Use Horse Sense To Avoid A Horse Wreck

The weather was overcast and in the 50s on that Sunday last October, as Dan Marinos ponied his horses on a quiet country road in West Newbury, MA.

pulled text highlight: horses respond to different signals“I’ve done this hundreds of times,” Dan wrote to me as background to what happened next. Dan and I connected through my work as a bicycling instructor. He wanted me to spread the word, so that all cyclists would know how to avoid what could be a dangerous or even deadly situation.

Dan wrote: “My horses are well trained and very much used to traveling on roads. But they are horses–prey animals. They choose flight when perceiving a threat.”

What was the threat? Two cyclists, who had ridden up behind Dan and his two horses. Dan was astride one and ponying (leading) the other.

“The cyclists came up silently and were upon us in an instant, much like a mountain lion would behave,” Dan wrote. “The ponied horse spooked and bolted. The horse I was on did the same, herd instinct it’s called.

“I had to let go of the second horse in order to gain control of the horse I was on,” Dan continued. “The loose horse lost his footing, went down, and slid 40 feet on his side.

“I’m extremely lucky that his wounds are superficial, and he’ll be OK. It could have been so much worse.”

Recreational horseback riders frequent many of the same trails as mountain bike riders. Amish horse-drawn buggies are common in some rural areas. Urban areas have police patrols on horseback, and horse-drawn carriages are popular with tourists.

trail sign yield to horsesThis sign is often posted on trails. It’s a start in dealing with horses and their riders, but there’s more to that than the sign can show.

Communication is central to success as a bicyclist. With other road users, it is mostly through lane positioning, hand signals and head turns.

Horses, though, respond to different signals.

“It could have been avoided so easily,” Dan wrote. “Two words: ‘Behind you!’ If the cyclists had announced their presence, like most cyclists do, none of it would have happened.”

Dan’s advice is excellent:

“When approaching a horse on a cycle, do not stay silent, it worries them. When approaching from the front, slow down, look for direction from the rider, say anything so the horse realizes it’s a human approaching. All horses are different, a good rider who knows his horse is responsible for instructing cyclists on what to do after they greet.”

Dan continued:

“Approaching from the rear is a whole different story. They don’t see you or hear you. It is imperative you announce your approach from a decent distance.

“If this had been done the other day, I would have stopped, turned the horses so they could see what was approaching, and allowed the cyclists to pass.”

So – horses, as imposingly large as they are, are nonetheless prey animals, like deer and squirrels. Their instinct is to flee danger.

In the early days of bicycling, bicycle-mounted police were often called upon to bring stampeding horses under control. We’re not asking you to do that, only to avoid causing them to stampede in the first place.

It isn’t only the horse and rider who could be injured. It could be you, too.

historic Collier's Magazine cover of stampeding horses

This article has been about not inducing fear. But also, you might turn that thought back on yourself. Just as an example, do you have a clenching feeling in your belly if you hear car tires screeching?

Humans also experience fear, and many are fearful of bicycling. With CyclingSavvy instruction, cyclists discover how we can shed – not suppress – that fear, through bike handling, positioning for visibility and safe maneuvering, and proactive communication with other road users. These strategies avoid your surprising a driver and having car tires screech in the first place.

I extend many thanks to Dan Marinos for his concern and attention – and for writing most of this article for me. Also to Kirby Beck for digging up the stunning Collier’s magazine cover.

Be safe out there!

Safe Joy Riding

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8 replies
  1. Randy Profeta
    Randy Profeta says:

    As a mountain biker, I know all too well how spooky horses can be on the trail, especially here in SoCal. Aside from sounding like a predator, the freehub on some bikes sounds like a rattlesnake and can easily unnerve a horse. When approaching from behind, I will always make my presence known well in advance by calling out “Rider back”. Sometimes I will be waved off by the equestrian, other times they will signal for me to pass. In all cases, I will abide by their instructions. When coming upon an approaching rider and horse, I will always stop on the trail and for them to approach, again waiting for the “all clear” signal from the horse rider. I don’t want to see the rider or the horse injured, and I really don’t need to be kicked!

    Road cyclists can learn some valuable lessons here. When I’m on the road, it unnerves me when a “stealth rider” comes up behind me and passes without so much as a courtesy “heads-up”. When I’m the rider in back, I will always let the rider out front know where I am and, if I intend to pass, do so safely and with plenty of notice (“rider back”, “on your right” or “left”). Savvy Cyclists know how to “be predictable”, not “invisible”.

    Reply
    • flehnerz
      flehnerz says:

      You’re courteous to others on trails because you’re a courteous person and you’re aware of he issues that cyclists can pose to equestrians if their horse is spooked. It has nothing to do with wether you’re riding a mountain bike or not. Most mountain bike riders probably don’t know about horses.

      No need to jab at road cyclists. On the road nobody is under any obligation to call out when approaching from behind. They’re simply supposed to wait until it’s safe and clear for all involved. Regardless of whether “in front” or “ in back” all cyclists need to check to see if something is coming from either direction before moving laterally too.

      Reply
      • Randy Profeta
        Randy Profeta says:

        flehnerz, I’m not taking pot shots at roadies. How difficult is it for a rider, be it on the road or a trail, to let the rider up front know that you are behind them? No obligation, sure. How about common courtesy? I also take exception with your statement that all riders need need to check to see where others are. If I am turning, absolutely! But how about if I get on my brakes hard or swerve to avoid something in the road (or on the trail)? The responsibility is with the passing rider, not the one in front. They have a responsibility to make sure that their pass is safe. It would be a lot safer for both of us if the rider up front knew they were back there and passing on their flank. Likewise, if they are on my wheel and I don’t know it because they never said anything, they put us both at risk.

        All I ask is that riders be courteous and their actions are predictable.

        Reply
        • Flehnerz
          Flehnerz says:

          Your comment saying road cyclists could learn some lessons isn’t a “pot shot?”

          I’m not sure exactly where you ride in SoCal but the mountain biking community in my part of SoCal would sure benefit having someone like you around to teach them how to use the trails safely with others.

          “I also take exception with your statement that all riders need need to check to see where others are. If I am turning, absolutely!”

          That wasn’t quite what I said in my first post. I said that such a task should be done when preparing to move laterally, which includes making any kind of turning movement.

          “But how about if I get on my brakes hard or swerve to avoid something in the road (or on the trail)? “

          This is an issue with that rider following you too closely. Part of the responsibility to pass safely includes not tailgating/wheel sucking. But also part of not needing to swerve or brake for something in front of you relies on paying attention to what’s in front of you and riding at a speed appropriate for the given conditions.

          “The responsibility is with the passing rider, not the one in front. They have a responsibility to make sure that their pass is safe.”

          Which is another thing I said in my post.

          “It would be a lot safer for both of us if the rider up front knew they were back there and passing on their flank.”

          When you’re driving down the road (in a car or bike) do you expect someone behind you to flash their lights or honk their horn to let you know they’re there? When driving a car, part of your responsibilities as a defensive driver is to be aware of your surroundings, and that includes checking your rear view mirrors as part of your scanning process even if you don’t plan to move laterally, which by the way means either a turn or a lane change. Cycling is no different, especially on the road where a cyclist is supposed to be acting as the driver of a vehicle. Cyclists also should be doing this whether it be with an occasional shoulder check or with a mirror. This is a part of Savvy Cycling.

          “Likewise, if they are on my wheel and I don’t know it because they never said anything, they put us both at risk. “

          Them being on your wheel is definitely a safety issue, but if you incorporate defensive driving the chances of seeing them sooner rather than later then you might not be so surprised. Occasionally someone comes up from behind and get uncomfortably close to me when I’m riding and when it’s safe I either try to say something or hold out my arm giving a “back off” signal. I use the same arm signaling when a motorist is following me too closely.

          “All I ask is that riders be courteous and their actions are predictable.”

          Reply
  2. Harold A. Karabell
    Harold A. Karabell says:

    Lots of good horse sense 🙂 from John A., as usual. And from Randy P.’s reply as well. As a relatively slow transportational bicyclist almost exclusively, one of the banes of my urban commutes is riders who blow by me right and left without comment or courtesy. Sometimes these “scorchers” come so close that I almost can touch their handlebars.

    Reply
    • Jeanne
      Jeanne says:

      I’m with you Harold. This happens to me all the time. You speedsters should announce your presence …and please don’t ever pass on the right. My rear view mirror is on the left. I’m probably just about to move right to get out of your way.

      Reply
  3. Schubert John
    Schubert John says:

    In addition to what John Allen wrote here… I was taught to slow down to a pace barely faster than the horse, and repeatedly dab a foot on the ground. A bicyclist coasting by is mysterious, and therefore frightening, to a horse. The horse doesn’t know what turning wheels are, and doesn’t understand how you move without footfalls.

    Reply

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