Horse Road Safety

Taking place from the 14–20 November this year, Road Safety Week is an annual event designed to promote action for safer roads. Horse road safety is important for everyone on the roads, from pedestrians to cyclists to motorists. However, one group that often gets overlooked when it comes to road safety is horses and horse riders. Motorists know that they must stop at a zebra crossing for pedestrians and give cyclists ample space when overtaking, but many don’t know the best way to drive around horses.

This is extremely dangerous for both horses and their riders, and sadly sometimes fatal, too. Since 2010, 2,943 road incidents involving horses were reported to The British Horse Society. From these incidents, 44 riders have been killed and 1,220 injured. Meanwhile, 395 horses have been killed and 1,080 injured.

So, to keep both riders and their horses safe on the road, knowing how to drive past them is vital. To help you learn more, we are here this Road Safety Week to share advice for driving around horses safely.

1. Learn the Highway Code changes

In January 2022, the Highway Code was updated with a selection of new rules, giving more safety to cyclists, pedestrians, and horse riders. It’s always a good idea to refresh your knowledge of the Highway Code every so often, for the safety of both yourself and other road users, but especially when changes have been implemented.

The changes in the Highway Code relating to horses and horse riders include the following: 

  • Prior guidance instructed drivers to overtake horses slowly and give plenty of space, but the Code has become more specific: give two metres of space when overtaking and do so at no more than 10mph.
  • Drivers are advised not to beep their horn or rev their engines around horses.
  • When encountering a horse on the roundabout, the Code says that drivers should keep to the left all the way around until they reach their exit, and be careful not to cut in front of them.
  • Horses should be treated as potential hazards as they can be unpredictable.

2. Slow down

Horses have a much keener sense of hearing than humans, and they can hear low to high frequencies ranging from 14Hz to 25 kHz. In comparison, humans can only hear 20Hz to 20kHz (Rutgers). Alongside this, a horse’s ears can move 180 degrees using 10 different muscles, allowing them to isolate specific sounds.

Therefore, they are much more likely to hear and react to the sounds of a car. That’s why it’s essential that drivers reduce their speed and remain patient, as beeping your horn or revving your engine will only spook a horse. When approaching a rider, slow down to 10mph or less and wait until it’s safe for you to pass.

3. Give them space

Horses have 350-degree vision, meaning they can see far and wide. This is often a good thing for horse riders as it means the horse can clearly see obstacles ahead. However, horses can often be easily spooked by things in their eyeline, which can be dangerous when they are being ridden. So, to help them stay calm and safe on the road, it’s essential that car drivers give horses enough space so they can slip past without an issue.

When it comes to how much space to give them, ideally the more the better. The Highway Code recommends giving horses at least two metres of space. The average car width is around 1.82 metres wide, so try to give a little more than a car’s width of space to the horse and rider, and only overtake when it’s safe to do so.

4. Understand rider signals

Sometimes a rider may signal to communicate the best thing to do as you approach. When turning left, a rider will extend their left hand outwards, straight, at 90 degrees. For a right turn, they will do the same with their right hand. If a rider’s hand is held outwards towards the middle of the road and they are waving it up and down, they may be trying to ask you to slow down. Take heed and reduce your speed. If a rider is facing you and has their palm held out flat, they’re signalling you to stop. Do so and remain stationary until it’s clear that they are advising you to move again. However, do bear in mind it’s not always safe for riders to take their hands off the reins.

5. Be extra cautious at night

You should be cautious of horses on the road at any time of day, but this is especially the case when it’s getting darker in the evenings. And as there is much less daylight at this time of year, you’re likely to come across more horses in darker conditions throughout the winter months.

With regards to horse road safety, the Highway Code states that both the horse and their rider should be wearing reflective gear on dark evenings, so you should be able to see them clearly from a way back. Horses are sensitive to light, so it’s a good idea to stay further back then you would normally during daylight hours. Avoid having your headlights on full beam, too, as this may startle the horse.

5. Be respectful

We all know that it can be easy to become irritated behind the wheel, but it’s important for the safety of both yourself and others to be respectful of every other road user, including horse riders. While this may seem simple enough, sadly some road users aren’t respectful of riders: The British Horse Society found that in 2021, 13% of horse riders were victims of road rage and abuse.

When you come across a horse rider on the road, stay respectful by being patient. The horse rider will no doubt be looking for ways to make it as easy as possible for you to overtake. Rushing them or beeping your horn to get them to move will only make it more difficult as there’s a chance you may make the horse stressed. Wait until it is safe to overtake, and make sure to thank the rider when you do so.

“Riders have the same right as motorists to use the road, so it’s important to treat them with respect and patience. Often, incidents between horses and drivers are down to a misunderstanding or miscommunication. However, with understanding and education, everyone can safely share our roads.

“Where possible and if it’s safe, a rider may try to communicate with you, so it’s important to pay attention to riders and any directions they give as they know their horse well. However, it may not always be possible for them to signal or give their thanks, but be assured they are always grateful for considerate motorists.

“Horses are naturally fearful animals and their response to danger is flight, not fight. This means they are extremely sensitive to loud noises and sudden movements. Above all, keep calm, keep your speed down, and keep your distance.” 

– Katie Allen Clarke, Head of Marketing at Horse and Country TV