As winter draws in and the chillier months are upon us, safety on the roads for both rider and horse is even more important. In colder and increasingly unpredictable conditions, the risks of accidents are unfortunately higher and being aware of not only the dangers but how to prevent them is crucial. Having hacked throughout my childhood, I vividly remember the trials and tribulations that riding on the road could bring, and now looking back with experience as a lawyer I am all too aware of the possible consequences of hacking out on the wrong road at the wrong time.
Writes Emma Melia, Solicitor and Lead Litigator, Spencers Solicitors
National statistics show that for every 1,000 riders, 37 are injured. Hacking can be a dangerous activity yet few people invest their time in a well thought out training plan that will gradually and safely expose their horse to the issues they will face on the road. This is particularly necessary as the nights draw in and the prevailing wind, rain and snow are more likely.
Before you even contemplate winter road hacking, there are many different factors you should consider to ensure you and your horse are ready to undertake what can be a dangerous activity. Here are some of my top tips for staying safe on the roads.
Firstly, always plan your route
There are certain times of the day it is best to avoid – commuting times or the school runs for example. For the safety of both yourself and your horse, it’s also advised to steer clear of any extreme weather conditions; snow, ice, fog, high winds, heavy rain, or even blinding sun! Snow balling in the hoof may cause the horse to become unbalanced, so avoid going out on tarmac roads if it is icy or snowy.
Checking your route online to avoid any road works or known hazards is a great way of staying safe – a useful website for this is www.trafficengland.com.
Safety first: remember the basics
It can be easy to forget basic safety training if you are experienced, and many riders become complacent when hacking, but it is important to always remember the general rules.
Wearing a good fitting safety hat, and checking your saddle and stirrups are all tight and securely in place, are basic safety precautions that should always be remembered. Whilst there is no legal requirement to wear a hat, if you suffer a head injury which could have been avoided or lessened with the use of appropriate safety equipment, any compensation you receive might be reduced.
We also always recommend taking a mobile phone out on the ride, placed on silent and with an ‘In Case of Emergency’ number stored in case of any accidents. Don’t go alone if possible and make sure an experienced rider accompanies any inexperienced riders in the group.
Beware of the darkness!
Be vigilant of the dark nights drawing in. Don’t take a new route if you are unsure how long it will take; in the winter visibility can drop earlier than expected and icy roads will affect stopping time – reflective clothing is a must. You should wear at least a vest and hat strip, and your horse should have a tail guard and martingale reflective strip. Research shows a driver travelling at 30 mph has three valuable extra seconds of reaction time by noticing a rider in high-vis gear. You can’t be held responsible if you don’t wear one but you might prevent an accident if you do!
Prepare for the cold
Snow can be beautiful to ride in but visibility may be poor and therefore it is best to avoid riding in these conditions all together. Tarmac roads in the snow can be particularly dangerous in the ice or snow, and your horse is far more likely to slip on this surface, so it’s best to avoid these at all costs. If you do hit unexpected ice (which can often be hidden under fresh deep snow) get off – your horse will be able to balance better without you.
Wear suitable warm and waterproof winter riding gear. Cold hands and feet aren’t fun and may prevent you from being able to grip the reins and adequately control your horse. If it is particularly cold consider using a suitable exercise rug to keep your horse warm and settled, particularly if they’ve been clipped for the winter.
Look after your horse
If the winter months have led to your horse having less exercise make sure they are ready to go on the roads and won’t be too excitable; consider lunging your horse in a ménage before if you’re concerned. Make sure your horse is familiar with traffic by exposing them to roads in a gradual and controlled manner, and don’t go alone if possible. Reduce the risk of incidents with drivers by riding in single file; riding two abreast may put drivers in a position such that the only way they can go past you without hitting another car is to accelerate past at speed (probably revving their engine and scaring your horse). Always remember to treat drivers with respect and thank them if they slow down and pass responsibly.
If an accident does occur
- Phone for help if you are injured or your horse needs assistance
- Get the number plate and details of the driver
- Get contact detail of any witnesses
- If appropriate seek specialist legal advice to cover your losses, medical treatment and vet bills
Accidents do happen and horse riding has risks associated with it like most physical activities, but ultimately the sport exists to be enjoyed and as personal injury lawyers we are not working to instil a fear of being sued!
However you do have a legal right of redress and other road users should be held to account if they act wrongly and negligently, actions which can unfortunately lead to serious life changing injury to you or your horse. If you are concerned, consider using a hat cam as they may provide indisputable evidence which could be useful. Particularly if you are involved in an accident either to defend an allegation that you caused it or proving that someone else did! Your hat cam evidence might make others think twice next time they pass a horse and rider and the CPS might be able to use it to successfully prosecute.
How can we reduce horse riding casualties?
Act responsibly; don’t take unnecessary risk by riding in extreme conditions. Only go out on the roads in appropriate weather. Take into consideration that horses that have been unable to go out in the field as much or have been cooped up in a stable are likely to be very fresh. In that situation it is not sensible to go straight out onto the road in winter conditions.
Likewise there is a duty on motorists to drive safely, to slow down and to give adequate clearance to riders. Stopping distances will be different on leave covered wet and icy roads. Even the most minor collision between a vehicle and a horse could have life threatening consequences for rider and animal.
Ultimately preparation is key. Considering your route, equipment and the weather conditions on top of basic safety precautions should leave you and your horse well prepared for riding the roads in the winter months. The British Horse Society has various leaflets and posters available on this (www.bhs.org.uk/safety-and-accidents/free-leaflets). With good planning and sensible attitudes, you should be able to continue to enjoy hacking out over the winter months.