Horses must be given more attention on the roads

An estimated three million horse riders in the UK use public roads, so it is inevitable that accidents will happen. But is enough being done to prevent them?

Recent figures reveal an alarming trend. The British Horse Society (BHS) has received more than 2,000 reports of road traffic incidents involving horses in the last five years, which resulted in the deaths of 36 riders and 181 horses.

In 2012, 165 accidents were recorded, a figure that had doubled to 316 in 2015. The BHS suspects that many more incidents go unreported.

A horse in Renfrewshire had to be put down after a driver clipped him while overtaking at high speed. The driver fled the scene, leaving the traumatised rider and fatally wounded horse lying in the road. In this instance the rider was wearing a helmet and a hi-vis jacket and was not at fault.

Of the 2,000 BHS reports, a large majority involved the driver passing by too closely or too fast, while a further quarter involved motorist road rage and verbal abuse. A survey by the AA revealed that one in eight drivers does not know how to pass a horse safely. This is less surprising when you consider that the majority of horse/road incidents happen on narrow rural roads, and that for the three million of us who enjoy riding, there are another 60 million who don’t.

But is this something that should be included in the driver learning process wherever you are, city or countryside? The additional training could quite literally be a life-saver. Some might argue that riders and horses shouldn’t be on the roads, but the reality is that many horse owners have little or no choice when it comes to exercising their animals.

With many more people moving from cities to rural areas (it is estimated that the rural population will rise by 6% in the next decade) there will be many more inexperienced countryside drivers on rural roads, in bigger and faster cars than ever before. Drivers should always exercise caution on country roads – tractors, cyclists, flocks of sheep and cows join horse riders on a long list of hazards that could be waiting around the corner.

But ignorance, and perhaps an element of arrogant indifference, colours both sides of this debate. Do car drivers realise that riders have equal rights on our roads, and share an equal responsibility to be safe and courteous?

Safety laws are surprisingly lax – many would say inadequate – and perhaps with these figures in mind it is time for some commonsense precautions to be enforced.

The 1990 Horses Act states only that children of 14 and younger must wear a helmet while riding on public roads. In our health-and-safety-regulated world, one might assume that all riders would be required to wear a helmet all of the time, whether on a road, track, field, arena or beach. There is also no law requiring riders to wear hi-vis, refl ective gear, lights or body protectors, only suggestions and guidelines.

As a child I was always made to wear a properly fitting helmet (and a hi-vis vest bearing the words ‘WIDE AND SLOW’ across my back) when riding on the road. I didn’t like it much, but even then I knew it was both necessary and sensible. Today I think most equestrians would not entertain the idea of riding out without a helmet, but I am often shocked to see riders on the roads without hi-vis jackets.

Unfortunately, only too often it takes something terrible to inspire a change. After a car in Wales hit a horse-drawn funeral cortège earlier this year, injuring carriage master Mark Evans and killing one of his horses, Will, the BHS launched its Dead Slow campaign.

The aim was to educate motorists to be responsible and to pass wide, at no more that 15mph. The campaign is advertised on the handles of supermarket petrol pumps across the UK as well as being widely aired on national news and radio.

‘This petrol pump advertising campaign has the potential to reach millions of our target audience – UK drivers,’ says Lee Hackett, BHS Director of Policy. ‘By slowing down for horses, drivers can keep everybody on the roads safe: horses and riders as well as themselves and their passengers.’

The BHS’s goal is legislative change; but, as this can take a long time to achieve, a national change of attitude and awareness in the meantime would be a valuable and much needed improvement for us all.

Described by the Highway Code as vulnerable road users, horses are far more likely to sustain the most damage if involved in an accident and hit by a car. It is important for riders to sit their Riding and Road Safety Test with the BHS – as more than 4,000 riders do each year – and always to be alert and courteous on the roads.

Think about the weather conditions, the time of day (avoid rush hour) and the experience of your horse.

‘There is no doubt that road riding is a challenge for every rider, but many of us have no choice but to use the roads to access our safe off-road hacking,’ says Helene Mauchlen, national manager for the BHS in Scotland.

‘Whether you are a car driver or a rider, you have a duty to act with courtesy and responsibility on the public highway. For drivers, this means respecting the needs of other users and immediately cutting your speed when you encounter vulnerable people, whether walking, cycling or riding. For horse riders, we must be properly equipped and suitably and competently mounted, and must always comply with the Highway Code. Every rider should wear a hat and hi-vis gear and continually assess the risks. I believe we can share the roads safely if everyone plays their part and considers others.’

Access is also a major factor in this problem. More horses have to use public roads because off-road alternatives aren’t available, despite Scotland’s right-to-roam laws. There has always been a difficult relationship between farmers and the public when it comes to access.

The National Farmers Union and Scottish Land & Estates report complaints made both by land owners and riders – of horses damaging crops and being ridden through fields with young lambs, on the one hand; and of locked gates suddenly blocking off bridle paths and previously rideable routes, in breach of the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003, on the other.

This evidence suggests that among both parties there is a widespread lack of knowledge and understanding, and it’s easy to sympathise with both sides.

Our roads are built for everybody. It is important to remember that horses, cyclists and pedestrians used them long before cars. A horse rider’s right to the road is as old as the history of our love for and use of horses. It is a right we need to respect.

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(This feature was originally published in 2016)