Road-going risks to horses and riders described in fresh British study

Results of a survey of 6000 people indicated that 84% of equestrians use roads at least once a week and, in the previous year, 67.7% had a near-miss and 6.1% an injury-causing incident.
Results of a survey of 6000 people indicated that 84% of equestrians use roads at least once a week and, in the previous year, 67.7% had a near-miss and 6.1% an injury-causing incident.

Traffic risk is perceived as a significant barrier for walkers and cyclists, and the same appears to be the case for riders, many of whom considered roads to be extremely dangerous places.

Nearly 6000 equestrians in Britain completed an online questionnaire about their exercise behaviours, road use and experiences of road-related incidents. The results indicated that 84% of equestrians use roads at least once a week and, in the previous year, 67.7% had a near-miss and 6.1% an injury-causing incident.

The report by Dr Danica Pollard, funded by the Department for Transport and commissioned by The British Horse Society, is believed to be the biggest ever equestrian safety survey.

Across all its facets, it involved more than 7000 participants, aged 18 to 97 and with an average of 35 years’ equine experience.

Only 3% of equestrians said they never felt stressed/anxious when using roads, while 43% did so more than half the time. By far, the main contributors to this stress/anxiety were considered to be the behaviour of other road users (93%) and the characteristics of the road (62%).

The study involved four elements of research: A review of existing published Department for Transport and British Horse Society (BHS) data, a survey among 6000 equestrians exploring how frequently they used roads and off-road routes and what influenced their ability to do so, and focus groups and interviews, which in turn led to a second survey focusing on road safety in the summer of 2021 which generated 7124 responses.

In all, 98% of equestrians reported using safety measures such as wearing high visibility clothing and riding helmets when using roads. However, only 22% reported using a camera.

The research found that 78% of equestrians had experienced an incident while using roads with their horse (the majority had in fact experienced more than 10) that they did not officially report, with only 31% having previously reported such incidents to the police or the BHS.

A total of 322 equestrians (4.5%) said they had been involved in a road incident in the previous year that resulted in injury to either a person or an animal. The majority (59%) occurred when they were riding or handling a horse as opposed to using other forms of transport such as driving, walking, cycling or riding a motorbike.

The worry that equestrians face not only affects their enjoyment but also reduces the amount of exercise horses and their riders and handlers are getting.

Most equestrians agreed that exercise was important to maintain their horse’s mental and physical health. Many felt they could not exercise their horse adequately without using roads; 60% felt that having to use or cross certain roads limited their ability to exercise with their horses and between 60-70% thought that they would exercise their horses more frequently and cover greater distances if they felt safer when using roads.

There were regional differences in road use, and the number of near-miss experiences coincided with off-road route availability.

An analysis of 4107 road incidents involving horses between 2010 and 2020. Image:
An analysis of 4107 road incidents involving horses between 2010 and 2020. Image:

Road use was associated with the proximity of off-road routes, and road-using equestrians reported covering longer distances with their horses.

Near-misses were associated with increasing frequency of weekly road use.

Younger riders were more likely to use roads, but also experienced more near-misses. Injury-causing incidents were associated with increasing road-use anxiety or ceasing to use roads altogether, the proximity of off-road routes, having had a near-miss in the previous year and riding while leading a ridden horse; often with a child aboard.

Respondents’ decisions not to use roads were based on individual risk assessments arising from the road itself, perceptions of other road users, the individual horse and the equestrian’s own emotional management (represented in the figure above). Roads were perceived as extremely dangerous places with potentially high conflict risk.

Pollard, supported in her work by Dr John Grewar and Dr Tamzin Furtado, said horse-related road incidents in Britain were unfortunately common, with the equestrian or their horse often bearing the brunt of the damage. She said the findings helped identify areas that could be targeted to help improve equestrian road safety.

“There is evidence of considerable under-reporting of equestrian incidents, contributing to underestimation of the problem and lack of prioritisation for policy changes to improve road safety,” the study team wrote. “Promoting awareness of the reporting systems and the potential outcomes should be a priority for road safety stakeholders.”

They said Britain should strive towards a transport system that is inclusive of, and promotes, equestrian safety (for example, warning signage of equestrian activity for motorists, reduction of speed limits on rural roads and those frequently used by equestrians, non-slippery road surfaces, safe road crossings).

Equestrianism should be recognised and promoted by governments and local authorities as a legitimate type of active travel and a form of green exercise.

The authors proposed the provision of extensive and better connected off-road rights-of-way for equestrians. This would allow them to plan safer and more frequent exercise sessions with their horses. The rights-of-way needed to be user-friendly and accessible for equestrians with disabilities.

Standardised equestrian hand signals that are accepted by the traffic department and included in the Highway Code were also proposed.

A review of existing road safety legislation was warranted, they said, and there was a need for improved enforcement.

Other proposed improvements included:

  • Researching ways to disseminate knowledge of road systems, safety rules, recommended ways to mitigate risk and awareness of others on roads to different road user groups (equestrian and nonequestrian) and how this knowledge could best be kept fresh in people’s minds;
  • Identifying the most effective ways to change the behaviour of road users around horses;
  • Using awareness campaigns and advertising that humanises road users and helps break down any pre-existing stereotypes thus helping bridge the disconnect between people using roads;
  • Encouraging the use of evidence-based high-welfare equitation methods which would help horses get familiar with traffic and roads, and which have the potential to improve the relationship and trust between a horse and their handler.

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