Before venturing out, ask yourself “Am I ready?” Are you a competent rider, confident and capable of controlling your horse if there’s a problem on the road?
Is your horse reliable and road ready? If not, invest in your horse’s training: find the time, trainer, or clinic to help prepare you both for road readiness. Knowing how to control a horse when it is upset is critical to safety.
Are you able to ride your horse safely if:
An umbrella is opened
dogs suddenly run out, barking
dogs or animals behind high fences make noise
you are going past plastic bags flapping in the wind
there is livestock moving around on the other side of trees
water or gravel is thrown up from passing vehicles
Importantly, will you and your horse stay calm with walkers and cyclists sharing the road
It may be that you need some practice first!
Things you can do to practice:
Riding around common roadside objects at home first (e.g. wheelbarrows, traffic cones).
Ensure the horse is obedient to your aids
Practice standing still and halting for longer periods of time than normal, as if you were waiting on the side of the road ready to cross
For safety, keep your horses hooves and shoes in good condition.
Warm up! Longe or ride your horse at home or in a safe area at a walk, trot, and lope before heading out on the road. Get the horse listening to you before going on the road by practicing exercises such as halt to trot or sideways movements.
Select the safest route. Some roads can be dangerous to ride on due to shoulder width, traffic speed, or amount of traffic. Make sure to choose the route with the widest shoulder, the lowest speed limit, and the least amount of traffic as possible.
Ride single file and obey all traffic signs and signals – remember, your horse is legally considered a vehicle! Ride on the right hand side of the road (with traffic) and yield to pedestrians. Keep one horse length between you and the horse in front.
Don’t take a young inexperienced horse out without an experienced horse/rider. If riding in a group, let the most visible and experienced person ride closest to approaching traffic.
When crossing a roadway, select a safe spot to cross. View every bend in the road, intersection, crest of a hill, or construction zone as a hazard. Choose roads with a wide shoulder or other avenues for escape if the need arises. Choose an area to cross where approaching cars are easily seen and heard. Dismount and lead your horse if you are unsure of your safety in the saddle.
Helmets – Whether you ride in an English or a Western saddle, a protective helmet that fits properly should be worn when riding horses on the road. It is the responsibility of the parent, guardian or
horse owner to ensure that a child is wearing an approved, snug fitting helmet. There are many styles and sizes available for children and adults alike.
Footwear – Ensure that you wear appropriate footwear: a boot or shoe with a pronounced heel that will not slip easily through the stirrup to help prevent a foot being hung up in the stirrup (with the potential for being dragged by a frightened horse). Stirrups should be approximately 1” wider than the boot or shoe to allow the foot to slide out of the stirrup quickly and easily in an emergency, but not so wide that the foot can slip through and become caught.
Clothing – Highly visible clothing for the rider is a must when road riding: bright colors during the day, a reflective vest if possible, and definitely a reflective vest at dusk and dawn. Be Conspicuous – Don’t ride on the road in poor visibility conditions or at nightfall if you can help it. All riders should wear some form of high visibility garments when riding on the road; if there is potential to be caught out after dark, ensure that you have packed an appropriate light.
Always – a saddle and bridle. Ensure the gear fits well and is in good condition (do a gear check before riding out)
Another great visibility aid if you’re caught out after dark is a flashing LED safety light that may be attached to your saddle or clothing. These lights were designed for cyclists, but also work great for riders. The intermittent flash of the light attracts a driver’s attention making you more visible.
Weather conditions & visibility – Can you see traffic? Can they see you? Look all round for traffic – Be aware what is behind, in front and approaching from the side at all times. Will you be home before it’s dark?
Road surface dangers – Asphalt roads can be slippery especially when wet. Gravel roads with large stones can cause pain for tender footed horses, making them anxious or unwilling to go forward, and loose gravel may cause your horse’s hooves to slip and your horse to stumble. Riding on differing road surfaces may require special considerations for shoeing.
Broken glass & other hazards – Watch for broken glass along the road, culvert pipes and ditches that may be hidden by tall grass, or soft shoulder areas that may be unsafe for a horse to walk on. Unfamiliar objects like shiny aluminum cans or blowing plastic bags can frighten a horse enough to cause it to shy into the road. Painted lines on roads may startle a horse
Other animals – barking dogs that may suddenly dart out, cows, pigs, llamas or other farms animals that your horse isn’t accustomed to. Even another horse behind a fence, especially one that is running, can frighten your horse. Loose dogs will often chase horses. Walk – never run – past a yard with a loose dog. Your best strategy is to turn your horse to face them and firmly tell the dog to “stay” or “go home.” Glance back to see if the dog is safely staying in the yard, but looking back too often may encourage the dog to follow.
Other people – It’s important to be aware that people can be unpredictable; no matter how educated, there will always be individuals who act irresponsibly. Uneducated motorists may pass too closely, so riders have to be prepared for those drivers who truly don’t know any better. Always walk the horse when passing pedestrians, most people are frightened or at least quite wary of meeting a horse “outside of the paddock”
Cyclists can be particularly frightening because bicycles approach silently and the riders are often hunched over the handlebars, appearing to the horse as a predator like a mountain lion or wolf might do. If you are aware of a cyclist approaching, ask them to speak to you. Hearing the human voice from the “predator” will help ease your horse’s fear. A friendly greeting from the rider may reassure walkers and cyclists too!
Courtesy – Smile, nod, say thank-you to acknowledge considerate drivers. Waving may also be suitable but remember you may have less control whilst riding with only one hand. Give way to vehicles when safe and appropriate, and try not to dawdle in front of cars. Pull off the road if necessary
Nerves & spooking – If you tense up when a vehicle passes, your nervousness may be transmitted to your horse: relax, stay calm, cool and centered for your horse’s benefit. If you can get off the road into a driveway or farther onto the shoulder when a vehicle goes by, do so.
Horses can be unpredictable: by nature they are flight animals. A horse may spook and bolt with no warning, so before you hit the road, be sure you know and trust your horse. Learn to recognize your horse’s pre-spook signs. Before a spook, often a horse will:
prick its ears sharply forward
raise its head high
its neck will tense
snort or blow, or start to breathe faster
hesitate, start to veer away, or try to turn around
This is the time to stop and take control of your horse before it spooks, bolts or tries to run away. Keep light rein contact at all times: you will be ready to respond to emergencies, and your horse will gain confidence from your guidance.
If you feel unsafe in the saddle, dismount and hand walk your horse. Most experienced riders will agree that when your horse is frightened, you are usually safer in the saddle than on the ground. If you’re on the ground, a frightened horse might jump right into you, stepping on you or knocking you down, but if you are nervous in the saddle, your own nervousness may frighten your horse even more.
If you encounter a situation where your horse is frightened and difficult to control, try to remember the following:
Stay calm: Panicking, yelling, or running will only serve to elevate your horse’s anxiety; chances are, if you are stressed, this will be picked up by your horse. Take a deep breath and let it out slowly so your horse can feel you relax.
Let your horse move its feet: A horse’s natural instinct when frightened is to flee. It will help to relieve its anxiety if you let it move its feet, either by turning it in small circles if there is room, or asking it to move its hindquarters over one way and then another, back up, or step forward when safe. Training your horse to step over with its hind feet (disengaging the hindquarters) on cue is crucial to trail and road safety. Never RUN from a dangerous situation: Running releases adrenalin which in turn causes your horse to become even more excited.
Let your horse check out the threat on his own time: If your horse is frightened of something that is in reality non-threatening, like a mailbox or a culvert, the first choice is to allow your horse to see that what is scaring it poses no real threat. Turn to face it, and let your horse step forward and investigate on its own time, urging it forward gently one step at a time, or not at all. Allowing it to face scary objects and overcome its fear is how to build confidence in your horse for the future.
If it’s not a safe place to let your horse face the scary object, move calmly as far away from the threat as you safely can. In an emergency, take to the ditch to get out of the way of a potentially dangerous driver – better to get dirty than be hurt!