Public roads have been characterised as places of interspecies conflict in a fresh study of human-horse interactions on Britain’s roads.
Researchers Danica Pollard and Tamzin Furtado noted that real or perceived traffic risks posed a significant barrier to walking and cycling.
In their paper, just published in the journal Animals, the pair set out to understand whether similar barriers influenced equestrians.
“Equestrians are often considered low‐priority road users by transport policymakers, despite millions of people in the UK being involved in the equestrian sector,” they noted.
“There remains a lack of recognition that their status as vulnerable road users is amplified because horses are not vehicles but, alongside their human partners, are vulnerable road users in their own right.”
They examined the responses of 5817 riders in Britain to an online questionnaire that examined exercise behaviours, road use and experiences of road-related incidents.
Their analysis revealed themes around riders’ decisions not to use roads.
Pollard, who is with the British Horse Society’s Safety Department, and Furtado, with the University of Liverpool, found that roughly half of the respondents exercised their horses three to five days a week.
They found that 84% of respondents used roads at least once weekly, and in the previous year, 67.7% had a near-miss and 6.1% had been involved in an injury-causing incident.
The researchers found that road use differed regionally, influenced by exercise type and off-road route availability.
More than half of the participants (53.2%) felt that there were few local off‐road routes available to them.
“The highest proportion of equestrians reported very few and very poorly connected off‐road routes to be available to them in Northern Ireland, Wales, West Midlands and the North West, while the highest proportion of equestrians in Scotland reported they were spoilt for choice when it came to off‐road routes, and their routes were very well connected.”
“We anticipated that, similar to walkers and cyclists, the proximity and connectivity of safe, off‐road riding spaces would have an impact on equestrian activity and road use,” they said.
Equestrian road use was more frequent in the South West, North West, Wales, Yorkshire and The Humber, and West Midlands compared to Scotland.
How well connected the local off‐road network was with the roads was also a factor, with road use more likely when the networks were less well connected.
“Road-using equestrians covered greater daily distances and were younger. However, younger equestrians were at higher risk of near-misses,” they said.
Decisions not to use roads were based on individualised risk assessments arising from the road itself, perceptions of other road users, the individual horse and the handler’s own emotional management.
“Roads were perceived as extremely dangerous places with potentially high conflict risk,” Pollard and Furtado reported.
“Injury-causing incidents were associated with increasing road-use anxiety or ceasing to use roads, the proximity of off-road routes, having a near-miss and type of road use.”
The authors said their study highlighted the frequency of injuries and near‐misses, as well as the extreme anxiety felt by equestrians on the road.
“This previously under‐researched area represents an important field of study for both human and horse wellbeing, given the high risk of physical or psychological harm, and sometimes death.
“Horse riders and handlers preferred to keep off roads when possible, but often found it impossible to exercise their horses without some road use.
“As a result of not having access to off‐road routes, some equestrians simply stopped exercising their horses at all – a response which could have potential equine welfare implications, such as weight gain, obesity and secondary health consequences, such as laminitis.
“These results, therefore, support the need for targeted campaigns around encouraging responsible behaviour of other road users around horses, ideally explaining how road users should behave around horses and the reasons behind this behaviour.”
Pollard and Furtado said their work also highlighted the need for increased off‐road options for equestrians, who they said were often forgotten or ignored in the development of “green exercise” initiatives.
“The importance of safe riding areas is particularly relevant given the finding in this study that children and young people are at increased risk of having road‐related incidents.”
Pollard, D.; Furtado, T. Public Roads as Places of Interspecies Conflict: A Study of Horse-Human Interactions on UK Roads and Impacts on Equine Exercise. Animals 2021, 11, 1072. https://doi.org/10.3390/ani11041072