British researchers found often drivers do see the horses. But instead of slowing down, they pass at excessive speeds—and terrifyingly close, a new study has revealed. Many drivers even show their anger about having to share the road with a horse. Through astonishing fits of road rage, the researchers stated, they give the impression they might be taking dangerous risks on purpose.
“I’m fascinated as to why some drivers behave the way they do,” said Danica Pollard, PhD, of The British Horse Society (BHS), in Warwickshire, the U.K. “Is it a genuine lack of knowledge of how to act around horses, an element of misunderstanding (e.g., not understanding hand signals), or is it something more?”
Analyzing 4,000 Road Incidents With Horses
To gain a deeper understanding of what’s going on between horses and motor vehicles on U.K. roads, Pollard and her fellow researchers took data from more than 4,000 incidents reported to the BHS between 2010 and 2020. Their “incidents” included collisions involving a horse on the road (but not trailered), as well as near-misses (collision barely avoided) and any kind of conflict or confrontation between a driver and someone riding or handling a horse on the road.
They found that riders and owners reported road rage in 40% of the incidents, speeding in 40%, and passing too closely in 80%, Pollard said. Horses were injured in 22% of the incidents (including 44% in which there wasn’t a collision), with 9% falling and 3.2% of the horses being killed or having to be euthanized. As for riders and handlers, they were injured in 22% of the incidents, with 17% falling and 0.5% sustaining a fatal injury. More than 90% had high visibility clothing, and 95% wore a helmet.
Nearly 75% of the time, weather conditions were dry, and in 91% of incidents visibility was good. In 63% of the collisions, the horse was struck from behind. If the horse was killed, the rider was 12 times more likely to sustain a severe injury or die.
Road Rage in 40% of Incidents: Are Riders Perceived as Snobs?
The frequency of road rage in incidents between drivers and horse handlers was high, said Pollard. More than 1,500 reported incidents—40.3%—included a description of road rage, including “aggressive or intimidating driving” (such as tailgating or deliberately trying to force the horse off the road), repeated honking, and/or verbal abuse. Many drivers angrily said horses don’t belong on roads, Pollard said.
“Unfortunately, it is not unusual for vehicle drivers to have negative attitudes toward slower-moving road users such as cyclists and equestrians, especially if they are seen as holding up essential or work-related journeys,” she explained. “If vehicle drivers are being told to slow down or stop, but they don’t understand why, it can be met with frustration and impatience, and they may attempt risky overtaking (passing) behavior. This can develop into a very emotionally charged situation for both parties.”
Part of the road rage, however, might come from negative stereotypes about people who ride horses, with an emphasis on socioeconomic class. “Some equestrians I’ve spoken to feel they are perceived by vehicle drivers as being wealthy or ‘posh,’ because they can afford a horse, which may contribute to negative attitudes,” said Pollard.
“It’s important for vehicle users to understand why equestrians use roads with their horses—often not because they want to, but because other options are limited or nonexistent—and that they have every right to do so. Many times, they are on the road to get to an off-road route. Also, (drivers) need to understand that equestrians come from all walks of life, and most work extremely hard to be able to afford to look after their horses.”
Having a Safer Road Experience
Equestrians can’t control the decisions drivers on the road make. However, they can help influence those decisions through education opportunities, Pollard said. “Every interaction with nonequestrians you meet while out and about with your horse is a potential opportunity to educate them,” she said.
They can also follow an online instructive program with a comprehensive safety assessment, developed by the British Horse Society (BHS) to help horseback riders protect themselves while on roads.
Riders and carriage drivers can also wear high-visibility gear, including fluorescent and reflective materials and battery-powered lights in darker situations, said Pollard. Helmet cameras might be useful, she added, as they could help provide proof and details of incidents—including license plate numbers. “Anything we, as vulnerable road users, can do to make ourselves more conspicuous and easily visible, both on and off-road, will help alert others of our presence and give them the chance to react appropriately,” said Pollard.
Handlers can also train their horses to be safer on the roads by habituating them to traffic noise and training them to be responsive to our cues even in difficult situations, she explained. “We need to think about our relationships with our horses,” Pollard said. “How can we best set them up for success and get them used to being around different vehicles?”
Even when they’re not with their horses, owners can ensure their animals are secure in their home environments: Most of the fatalities occurred in horses that were loose on the roads, she said.
Getting Motorists To Understand How To Drive Around Horses
On a larger scale (at least in the U.K.), the BHS is working with government officials to include awareness about horses in official driver’s license training programs. “This will help to promote driver awareness of the needs of equestrians before they start legally driving and instilling good habits and behaviors right at the start,” said Pollard.
When incidents do occur, people should make the effort to report them to the police and equestrian associations. It might feel like a waste of time—especially if it seems the police will never find an offending driver—but it isn’t, said Pollard. The data is picked up by authorities and scientists and can help lead to better statistics, understanding, and management. “The BHS encourages all UK equestrians to report their incidents to both their local police and the BHS,” she said.