Sunday, October 7, 2012

A heartfelt plea to road users everywhere

Whatever your thoughts about the rights and wrongs of horses on the roads, might I ask you to read this to the end. This applies, wherever you are in the world, especially if you don’t like horses and horse riders!

Living where I do, and riding horses regularly, I count myself extremely lucky. It is possible to ride for hours without riding on the roads, sometimes without even having to cross one. But, inevitably, it is sometimes necessary to share the roads with cars and other vehicles – especially when riding in a carriage, which can’t always stay away from roads. The horses in our group are almost without exception extremely good in traffic and hardly bat an eyelid at heavy lorries, tractors or anything loud and noisy that they encounter. But there are exceptions. Horses are not machines and, however good the rider, there can be times when the horse is not on its best behaviour. Most of the horses we have in our group have been together for some time and are used to traffic; they even live part of the year near a railway line and aren’t in the least bit afraid of trains passing close by. But there are a couple of young horses which don’t know the ropes. They can only learn about traffic by going out on the roads and will of course be unpredictable, no matter how much care is taken. And occasionally a new horse comes along and is initially an unknown quantity. It is also the case that if one of the horses is ridden out alone it is more likely to be frightened by something unusual than if it has the security of other horses around it.
In England I had to ride on the roads far too often, and the behaviour of some drivers defied belief. They drive past horses too close, too fast, and in many cases extremely recklessly. If a driver gives the horse a wide berth and slows down sensibly, I try to thank him or her every time. As a driver myself, I am well aware that not acknowledging sensible driving can irritate those who do slow down and make them more liable to drive carelessly past the next horse they see. I get annoyed when I slow down and riders seem to ignore this. This is not to say that all drivers are inconsiderate. On the contrary, there are many who do slow down and if you are one of them then all riders do appreciate this – even those who are not considerate enough to thank you, for whom I apologise.

Over the past two or three weeks I have witnessed, here in Germany, several examples of idiotic driving. On the first occasion a group of us – seven horses – was crossing a road. A motor bike came up to us as we were in the process of crossing and was clearly irritated at having to wait. The rider sat on his bike revving his engine until the last two horses were on the road, then he sped past the heels of those horses – on his back wheel. On the second occasion I was sitting in a carriage pulled by two horses, followed by one being ridden. Several motor bikes came past and one in particular made sure he revved up just as he was parallel with the horse behind the carriage. Then a Mercedes convertible with the top down followed the motor bikes and accelerated hard to overtake us just before a bend. Now you might think this was a good thing as he would get past us faster that way, but if he had overtaken a car immediately before a blind bend he would have been taking just as big a risk of another car coming in the other direction. Yesterday, once again crossing a road, a pickup didn’t even slow down as it approached, once more risking running into the back of a horse. And recently, riding through a village, I was parallel to a car in which the driver had been sitting as I rode closer. She could see me quite clearly. She waited until I was as close as I could be before starting her engine. I was as startled as the horse, so I can’t blame my horse for jumping.

If you don’t like horses, and/or believe that horses shouldn’t be on the roads, believe me we only ride on them or cross them when we have to. It is much nicer riding over fields and through forests. But sometimes, even over here, we have no choice. So would you please consider the possible consequences of not waiting those few seconds for us, or of passing us as fast and as close as you can. Don’t forget, too, that if something goes off with a loud bang, or something flies in front of the horse’s face in a high wind, it will not only be the horse but also the rider who is, at least, briefly startled. It only takes a split second for an accident to happen. Approaching horses cautiously minimises the risk.

It is true that one of the possible scenarios if the horse is frightened is that the rider may fall off. The horse could fall in a ditch and injure itself, possibly fatally. You may think this is fine as you won’t be affected. Indeed, if you drive away fast enough and there are no witnesses, it is unlikely that you will have to pay any penalty, especially if the rider doesn’t live to tell the tale.

But, as I said before, a horse is not a machine. Another scenario is that the horse might leap towards you rather than away from you. It might turn round and kick out in the direction of your car or motor bike. A horse is a heavy animal and a kick can be very powerful (I know, I’ve been on the wrong end of one). In this situation it is highly possible that the horse, and probably the rider, might be badly injured. And so might you. Your car may be written off and you along with it. A well-aimed kick in the direction of a car or motor bike could have disastrous consequences – for you. Had our horses not been extremely well-behaved, imagine what might have happened to the motor cyclist riding on his back wheel. It is not only the horse and rider that might be killed – it is you. And nobody wants that to happen.

If you see two horses being ridden abreast on the road, this is not usually, as you might think, just so that the riders can chat amongst themselves. Sometimes the horse on the inside is younger and in training, or just not as confident in traffic as the one on the outside, who is acting as a shield and to give the other horse a modicum of confidence.    

So can I please ask you, if you come across horses on the roads, to think about what might happen. You don’t know the horse or how it will react. You may be in a hurry, but it is better to be a minute late than not to get where you are going at all. Please, please, slow down, give horses plenty of space as you pass them and don’t overtake them where it wouldn’t be safe to overtake another vehicle. 

Rant over. Thank you for reading this far.      

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