Courtesy and common sense are important when horses share the road with vehicles
Kathy Lundberg | Contributor
Before Michigan was home to the auto industry, it was home to a leading national producer of horse-drawn carriages: the Durant-Dort Carriage Co.
This is no coincidence, as William Durant and J. Dallas Dort earned fortunes with their company, and were early pioneers and supporters of the fledgling automobile industry.
Horseless carriages now dominate the roads of the world, but occasionally a driver may meet a horse-drawn carriage or a horseback rider on the road. Simple measures help keep all parties safe.
Under Michigan law, “A person riding an animal or driving an animal-drawn vehicle upon a roadway shall be granted all of the rights and shall be subject to all the duties, criminal penalties, and civil sanctions applicable to the driver of a vehicle by this chapter, except those provisions of this chapter which by their very nature may not have application.”
In simple words, ridden horses and horse-drawn carriages are considered vehicles on Michigan roads, with the same rights and responsibilities. There is no age limit, so people of any age may legally ride on a roadway.
Only after dismounting is the rider considered a pedestrian and the horse an animal. Horses are allowed to be ridden on all roads unless otherwise indicated.
In the confines of a riding arena, few surprises occur. Riding outside of an arena requires additional skills on the part of the rider and the horse.
Horses tend to be wary of unaccustomed sights and sounds. Horses' main defense to a perceived threat is flight, and if a horse acts upon this urge while on a roadway, consequences can be devastating.
Arena riding may be the best place for some horses and riders, especially in cases of youth, inexperience or skittishness on the part of either. Most riders feel safest in an arena or on designated horse trails, and seldom, if ever, access public roads.
Some ride or drive quiet country roads where few motor vehicles traverse. Sometimes a rider or carriage driver must travel along a busier road in order to access a quieter destination. In some other countries, riding along roads is quite common.
When riding along a road, unexpected hazards occur. Rabbits and deer may burst on the scene. Roadkill may be truly horrifying to your horse. Garbage of various size and shape may crunches underfoot, or bags could blow by. Cars and motorcycles move very quickly, often noisily, sometimes with stones flying up.
Most drivers are considerate and slow down, allowing plenty of space as they pass. Some do not. Bicycle riders, joggers, and pedestrians can empathize with this point.
Drivers may not be aware of horses’ nature and do not realize that a potential spook may be dangerous to all parties. Some drivers are completely clueless and drive by very closely, even beep their horns or rev engines as they pass.
For an excellent summary of things to consider if you ride your horse on a road, check out this link.
When a car collides with a horse, whether that horse is being ridden, driven, led or is on the loose, results can be devastating. In Michigan, we are all too familiar with damage incurred by deer-automobile collisions. Deer generally weigh from 125 to 300 pounds, and stand three-and-a-half feet tall.
Horses weigh on average 1,000 to 1,200 pounds and stand about five feet at the shoulder. Collision damage can be proportionately greater.
It is difficult to determine the number of horse-automobile accidents that occur. One can access various newspaper reports of horse-related crashes in the U.S., but good statistics are not available. Compared to auto-auto crashes, or even auto-deer crashes, auto-horse crashes are few and far between, and more likely to involve an escaped horse than one being ridden or driven.
The British Horse Society sponsors a website dedicated to the reporting of horse-related accidents in Britain in an effort to understand, educate and hopefully prevent problems. The BHS estimates that the majority of horse-related accidents occur on minor roads, and the highest casuality rate is to teens 16 to 19 years old.
The BHS also offers excellent advice on accident prevention.
If you are considering riding or driving your horse on a road, even a quiet country road, be sure to prepare yourself and your steed.
Know the kind of footing you are likely encounter. Pavement is rough on unshod hooves, and metal horse shoes can be slippery on pavement. Unpaved roads often have loose stones which can get into hooves or cause bruising.
Know what kind of shoulders are along your planned route. Is there room to distance yourself from traffic?
Wear highly visible gear and a slow-moving vehicle sign.
Most important, train your horse to cope with novel sights and sounds. Desensitization clinics are one way to expose your horse to different stimuli in a supportive setting.
This weekend, the Augusta Township Mounted Police will host a Desensitization Clinic at the Washtenaw County Fairgrounds, presented by Washtenaw County 4-H Horse Leaders Association.
The mounted police clinicians are highly experienced and knowledgeable horse people who can help introduce your horse to new things. This training helps rider-horse pairs develop skills useful in any setting, including trail and road riding.
With good preparation and judgment on the part of the horse person, and a little consideration on the part of motor-vehicle operators, we can minimize the risk of problems when the horse-less carriage meets the horse on our roadways.