How to deal with a horse and rider on the road

Estimates show there are approximately 3.5 million horse riders in the UK so it’s highly likely that drivers will meet them on their journeys around the country’s network of roads. It’s important to know, therefore, how to react when behind the wheel and encountering a horse and rider as, sadly, failure to drive sensibly around horses can lead to fatalities. Over the last 5 years, there have been 36 riders killed through accidents with vehicles and motoring and horse associations are campaigning for improvements in driver and rider awareness.

All drivers will come across horses and riders on the roads at some point. Knowing how to drive around horses is vital for the safety of all parties. Horses are potentially volatile animals and, along with their size and power, an incident with a car can be very serious. Even those horses deemed to be ‘bomb proof’ can be scared in certain circumstances and, as ‘flight’ animals, they’re prone to sudden and unpredictable behaviour.

Noisy and speeding vehicles, colourful flapping distractions, and barking dogs are just a few of the events that can frighten a horse and their natural instinct is to escape from their source of fear. Should this happen, a horse’s reaction can be sudden and violent and could send it careering across the road and colliding with a car. No matter how experienced a rider might be, controlling a horse that’s determined to flee is a near impossible feat.

Most riders avoid busy roads and stick to lanes and bridle paths but, occasionally, it’s necessary to cover some distance on a main road or access a lane or pathway. Drivers need to be aware that country lanes can often be twisty so it’s likely a motorist could come across a horse and rider quite suddenly and unexpectedly.

The vast majority of horse riders are highly responsible and aware of the dangers of riding on the roads and so they’ll usually maximise visibility by wearing bright or hi-viz clothing, sometimes with slogans such as ‘Slow Please’. These are, however, no substitute for slow and careful driving, particularly when negotiating bends with poor visibility or roads with narrow sections. This helps drivers to take evasive action should they spot horses and riders ahead.

It may seem like common sense but the actions that need to be taken when encountering a horse must be detailed:

· Slow down to a crawl in line with the ‘Dead Slow’ campaign you can read about here;

· Be prepared to stop if necessary;

· Give them plenty of space when passing; good practice suggests at least the width of a car;

· Steer clear of any actions that could frighten the horse, such as revving the engine, playing loud music, sounding the horn or splashing through puddles;

· Stay alert to signs and signals from the rider and be prepared to slow or even stop;

· Don’t be offended if riders fail to raise a hand to indicate thanks for careful driving. Taking a hand off the reins can be a risky business on a road but riders normally nod or smile in appreciation.

It’s also important to be aware that horses and riders on the roads can often be novices, so therefore inexperienced or nervous. Drivers also need to understand the manoeuvres made by riders, for example when turning right off a road. Unlike a motorbike or bicycle, which will move to the centre of the road when turning, a horse will stay on the left until it’s time to turn. They then signal their intentions and check it’s safe to make their manoeuvre when it’s time to do so. Speeding motorists can, therefore, be an unforeseen factor in this and so it can be extremely dangerous.

Horse riders normally steer clear of busy and tricky junctions like roundabouts. In the rare cases when they do cross these, they’ll keep to the left and use ‘right’ hand signals when passing an exit they don’t intend to leave by so it’s important to slow down and give them a wide berth.

Rule 215 of the Highway Code states that motorists must be especially careful with horse riders and also horse-drawn vehicles. The advice is to pass wide and slowly. Also, since riders can be children, additional vigilance is necessary and drivers should look out for riders in pairs, e.g. when a more experienced rider is escorting a younger, less experienced rider. Finally, the rules state that drivers should look out for rider signals and always respect their requests to slow or stop. The bottom line is that great care must be taken and horses should always be considered as a potential hazard.

The Highway Code also issues guidance for riders, which they should respect. Rules 49-55 say that riders should wear visible or fluorescent clothing by day and reflective clothing by night or in poor weather conditions. Riding after dark and during poor visibility is not recommended. Inexperienced horses and riders should be accompanied by more experienced companions. They should always keep to the left, follow the flow of traffic on one-way streets, and not ride in groups of more than two abreast, ideally in single file especially when traffic needs to pass. If roads are busy and when tackling bends, single file is always preferable.

If all parties stick to these rules, the country’s roads will be a safer place for horses and riders, keeping accidents and fatalities to a minimum.