[reproduced from Spring 2001 Caution:Horses, Vol. 6, No. 1]
With spring comes the desire to ride out. Not just out, but out and down the road. How safe is it? At a recent conference we did at the Vermont Law School, the subject of road safety came up and without exception all were concerned, not with the basic rules of the road, but instead with the behavior of drivers which seems to get worse every year.
We all agreed that riding out was a wonderful experience and many of us remembered when it could be done fairly safely. Those were the days when if a driver spotted a horse or a horse drawn vehicle on the road the driver was horse savvy enough to slow down. This not only no longer seems to be true but most of us had horror stories to tell about riding alone or in small groups on public roadways. Situations involved everything from problems with big trucks that refused to slow down, motorcyclists that were deliberately endangering the rider, incidences of motorists honking and even throwing things from the cars at the horses. Being sprayed with gravel was a common occurrence.
Many riders were confronted with state laws requiring them to ride on the right side of the roadway. Those laws sometimes caused a problem if the road turned right and there was a hill or other obstacle that then made the horse invisible to traffic from either direction and traffic going the same direction once the horse was half-way around the curve in the road. Many of the roads lacked shoulders for some or all of the way and often there was no way to avoid some of these places given where the riders started or the area over which they had to make their way in order to get to a safe place to ride. Added to the problem of thoughtless motorists, the situation became too scary to continue yet many riders still desire to ride out and even more must ride out if they are to have any place to ride. A large segment of the population are horse keeping on a small lot which allows the horse space but leaves little for the rider. A large number of these riders do not own trailers so the only way they have to ride is to make their way down the road.
The public trail rides that involve fifty to several hundred riders along with wagons are in a different category and have their own problems. These rides have point riders, drag riders, outriders, scouts with flags, or rather lots of traffic control. They do not face the difficulties of the lone pleasure rider or the small, informal group.
The discussion at first centered around what a state could do to make the riding situation safer but since many states seem to already have laws that favor horses it was agreed that what was needed was education of the public.
So what can we do as horsemen, as individuals and through our local clubs?
Driver education: In our clubs we can sponsor flyers that educate drivers and that are placed on every public counter-top available--from convenience stores and gas stations to offices, pharmacies and bulletin boards. This is a really inexpensive way to pass the word. We can also educate our police and sheriff departments about horses and allow them to educate us about the protection that the law affords riders. Most departments will be more than happy to send an officer to a club meeting for the purpose of education.
We can also contact our local radio stations those that have popular drive-time DJs - and see if they will do a public service announcement that explains the riders problems and the help he or she needs on the road and that plays frequently during drive time. News items on the local TV stations are a good idea also. These messages can be short and specific. They need to tell the driver that it is necessary to slow down when approaching a horse from either direction on the shoulder whether the horse is ridden or driven. Drivers need to understand that the state laws that require automobiles to yield to horses mean just that, to proceed with caution and be prepared for some unpredictable act on the part of the horse, which may be out of the riders control. If more drivers understood that we often have little control when the horse is frightened, that the drivers very actions may frighten the horse, and that the horse may spook into the road not only dumping the rider but damaging the car, they might look differently at the whole situation.
Rider education: As riders we can learn how to ride intelligently on the roadway. We can have information sheets available for all who wish to ride on public roads. These sheets should contain not only the methods for signaling drivers of the riders intentions but also the all important, arm extended, palm down, position for "slow down." We must try to understand that most drivers do not understand horses and until we get drivers in each of our own areas educated as to the problems that one can have with horses we will continue to have the number of serious incidents that we are experiencing now.
While the law in most states says one may ride on country roads and some urban roads, but it does not generally give drivers much guidance as to what to do when they see a horse. In most areas the directive to "yield to horses being ridden or driven" is the most instruction they will get. To most drivers that simply means let the horse cross the road if it wants to and try not to hit it. To us it means slow down when you see us on the horse and be careful when passing us. Unfortunately, "yield" to a driver means the same as if the driver were yielding to another car. This is why we need to educate the drivers in our own areas.
If one experiences an unpleasantness at the expense of a thoughtless motorist, it sometimes helps to get the license number and report the incident. However, keep in mind where there was no injury, the most that law enforcement can do is usually a stern verbal reprimand unless the actions of the driver appeared to be deliberate, malicious, or the driver appeared to be intoxicated.
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