Playing it safe on our roads


The New Zealand road code devotes surprisingly little space to horse riding. In a few sentences, it mostly extols the virtues of using safety gear and keeping well to the left. Drivers are rightly advised to slow down and pass carefully, giving riders plenty of room.

If only it were that simple. Horse riders on the road should, of course, obey all the road rules, regardless of whether they’re on a quiet country road or approaching a cloverleaf interchange.

Waimakariri District road safety co-ordinator Chris Neason says riders need to apply common sense to ensure they, and other road users, remain safe at all times. The road code, she points out, was probably not written by a horse rider. If riders assess they’re safer crossing the road for a time to avoid a hazard or use a much wider grass verge, they should do so.

Safety on the road is all about minimising risk. You need to manage that risk by taking control of as many elements of your ride as you can: making sure you wear appropriate gear, choosing your route and time carefully, and making suitable allowances for young or inexperienced horses.

Those who carefully maintain safety standards will not only stay safer, but probably come to enjoy their rides more.

They key areas for safety are:

Know your road rules

This is clearly an issue for younger riders who have yet to obtain a driver’s licence. Parents need to ensure their children have a good understanding of the rules and how they apply to them and their horse. They need to be clear on what they can expect from other road users – both good behaviour and bad behaviour.

Many a horse has shied from the approach of a cyclist out for an environmentally friendly ride. As many riders will testify, some horses seem to have an issue with cyclists. The problem is generally their silent approach from behind and the sudden “whish” sound as they pass. Cyclists will almost certainly receive grateful thanks from a rider if they slow down and say something to warn the rider of their approach. A rider will usually turn their horse to see the cyclist. Don’t forget to exchange a few pleasantries on the way past. You’re all out enjoying your day.

Teach them how to signal to a driver to slow down by moving their hand up and down, and a raised hand should they need a driver to stop.

Riders should signal their intentions, just like other road users. The British Horse Society puts a lot of effort into a scheme to educate young riders on how to use the roads safely and responsibly. There are compelling reasons to do so: Britain has 3000 traffic accidents a year involving horses. About 16 riders and at least 100 horses are killed instantly in the worst of them.

Veterinarians estimate that up to 90 per cent of the horses involved in these accidents later die as a result of their injuries.

Wear safety gear

Put on that safety-approved helmet and invest in a bright-coloured safety vest – the kind you see road-repair workers wearing.

Fluorescent vests with reflective strips are best. The reflective elements make you even more visible, particularly in half-light and in shadows on a sunny day. A vest with reflective markers is essential if you ride at night.

Safety vests are a winner on two counts: not only do they make you more visible, but a recent study undertaken by England’s Cranfield University showed that drivers slow down more when they see this safety gear. Using radar, they found the average speed on the road used for the study was 77kmh. Drivers slowed to an average of 66kmh when passing a horse.

Wearing brightly-coloured safety gear increases your visibility and research has show it slows down drivers.
Wearing brightly-coloured safety gear increases your visibility and research has show it slows down drivers.

However, they slowed a further 6kmh when the rider wore reflective clothing. Remarkably, drivers slowed to an average of 43kmh when the horse wore reflective leg bands as well. More and more riders are kitting their horses in brightly coloured exercise blankets before venturing onto roads.

Keep left

All road users are required to do this, but it’s fair to say that horse riders should do it more than most. Most riders prefer the verge, preferably a grass one. Generally speaking, stay as far left as it is practical and safe to do so. Never ride more than two abreast and, when there is traffic, reduce to single file. Single file is also sensible when the road is narrow or you’re approaching a bend.

The most common cause of road accidents involving horses is attributed to riders not keeping to the verge. This almost certainly oversimplifies the cause. Had the motorist given the horse and rider enough room? Had the horse shied at something on the roadside and moved on to the road? This is one of the greatest dangers. Naturally, the further left you are, the more room you have should trouble arise. Riders should, however, apply common sense, and where hazards or other circumstances dictate (such as the absence of a verge on the left), riders might consider it safer to cross the road.

It is generally recommended that riders do this approaching a blind left-hand corner to allow horses and motorists as much opportunity as possible to see each other.

Obliging motorists will slow down and give horses plenty of room. However, there are other things for drivers to consider. Horses can easily be spooked through unexpected sights or sounds.
Going past at 25kmh, as recommended by the British Horse Society, is great, but a stereo blaring out an open window, or a boom box thumping out Eminem’s latest hit from the boot may not be good for a horse’s – or rider’s – disposition at any speed.
Noisy or popping exhausts as cars accelerate away could also cause problems. Spraying a horse and rider with water from a puddle will make few friends, as will cutting in too sharply once past, or sounding a horn. That said, a silent approach from behind in your purring, luxury sedan can be equally dangerous.
In short, you need to make some noise to signal your presence, but not too much!
And if motorists think they’re perfectly safe in their steel boxes, think again. A horse weighs around half a tonne, with most of that weight carried well above bonnet height. Drivers needn’t think they’ll escape injury or death in a collision.

Make allowances for inexperienced horses

This is a Catch 22 situation. An inexperienced horse only becomes experienced by getting out onto roads. Riders need to carefully assess when they feel their horse is ready to be introduced to traffic. Where possible, introduce the horse gradually to roadways. Preferably go out with another rider on a more experienced mount to help with confidence, and, if riding two abreast, have the inexperienced horse furthest from the traffic. Communicate clearly, and ask the other rider to signal cars to slow or stop if the young horse is starting to get edgy. If the horses are of similar experience and ability, have the more competent or experienced rider closest to passing traffic.

Pick your time and route

Why ride on a busy road when you can choose a quiet one? Why ride when people are going to or from work or school if you’re able to go at a different time? This is really about reducing risk. If your horse is edgy in wind, why not go earlier in the day before the wind gets up? Avoid, where possible, the half light of early morning or in the evening. There are more accidents at this time; and there is always the risk that the low sun will blind a driver. Bad weather and poor visibility will increase the risk. Assess if it’s a risk worth taking and, if not, why not give your horse a rest or work him in the paddock?

Road signals: please slow down.
Road signals: please slow down.

Don’t be afraid to signal drivers

There’s no guarantee a motorist will oblige, but don’t hesitate to signal a driver to slow down or stop if you’re feeling uncomfortable. Unfortunately, if your horse is playing up, you will probably need two hands on the reins to control it.

Acknowledge good driving

A friendly wave and a big smile can work wonders when drivers show you courtesy and slow down. They will continue on knowing that their good driving has been acknowledged. Consider it part of your public relations duties. The road code points out that drivers should be careful around horse traffic or they may be charged with careless or dangerous driving. Nevertheless, all road users appreciate the courtesy and friendliness attached to good driving.

I am stopping

I am turning left

I am turning right

Check those shoes and other gear

Make sure you wear a good hard-soled shoe with a heel to minimize your risk of getting a foot caught in a stirrup in the event of an accident. Your horse will appreciate good shoes on the road, too. They’ll help with grip and minimise wear to the hoof. Make sure your tack is in good nick. You don’t want a stirrup leather or your girth breaking and triggering a fall on the road.

New Zealand’s first known fatal car accident involved a horse – or at least it nearly did. It occurred in Christchurch on February 22, 1908. Perhaps cementing a trend, speed was considered a contributing factor. Witnesses estimated the car involved was doing nearly 50kmh when the driver swerved to avoid a horse. The car missed the horse, but hit a tram. The passenger was thrown from the vehicle and died a week later in hospital.

Have a plan

The British Horse Society suggests the following plan of attack if a horse starts shying. Firstly, avoid the hazard if you can, be this changing course or signaling to someone to turn off their lawnmower. Assuming you’re on the left side of the road, use your right leg to stop the horse swinging its hindquarters onto the road and your right rein to stop the horse looking directly at the hazard. Keep pushing the horse forward. If the problem is a car approaching from behind, look quickly over your shoulder and make eye contact, which will hopefully be enough to slow the driver. Only signal by hand if you feel confident in taking one hand from the reins. Be sure to acknowledge any courtesy shown to you.


Horses will probably pick up on any tension you display in the saddle. While you obviously want to remain in firm control, try not to tense up with the approach of traffic.

Some other strategies

  • If riding in a large group, split into smaller groups of no more than eight horses, suggests the British Horse Society. Leave at least 10m between groups. When crossing busy roads, ensure everyone crosses together, just in case the herd instinct takes over and those left behind try to catch up.
  • Never lead more than one horse at a time, and have it on the side farthest from the traffic.
  • Carry a mobile phone in case of trouble.
  • Riders who have fallen should not remount. They should ideally be picked up and taken home. The horse, provided it is OK, should be led home or floated home.
  • Have a good knowledge of first aid.
  • Roundabouts should be avoided, but if you must venture through, stay on the outside.
  • Horses turning right should generally NOT move to the centre of the road before making the turn. Riders should ideally stay left, stop, wait until the road is clear, and then execute the manoeuvre.

The last word should probably go to Leonardo Da Vinci, who had the measure of a good many things. He wasn’t talking about rider safety, but the logic still applies: “He who fears dangers will not perish by them.”


• Don’t expect a multimillion-dollar Government-sponsored campaign to make roads safer for riders.

Surprisingly few Kiwis actually die or are injured each year in horse-related road accidents. In the 12 years to 2004, 37 crashes involving horses on New Zealand roads were reported. One was fatal, 10 resulted in serious injury, and 24 resulted in minor injuries. Two were non-injury.

In total, 70 people were hurt, roughly split between riders and the occupants of vehicles. No figures were available on the accident outcome for the horses involved.

The toll is hardly about to cause sleepless nights in the Beehive, with 400 people dying each year in car and truck accidents, and thousands more injured.

The comparatively low accident rate could be interpreted in several ways. Some might argue that it merely reflects that fewer riders are venturing onto the roads.

It is also apparent that the accident rate on the road is under-reported.

A New Zealand Medical Journal report in 2003 noted in a study of horse-related injuries that 15 per cent occurred on farms, 15 per cent in places of recreation and sport, 3.5 per cent on roads, and 5 per cent at home. However, the location in 55 per cent of accidents was not specified.

It seems inevitable that the paperwork will, in many cases, simply state, “fall from horse”, failing to specify whether it was on the road or not.

What the statistics will never reveal are the near-misses and inconsiderate driving that increases the risk to riders and their horses.

The medical journal report noted: “Death and injury from horse-related activities in New Zealand have not been well documented, and consequently injury prevention opportunities have been limited.”

Looking at all horse-related accidents, riders are most likely to be hospitalised for an arm injury (28 per cent), followed by head injuries (25 per cent) and leg injuries (15 per cent). However, the statistics alter when broken down by age.

For example, those aged under 9 mostly suffered arm injuries (68 per cent). Riders between 10 and 19 were mostly suffering arm injuries (33 per cent) or head injuries (30 per cent).

When you hit 30, the percentage of head, neck and spinal injuries begins to climb. Once you’re over 50, neck and trunk injuries are the most common, at 31 per cent.

Roughly three-quarters of injury accidents occurred while riding, nearly all from falls. The remainder occurred while tacking up or grooming.

But before you saddle up for a ride around the block, believing you’re more likely to die in a fender-bender on the way to the supermarket, consider this: ACC figures show horse riding, in dollars terms, to be the third most costly kind of sporting accident.

While rugby, soccer, snow skiing, rugby league and cycling have higher numbers of injury claims, riding ranks behind only rugby and soccer in the ongoing annual cost of care for those injured.

Between 1993 and 2001, 5613 people were hospitalised as a result of horse accidents, and injuries were most likely among women aged between 10 and 19. Nineteen people died in horse accidents between 1993 and 1999.

So, statistically, it appears the most typical accident resulting in a hospital admission would be a young woman aged between 10 and 19 who falls off her horse at an “unspecified location”, but most likely a farm or place of recreation, and suffers a nasty arm injury. She’s most likely to be an Aucklander, although this is only because of the high population in the greater Auckland area.

If the injuries are calculated on the injury rate per 100,000 people, it looks very different. The accident black spot is the North Island’s East Coast, with a rate about four times that of the greater Auckland area. Bay of Plenty is not far behind, followed by Northland, Manawatu/Taranaki/Wanganui, Otago/Southland, Waikato, Nelson/Marlborough/West Coast, Canterbury, Wellington/Wairarapa, then greater Auckland.


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Article first published on on April 24, 2006



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