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.
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:
- Tandem bicycles
- Recumbent bicycles
- Baby strollers
- Baby carts on the back of bicycles
- Any type of flag
- People in neon colors
- Remote controlled ANYTHING – toys, drones, planes, etc.
- 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!