Traffic School - Riding Horses Safely in Traffic

Do your trail rides have to end where the public road begins? Not after our endurance rider expert shows you how to cross safely to the other side. Written by Christine Barakat for EQUUS magazine.
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Do your trail rides have to end where the public road begins? Not after our endurance rider expert shows you how to cross safely to the other side. Written by Christine Barakat for EQUUS magazine.

Ever since the Model T first appeared, horses and traffic have been a risky mix. But trying to avoid well-traveled roads can severely limit your riding opportunities--it's hard to pursue trail riding or conditioning programs without crossing a road sometime. Getting safely to the other side is a matter of good judgment and confident riding skills. In this article, veterinarian and endurance rider Jeannie Waldron demonstrates the basic steps for crossing a road safely, along with solutions to help you negotiate other traffic situations you may encounter.

A well-trained, responsive horse is your biggest asset when it comes to crossing roads, Waldron says. If you find yourself on a green or skittish horse, with no way to avoid a crossing, dismount and continue on foot until you can safely mount again. Work on your horse's traffic skills later on a low-use road, practicing in the company of savvy horses who can set a calm tone for the lesson. Even when your horse is comfortable in traffic, you have to assess each crossing carefully and plan your route wisely. Waldron says there are three key points to keep in mind:

Be as visible as you can to motorists.

Stay on the best footing available.

Keep your exposure to traffic to a minimum.

Following these guidelines, you can make an informed decision about where, when and how to cross every road, perhaps opening up your world to new riding excursions. Jeannie Waldron, DVM, has practiced veterinary medicine in Virginia since 1975. When not treating patients at her Rectortown Equine Clinic, she trains endurance horses. Her mounts earned "Best Conditioned" titles at the World Championships in 1986 and at Virginia's prestigious Old Dominion race in 1986, 1988 and 1993.

THE BASIC TECHNIQUE

1. Crossing the intersection from this driveway is fairly straightforward. Waldron can see for about an eighth of a mile in either direction, and her mount, PF Red Rambo, is clearly visible to approaching cars. Safely halted in the driveway, she plans her route and then looks and listens for oncoming traffic.

2. When it's safe to cross, she takes up the reins and gives Rambo a slight squeeze with her legs. This combination of aids gets his attention and helps to establish his balance before he steps out onto the road.

3. Once Waldron and Rambo are on the pavement, they hold a steady course. Changing direction or speed on a slick road surface increases the chance of slipping. For the same reason, Waldron suggests that a rider sit very still while the horse navigates the pavement.

4. Waldron chooses a path that goes across the intersection toward the right. The darker patches of pavement to the left are slippery asphalt. Loose gravel along the lighter pavement to the right provides a surprising amount of traction. Joining Waldron is Joan Border, riding None Such Amira, a younger and less experienced horse who closely follows Rambo's lead.

CROSSING A "PROBLEM" ROAD

5. Here, Waldron and Border want to cross from one driveway to another (not visible in this picture) just beyond the newspaper box. If they cross where they are and walk down the opposite side of the road, traffic coming around the sharp curve in the background won't see them. But a hidden ditch on the near side makes that path dangerous as well. What's the solution?

6. A diagonal path directly from driveway to driveway is the safest route across this road. Although this leaves the horses in the center of the road for most of the crossing, it keeps them visible to drivers and on the safest footing.

7. As the riders prepare to turn into the driveway, they walk along the road for a few strides. This far from the curve, they are visible to approaching traffic.

RIDING TO REACH A CROSSING

Often you'll need to ride along a road for a short distance to reach a safer crossing point. Let the condition of the shoulder determine how and where you ride.

8. Here, there is almost no shoulder, as fences and gardens come to the edge of the road. But the road surface is slick, so Waldron rides with at least two of Rambo's feet on the gravel for traction.

9. A somewhat larger shoulder provides more room for Rambo, but overhanging trees make it difficult to use all the space. In this situation, Waldron walks as far to the right as she can. She also lets Rambo look behind him to see the approaching car--a good idea on any type of shoulder.

10. Here, the wide, grassy shoulder has been mown, and the footing is clearly visible. Because Waldron and Border are familiar with this stretch of road, they can confidently trot to their crossing point.

COMMON HAZARDS

What evil awaits unsuspecting horses and riders on roadside shoulders? Trash, holes and drainage ditches--to name just a few. In photo (a), a green, muddy bottle is almost invisible amid the long grass on this shoulder, while the drain pipe in photo (b) could go unseen until a hoof slips over the edge. To avoid such hazards, ride only on mown shoulders where the footing is visible, and keep to a walk until you are familiar with the area.

SEE AND BE SEEN

Fortunately, most drivers will reduce speed when they see horses near a road. But don't assume that a motorist who slows has noticed you and your horse, or that he knows what to do once he does. Your best safeguard is to wave to the driver--a return wave acknowledges your presence--and use hand signals to ask him either to remain stoppe while you cross or to pass you slowly. If your instructions are delivered with a smile, most motorists will be happy to oblige.

This article first appeared in the August, 1998 issue of EQUUS magazine.