Trail Use and Safety
CLOSE ENCOUNTERS WITH HORSEBACK RIDERS
What you don’t know about horses may cause you to slow down
You are driving down one of Pomfret’s country roads. Around a bend, you see several horseback riders approaching on the side of the road.
The horses look large to you, strong and powerful. The riders appear confident, fully in control of their magnificent steeds. Driving past them at 40 miles per hour should not both them, right?
For hundreds of years horses provided the primary source of transportation. Today, horses and riders are usually seen on roads when they go from one trail to another. Unless it is a highway, horseback riders have a right to be on the roads, and it is important for automobile drivers to know how to share the road with equestrians.
Some horses can race around a track with thousands of screaming fans, march in the Rose Bowl parade among the floats, bands, and spectators, or appear in a Western movie where gun shots are the norm. However, horses are skittish animals, easily frightened and always on guard for perceived danger. A horse’s first impulse is to jump or run away from any perceived danger – real or imagined.
Horses are prey animals – meaning they are pursued, attacked, and killed by predators. As a prey animal, the horse has survived by being wary of predators. When wild horses roamed the earth, they lived in herds for protection, constantly watching for predators, ready to flee in a split second. While most horses now used for trail riding and other disciplines were born into domestication, wild horse instincts still form the basis of their behavior. Like their ancestors, horses are alert and suspicious and have a highly developed flight reflex.
Horses also have highly developed senses. A horse’s eye is one of the largest of any living creature. The position of a horse’s eyes on the sides of his head provides greater peripheral vision, but also results in several blind spots. Horses tend to be farsighted, often becoming alarmed when an object is within a few feet. Horses’ ears are the most mobile of any domestic animal and can turn almost 180 degrees from front to back. Their hearing is better than humans – they can hear higher frequencies and from greater distances. The senses of smell and taste are also more highly developed in horses than in humans.
Horses do not like to be afraid. If a horse feels threatened by a noise, movement or any perceived danger, it will grow fearful and be likely to panic. Horses don’t like surprises, although they can learn to become tolerant of them. Loud noises such as gunshots, mysterious sounds such as a plastic bag, and sudden movements such as a duck taking flight, can elicit the startle response, which can turn into a full-fledged spook – jumping and running away from a frightening object or situation. The flight response can end with disastrous results for the horse and/or rider.
Riders need to be on alert and ready to respond to their horse’s sudden movements. Anyone sharing the trail or road with horseback riders needs to be sensitive to the potential of a frightened horse.
Connecticut State Statutes say it is the responsibility of the motor vehicle operator to slow down when passing horseback riders, or when necessary, to stop to be sure the rider has the horse under control before passing. A driver can be held liable if careless driving causes an accident involving a horse or carriage.
The Connecticut Horse Council recommends that motor vehicle operators follow a few simple guidelines:
• Slow down when approaching a horse and rider or horse and carriage
• Pass with a wide berth, at least 6-8 feet from the horse
• Do not pass on hills or curves
• When approaching a horse from behind, let oncoming traffic pass the horse first
• Drive a minimum of 20 feet behind a horse or carriage when following on the road
• Stop and wait if the rider is having a difficult time controlling the horse
• If a rider waves his/her hand palm down, please slow down
Just a little patience on the part of a motor vehicle operator can help prevent a tragedy from happening. So when you’re driving on that road in Pomfret and you approach those horseback riders, you’ll know why it is important to slow down. And when the riders wave and say thank you, you’ll know they are acknowledging a courteous driver.