Taking Our Lives Into Our Hands

I am categorically NOT a happy hacker. This is a particularly British phrase uttered in the horse world, referring to a rider – sometimes in a slightly disparaging tone – who prefers going out on hacks (trail rides, for you over-the-ponders) instead of schooling or competing. Me, I like the challenge of schooling and the feedback that competing provides, and the latter gives me the inspiration for the former. Hacking is done for fitness, something to be squeezed into my weekly routine.

And the main reason I’m not a happy hacker? Because these days, riding on the roads is often downright terrifying, and most of us Brits have no option but to do it.

The British Isles is home to some of the most wonderful countryside in the world, perfect for exploring on horseback. I grew up in Scotland, where my rides comprised of farmland and woods on one route, or miles and miles of moorland on another. I could never understand why anyone wanted to ride on the roads, and that opinion was somewhat intensified one day when I got off the school bus to find a hopping lame horse and a distraught rider sitting on my driveway. They’d gone out to do some roadwork, and a driver had managed to get so close to the riders that he’d smashed into one of the horse’s hocks. The horse survived, but his eventing career over, thanks to one moment of idiocy and impatience.

Now I’ve left those open spaces in Scotland and moved to the congested South of England, and if I want to go out for a hack I have little choice but to ride on the roads. Great Britain is a relatively tiny mass of land, just one third of the size of the State of Texas, with 60 million inhabitants. The south is particularly crowded, with swathes of the countryside eaten up by housing and increasingly busy roads. Riding options involve a sparse network of bridleways, paid-for toll rides, transporting your horse somewhere more suitable or braving the roads, and often you have no choice but to ride down busy roads just to get to the aforementioned bridleways.

However much we try to raise awareness of rider safety, the stats remain horrendous.

British roads range from vast motorways (where horses aren’t allowed) down to tiny country lanes, and many roads are narrow and twisting. Some country routes have strict speed limits, others allow vehicles to travel up to 60mph, and they’re all becoming increasingly busy.

When riding on the road, us equestrians can either go in single file, encouraging drivers to skim past too closely, or two abreast, which makes it harder for drivers to overtake and therefore more likely to take risks.

Us riders are encouraged to don top to toe high viz clothing, and to sit the Riding and Road Safety Test to ensure we know how to keep ourselves and our horses safe on the roads, and make other road users aware of our intentions. The Highway Code gives plenty of advice for riders to stay safe on the road, but drivers are merely reminded that they should ‘Take great care and treat all horses as a potential hazard; they can be unpredictable.’ Yep, you said it Highway Code.

So off we head on to the roads, on animals who can shoot sideways from 0-30mph faster than a Ferrari, and who can take fright at anything from a bicycle to a drain cover to a stray leaf. We have cyclists who swoop past without warning, cars that speed past too fast and too close, and vast lorries and tractors that can leave all but the hardiest of horses quaking in their tendon boots.

If that wasn’t bad enough, a fair proportion of other road users HATE riders. They hate being slowed down even for a few seconds, such is their hurry to get to their destination. They think we are annoying for daring to be on the roads when we’re surrounded by fields that we could ride on instead, as if farmers and landowners have an open door policy, and that we are simply choosing to plod along on a busy highway instead of cantering through lush fields. As if.

The British Horse Society released a graphic that said 2,510 road incidents had been reported to them between November 2010 to March of 2017.

I’m lucky that my mare Rosie is brilliant in traffic, and she barely flinches when cars or motorbikes pass us at 60mph, sometimes while their drivers rev their engines or sound their horn (thanks for that). But even so, I feel non-stop trepidation when riding on the roads, constantly fretting about the maniac driver who could come crashing into us at any moment, juggling reins while I repeatedly smile and nod and wave at each driver who passes us in a reasonably sensible manner, and muttering under my breath at those who don’t.

And that’s the thing – we HAVE to be grateful to those drivers who don’t put our lives in danger, to thank them as clearly as we can, because otherwise we’re dismissed as rude and arrogant, and the proportion of thoughtful v inconsiderate drivers tips evermore towards the latter’s favour. Some riders just don’t help on this front, failing to wear reflective clothing, chatting on their phone, ignoring those who pass us wide and slowly, and screaming and yelling at those who don’t.

But however polite we are, and however much we try to raise awareness of rider safety, the stats remain horrendous. Last month, the British Horse Society released a graphic that said 2,510 road incidents had been reported to them between November 2010 to March of 2017. From these, 222 horses and 38 riders were killed. Four out of five incidents were caused by drivers passing too close to horses, and 40% of us riders reported incidents of road rage.

The society – which campaigns for better off-road riding as well as improving road safety for riders – launched its Dead Slow campaign in 2016, to try to spread the message about passing horses safely. Adverts were shown at petrol pumps, on TV and in cinemas, in an attempt to educate non-horsey people.

Yet only last week did news reach us of yet another equine fatality, not far from where I live in Surrey. A car hit two horses, leaving the riders with minor injuries and both horses having to be euthanised at the scene. It has sparked a huge reaction, with horse owners flooding social media with news stories about the accident, as well as suggestions of how to fundraise for the riders or campaign for better road safety.

The police are appealing for witnesses, but will this driver receive any punishments from the deaths that she caused? Or will she, like the perpetrator of this horrifying incident, get away Scot-free?

When we head out for a ride, we shouldn’t be taking our lives into our hands. Another two stables stand empty because of road accidents, but sadly – unless something radical changes – we know full well they won’t be the last.

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