What does “Yield to horses” really mean? Basic horse safety for non-horse people

A sign with a picture of a person, a horse, and a bicycle, showing that all others yield to horses.
You’ve seen the sign, but are you actually yielding?

My husband and I ride our horses around the Denver area quite a lot. This means we regularly encounter people in public parks and open spaces who are not experienced with horses and often uninformed about how to safely interact with us and ours. Now, if you’ve been in any of these parks and open spaces, you might have seen signs like the one above, but what does yielding really mean? Is simply moving out of the way enough to be safe?

Technically, you’re supposed to stop

If you want to go by the book, yielding really means that you stop, dismount your bicycle (if applicable), and get out of the way for the horses to pass. You should be aware that by law (at least in Colorado) horses do have the legal right-of-way and if there were an accident, the non-horse person would be at fault, no matter what. I have verified this with police officers in Jefferson County, CO.

Since “real world” situations aren’t often textbook, I’m writing this guide based on my experience of what actually happens. With that said, read on!

I am going to assume people have good intentions here since there’s no way to change the malicious ones who want to cause us harm (yes, I’ve encountered a couple of those too). For the rest of folks, who might be well-intentioned but just not knowledgeable, I’d like to share some tips for how you can keep yourself, your kids, your pets, and us and our horses safe when you come across us.

Remember at all times: Horses are unpredictable and dangerous animals

Would you think it’s a good idea to walk up and touch a fire-breathing dragon? While most horses aren’t that bad, as a stranger you should assume that they are. What this means is that any horse, no matter how well trained, can become spooked by unfamiliar sights and sounds and this can cause a variety of responses. You don’t want to be within biting, kicking, or trampling distance, do you?

Horses are prey animals and, as such, have a very well-developed fight or flight instinct. If you scare one, he might lash out physically or he might start running. Neither one is fun for the rider but for your own sake and for the safety of the general public, keep this in mind. Your actions when horses are nearby impact a lot more people than just yourself.

These are my normally well-behaved horses. But they are still big, strong, animals. Do you want to be in the middle of this with your kids, dog, or bike?

Slow down when approaching from behind AND from ahead.

Why is this not obvious? I don’t know, but I’ve been taken by surprise too many times by cyclists who don’t slow down when they come past my horses and, within 1-2 feet as we’re walking off the side of a paved path, are well-within the range of being kicked or trampled if my horse moved suddenly. So, if you do nothing else, slow down! You might still scare a horse but by going slower, the horse has more time to hear or see you and react while you’re still far away. If you zoom by a horse at 20+ mph, we don’t know you’re there until it’s too late.

Side note for cyclists: Ringing your bicycle bell is not necessarily helpful. Yes, it alerts horses and riders to your presence, but horses aren’t used to that noise and it could make the situation worse. We’d much prefer you use your voice to let us know you’re there.

This also goes for joggers who might be running head-on. Believe it or not, some horses don’t like a human (and/or dog) charging straight at them. I’ve been in a situation where the horse leading the way got scared by a runner and began panicking which then set off panic in the rest of the horses. This can get particularly dangerous if we’re on a narrow path and the panicked horse has nowhere to go but into other horses, people, or objects (like trees).

So again, if you simply slow down you can improve the chances of passing safely.

Make your presence known

I’m going to take a leap here and say that if a horse is being ridden by someone on a trail, then it’s used to the sound of human voices. So if you see a horse, especially if you’re behind it and the horse and rider cannot see you, call out in a friendly tone. You won’t scare the horse. Like I said, they are used to voices. What WILL scare a horse is the sound of bike blowing past it from behind. Or similarly, a skateboard, roller blades, scooter, or barking dog. If you can alert the rider and horse to your presence before you’re very close and certainly before you pass, you will be taking a step towards safety.

Communicate with the rider

Now we’re getting into the more advanced safety moves. Oddly enough, people who ride horses are generally nice people. Imagine that!

After making sure the rider and horse know you exist, you can increase everyone’s safety by talking to the rider about the next steps. If the rider says (as I often do) “My horse is fine, go on by” then great!* Some of us are lucky enough to have horses that don’t react to much of anything. We can tell you if you’re safe to pass or if you need to give us a wide radius. Sometimes, we’re going slow and we’d prefer to pull off to the side of the trail and let you go by. Sometimes, that isn’t possible or safe – or we know our horse will freak out if it sees you for whatever reason. The ONLY person who can tell you this is the rider, so why not talk to us to make sure you don’t put yourself in a dangerous situation?

*My horses are not afraid of bikes. This doesn’t mean you should assume this about anyone else you encounter. Please yield and assume the horses are not safe to go past until told otherwise by the rider.

Stay still, calm, and quiet

If you are allowing horses to pass, the best way to do it is to be still, calm, and quiet. Horses can get scared by sudden moves and loud noises. The worst thing you can do is to yell or wave your arms in a frantic way. Horses also pick up on human emotions very easily so if you are panicking, the horse might decide there is something to panic over too. In general, I don’t have a problem with this except when passing children who sometimes get overly excited and scream. If you can teach your kids to have a healthy dose of respect for a horse’s space, it will help keep them safe during future encounters.

Be aware of all the scary things you might have on you

These are just some of the things my horses have encountered in the past couple of years. Each one of these can be really scary for a horse even though you wouldn’t think twice:

  • Bicycles
  • Tandem bicycles
  • Recumbent bicycles
  • Scooters
  • Skateboards
  • Rollerblades
  • Baby strollers
  • Baby carts on the back of bicycles
  • Any type of flag
  • People in neon colors
  • Remote controlled ANYTHING – toys, drones, planes, etc.
  • Runners
  • People doing anything out of the ordinary, like stretching on the side of a trail

Be aware that if a horse has never seen something like you or what you’re wearing/doing before, it can be quite a startling experience. As always, use the tips like slowing down, keeping a safe distance, and communicating with the rider but try to remember that doing so is even more important if you’ve got anything with you that a horse could feel extra threatened by.

If you’ve got one of these scary things, and it’s possible for you turn it off or keep it quiet and still while the horse is passing you, we really appreciate that! My horses have now seen remote controlled airplanes and trucks – and I lived to tell the tale. But they weren’t exactly happy about it and I wish the operators had thought to just make their toys be still for a minute while we got by safely.

A special note for people with dogs

We are dog people too, so we understand. Just like our horses, your dogs aren’t perfect and sometimes behave in ways you don’t like–or expect! This is why it’s particularly important to think about safety when you’ve got dogs and you come across people with horses.

First of all, get your dogs back on leash. In most parks, this is a rule anyway but we know it isn’t always followed. But if you see a horse, you need to get your dog back on leash, no questions asked.

Next, follow the tips above and maintain a safe distance, then communicate with the rider. Keep in mind, a safe distance is the length of your leash plus AT LEAST 10 feet. And I’m probably being generous there. A safe distance is one at which your dog could not physically interact with the horse, or be close enough that the horse thinks it might. Remember, horses don’t know about leashes and might see your dog as a threat even when it’s not actually one.

When communicating with the rider, keep in mind that not all horses are desensitized to a barking dog. The best thing to do may be to stay far off the trail and let the horses pass. If your dog is really pulling at the leash and barking, you may need to walk the opposite direction to prevent exciting the horse.

You might encounter horses and riders that aren’t bothered at all by a dog that’s going berserk, but you shouldn’t assume that will be the case. The goal is to make the experience positive for both your dog and the horse so that next time each animal encounters the other, you both have a better chance of it being no big deal.

And for heaven’s sake, DON’T HIDE IN THE BUSHES!

I’m not sure why this happens so often, but I think people figure they’re doing the right thing by getting off the trail and hiding in the trees where we can’t see you. This is 100% wrong and can cause (and has) issues you never intended. Horses do pretty well when they can both see and hear you but they do really badly if they can’t see you but they can hear or smell you. A normal person turns into a horse-eating boogie man if they aren’t clearly visible to the horse.

Then, things get really fun when you decide it’s the right time to pop out of the brush and the horse catches a glimpse of you for the first time. And by fun, I mean people can end up on the ground.

Remember, the safest thing you can do (as I’ve said over and over) is to be seen and heard by the horse. Horses know what “people” are. They don’t know what talking, shaking bushes are.

If you’ve read this far, you’re more persistent than most. If you’ve scrolled to the bottom hoping for a quick summary, then here you are:

  • Horses are prey animals with a strong fight or flight instinct.
  • Horses are generally not afraid of people, especially if they can see and hear them.
  • Horses WILL spook at all sorts of things you don’t think are scary at all.
  • if your dog is off leash and you see horses, put them back on leash immediately.
  • Going slow, keeping your distance, and making sure the horse and rider know you’re there are the top 3 things you can do to keep yourself and others safe.
  • Every horse is different and even the same horse is different on different days. Meaning: DO NOT assume that since you’ve done something around 99 horses and been fine that it’s the “right” thing to do. The only person qualified to give you instructions on how to proceed is the horse’s rider/handler.

Thank you for reading. Happy trails!

Published by EPodstein

A Passionate enthusiast of (sarcastic) humor, teller of elaborate stories, and lover of the Oxford Comma. Former Reality TV producer, now living an unreal life.

23 thoughts on “What does “Yield to horses” really mean? Basic horse safety for non-horse people

  1. Thank you for taking the one to write and share this article! I have been a competitive rider most of my life- then transitioned to trial riding. I avoid riding in open spaces on weekends because of the huge increase in the number of people enjoying the trials in Colorado that are more likely to spook my new horse – my solid citizen true and tried Dink has me spoiled to ride anywhere, any time

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    1. I know what that’s like! All 4 of my horses are super stars on the trails. Even though one is younger and one just arrived from Iceland, they seem to just be naturally level headed. More power to you for starting a young one! I’m sure he/she will be a steady eddy in no time!

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  2. Thank you this is well written. The trail I walk with my dog does not have horses but we do encounter bike riders and they travel so fast and so quiet that they are upon you before you ever know they are there so I can relate. Common sense and courtesy are needed in both instances!

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  3. We have a really difficult time with the mushroom hunters in the fall.
    They are often on the ground and then suddenly stand up.
    Also, when we wave and yell “hello” they look bewildered and turn around to look behind them to see who we are yelling at.
    I would like to have our local newspaper use this in an article this spring as riding season starts up.

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    1. Glad it is helpful! Mushroom hunters sounds terrifying on a trail!

      If you’d be interested in having it published elsewhere, please contact me at epodstein @ Gmail so I can provide permission and ensure any outside publication doesn’t require the rights to my work.

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  4. I don’t know if it’s going to be at all possible to fully educate the non-horse public. For example, while crossing a long wooden bridge on a multi-use trail two years ago, while riding a spooky horse, a bike rider came upon us, coasting silently but keeping back. When I asked him to hold back he said, “I am holding back.” He thought that because he wasn’t passing us, or coming any closer (he was about ten yards back) that he was yielding. My mount wasn’t impressed and wanted to prance sideways to get the approaching bike back in his sightline. Once off the bridge, I figured what the hell and thanked the cyclist anyway, at which point he rang that stupid little bell in acknowledgment which of course caused my horse to jump and start wheeling. So this well-intentioned fellow trail user went on his way thinking he had done everything he could to adhere to the rules of the trail.

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    1. Of course, it’s not possible to educate every person in every potential scenario. That doesn’t mean I am not going to try to bring awareness to the subject and hope that it makes a little difference for someone, in some cases. The bell is something I need to add in though because I don’t think it occurs to cyclists how unusual their bell sound is to many horses.

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  5. Thank you for your article. Non-horse people would never guess that simple things like a plastic bag caught in a tree, Balloons bopping on a string, or blowing in a breeze, or cross country skiers could cause spooking. Even people in tall fur hats can cause panic. You are correct that one day a horse is fine with everything, and another day, everything is suddenly scary because it’s windy. Thanks again!

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  6. Hikers with rucksacks can be frightening to horses as their outline is changed so not immediately recognised as ‘human’. Umbrellas can have the same effect for the same reason.

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  7. Thanks so much for your informative piece. Riding in upstate New York on dirt roads we encounter much speeding vehicular traffic. It’s disconcerting that a Fed Ex truck wouldn’t have the courtesy to slow down. Private cars are somewhat more respectful when motioned to slow down. The general public really is clueless. We have horse crossing signs, but they are mostly ignored.

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  8. This is the quote I like most: “Horses are unpredictable and dangerous animals”. While true, it does make non-horse people wonder why you’d want to ride an “unpredictable and dangerous” horse on a public trail.

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    1. Thanks for bringing this up. Hopefully people understand the nuance. A horse that I’m taking on a trail is pretty tame (for me) and pretty predictable (to me) but when faced with things they’ve never seen before or things they’re afraid of, they can surprise you. People also have to take young and inexperienced horse out at some point to give them the experience/exposure to get to the point that they’re mellow.

      The point I’m trying to make is that no matter how well trained any horse is, it’s still, at its core a 1000lb+ animal. Unless someone wants to argue that horses shouldn’t be allowed on trails, period, they need to understand that their actions when a horse is nearby could have dangerous consequence.

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  9. Thanks for sharing this information with “non-horse people”. You should add the point about getting your dogs on leash to the summary bullets…for those who are scanning the content.

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  10. I think. I write. I observe. I snark. I ride horses.

    I think. I write. I observe. I snark. I ride bikes.

    I appreciate the heck out of your article. I am an avid cyclist and a proponent of multi-use trails, but I’m also an intellectual and I have some very serious concerns about your article as well as the “rules of the trail” that govern multi-use trails across the country. Here on the front range of Colorado, I can guarantee that mountain bikers outnumber equestrians by 10:1 if not significantly more. On the trails that are trafficked most (what Jeffco would consider “urban parks,”) I would assume that the numbers are closer to 100:1 if not 1000:1. Imagine for a moment that every mountain biker were riding a bike that was “unpredictable and dangerous” as you have described horses. Why is it that out of 250 miles of trail in Jeffco that the second largest visitor group has 1.7 miles of user-specific trail, and on the other 247.3 miles of trail, equestrians rule the roost? Why should all other users (of which Jeffco estimates there are some 7 million per year) have to cow-tow to your unpredictable and dangerous animals? Don’t get me wrong- I love horses, and I appreciate that you’re trying to educate other trail visitors, but why should your “unpredictable and dangerous” animals have more rights than the overwhelming majority of visitors who are in control of their actions and behavior? It seems to me that this is nothing more than historical politics and nothing close to logic and reason. Equestrians are the user group that should have a restricted amount of “user only” trail restricted to their “unpredictable and dangerous” means of enjoying the out-of-doors, and the rest fo the trails should be shared use between visitors who can manage their interactions through conscientious behavior and ego.

    Your entire postulation is that you’re sitting on top of a 1,000lb animal that is unpredictable, dangerous, and, if you aren’t careful, it could kill other trail visitors, be they runners, hikers, or bikers. Meanwhile, you are an overwhelming minority of the visitor population on the trails, especially in what Jeffco would consider “urban parks,” which take the overwhelming brunt of of the estimated 7 million visitors every year to JeffCo parks. Can you explain to me, logically, and with rationale, why you should be at the top of the “courtesy” pyramid, and why cyclists, who are easily the 2nd largest visitor group, and the top visitor group in many of these “urban” parks, should be at the bottom? Shouldn’t we all have the ability to go to parks where we can have the experience we are seeking? With thousands of acres of open space, shouldn’t there be more places where equestrians can get the experience they are seeking, with proportionate mileage to the ratio of visitors who are seeking that experience? Shouldn’t hikers and trail runners have places they can go where they can get the experience they are seeking in our public lands? And shouldn’t cyclists, easily the second largest user group on our public lands, be able to have access to the experience they are seeking?

    While I am one of the most courteous trail users around, a proponent of sharing and caring and spreading the love to all who are seeking a connection to the out-of-doors, I simply struggle with to find the logical, rational explanation why your 1000lb unpredictable and dangerous animal should have more rights than my 30lb, completely controllable bicycle that doesn’t have a mind of its own, and whose operator can be held accountable 100% of its actions. We are at the bottom of the pyramid, and we are treated like 2nd class citizens at every turn, while you, atop your unpredictable and dangerous animals, sit at the top of the pyramid?

    The bigger issue here is not to say that equestrians should have less rights, but it’s more so that we should all have more trail that provides us with the experience we are seeking. Outdoor enthusiasts, no matter what the means, should have the opportunity to have the experience they are seeking, given their chosen method of access. Equestrians should have places they can go without worrying about cyclists or trail runners coming around every corner and spooking their unpredictable and dangerous animals. Similarly, cyclists should have places they can go without worrying about yielding to equestrians and hikers who are seeking a different kind of experience. We all need to be putting pressure on our Country Commissioners and local government officials to build and maintain more trails that provide the increasing population of outdoor enthusiasts in Colorado with the experiences they are seeking (and spending hard-earned tax dollars on various types of gear/ feed/ upkeep to enjoy).

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    1. I sure am curious…

      How many times have you been chased by a horse while cycling? I’ve been maliciously harassed by cyclists who just wanted to scare my horse because they didn’t like us there.

      How many times have you been physically collided with by a horse? I’ve been literally hit, head on, by a careless cyclist who wasn’t watching where he was going and come within inches a few more times. (When someone is coming at you at 20mph there’s not much you can do on a narrow trail).

      How many times have you felt your life and safety were threatened by a horse and rider on the trail? We’ve had other park visitors use drones to follow us because they thought it was fun to see our horses react.

      You say you appreciate my article but your words sound like an entitled baby. If you’re a courteous trail user then we love and appreciate you! Why is a healthy dose of respect and appreciation that we’re out trying to enjoy our passion – the same as you – and as safely as possible for ourselves and others, got you so riled up?

      PS: every place I’ve been has trails that are open to bicycles only as well as multi-use trails. I’ve yet to see a place that’s only open to horses (which I’d welcome!) while cyclists have options to go plenty of places horses aren’t allowed.

      PPS – if you’d like to write an article to help the equestrian community better understand what we can do to be good trail mates, please do. For myself, I try very hard to get out of the way when it’s safe to do so instead of forcing a cyclist to stop their ride for us. I try to go on paths that cyclists don’t like as much so we don’t get in their way. FFS, asking people to respect that we’re on a living animal and show some common sense shouldn’t be something that is intellectually challenging.

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  11. I once heard that it was appropriate / etiquette to move to the side of the trail for horses to pass. When the stock (horse) is passing by, should a hiker get out of the way on the upslope (above) the trail or on the downslope (below) the trail?

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    1. Hi Josh, good question. I am not sure what the official word is. I would say “whichever side there is room and is safe.” I would also say, communicate with the person you’re passing to see what works. But, if I had to take a guess on a standard rule, I would say the “down” side because horses could feel threatened by you being above their heads as they pass.

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    1. I haven’t seen this happen personally, but unless it’s somehow allowed in that particular space, I think it’s just as bad (and just as illegal) as anyone with their dog off-leash. If you see this, you should report it to a park ranger.

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