Just the other week, our son’s stirrup scraped the side of a car after its driver decided to pass with – quite literally – less than a foot to spare. Heaven knows what could have happened if his pony had been spooked and shot sideways into the speeding vehicle.
Equine charity the British Horse Society (BHS) has campaigned for donkey’s years, both to raise driver awareness and to get riders wearing high-visibility clothing.
This year, its Dead Slow campaign has really started to gain momentum. It has begun targeting its message specifically at drivers, shouting it in a number of creative campaigns from petrol pumps to the backs of buses. A handful of MPs have now taken up the reins while composer Andrew Lloyd Webber complained of road rage near his Hampshire farm.
After one of his Lancashire constituents was injured, Tory MP Jake Berry began pushing for questions about overtaking horses to be included in driving tests.
Of over 2,000 incidents involving horses reported to the BHS in the last five years, there were 36 rider deaths and 181 horses being killed or having to be put to sleep because of their injuries.
Welsh MP Liz Saville-Roberts, herself a keen horse rider, has submitted an Early Day Motion (EDM) asking for Government support. Along with Mr Berry, she agrees a section of the driving test needs to cover the subject of horses. She has gone further in asking whether it should be made legislatively compulsory for horse riders to wear high-visibility clothing while hacking out on the roads. This is a fair point. Our teenage daughter had to be told off the other week for riding off into the sunset without her luminous tabard. Standing at the roadside it was soon all too obvious that cars weren’t noticing her until they were right behind. The high visibility gives vital extra distance for drivers to slow up.
As a personal aside, we have (touch wood) found motorbike riders to be excellent. Perhaps because they too are vulnerable, and understand what a difference a bit of breathing space can make. Sweeping generalisations here, but some of the worst offenders are school-run parents and families that take a drive out into the countryside on a weekend.
It would be laughable if it wasn’t dangerous; the irony of coming out into the peace and tranquillity of the sticks but driving like lunatics between home and their chosen destination be it stately home, pub, tearoom or parking-up place to go for a walk. Easy to spot, four-by-four with no tow-bar or people carrier with one of those extra storage boxes on the roof.
Another bugbear is cyclists. They come whizzing up behind in great big packs – Olympian Sir Bradley Wiggins has a lot to answer for – and wonder why horse riders start shouting out “hello”. It makes such a difference to a horse if whatever is going by speaks rather than hurtling past like some turbocharged alien. In the halcyon days before Lycra, cyclists would tinkle their bells and convivial conversation between both types of riders would flow. But this is digressing.
We don’t all have the money for fancy ménages to ride safely around and why should Britain’s three million horse riders hide away? Hacking plays a vital role in getting a horse fit for competition and, for many, it’s their only option. Here in Yorkshire, braving the roads isn’t a choice for many of the racehorse trainers in Malton and Middleham. Horses have been hacking out to be exercised on the gallops for hundreds of years – certainly long before the arrival of the car. Carriage drivers are equally vulnerable, with the death of a horse just recently as he pulled a funeral cortege.
Campaigners in the county have been at the forefront of preserving bridlepaths and more co-operation is needed from local authorities to help keep these ancient lifelines open.
The BHS advice is for drivers to slow down to 15mph when they meet a horse and rider on the road – 75 per cent of reported accidents happened because the vehicle passed the horse without allowing enough space. The majority took place on a minor road and in a rural area. Nearly half of the horses involved were used to riding on the roads more than once a week, so it wasn’t that they were unused to traffic.
The charity has produced a video demonstrating how to safely pass a horse on the road and has been firm in reminding riders to thank any drivers who pass them sensibly.
Satellite navigation has its part to play. These devices have turned our country lanes into rat runs, with delivery drivers trying to knock the odd minute off their timesheet. It’s not very scientific, but stand at any farm lane end for five minutes and the chances of seeing a local person driving by are very slim. They are all outsiders hurrying through, treating our rural roads like racetracks…
To view the video about passing horses safely visit www.bhs.org.uk/safety-and-accidents/dead-slow
Horse riders are urged to report any incidents to www.horseaccidents.org.uk to help keep the British Horse Society’s database accurate.
Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.