I still experience a bit of a rush when I see a sign on a multiuse trail instructing hikers, bicyclists and other recreational users to yield to horses. Having the right of way as an equestrian is one of the few privileges I have in life. Yet I almost never exercise it. Why?
In the decade that I’ve been riding the trails, I have come to accept one fundamental fact: Equestrians are out-numbered. Less than four million riders share U.S. trails with 97.7 million hikers, bicyclists and joggers each year, according to The Outdoor Foundation and the American Horse Council.
What’s more, bicyclists are often the first to volunteer for trail maintenance duties at the parks I frequent. They’re involved, strong in numbers and, if it came down to who stays or who goes, I’d be the first one out of the park.
All of which means that it’s in the best interest of all equestrians to maintain friendly and courteous relations with other recreational trail users. For the most part, accomplishing this goal isn’t difficult. It just requires a combination of good horsemanship, courtesy and common sense. Here are five simple rules that will set you on the right path.
PREPARE YOUR HORSE FOR THE TRAIL
Good trail etiquette is possible only if your horse is prepared for the trail and what you might encounter there. If he is terrified of motorized vehicles, stick to trails that exclude them until you safely desensitize him to the sights and sounds associated with dirt bikes and the like. If he is OK with hikers in general but sees walking sticks, backpacks and children as menacing, then he’s not ready for public trails---and you need to work out these issues at home beforehand.
Of course, you can’t anticipate every challenge. There are times when my normally sensible horse gets spooked by a group of rambunctious kids running on the trail or a bicyclist who suddenly appears on the horizon moving like a mountain lion. Even then, as I’m taking up the reins and hunkering down in the saddle, I try to remember that kids have a right to run and cyclists have a right to go at reasonable speeds. I can’t control what anyone else is doing on the trail, but I can control, to the extent that any equestrian can, my horse.
MAKE SAFETY YOUR PRIORITY
Horses have the right of way on the public trails I ride. But I almost always yield to hikers, joggers and especially those poor bicyclists who are climbing up a steep hill. I am the one comfortably seated, after all. Unless my horse has one hoof on a ledge with no place else to go, I prefer to move to the side and let bicyclists pass. Most are appreciative.
When encountering hikers or bicyclists, I usually slow from a trot to a walk and offer a “hello.” Many respond in kind, reassuring my horse that they are human and not mountain lions after all. If I’m on a single-track trail, I’ll typically move my horse off to the side and position him to face the oncoming pedestrians so he is not startled from behind. Sometimes, I’ll ask the cyclist or jogger how many others are behind him to give me an idea of how and when to prepare my horse.
Motorists obviously can’t hear me coming, so I am extra cautious when riding on trails marked for motorized vehicles. The good news is that I can hear them from a distance, and that gives me plenty of time to move safely to the side as they approach. Most of the motorists I’ve run across slow down, and a few will even turn off their engines if they spot me. But I don’t count on it.
When riding out in open-use spaces, I am extra vigilant. Fishermen, four-wheelers and rock climbers are generally courteous, but I can’t say the same for deer and cattle.
I look where I’m going and what might be coming up behind me. I try to stay in tune with my horse and take preemptive measures when necessary. No matter who else is on the trail with me---hikers, bicyclists, dirt bikers or hunters---I try to remember that having the right of way doesn’t give me the right to needlessly impose on people.
KEEP YOUR CELL PHONE IN YOUR POCKET
Cell phones and earbuds seem to be proliferating on the trails---like everywhere else---so good etiquette dictates that you try to be more aware of your horse and your surroundings because others might not be paying attention.
One afternoon I was out riding on a well-used trail with a friend when we came across a bicyclist who had his head down, with earbuds in, and was traveling at top speed around a blind corner. He couldn’t hear us or see us. Fortunately, our horses heard him first, and we were able to move out of the way before he whizzed by. I hate to think what could have happened had we, too, been listening to headphones or talking on the phone and not paying attention to our horses.
BECOME AN AMBASSADOR FOR HORSES
For everyone’s sake, it’s wise to make an effort to educate the uninitiated about sharing the trail with large, reactive herd animals who bolt first and ask questions later. I try to be friendly about it, but I do ask other recreational trail users to speak up when approaching a horse, especially when coming up on a blind curve. I let them know that stepping off the trail and going behind bushes or trees makes them appear to be a predator to my horse. Most of all, though, I thank them when they’re being courteous, and I go out of my way to let them know that, like them, I am just interested in enjoying the trail.
If I run into a few hikers or bicyclists who to want to pet my horse, and my horse seems agreeable (which he’s often not), I usually oblige. I find this to be very good public relations for both horse and pedestrian. One rider I know makes it a point to stop and talk with young children, many of whom have never seen a horse up close. She sees it as an opportunity to teach the next generation about horses---and she’s right!
TAKE THE HIGH ROAD
Recently, I was on a trail ride with a group of friends when a young cyclist came up from behind us with his wheels turning so fast, I was reminded of those cartoons of the Road Runner being chased by Wile E. Coyote. Luckily, our horses were only startled for a moment, and the trail was wide enough for him to pass by without incident. But what happened next made me want to sink to the center of the Earth. One of the riders in our group yelled at the cyclist in a fit of rage that was not helpful and was, frankly, embarrassing.
Yes, there are a few bad apples out there on bicycles---and on horseback, for that matter. But this young cyclist was probably just unaware of the potential danger he posed. He thought nothing of passing a few riders out for an afternoon ride. He probably didn’t realize that he needed to yield, and he obviously knew little or nothing about horses.
I chalk it up to an education problem---and, in fact, this incident happened at a park known for a deep-rooted misunderstanding between equestrians and bicyclists. A near-fatal equestrian accident involving a bicyclist had happened there just the summer before, and because of the fear of another accident, the community barred equestrians from a large section of the park. At the time, equestrians were on very unsure footing there. We knew that if push came to shove, we’d be out. Many of those issues have since been ironed out, primarily because a few smart horsepeople took the high road and gently educated the public about horse safety.
It’s easy to get huffy about the careless actions of a few, but I try to keep in mind the fact that for every bicyclist who tries my patience on the trail, there are many, many more who appreciate horses. One bicyclist we met had added a bell to his handlebars so that he’d be able to alert our horses when he was coming up on us from behind. Soon, other bicyclists followed his example. For weeks, we listened to the tinkling of little bells as we rode, another reminder that people generally want to do the right thing. Often, all it takes is a little education.
My horse can be as unpredictable as the next. On the trails, just like any other place we ride, practically anything can happen. And even our best intentions and good preparation can’t head off every conflict. But more often than not, I find that the best way to solve problems and preserve harmony is to simply resort to good old-fashioned manners.
About the author: Dee McVicker lives in Gilbert, Arizona, with her husband, son and two horses. She has been active in equestrian trail use and rights issues as a former board member of the Arizona Horse Council, and she is still a member of the organization. Just about every weekend, she can be found on the trails, riding her Paint, Scout, or her sorrel, Louie.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016.