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Cyclist meeting horse on road/trails


by:  Shelley Porter,  VCB Cycling Ambassador.
Last October, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of mine and bought a horse. He is mostly for my daughter to ride and show, but I get to ride him, too. When I was a child, I lived in Shubenacadie, which is the "Kentucky" of Nova Scotia, at least at that time and for Standardbred horses. The racetrack in Truro supported many horse breeders, and it was still common practice to use horses to haul out firewood and even pulpwood in small lots from the forest. Both of my grandfathers farmed with horses, and my maternal grandfather even went to France in 1915 as a teamster in the Canadian infantry. So horses were all around me, even though I never had one of my own. I learned to ride bareback on a mixed breed yard horse that spent her summers in the field across from our house, and I got rudimentary lessons in basic cattle-working and stadium jumping from a friend who had three horses of her own.
One of the things we did as kids was ride the horses from one place to another on the side of the road. I remember going for miles on the dirt roads (these were public roads, not trails) outside of the village. I also recall one epic ride, two of us on my friend's mare, into town and out to Maitland and back, a distance of 42 km plus some jigging about with friends who had ponies on the clearing that would become the new 102 highway. I don't know why that poor horse didn't stomp us to death and run for the hills - she must have been exhausted! Another time we took my friend's two just-broke young horses out to the village and back, just so we could tie them in front of the convenience store and pop in for some candy and ride back home (also a distance of over 30 km).
At one time and in many places in Nova Scotia, it was not at all unusual to encounter someone either riding or driving (often with not a cart but a piece of farm machinery attached) a horse on a public, paved road. Cape Breton has a thriving Western riding community and several horse breeding farms - the equine market in Cape Breton has grown by 200% in the last decade. It stands to reason that one of these days, out riding your bike on a road or more likely on a trail, you are going to encounter a horse and rider. 
So, as a cyclist, how should you react when you have to share the road or trail with an 1100 lb animal that can deliver a kick equivalent to being struck by a small car at 40 km/h and may panic at flapping plastic bags? 
First of all, be aware of how you may be seen by a horse. Horses do not have binocular vision, they are a prey animal with their eyes spaced wide on either side of their head. They have quite good vision, they can see well in the dark but they can't see behind them. This makes it important for you to make a horse aware of your presence, and that you are not a threat, when you come up behind it. The majority of horses you may encounter on a public road will be very used to people and probably have been deemed "traffic safe" by their rider. Horses are very alert to unusual movement, however, and a lot of horses that won't blink when a tractor roars by them will freak out when a bicycle passes. Large wild cats are the main predator of horses in the wild - a cyclist, hunched over the handlebars and silently moving up behind them will look an awful lot like a stalking cougar to a horse. Neither you nor the rider want the horse to get this impression. 
So - when you approach a horse from behind, try to find some way to make the horse and rider aware of your presence. Say hello in a friendly voice. Be aware that this still may startle the horse. Pass wide and slowly - a spooked horse will often dance out into the road, trying to get a better look at whatever frightened it and preparing to run at the same time. If necessary, stop and let the rider regain calm and control before you proceed. 
When you approach a horse from the front, again greet the rider and give the horse a good look at you and lots of room. In this case, it's a good idea to have some idea of horse body language. An alert horse will have its ears pricked forward and head up. An upset horse will put its ears back, swish its tail, and maybe lower its head. An angry horse will have its ears pinned back, sometimes swish its tail hard and lash out in front, neck snakelike, and charge you and bite or stomp you. You so don't want to experience this. They will also swing their hind end around at you and kick, preferably (this is the horse's preference, definitely not yours) with both feet. I've watched an angry horse break a 2X4 in half with one swing of one leg - being on the wrong end of this is not recommended. Under saddle, if they can't run or aren't fearful enough of you to run, the most likely defensive/offensive response is to kick. The best way to avoid this is to give the horse and rider fair warning (not yelling, not ringing your bike bell, and definitely not sounding an air horn!) by saying Hello or similar in a calm and friendly voice and giving the animal opportunity to see you and lots of room. Horses' main defense mechanism is to run like heck, and they like to have a lot of space around them just in case they need to do that. Keep the horse comfortable by giving it space. Think of the kind of consideration and respect cyclists want from motorists, and extend it to the equestrian. They will no doubt return the favour when they, as a motorist, encounter you on the road. 
And you thought cyclists had problems with motorists!
Happy trails!






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