Horse sense: How to navigate horse riders - cars, runners & cyclists

We all share the same paths or roads but what's the safest way for motorists, runners and cyclists to approach a scenario with a horse rider?

horserider on road

With roughly three million horse riders in the UK, it’s not uncommon to see the occasional horse rider on the road, in parks and on popular paths (or bridleways). 

Horse riders, motorists and cyclists all have the right to use the road, but sometimes when more than one are present there can be some misunderstanding as to the proper way to approach the other.

The numbers behind horse rider accidents

This has always been a cause for concern within the horse community, as tragic injuries and even deaths have occurred in the past due to car collisions. Unfortunately, as the majority of incidents go unreported and undocumented, it’s hard to determine just how many are happening each year.

However, 2021 statistics from the British Horse Society (BHS) have revealed horse riders reported 1,010 incidents involving horses and drivers in the space of just one year.

From Feb 2020-21, 46 horses were killed and 130 people injured while riding on the roads, and 80% of incidents reported occurred due to vehicles passing too closely.

What can motorists do to help?

The BHS' Dead Slow campaign urges motorists to follow these simple steps in the event of encountering a horse rider on the road:

  1. Slow down to a maximum of 15mph
  2. Be patient – do not sound their horn or rev the engine
  3. Pass the horse wide and slow, (if safe to do so) at least a car’s width if possible
  4. Drive slowly away

What can horse riders do?

If you yourself are a horse rider and will be venturing out on the roads, THINK! advises that you keep in mind the following as well:

  • If you can help it, avoid riding in darkness, fog or failing light. It’s also important to try to avoid icy or snowy roads
  • Make sure to put reflective/fluorescent clothing on yourself as well as your horse – regardless of what the weather or light conditions are
  • Should you be on a horse who is not used to roads, it’s recommended that you ask a rider with a more experienced horse to accompany you
  • Move into a single file line when a motorist wants to overtake, and remember to cross a road as a whole group for better visibility

Lastly, it's important to remember that both motorists and horse riders need to consider each other's needs to help avoid tragic accidents on the roads.

Navigating horses on the roads - tips for cyclists and runners 

With the recent Coronavirus pandemic, more and more people are taking advantage of running and cycling. The roads are becoming busier and busier, and it's important to remember that we can all share the roads safely, if we're considerate towards other road users.

We spoke to Natalie Goldrick, an award-winning equine vet and horse-rider, for her expert tips on sharing the road. 

"Many cyclists and runners who use the roads, will have no equestrian background or experience, and therefore be unaware of how they should approach a horse rider.

"It's important to remember that horses are both living creatures, and unpredictable. A horse may be happy for a HGV or tractor to pass it slowly, but may then leap into the middle of the road after seeing or hearing a bird in the hedge, 10 metres further up the road.

"This doesn't mean the horse is dangerous, or poorly trained; horses are prey species and will react to something that startles them, by trying to move away from the object. A horse will likely be happy for a cyclist or runner to pass, if he's aware a person is there, and about to pass.

Making your presence known

"It's very important to make your presence known to both the rider and the horse, especially if you're approaching from behind. If approaching from the front of the horse (so travelling in the opposite direction to the horse), then the rider and horse will be aware of your approach.

"Most horses will be fine with you carrying on past them, with no need for the cyclist or runner to stop and wait. If the rider does shout out for you to stop, then it's important that you do so, as the horse may have had a bad experience in the past, and stopping will ensure your own safety, as well as that of the horse and rider. Saying 'hello' or 'good morning' as you approach will help it realise that you aren't to be feared.

"When approaching a horse from behind, it's vitally important that you make your presence known, and as early/far away as possible. Creeping up silently behind a horse and rider may result in the horse panicking when he realises you're right behind him.

"When the horse is startled, he may shoot forwards to try to get away from the object, or, worse case scenario, he may kick out at the object he feels is a threat to him. This is a natural instinct, and doesn't mean the horse is nasty or dangerous.

Avoid startling the horse

"In order to avoid such situations, it is best to call out 'hello' or 'bike behind', or something along those lines, to alert both horse and rider that you're approaching.

"Ringing a bike bell isn't ideal, as the noise may not be heard from a distance, or if too close, the noise may startle the horse. Shouting out a greeting is by far the best way of approaching a horse from behind. The rider can then return your greeting by telling you that they know their horse is aware, and it is fine and safe for you to come past.

"If the rider asks you to come slowly past, then it is critical that you do so, for the safety of all concerned. Once the horse rider is aware of a bike or runner approaching from behind, he or she can help the situation by turning the horse’s head slightly inwards, towards the side that the other road user will be passing.

"This ensures the horse, which has a blind spot immediately behind its body, has picked up on the approaching object."

Changes to The Highway Code

From 29 January there will be changes to The Highway Code which aim to improve overall road safety for horse riders. You can find out more about the changes here.  

Natalie McGoldrick MA VetMB MRCVS, is an equine vet, and events her own horses to Advanced level. Natalie graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2008, and has been running her own practice, South Coast Equine Vets in Hampshire, for nine years. In 2017, she won the coveted Horse and Hound Vet of the Year award. She has been riding and producing her own horses since the age of eight, and manages to combine this passion with working full time as a vet.