It’s every horse person’s nightmare. Riding out for a hack on a quiet country road only to have a car come speeding towards you. Worse if they’re coming up behind. Worse still if they don’t slow down or move over to give you space. Add to that some driver with a sense of “fun” who thinks honking to spook your horse might be good for a laugh.

Every year we read about horse and riders or horses pulling buggies being struck and killed by motorists. While some are truly accidents, any of these horrific incidents could be easily preventable through careful and considerate driving.

In a recent issue of UK publication Horse & Hound, one driver, who was not found at fault, recounted the harrowing experience of being behind the wheel. Fortunately, in this incident, both horse and rider also lived to tell the tale.

The driver was Sadie Jeater, who was driving along a familiar road when young rider Amy McKinnon and her horse Rambo was suddenly in front of her. Jeater hit the brakes, but was unable to stop in time, striking the horse.

“As I felt the impact of Rambo, I looked up and straight into Amy’s eyes and thought ‘She’s only a kid. What’s happened?’” Sadie told Horse & Hound. “Amy and her friend said a motorbike had spooked them. I didn’t see it; but he’d shot forward into the road and was coming towards me. My window smashed, and I saw Rambo rear up, and Amy come off.”

Rambo suffered severe injuries to his neck and chest, while McKinnon suffered muscle trauma to her back. You can watch a video produced by the British Horse Society, with all parties, including McKinnon’s mother, recounting the accident. It was Jeater’s quick reactions that avoided hitting Rambo head on, thus preventing a tragedy. Currently Rambo is recovering and back in work. In this case no one was to blame.

The issue of horses and road safety is significant. Given the influx of urban dwellers to more rural settings, it’s vital that public awareness about how to pass horses and riders become a greater priority. Horse owners can help get the word out to their non-horsey friends and family by sharing some of the links in this article (and this article!) through social media.

The Horse Council of British Columbia has a webpage dedicated to road safety, with recommendations for drivers such as, “when passing a horse and rider on the road, please exercise more caution than you would when passing a pedestrian or cyclist. Due to a horse’s unpredictable nature, they must be given additional distance and attention when passing, so be prepared to stop quickly if necessary.”

And even suggestions that should seem like sane, common sense and wouldn’t need to be written, “never throw things out your window at them.”

Of course, it’s not only motorized vehicles at play, but also cyclists and dog walkers have come under scrutiny with more and more of us sharing trails and roads with each other.

In Nova Scotia, an online letter was published informing one reader about how to correctly pass a horse and rider while riding a bicycle. The author wrote simply, “Under no circumstances should you yell or use your bell. When approaching from behind at a safe distance, you announce yourself saying, “Bicycle behind,” then the horse and the rider will know that you are behind and will make way for you.”

Of course, riders also have a burden of responsibility to avoid reckless behaviour and stay safe on the roads. According to Ontario Equestrian’s Road Safety for Equestrians, it is recommended that riders:

  • ride single file in the direction of traffic;
  • obey all traffic signs and indicate stops and turns with hand signals;
  • wear bright or reflective clothing;
  • avoid riding at dusk or dawn;
  • only cross where you can see oncoming vehicles; and
  • leave the really spooky horses at home.

In the UK, the British Horse Society (BHS) has taken up the cause full force. There, the statistics are alarming. From February 28, 2019 to February 29, 2020, a total of 1,037 road accidents involving horses and riders were reported. Of these, 80 horses were sadly killed and 1 rider. According to the research, 80% of these accidents were due to cars passing too closely. The BHS have a campaign called Pass Wide & Slow, its Facebook page  highlights its annual ride and drive event to raise awareness that is set for this September 19.

While Canada doesn’t have the same level of alarming statistics, one accident that injures or kills a horse and rider is enough. Some accidents are not preventable, because as we know horses are unpredictable creatures that can be easily frightened, as was the case with McKinnon and Rambo. But for the majority, all it takes is for drivers to learn how to share the road with equestrians, as the BHS slogan says, “pass wide and slow.”