October 2015 | Horses and Cars. What Could Go Wrong?
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Horses and Cars. What Could Go Wrong?

Suzanne Bush - October 2015

Horse and Cars

Since gas seems to get cheaper by the day, drivers are finding more and more reasons to hit the road. And they take a lot of “baggage” with them, from cell phones, to navigation devices, to laptops, iPads, iPods and MP3 players. Everybody wants to get away; they just don’t want to leave anything behind! More traffic and more congestion add up to more anxious drivers trying to get to their destinations faster. And when drivers are trying to catch up on email or Facebook while driving, their distractions can be lethal. Distracted drivers are as dangerous as drunk drivers.

Everyone on the road is a potential victim of these distractions; anyone on the road without the protection of a car or truck is especially vulnerable. Whether walking a dog, riding a bike or riding a horse, the “what ifs” are daunting. Although cyclists are somewhat road-bound, equestrians generally don’t choose to ride along the roads. But often, they need to cross roads in order to access trail connections. And the close calls can be downright nightmarish.

“I am not sure what people are thinking,” Johanna Walters says. “In the case of distracted driving, when people finally see you (if you’re lucky!) they look like their hearts are in their throats.” Walters, who is president of Horseways, an equestrian trail and land preservation group in Montgomery County, PA, believes that young drivers are the worst. “They have no context and don’t use good judgment,” she says.

“I’m 49 and I’ve been riding consistently (except the two years I was pregnant) since I was 14,” Joan Light says. She lives in Lebanon, PA, and doesn’t let very much keep her off the trails. “Our worst place is down at Blue Marsh,” she says. “There are two sections of the trail we like that we have to cross a big concrete bridge.” That’s tricky for horses, even under the best conditions. But Light says that some people speed up on purpose. “We have a lot of people who blow their horns, backfire their trucks, just to see what happens.”

Light also says that there are a lot of Amish where she lives, and they are truly vulnerable, largely because they don’t have any choice. They have to use the roads. Since January, 2015 more than a dozen accidents involving Amish buggies have occurred in Pennsylvania. Children, adults and horses have been killed. Other people and animals were severely injured. The accidents, detailed on the Mission to Amish People website, had much in common. In one case, the driver of a car that struck a buggy didn’t realize how much slower the buggy was than a car. In another, a driver tried to pass a buggy, and clipped a bumper.

Walters says that drivers just don’t seem to think about what could happen. “Driving too fast is often deliberate, which is quite disturbing. What if my horse spooks? Would 1200 pounds of horseflesh feel good slamming into an automobile?”

Who Owns the Road?
In Pennsylvania, as in virtually every other state, the people own the roads. State workers or county workers or municipal workers maintain the roads, but everyone—in theory—has an equal right to the roads. Toll roads are closed to pedestrians, bicyclists and equestrians. But most other roads are available to anyone who wants to use them. The rules of the road apply though. Lieutenant Michael Gargan of the Lower Gwynedd Township Police says that common sense should rule. “It’s a two way street. You have to be careful.” He says that mutual respect goes a long way.

Rebecca Light—Joan’s daughter—says that respect is important. “Whenever we ride here, we try to be respectful.” But sometimes it’s hard to ignore the people who don’t get that basic concept. “My first reaction is to take a picture of someone giving me a hard time,” Joan Light says. “I’m the District Commissioner of our Pony Club. Whenever we have to cross a road, I always stand in the middle of the road.”

Both Joan and Rebecca recognize that access to trails is a privilege, and they don’t like to stir up controversy. “We always worry about trails closing and not being welcome in the areas we ride in,” Joan says. “We’re concerned about being kicked off of trails if we create a commotion. There are hundreds of people who say that horses shouldn’t be allowed on the trail.” She says that recently the state game lands in the Cornwall/Lawn area have been closed to horses. She doesn’t know why, but is nevertheless bothered by the seemingly random event.

Knowledge is Power; Advocacy Empowers
For both equestrians and those who don’t want to see horses on the trails, information and outreach would seem to be antidotes to distrust. Lower Gwynedd’s Lieutenant Gargan understands that it’s often not practical for a rider to report distracted or aggressive drivers to police. “Always carry a cell phone,” he says. And if you can get a tag number it’s worth reporting.  He also suggests that equestrian groups reach out to their township leaders and offer to post tips for drivers on township Facebook pages.

Light says that she and her equestrian friends have been trying for years to get signage on the roads to alert drivers that horses may be on or crossing the roads. In this regard the township leaders might be helpful. Some roads in the townships are maintained by the state. But the township can ask the state to post horse crossing signs.

Walters has given this issue a lot of thought, and she has her own top 10 list of tips for equestrians.

  1. Don’t ride on the road at dawn or dusk, when it is more difficult to be seen.
  2. If you are at risk of riding at those times, always wear reflective clothing.
  3. When possible, ride with traffic coming toward you so you can anticipate what is coming in your direction.
  4. Before cresting hills on the road, you may wish to change over to the “right” side of the road so that you are in the flow of traffic since those coming over the hill cannot see you.
  5. Do not talk on your cell phone when riding unless it is for emergency use. If you need to use your cell phone when riding and you are on a road, get off your horse and get to a safe clearing before using your phone.
  6. Do not wear ear buds to listen to music when riding – you need all your senses to be alert and aware.
  7. When riding on the road, shorten your reins. You may need to respond quickly if a dangerous situation happens and every second counts.
  8. Don’t assume your horse is bomb-proof. Any horse can panic and respect their instinct to flee.
  9. If you ride on roads regularly, have borium put on your horse’s shoes or some other agent to prevent slipping.
  10. Do your best to get to the side of the road if a driver is coming toward you too quickly. Don’t assume they can see you, especially if you are on a dark horse.

Equestrians should work with local and statewide groups to put pressure on townships to enforce speed limits and discourage distracted driving. They should go to municipal meetings and ask for time on the agenda to make sure that officials understand the issue.