Trail Riding with Your Horse on the Road

If you plan to travel the same routes used by motorists, you'll need to dress visibly, prepare your horse, and follow some important safety precautions.

We’d like to tell you the statistics regarding accidents with horses on the highway to emphasize our point about the need to work at staying safe. But statistics about accidents with horses on the highway are sadly lacking. There is no central reporting agency to report vehicle accidents with horses. Still, if you talk with any group of horse people, you’ll hear plenty of stories of accidents or near misses.

In a perfect world, our perfect horse property would border a national forest or major trails system. We’d never have to set a hoof on asphalt. Unfortunately, in the real world, many of us have to cross or ride along a road to get off our property, whether to ride to a friend’s or to connect with a trail. And even a short journey on a quiet road can entail significant risk.

Lifelong horseman Dwayne Russell found out firsthand. He is a competent rider, having grown up riding ranch roads. But years of experience and a well-broke horse didn’t prevent him from getting hit by a dualie truck on a road in California.

The truck was going 50 miles per hour, and the driver was on a cell phone. He drifted too close to Dwayne and his horse. The truck mirror hit Dwayne’s leg, tossing his leg over his horse’s neck. Fortunately, the mirror crumpled and didn’t snag the stirrup, which would have dragged the horse off his feet.

Neither Dwayne nor his horse was seriously hurt, but he did learn some lessons that day.

“I was wearing my normal clothes-a dark shirt and jeans-and riding a bay horse. I realized that increasing my visibility might have bought us some extra space.” (That scary experience led Dwayne to develop the Saddlelights company, with products to help horses and riders be more easily seen by drivers.)

Most drivers have no idea how quickly an accident can happen with a horse, or how quickly a horse can get out of control. So educating drivers is important, as we’ll talk about later on. But riders have to realize that some drivers, no matter how educated, are going to act irresponsibly.

What do you think the driver who hit Dwayne did? Did he stop to see if Dwayne or his horse was hurt? No way. He kept going down the road, crumpled mirror and all.

Anyone who rides the roads regularly can tell you stories of careless or rude drivers, and while it’s not the norm for every ride, you have to realize it’s a real possibility.

Be Seen to Be Safe

  • Wear brightly colored or reflective clothing and a helmet.
  • Scout out the road before you ride.
  • Choose roads that have a wide shoulder or area where you can escape.
  • Train at home, including teaching your horse to spook in place.
  • Use hand movements to signal to drivers, where appropriate.

Assessments & Training
Darlene Geiser is retired from the Jacksonville, Florida police department mounted unit. She teaches at mounted police schools and offers sensory (despooking) clinics around the country. She says that it’s important to “do everything right” when it comes to riding along the road. She also points out that it’s important to be aware that people can be unpredictable. She tells the story of her police horse, Bold, getting hit by a beer bottle deliberately thrown at him from a passing garbage truck. Fortunately, Bold was pretty much unflappable. But Darlene doesn’t take riding on the road lightly.

“You have to train at home, if you hope to stay safe on the road. And that includes desensitizing/despooking training,” Darlene says. In clinics, her team takes riders through a comprehensive program beginning with understanding why a horse shies.

“The taller something is and the faster it moves, the more likely that a horse will find it scary. Horses can’t really focus until the object stops. So the relentless approach of a big, noisy truck is reason for a horse to want to escape. Once you understand that, you can be more aware when you’re on the road.”

It’s not just vehicles that you have to look out for. Darlene reminds us that you can find yourself in the road because your horse spooked at something in someone’s yard. That’s why she stresses that learning to ride, and particularly how to control a horse when he’s upset, is critical to safety.

“Sometimes people will say, ‘I’ll just get off if things get scary.’ But that’s usually not the best approach,” she points out. “When you’re on the horse’s back, you have more control. You’re not going to control 1,200 pounds of frightened horse from the ground, and you risk getting dragged into traffic.” She emphasizes the importance of working over obstacles and of doing desensitizing training in an arena under controlled circumstances.

“You want to expose a horse to something scary, but only to the point that he can handle it. Some horses learn to cope with scary things, but other horses never really get comfortable. They don’t make good candidates for riding on the road. You can’t be sure that a truck pulling a new house trailer with the plastic flapping won’t show up on your local road, or that a ladder won’t fall off a pickup truck. The rider has to evaluate his own ability to ride and handle a situation, as well as the horse’s temperament and level of training.”

Which Side to Ride?
Horses do best if they can see what’s approaching them, rather than having it come up behind them. So the ideal is to ride facing traffic whenever you can, Darlene advises.

When you face traffic, both the horse and rider can see what’s coming. This gives the rider time to take appropriate action, such as making eye contact with the driver, or using hand signals to ask the driver to slow down. If a scary object, such as a big truck or a car pulling a trailer, approaches, the rider is more likely to have time to get the horse off the road, even going into someone’s yard, if necessary. If that vehicle comes up behind them, there’s not that same opportunity to take appropriate precautions. This is especially important when something big or noisy might end up beside the horse, such as the case with a truck pulling a trailer.

Turning to look behind you while riding isn’t a good option. The rider’s body position is likely to change the horse’s body angle, perhaps inadvertently turning the horse farther into the road.

But you don’t always have the option of facing traffic.

“Find out about the law in your area regarding whether you have to ride with traffic or facing it. In some states, horses are treated as pedestrians, and facing traffic is expected. In other states, horses are treated as vehicles, and they must move in the same direction as traffic,” Darlene observes.

Liability is another concern. If you cause an accident, you can be liable. So that takes into account not just which side of the road you ride on, but your horse’s actions. “In general, we tell people to take all the right precautions regarding training and visibility, and to only ride on roads that have very little traffic,” Darlene adds.

Getting Seen
It’s hard to imagine that a driver might miss seeing a 1,000-pound animal with a rider, but the reality is that most drivers don’t expect to see horses on the road. If a driver is distracted, such as talking with kids in the car or on a cell phone, he’s even less likely to see a horse.

The easier you are to see, the more time a driver has to stop or avoid you. Wearing bright or reflective clothing, even in daylight, makes a huge difference in how visible you are. Safety yellow or orange shirts or vests are readily available at discount stores and bicycle shops.

Reflective clothing or tack, such as reflective leg bands on the horse, is helpful in alerting drivers that something is there, but they still may have a hard time recognizing that it’s a horse, particularly in low light.

Saddlelights owner Dwayne Russell recommends a personal safety flasher that you can clip on the back of your belt or put in your horse’s tail. The flasher can be seen even in daylight, and it won’t interfere with your horse’s vision the way carrying a flashlight or wearing flashing lights on the front of a jacket or helmet would.

Hitting the Road
Before your ride, scout out the roadway you intend to travel on horseback. Ideally, walk along the shoulder, or ride a bike, so you can easily stop to check out the footing. Keep an eye out for broken bottles along the side of the road, culvert pipes hidden by tall grass, or areas where the shoulder is unsafe for horses.

Other common things to watch for are:

• Blind curves, where a driver could come up on you quickly.
• Scary things by the road, such as earth-moving equipment, flags, a dog that chases cars, or a yard with animals, such as llamas or pigs or even other horses, that might frighten or excite your horse.
• Loose gravel or mud that might cause a car to skid if it had to brake quickly.

In driver’s ed class, we’re taught to drive defensively. That is, we’re taught to think ahead, anticipating possible dangerous situations, and to leave ourselves an exit space. We have to do the same when we’re riding.

What if you only ride on back roads? Perhaps you don’t really think you have to worry about vehicles going 60 miles per hour. That’s great. But there’s danger all the same. Experts say that it generally takes a driver a second from the time he sees an emergency situation to the moment he puts on the brakes. A second can be a long time in terms of distance. If a vehicle is going 30 mph and you allow one second of thinking/reacting time, that vehicle will cover 44 feet-half the length of a tractor-trailer truck-before the driver applies the brake. He’ll cover yet another 45 feet (almost 90 feet total) before the vehicle comes to a stop. And that’s assuming dry pavement and the intention to stop now! This in itself might frighten your horse. (At double that speed, the braking distance becomes four times as far.)

More Safety Tips
Along with scouting your route for possible hazards, you can take additional steps to help ensure a safer ride.

• Wear your helmet. Statistics are overwhelming in terms of reduced injury rates and reduced severity of injuries of people wearing helmets versus no helmets.
• Choose your day and time. We don’t have to tell you to avoid the garbage truck, but it’s worth mentioning that other vehicles, such as the school bus or even the UPS truck have relatively regular schedules. If possible, choose a time to ride when you’re least likely to encounter big vehicles, lots of traffic, or people in a hurry. Avoid riding in low-light situations, such as at dusk or when it’s foggy, which greatly increases the difficulty of being seen.
• Take a riding buddy, and choose one with a safe, sensible mount and good horsemanship skills.
• Stay as far off the road as you safely can, both to avoid traffic and because horseshoes do not have good traction on pavement. Most experts advise riding single file when you’re alongside the road. Put the most visible person closest to approaching traffic-in front, if you’re facing traffic or at the end of the line, if traffic is coming up behind you.
• When a vehicle approaches, your most important task is controlling your horse. But if you can safely do so, make eye contact with the driver. Use hand signals to ask him to slow down, to let him know when it’s okay to pass, and to say “thank you” for his courtesy.

Educate Drivers
One of the best things you can do to improve the safety of riders is to educate vehicle drivers. You can do this in a friendly way. Often, people will cooperate with you when they know the score.

We’ve all heard stories of drivers honking the horn to greet a friend who is riding, only to see the friend dumped and the horse running loose. Or the car might go slowly as it approaches a horse and rider, then accelerate once it comes alongside, spraying gravel on the horse’s legs. Even commercial drivers don’t know that horses are afraid of big trucks and landscape trailers with rattling tools.

Ironically, horse owners are often the worst culprits behind the wheel. Because they are around horses, they sometimes take them for granted, or assume that everyone’s horse is as unflappable about traffic as their own are. They forget that although a horse might be fine with a vehicle 50 feet away, he might be startled when the car gets closer, the driver rolls down the window and waves, or a dog barks and jumps around in the back seat.

Keeping Your Cool
To help ensure the safest riding experience on the road, you should train your horse, follow the recommendations outlined here, and do what you can to educate the driving public. But despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself in a scary situation. Often, the difference between a safe outcome or an injury is the rider’s ability to keep his cool. In the end, the only aspect of all of this that you can control is yourself.

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