It seems our roads are getting busier and busier, while the suburbs and bitumen are encroaching further and further into what was once sleepy horse farm territory. This changing landscape means that horse trekkers and equine travellers will at some point need to contend with traffic and busy roads. Indeed, many a long-distance horse trekker has mentioned that the most frightening aspect of their journey was not wild animals, difficult terrain or the physical ardour of the journey, but the danger posed to them by dangerous driving practices.
While motorists certainly have their part to play, safety on the road is something horse riders have some degree and control over and can thus manage proactively. Keeping you and your horse safe on the road is all about minimising risk. Following are ten pointers:
How to Stay Safe when Riding Horses on the Road
1. Ensure that your horse is ready for the road
Let’s be honest- some riders can be somewhat unrealistic in their expectations of motorists. No, you cannot expect to ride on the shoulder of a 110km highway and have cars slow down to 30km p/hour or move to the other side of the road. And no tractor is going to detour down a side road just because your horse doesn’t like the colour and happens to be having a bit of a hissy fit.
Some horses have no place being on the road, at least until adequate training and confidence- building work has taken place. A rider should not even contemplate traversing a busier road until the horse has proved himself time and again on quiet back lanes. Taking young or green horses out on busy roads when they have had little exposure to traffic is only endangering the rider, horse and motorists.
While the old adage states that no horse is ever truly bombproof, desensitisation goes a long way. There is a variety of work you can do not only with trucks and tractors, but with push bikes, prams, quad bikes and cars- whatever you might meet out on the street!
When you’re ready to hit the road, start by leading your horse down quiet country lanes or tracks, where you know traffic will not be fast or heavy. If you need to, ask cars to slow down by extending your right arm and moving it up and down slowly.
Check out these two great videos below for some pre-road riding training ideas.
2. Embrace the high-vis
Never mind your fashion disdain for fluoros, high-vis clothing is just that- high visibility. If motorists can’t see you properly, there is little chance they will slow down in time, especially if you are riding a dark horse and wearing dark clothing. If you ride in the early mornings or in the evenings when the light is poor, make sure you choose high visibility clothing with reflective strips.
3. Take a page from the cyclists
Much like horse-riders, cyclists constantly have to content with risk on the road. In 2015, there were 43 more cyclists than car drivers killed or seriously hurt per billion miles travelled.
Given that they are much in the same boat as horse riders here, it is worth learning from or adopting some of their safety tools and practises. For example, cyclists are the masters of reflective tape, as well as all manner of flashing lights. These wonderful contraptions are often easily modified to be used on a saddle or worn on the tail of a horse.
4. Stay calm and play nice
While horse riders have every right to be on the road, let’s not forget that motorists do too. At times, it can be tempting to abuse or swear at motorists who may have passed you that little bit too fast or appeared suddenly on the horizon an caused your horse to have a miniature meltdown. However, most poor or dangerous driving around horses on the road probably stems from ignorance or inexperience rather than a deliberate intent to cause harm. Abuse or name-calling probably isn’t going to change their behaviour; nor does it do anything for the image or reputation of horse riders as responsible and courteous road users. Fostering good relationships between road users ensures the longevity of horses travelling on our roads.
So rather than getting angry (which may even further agitate your horse!), call out to request the driver to slow or stop, or signal with your arm if necessary. It’s always a nice gesture to acknowledge those drivers who have passed wide and slow with a smile, wave or nod.
5. Check your route
Before heading out with your steed into the wide blue yonder, check your route. Are you familiar with the road? Does it have much of a shoulder to ride on? What are the speed limits? How busy is it? Is there a better, safer alternative to take? Are there any potential sites or landmarks that might cause issues for your horse (i.e. camel farms, truck depots, etc)?
If you’re not sure, play it safe by doing a bit of a reconnaissance trip, either by foot or car. It’ll make the ensuing ride more pleasant if you know what to expect and what traffic risks you will be up against.
6. Work with the road
In Australia, horse-riders should ride on the left-hand side of the road by default, just like motorists and pedestrians. However, on a hilly or particularly bendy road, it is worth ‘reading the road’ by considering your visibility at each position and moving or crossing the road when necessary.
For example, if there is little shoulder and the road is turning sharply to the left, you may want to consider crossing to the right to allow for greater visibility to oncoming traffic.
Likewise, if there is a cutting or railing on the edge of the road which forces your horse out on the road and into the path of oncoming vehicles, it may be worth crossing to the other side if the shoulder is wider.
When approaching a crest in the road, stay to the left, as oncoming traffic coming over the crest will not be able to see you in advance.
7. Be aware of your surroundings
Listen carefully for oncoming traffic or unexpected vehicles. Is ii a car? Logging truck? Motorbike? Make preparations and move over accordingly. Be aware that if you are trotting along at speed or engaged in conversation, you may not hear oncoming vehicles. Always expect the unexpected.
8. Timing is everything
Each road varies in the volume and type of traffic its sees, depending on the day of the week, time of the day or year. If your horse trek involves a busy or potentially dangerous road with no alternative roads, choose your timing wisely. For example, sugar cane season and thus the prominence of sugar cane trucks may make October a less than ideal time to plan a northern Queensland horse trek.
If your route involves logging roads, it may be best to traverse these on the weekend or late in the afternoon when the trucks have dispersed for the day. Planning a ride though a prominent tourist site or hotspot? If so, weekdays or early mornings may be the quietest and safest time to travel though. ride on the left-hand side of the road with the flow of the traffic
9. Know your road rules
Did you know that throughout most states in Australia, horses being ridden are considered ‘vehicles’? They are thus required to follow largely the same road rules as other motorists. This includes adhering to signs such as ‘No Entry”, ‘Stop’ or ‘Give Way’, and giving way to pedestrians on crossing or paths. IF you need to brush up on your road rules, check out the fantastic guide to Horse Riding and Road Safety in Australia, produced by HorseSA.