Safe Encounters with Horses on Shared-Use Trails

American Trails contributor Dianne Martin shares some tips on how to safely share trails with horses.

by Dianne Martin

Growing up outside of a small town in southwest Michigan, we rode our horses in countless places. We would ride all day and never see the same trail twice, let alone another person. Nearly all of our neighbors gave us permission to ride, walk, and cross-country ski on their properties. I remember a long wooded trail owned by several landowners (mostly farmers) that was used by all the country kids to get into town from the outskirts. The age of injury liability and lawsuits was not yet upon us. I took this vast amount of land available to me for granted. I had no idea how lucky I was. Shrinking farmland, towns sprawling out into the green spaces, and the scare tactics by eager lawyers have made my childhood experience of sharing the land an idea generally only found in the past.

When I eventually made my home in southeast Michigan, I began to look for places to ride my horse, to ride my bike, and to hike. I discovered a new recreational concept to me at the time: public land. Thankfully, the area where I now reside is rich with public parks, many of which contain trails shared by various user groups. However, it quickly became apparent that many people have no experience with horses and do not know how to react when coming upon horses on shared use trails.

Horses are animals with minds of their own. Since they are prey animals, horses (even now as domesticated pets) are always on the lookout for predators, which in a horse's mind can look like a biker quickly approaching from behind or a hiker walking briskly towards them. A rider will not always have control over their horse, especially in a scary situation. It is this lack of control that can make an encounter with a horse a potentially dangerous one...for horse, rider, and for other trail users.

A trail sharing sign that you will commonly see on multi-use trails is shown here.

The rules are:

  • Bikers yield to Hikers and Horses
  • Hikers yield to Horses

The concept is that bikers are potentially fast and could come into conflict if passing other users too quickly. Bikers can stop and go easily; thus, they let other users have the right of way. Horses are big and unpredictable, so horses get the right of way.

What should you do when you encounter a horse:

1) Stop or Slow.

  • If you are hiking, move to the side of the trail remaining within sight of the horse.
  • If you are biking, slow down and then move to the side. If a horse is acting up, you may need to stop and get off your bike. This helps the horse recognize that you are a human.

2) Communicate, say "Hello"

This is probably the most important thing you can do. If the horse sees you standing there and not saying anything, instinct tells it that you are a predator. Smile and say hello to the rider. Perhaps, try to strike up a conversation. This will calm the horse and also does wonders for relations between all trail users.

3) Ask the rider what you should do.

Sometimes the rider will ask you to continue walking or riding while they wait o­n the side of the trail. Sometimes they will pass by while you wait. Again, remember that horses have individual personalities and o­nly the horse's owner/rider knows that personality. Trust their judgment.

4) Take EXTRA care if approaching the horse from behind. Horses cannot see directly behind themselves, so approaching from behind can be dangerous to both the equestrian and the hiker or biker. Horses may kick out in what they perceive as self defense. Again, communication is critical: gently announce, well in advance, to let the horse and rider know that you are approaching from behind and ask/wait for direction from the rider.

What NOT to do:

  1. Don't stand silently or hide behind something. This makes the horse think you might be a predator and the horse might spook, spin or bolt as a result.
  2. Don't speed past by the horse. This is almost certain to startle the horse which puts the equestrian and YOU in danger.
  3. Don't do anything that might startle the horse. This might include yelling or making your bike brakes squeal.
  4. Don't wear ear buds or anything that impedes hearing on the trail. If you can't hear a horse or other user approaching, you are putting everyone at risk and reducing the ability to communicate.

When we come across other user groups using a shared trail, we need to keep in mind that we are all out there for similar reasons; we are just doing it in different ways. We all have the right to be safe while we are enjoying our hobbies. It is also common courtesy not to endanger the safety of other trail users. If we don't care about our fellow humans in a shared use trail setting, what have we become?! If we all follow a simple set of rules and are mindful of each other, the shared trail experience will be as fun and relaxing as those trail experiences of my youth that I cherish.

To learn more about best practices around shared-use trails sign up for the upcoming American Trails Webinar "Solutions for Managing Conflict on Shared-Use Trails." The webinar will be held in February 2020, and will discuss trail sharing between all user groups.

About the Author

Dianne Martin is a professional wetland biologist and avid trail user living in Pinckney, Michigan. She feels blessed to have the Pinckney Recreation Area and Lakelands Trail within walking distance and can often be found riding her horse, walking her dog, or riding her bike on these beautiful trail systems.

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