One of the great things about many trails in the Northeast is that they are open to multiple uses. This means that hikers, bikers – and horses – all share and enjoy the trails. However, when these groups mix we must always keep safety mind. On trails where there might be horses, it is important for all users to understand the basic behavior of horses and practice proper trail etiquette when horses and riders are encountered.
The horse is a prey animal. Quick escape from predators is hardwired into the horse's brain. A simple case of mistaken identity, such as a wolf for a tree stump or a rattlesnake for a branch, can mean injury or death. As a result, the horse insists on making his own evaluation of approaching objects and deciding whether or not they are friend or foe, and whether or not he should ignore, fight, or flee. Equestrians will work with a horse throughout the horse's life to increase the number of objects and situations that the horse can handle comfortably, but even the seasoned trail horse will revert to instinct if faced with a surprise.
It's the element of a surprised horse and lack of trail etiquette that put all user groups in danger. Therefore, it is always important to follow these guidelines when encountering a horse and rider on the trail:
Use Line of Sight
If you are approaching a horse and rider traveling in the opposite direction, Stop. A predator would crouch and line up the attack. By stopping, you have taken the first step in distinguishing yourself from a predator.
If you are approaching a horse and rider from the rear direction, announce yourself. Your voice is clearly that of a human and carries with it all the familiar experiences that the horse has had with humans. Your voice will not spook the horse, but if you are silent, the noise of your bike, dog, or running footsteps might simulate a predator's surprise attack from the rear.
Move to the Outer Edge of the Trail
Stand where the horse can see you and can pass you with the greatest amount of clearance. No predator in the world would do this. However, please do not go off the trail into the woods. “Hiding” there quietly is exactly what a predator would do.
This again distinguishes you as human, familiar and non-threatening. If this seems awkward, a simple, "Hi! Nice day!" will do.
Wait for Instructions
Never assume that every encounter will unfold in the same way. Each horse is at a different point in his training. You might be the first or the one hundredth mountain biker seen by this particular horse. Only the rider (and horse) has a feel for the best way to proceed. The rider might ask you to walk slowly toward and pass them. Or, particularly if the horse is tense, the rider may choose to let the horse gradually approach and pass you. Or the rider may tell you that his horse is completely fine and you can continue to enjoy your activity. Regardless of the plan used, you can add a great deal of comfort to the situation for the horse by calmly talking. Plus, it’s a great way to make friends with others in your community! However, please don’t take offence if the rider isn’t talking back to you all that much. It may be that he needs to keep his full attention on his horse to maintain safety.
If you have a dog, please, for the safety of your dog, keep it on a leash at all times. Even the most sedate dog will usually get very excited when seeing a horse and fail to listen to the commands of his owner. Often the dog will quickly revert to what is instinctual to him as a predator – to run up behind the horse barking. To the horse, as you can imagine, the dog is a predator and the horse may take whatever action necessary to defend itself. That may mean bolting or it may mean kicking. A dog is no match for a well placed kick from a horse and the results can be deadly for the dog. So, please keep your dog on a leash and enjoy a pleasant and safe walk.
Maybe you’d like to pet the horse. Just ask! Horse owners, not surprisingly, are proud of their animals and the horses usually love admirers. However, again, it depends on the horse and its level of training. So ask first and then wait for instructions from the rider on the appropriate way to approach. Please don’t be offended if your request is denied. It just may not be appropriate that day. Also, always ask before you offer the horse anything to eat. Many horses have specialized diets and some riders do not like to give their horses anything to eat while they are “working”.
Please instruct your children how to behave when meeting horses on the trail, based on the instructions above. Good instruction from you will teach them how to be safe around horses the rest of their lives. Maybe they will even decide to be future riders themselves.
Thanks for taking the time to learn about horse and trail safety, these simple steps will go a long way to ensuring that we all have a safe and fun time on our multi-use trails.
by Andrea Barber, Sand Meadow Farm, Mendon, NY for Connections, the newsletter of the Massachusetts Greenways and Trails Program