[dropcap]E[/dropcap]very horse owner would love unlimited access to miles of bridle paths and open land, never having to set hoof on a road. For most riders, though, roadwork is unavoidable, and they will spend some time on public roads whenever they go out of the stable yard.
Today, there are higher numbers of cars on the roads, and more people behind the wheel who have no knowledge of horses. These factors are causing a problem for riders all over the world, and South Africa is no exception. “Drivers must be cautious of horses, because they can frighten easily,” explains Johannesburg Metro Police Senior Superintendent Wayne Minnaar. It’s just as important for riders to be cautious of drivers, and proactively find ways to be safer on the road.
The first rule of safety is to make sure you and your horse are visible to passing motorists. Marion Clough, owner of Fourways Riding Club, recently made fluorescent safety vests printed with ‘Slow for horses’ available to club members. “The roads have become so dangerous, and we are finding that nobody slows down for horses anymore,” Marion explains. “The road etiquette is not there, and drivers are ignorant of the potential dangers that horses pose. We have found wearing the vests makes a difference.”
Vests with warning messages can be specially manufactured for yards or clubs. Alternatively, high-visibility vests are available from hardware stores. These can be issued to grooms who are required to lead horses along roads, and used by riders going out. Research has shown that motorists are more likely to stop operating on ‘autopilot’ and become aware of a person in the road when that person is wearing a high-visibility vest. Drivers are also more likely to slow down.
There are many ways to campaign for better road safety in your area. Riders can collaborate with local equestrian clubs, stable yards, feed merchants and tack shops to put up signs warning motorists that horses spook easily, and should be passed slowly and wide. Ensure that the signs comply with local by-laws and have been approved by council if necessary.
Another idea is to distribute printed leaflets to schools or businesses in the area, and to ask them to pass the information on to clients. Local papers will always be willing to publish articles on riding and road safety.
Tack, harness and preparation
Make sure that your tack fits well and is secure, and that you are wearing a hard hat. “Cart horses must be correctly harnessed, with the cart in good condition, and have reflectors at the back and front of the cart,” Minnaar explains. “Riders should obey the rules of the road and comply with the relevant by-laws in their area.”
Confidence and company
Make sure you can control your horse when he is on the road. If he is nervous in traffic, take him out with a calm horse until he is confident. You can ride two abreast as long as you do not obstruct passing cars – otherwise, return to single file with the nervous horse behind. Never ride three or more abreast on the roads, and if you are leading another horse, keep him to your left. If you are crossing a large intersection, all riders should cross together in a group.
Coping with challenges
If your horse starts shying away from something on the left, shorten your right rein to stop him looking at the scary object, and put your right leg on firmly. Keep pushing him past the obstacle. If human activity is frightening him, call out to ask the people to stop. Check behind you, and even if you can’t take a hand off the reins, make eye contact with approaching motorists so that they are aware you have a problem.
If you see oncoming traffic that might frighten your horse, like a heavy truck or a rattling trailer, avoiding it altogether will be the best option, because the closer your horse gets to the noisy threat, the more stressed he will become. This can cause a panic reaction. See if there is a safe place nearby where you can ride off the road, such as a crossroad, a quiet panhandle driveway, a wider section of verge or an empty plot. If there is, wait there calmly until the threat has passed. Alternatively, ask the driver to stop while you ride past. The earlier you notice a potential problem, the more time you will have to make a plan.
Calmness and thank-yous
It is essential to stay calm and relaxed on the road – not only will you and your horse enjoy the ride more, but a horse who becomes tense and wound up will start overreacting to all the sights and sounds that he would usually not think twice about, which can be dangerous.
The vast majority of bad driving around horses is due to plain ignorance. It is better to politely educate bad drivers, and thank them for their effort if they do slow down, than having a shouting match that will end with the driver believing all horse riders are rude and abusive, possibly leading to further aggressive or inconsiderate driving in the future.
Thanking drivers is incredibly important if they have done you the courtesy of slowing down. There is nothing more annoying to a motorist who has made an effort to pass slowly and wide, than a rider who obliviously stares ahead and does not even acknowledge them. Thank every single driver who slows down for you, with a wave if possible, or a smile and a nod of your head if you need to keep your hands on the reins. Your thank-you and courtesy might just make a difference to the next rider a driver passes.
Guidelines for motorists
- Horses and riders have the right to use the roads as long as they comply with relevant laws.
- Drivers must be cautious when passing horses, and always regard horses as a potential hazard, remembering they are easily frightened and can act unpredictably.
- Slow down to 30km/h and pass carefully when it is safe to do so, giving the horse plenty of room. Once you are past, accelerate slowly.
- If a horse is unsettled or a rider asks you to do so, stop your vehicle and switch the engine off.
- Do not rev your engine, sound your horn, or shout near a horse.
- A horse weighs upwards of 500kg, and most of that weight is distributed above the height of a car bonnet, so drivers are at serious risk of injury or death if there is a collision.
Text: Jassy Mackenzie