Horses and Road Safety Awareness

Horses and Road Safety Awareness

Let me first say that as a driver and a rider with many years’ experience of using both modes of transport to go places, I write this with an impartial view as I and the Horse and Road Safety Awareness (HRSA) have discovered that both drivers and riders need to be educated on how to use the roads safely.

From a riding perspective it is important for drivers to understand that riders often have no option but to use the roads to get to safe off-road riding routes. Contrary to popular belief, we cannot ride in fields because that would be trespass; we are only allowed to ride on designated bridleways.

Drivers are often heard saying, ‘Horses should not be allowed on the roads,’ and in response you may well hear, ‘Horses were here first.’ But in reality both of the statements in today’s world are irrelevant. Other road users aside from cars are cyclists, motorcyclists, lorries, buses, walkers (when there’s no pavement), quad bikes, tractors and agricultural machinery and the non-mechanical method of transport, the horse. The Highway Code has a section for vulnerable road users, one for riders and one for drivers.

Picture this ... you see a horse and rider in the distance, do you:

a) Speed up as you approach and get past as fast as you can
b) Stop and wait for the rider to turn off the road, no matter how long it takes
c) Beep your horn and rev your engine as you approach to let them know you are there and need to pass
d) Slow down and take a slow wide berth observing all around you as you pass

Not really rocket science is it? Even if you have no knowledge of horses and how they behave it surely makes sense to choose ‘D’.  At HRSA we are aware that drivers need to get from ‘A to B’ as quickly as possible, but if they use rural roads every care must be taken to avoid accidents involving horses and their riders.

The horse is an animal with a mind of its own and whilst we take years to desensitise them to traffic their natural instinct when frightened, or ‘spooked’ as it is called in the horse world, is freeze or flight. When a horse is spooked it can freeze on the spot, or it can jump left or right, upwards, forwards or backwards or bolt. The rider will generally have the ability and skills to bring his or her horse back under control, but will need a little time and concentration to do so. I must stress here that anything can spook a horse from a crisp bag flying in the wind to wheelie bins and even things they have seen the day before, like cows in fields, sheep or a pigeon flying out of a tree.

We also appreciate that not all riders show good manners and road sense and many have not taken the British Horse Society Road Safety Test. The hand signals are the same as the ones used in cycling proficiency, so many people should already be familiar with them. Another goal is to encourage all riders to wear high visibility clothing so drivers can clearly see them and take steps to avoid a collision. Those few extra seconds gained from being seen sooner can save the life of both rider and horse and even the driver. It is also perfectly legal to ride two abreast and the reason for this is often because the horse on the inside maybe a youngster and needs the stability of a steady more experienced horse.

So the key points to bear in mind when passing horses are:

  • Remember the horse is an animal, not a machine, and therefore can react unexpectedly to a number of situations
  • If the rider waves their arm or hand up and down they are asking you to slow down. This could be because they know the route and are planning to move into a lay-by or gateway to give you more room to pass. This is not done to hold up your journey
  • If the rider holds their hand up with their palm facing you, they are asking you to stop and give them time to calm their horse for you to pass safely
  • When safe to do so, approach slowly and pass wide, just as you would overtake another vehicle or cyclist, imagine they are inside a huge bubble that will burst if you get too close
  • Maintain a slow steady speed while passing without revving your engine or sounding your horn
  • Make sure your vehicle has completely cleared the horse and rider by several yards before pulling back in
  • If you see a horse ‘playing up’, stop and give the rider time to regain control and tell you when it’s safe to pass

We ask riders to thank drivers for showing consideration while passing but sometimes it is not always possible to take a hand off the reins and wave; please don’t think your respect has been ignored. If you are unsure of the Highway Code and vulnerable road users please go to

As a driver, I also get incensed when my courtesy has been ignored, not just by riders but other drivers too. Good manners cost nothing and as regards speed, I would rather arrive late than not arrive at all, and that applies to whether I am riding my horse or driving my car.

Please pass wide and slow, a few seconds on your journey may save a life!

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