It's an unfortunate fact that most of the off-road riding available to the three million leisure riders in the UK is only accessible via an increasingly overcrowded road network. The British Horse Society estimates that there are some 3,000 road traffic accidents involving horses every year, around half of which occur on minor roads and country lanes. So, what can we do as responsible riders to make sure we don't become another statistic?
It is a good idea to take advantage of the road safety training for horse riders offered by the BHS. There is a Road Safety Test which is well worth taking especially for young and inexperienced riders and by those who do not drive. It goes without saying that young or novice riders should always be accompanied on the road by an older rider on a traffic-safe horse.
Those of us who are motorists will already be familiar with the Highway Code, but it is still advisable to re-read it from time to time, in particular Rules 47 – 55 which pertain specifically to the use of horses on the road.
Riding Hats and Clothing
Did you know that under the Horses (Protective Headgear for Young Riders) Act 1990, children under 14 years of age are required to wear a riding helmet which conforms to BS standards and is correctly fitted? It is the responsibility of the child's parent or guardian or the horse's custodian to ensure that the child is wearing an approved helmet when riding on the road.
Whilst this law only applies to children, it is highly recommended that ALL riders wear a helmet when riding on the roads.
I had a near miss one evening last summer. The sun was low in the sky and the lane I was driving down had high hedges on either side which threw deep shadows across the road. I rounded a bend in the road to be faced with a dark brown horse whose rider was dressed all in black! They were virtually invisible and it was only pure luck that I saw them in time.
These days there is no excuse for not being seen. There are a multitude of inexpensive hi-visibility products available for both horse and rider and we should make use of them: hat covers, bridle sleeves, tabards, jackets, over-chaps, exercise sheets, boots, bandages, tail sleeves to name but a few! Surveys have shown that stirrup lights for the rider, (showing white to the front and red to the rear), and reflective bands positioned above the horse's fetlocks are the most effective means of grabbing the attention of motorists.
If you are unfortunate enough to be involved in an accident whilst decked out like a Christmas tree, the driver will certainly not have the mitigation that he could not see you!
Riding on the Road
Unfortunately, a great many motorists think that horses should not be allowed on the roads at all. After all, riders are not legally required to have insurance, they pay no excise license or fuel duty and they do not have to take a test before they are allowed on the roads by themselves. We are at best a hindrance to a driver's journey and at worst a dangerous and unpredictable obstruction to the carriageway! We must therefore make every effort to demonstrate that we are responsible riders and justify our legal right to be there.
Before venturing out onto the road, you must take all reasonable steps to ensure that you can control your horse and that all his tack fits properly and is in good and safe condition. Some road surfaces can be slippery and uneven so it's a good idea to have small road studs fitted to your horse's hind shoes. Knee boots are also a good idea, just in case of trips or stumbles.
Use your common sense; make sure you have sufficient daylight in which to complete your ride, do not use the roads in icy conditions or if visibility is poor due to heavy rain or fog. Avoid riding out on the road in very windy weather when there is a possibility your horse may become spooked.
If your horse is young, nervous or inexperienced in traffic always begin his introduction to roadwork in the company of a steady companion who is as unflappable as possible. Young horses gain confidence from an older animal and are less likely to become frightened if they have a schoolmaster to follow. It can sometimes be helpful to ride two abreast with the less experienced horse on the inside away from passing traffic but you must revert to single file where the road narrows or on bends.
You must observe the Highway Code and obey all road signs, markings and traffic lights. Do not ride on the pavement unless you absolutely have to for safety reasons and never be tempted to have a canter on the grass verge as traffic whizzes past you on the road! Whilst it is sensible to take your mobile phone with you, do not be tempted to use it when you are riding on the road.
Where possible, avoid roundabouts and difficult or extremely busy junctions. Always be courteous to other road users and acknowledge drivers who slow down for you. You don't have to take a hand off the reins to do this – a bright smile and a pronounced nod of your head should be sufficiently obvious to get your message across. As a rider, your position will be higher than that of car drivers. Be prepared to wave them past if you can see that the road ahead is clear.