by Marlissa Campbell, Contributing Writer
Hiking, cycling, and horseback riding are all popular ways of recreating and enjoying the outdoors. Many trails are designated as multi-use trails, which are open to all three of these recreational pursuits. Unfortunately, participants in one activity aren’t always as aware as they should be of the needs and safety concerns of other groups.
Know the laws and park rules for your location and obey them. If bikes or horses aren’t permitted on certain trails, don’t ride there.
Know the rules of right of way. The general convention for shared trails, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, is that bikes must yield to hikers and horses, and hikers must also yield to horses.
Don’t leave an enemy behind you if you can make a friend. You may never see that person again, but they’ll be more kindly disposed to the next hiker, biker, or equestrian they encounter.
My personal pet peeve is iPods on the trail. Music is great, but if you have your ears plugged and filled with your favorite tunes, you may not hear when someone is trying to tell you something important. Keep the volume down and take out one ear bud; make yourself available for communication.
You are responsible for training your horse and working on your own riding skills so you can cope safely with unexpected situations. Get your horse accustomed to sights she is likely to encounter on the trail, such as bicycles, hikers with backpacks and walking sticks, and dogs. Start with short trail rides in the company of experienced riders and horses, and work your way up to more challenging rides.
Just because you have right-of-way, don’t insist on taking it. Giving way may make more sense and is always a courteous gesture. A cyclist coming up a hill will lose all momentum if you insist they stop, so why not move to the side and let them pass? On the flat or downhill, a bicycle moves faster than a walking horse. Making it safe and easy for them to pass you is the sensible course of action. On the other hand, don’t hesitate to ask a hiker or cyclist to wait for you if you feel your horse is nervous and may act out.
Be gracious. If people stop to let you go by, thank them – even if their actions weren’t necessary. If they ask to pet your horse, and you believe it would be safe, say yes. Stop and chat for a few moments. It’s not just about you. You’re an ambassador for all equestrians, and the next equestrian will benefit (or not!) from your behavior.
When someone does something wrong, don’t scream obscenities at them. Communicate. Ask for them to help you by stopping and waiting out of harm’s way while you calm your horse. Explain what happened and what you’re doing. Non-horse people have no idea how their actions can frighten a horse, or how dangerous a frightened horse can be.
You’re the fastest moving trail user which brings particular risks and responsibilities. First and foremost, make sure you have a line of sight and room to stop before getting up your speed. Everyone stands to get hurt in a collision, and everyone benefits from avoiding them.
The Idaho chapter of the Back Country Horsemen organization has created and published a set of safety posters, to educate mountain bikers and hikers on how to keep everyone safe when encountering horses on the trail. While the images are dramatic, they do make the point that horses are prey animals who may regard a fast-moving bicycle as a predator.
Even on a wide trail with room to pass, always approach horses with caution. If you’re coming up behind a horse, shouting “left” and racing by without reducing your speed is a bad idea. Even the most placid-looking horse can, if startled, swing out in front of you far faster than you or the rider can react. Horses typically weigh over 1,000 pounds and you do not want to risk running into one. Slow down and speak to the rider. Ask if it’s safe to pass. Be patient if the rider needs a moment to get their mount over to the right side of the trail.
The same precautions apply if you and the horse are traveling in opposite directions, with the advantage that horse and rider should see you coming.
Whatever you do, don’t try to pass between two horses. Don’t do it even if there appears to be room. Conversely, if you’re cycling with a group, don’t pass on both sides of a horse. If the horse spooks, it will jump away from whatever scared it. You don’t want to risk spooking it into someone else.
As for the bike poster described above, the Back Country Horsemen’s poster for hikers is a dramatic presentation, but it does make a point. Horses tend to be wary of the unfamiliar and may see threats in the most innocuous objects. For example, my horse had concerns about the loaf of French bread sticking up out of a hiker’s backpack. She went by without trouble, but let that bread know she was watching its every move!
On a single track trail, it is best to move off the trail to the downhill side, and wait for the horse or horses to pass. On a wider trail, keep everyone in your group to the same side of the horse and leave plenty of room. If the horse spooks, you want it to move away from the people on the ground – not away from one person and into someone else on its other side.
Please don’t hide behind a tree or other obstruction. The horse will still know something is there, but not whether it’s a person or a lion.
Control your dog. Clip on a leash, pick him up, or recall her to your side. This is for your dog’s protection as much as for the horse and rider. Some horses are afraid of dogs. If they’ve had a bad experience with a dog, it can be difficult to persuade them that most dogs are harmless. Some horses don’t like dogs and will deliberately try to kick them. Most good trail horses are steady around dogs and will ignore them. However, no horse is happy to have a dog suddenly rush out of the bushes into its path. Nor do they care for barking dogs running close around their legs. A rider can’t prevent an irritated horse from kicking out.
Similarly, don’t let your child run towards a horse. If your child would like to pet the horse, ask the rider first. Some horses aren’t used to children and may be nervous of them. Even with an easygoing horse, it’s best to pick a small child up and let him or her pet the horse’s shoulder or neck, not the face or anywhere on the back end. Whenever you’re standing close to a horse, keep an eye on your feet, or more accurately, on the horse’s feet. I’ve been stepped on before, and it hurts!
Whatever our preferred form of trail transportation, all trail users have more uniting than dividing us. Most encounters on the trail are pleasant and add to our shared enjoyment of the outdoors. Remembering a few simple courtesies and conventions can ensure that everyone stays safe and has a great time.
Marlissa writes about books and reading on her blog, "You Are What You Read." You can also find her on Pinterest.
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