on the equine committee.
With so many volunteers helping build the trail, the group was able to cover several miles per day, and kept things orderly by marking each section with pie plates, in what Barb called a “leap frog system.”
The trail was completed in sections, from 2007 to present. In 2009, the equine camp opened and today supports 38 campsites, running water and a restroom facility.
The grand opening of the trails and campground was held in 2014.
Mike and Barb are retired from their careers — Mike was a human resources specialist and Barb retired from an administrative job at Ohio State’s Department of Animal Sciences. They still ride the trails, but Mike does more of the riding and trail work while Barb, 69, does administrative duties and serves as the state secretary for Ohio Horsemen’s Council.
Check out other stories in this Rural Roles series:
January: Amish farmer and author shares story of the simple life.
February: Mary doesn’t have a little lamb, but she is a friend of the sheep industry.
March: Connie Finton volunteers off the farm to build quality of life for her family.
April: Conservation and cattle: Pete Conkle knows them both.
July: Passion for the fair runs deep: Tanya Marty.
August: Tuscarawas County farmer answers the call of his industry
September: It’s all because of the Jersey cow
October: Risky business: Tire repair has its share of dangers
November: Family tradition, trees and rescue
The OHC recognized the Gerards with the lifetime membership award this spring, the highest honor the organization bestows.
It’s difficult to track how many people use the trails, which are also used for hiking and day-use riding. But indications are that they’re being put to good use, with a steady volume of registrations at the campsite.
That’s encouraging to the Gerards — who wanted to give back and create something others could enjoy. The couple raised three children of their own who had horses for 4-H, and the Gerards still keep some riding horses at their mini-farm, west of Wooster.
“We were doing a lot of riding and we were taking advantage of a lot of the different parks and forests and we just kind of looked at each other and said ‘it’s time to put something back,’” Barb said. “And so, this is how we’re trying to put something back.”
Sharing the love
The Gerards now have six grandchildren, and are bestowing their love of trail riding to the next generation.
“The grandkids just love to come and ride with grandpa,” Mike said.
The Gerards have also been involved with several funding projects for the trails, including donations from the OHC and its members, the Ohio Quarter Horse Association, the Ashland OHC chili cookoff fundraiser, and a special endowment fund.
Mike said he’s happy with how the trails turned out — but one downside of being the designer is that he’s always looking for ways to make improvements, even while he’s trying to ride the trails for enjoyment.
The trail has already been listed as a top place to ride and camp in the U.S., and when the final 900-foot leg is completed, Mike said it will be the “premier riding place” in Ohio.
“When you believe in something, it’s amazing what you can do if you put your mind to it,” he said.