Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Defensive Riding?

I am a country girl.  I was born to run barefoot, play in lakes and ride my horses.  Other than the years surrounding my time at college, I have lived most of my life outside the city limits, and enjoyed the freedoms that go with that.  One such freedom has always been having access to places to 'ride out' on my horses.  As I have gotten older, I have seen that being able to safely ride off your property is a luxury that we are slowly losing, and may someday disappear all together.

I have kept horses in a variety of situations, and some were where we had access to trails through surrounding woods, or we had permission to ride around farm fields or orchards owned by neighboring farmers.  This is how it was when I was growing up; it was great fun to take the horses out with friends and just walk and talk.  I have also kept horses at stables that were smack dab in the middle of a busy urban area, where there was very little riding out unless you could haul out.  It is incredibly dangerous to cross a crosswalk on horseback at a busy intersection with six lanes of traffic, bicycles and drivers who know absolutely nothing about a horse - and think that the best thing to do is honk at them!  I haven't done this myself, thank you, but I have seen people try it, and it always worries me.  As soon as I was finished with school, I moved my horses out of the city, seeking that relaxed - and relatively safer - environment where I could ride out if I wanted.

And we found that place, or so we thought.  I have come to the realization that it is becoming more and more difficult to find safe places to ride, no matter where you go.  First, there is less land available for it, because of urban sprawl and because there is less public land available.  More roads are paved, which increases vehicle speeds.  And fewer people have horses than when I was growing up, so fewer people understand horses, and therefore, don't necessarily how to handle vehicles, ATV's, bicycles or dogs around them.  And maybe, just maybe, people these days are a little more self-involved, rushed or too distracted by techno gadgets to pay attention while they are driving.

Nowadays, if you are riding your horse next to a road or on public land, you really need to prepare as if your life could be in danger.  Always wear bright colored, reflective clothing, even if it isn't dark when you go out. Know your route, and take roads that have wide shoulders or ditches where you can take your horse well off the road when traffic passes.  Do not assume that the driver (or rider) coming at you understands a horse's body language - or is paying attention to it.  Wave your arms or hold up your flat palm to ask them to slow down if possible.  Be ready to jump down and just hold your horse if he seems antsy, and he risks putting you in front of traffic.  And please be prudent when taking young or untrained horses out.  It is kind of unfair, because the only way a horse really gets an education is to be exposed to things, but you really must choose carefully when and where that experience comes.

I live in an area where the roads have many shallow hills, just a big enough dip to hide a vehicle who is speeding your way.  Not very far away from my house, a farmer was nearly killed when he was hit from behind by an SUV while driving his tractor down a rural (dirt) road.  The SUV was flying had come up over a hill into a dip, where there was no way to see the tractor or slow down.  I have had similar things happen to me while riding, as you maybe have too. We have had so many close calls that we no longer drive our pony down our road.  The shoulders are so steep that it would cause the cart to tip if we had to get over there, and there would be little contest between our little old cart and a truck doing 65.  And again, I live way out in the country, where, you'd think, you'd be able to drive or ride your horse.  But reality is that those days may be ending.

So drivers - let's raise some awareness.  In my neighborhood, the people that speed past when we ride down our road, without giving us an inch, are not my neighbors that I know have horses.  So I have to assume, dear reader, that you are also a horse person and thus, slow down when you encounter someone riding next to the road in your area, maybe even give them a conciliatory wave and a smile.  I also hope that if you think they are having trouble with their horse, you would stop completely or pull off.  Twice in my life I have witnessed people being dumped next to the road (not because of me or my driving btw), and I got out and caught the horse for them.  Let's mentor that kind of behavior in other people.  Let's show our passengers the correct way to handle a vehicle when horses are near the roadway; by slowing down, being aware and courteous.  When we are passengers of people who aren't horse-savvy, a polite heads-up to the driver might, in fact, save someone's life, or their horse's.  Maybe by doing our part, someone will do the same for us when we are the ones on the horses.

Happy Thanksgiving and take care out there!