Tips for horse people & non-horse people for having pleasant interactions while out and about in Central Oregon
by Shawna Bowin
Trail conflicts are nothing new, and will probably never go away. And with warmer weather upon us, horses and riders are hitting the local trails regularly, and occasionally riding on the roads to get there. If you’re not a horse rider yourself, how should you handle your interactions with them, and maybe more importantly, WHY should you? If you are a horse rider, you may already have a good idea how to handle these interactions, but I’d be willing to bet that some of these tips will be helpful to you as well.
Why should I care?
Horses typically weigh 800-1200 pounds, react very quickly, and are prone to kick if they feel threatened. You don’t want one coming into contact with your vehicle, bike, dog, or body—it’s not likely to end well for anyone.
What makes horses different than other road or trail users?
Horses are prey animals. Yes, they are large and can look intimidating. But they are just as scared and reactive as a small mouse that skitters away when anything new, even a strange shadow, crosses its path. If horses see something they aren’t familiar with, many of them assume it’s dangerous them and will react accordingly. Training and experience can go a long way toward making a horse less reactive, but you never know when it will see something it hasn’t seen before in a new way, such as if the light hits it differently or if it’s positioned differently than it was before.
We would all like the horses to remain calm and confident. We’ve provided some tips to help accomplis that!
Vehicles and Horses
Whether they’re paved, gravel, or dirt, horses have the right to travel on Oregon roadways. Riders are supposed to ride on the left (same as pedestrians), but you may see riders riding on the right side of the road—this can be because of visibility issues or width. and footing on the shoulder of the road that is safer for horse travel on a particular side.
When you see a horse up ahead, slow down. Not only will this make your vehicle quieter and less scary, you’ll have more time to react, or to stop completely, if it becomes necessary. Pass as wide as you safely can. If the horse reacts, you don’t want it kicking or slamming into your vehicle. If the rider waves their hand or arm in a downward motion, they’re not just being friendly—they’re asking you to slow down (yes, more than you are now). If they wave you in a “come hither” sort of gesture, they’re probably indicating you can speed up. Keep your eye on the horse and rider, but go ahead and speed up a bit and pass them as quickly as you safely can.
Motorcycles can be even scarier to horses than normal cars so give riders extra room if possible.If you drive a diesel truck or have a trailer or other type of load that rattles, the horse may find you especially scary.
Drivers Don’t: Honk your horn, rev your engine, activate air brakes, blow past closely and/or at full speed.
Riders Do: As with any other stimulus, if your horse isn’t used to riding in traffic, start slow and easy by riding on low-traffic dirt roads with plenty of room for cars to pass. Maybe even ask a friend to help desensitize your horse by driving around you under your instruction. Step off the road and you’re your horse if your nervous about their reaction. Stand perpendicular to the roadway, facing it so they can see oncoming vehicles more clearly. If you’ll be invisible to drivers approaching because of a curve or a hill, cross when it’s safe and ride on the “wrong” side until it’s safe to cross back to the left. Wear bright colors or reflective gear on your horse and yourself so you are clearly visible at any time of day or night.
All-Terrain Vehicles and Horses
There are a lot of trails around Central Oregon where people can enjoy their quads, side-by-sides, dirt bikes, and even street-legal vehicles.
Some horses receive their daily food from the back of a quad or a side-by-side or similar vehicle, and won’t mind your presence a bit—they may even drool on your “hay rack.” But some horses have not been exposed to these sights, sounds, and smells, and may find it frightening. Your best bet is to make eye contact with the rider, and maintain verbal and non-verbal communication.
Of course, as a motorized vehicle, likely the horse and rider will be well aware of you, probably before you’re aware of them. But, if you stop for a break and see a horse, perhaps ask the rider if it’s okay to start your engine before doing so. If the horse is dancing around and appears skittish, consider turning your engine off completely and allowing the horse to pass you before you return to riding. If the horse seems fine and the rider gestures or tells you to ride onward, go for it. Communication is key!
Different horse/rider combos will have different preferences, so let the rider determine which of you will get off the trail, or maybe even give you the go-ahead to just pass. Please listen to and heed their instructions and recommendations, as they know their horse and its likely reactions best.
KEEP TALKING. If you’re r rider on a dirt bike with a helmet and maybe a hydration pack, you don’t look or smell like a human anymore. Even more so if you’re on a quad or in a larger vehicle. Start talking as soon as you see the horse, and if the rider asks or it looks like it would be helpful, take off your helmet if it’s not too much trouble, and TALK. Talk about the weather, compliment the rider on how pretty their horse is, recite the Gettysburg Address. It literally doesn’t matter. But your voice will let the horse know that you’re human, and likely not going to be any trouble. If the rider offers you a treat to feed the horse, and you’re willing to let the horse eat it out of your hand, that can be a great training tool for the horse (weird things on the trails give me treats!), and can be a fun experience for you, too.
Drivers Don’t: Blast past the horse. Do not be any scarier to the horse than you probably already are. Talk to the horse and rider if they are passing you.
Riders Do: Depending on the trail and the type of vehicle you meet, it’s probably easier for you (rather than the ATV-er) to get off the trail, so consider that as your first option whenever possible. Your horse will probably be calmer if you let it face the scary vehicle while it passes. And consider carrying treats for your horse, and hand them out to other trail users to feed your horse. Soon your horse will be seeking them out as the treat dispensers they are, and not worried about the weird sounds and smells.
Bikes and Horses
Bikes are silent or pretty quiet until they are right behind you. Horses have a blind spot directly behind them so your approach from behind can be startling. Not to mention riders approaching from any direction might look weird, with their helmets and hydration packs.
If you are riding a bike on shared trails, keep in mind that horses (and hikers) have the right-of-way. Yes, that means you can’t blast down hill and around blind corners. Save that for bike-only trails, especially one-way trails. Ride as if you could be seeing a 1000-pound animal around every corner, because you could.
When you see a horse, make your presence known to the horse and rider. Call out, “Hello! How’s it going?” Keep talking until the entire interaction is over. This will help the horse realize you’re a human, weird contraption and headgear notwithstanding. Ask the rider how they would like to handle passing—they have the right-of-way, but most riders will probably offer to get off the trail and let you pass while staying on the trail (and if there’s a side-hill, they will likely want the uphill side so the horse doesn’t feel like the scary thing is looming above it like a hungry cougar). If the rider offers you a treat to give the horse, feel free to do so if you’re comfortable—this will go a long way toward the horse seeing bicyclists as treat-dispensers instead of threats.
Hikers (and Dogs) and Horses
Some hikers seem excited to meet horses on the trail, and possibly have a chance to interact with them up close, and some hikers seem apprehensive. Whether you fear, respect, or adore horses, the interaction can be a positive one if you respond appropriately.
As soon as you realize there is a horse on the trail near you, make your presence known to the horse and rider. It doesn’t really matter what you say, as long as you have a nice, human-sounding voice, but begin with communicating with the rider about which of you will yield the trail, if necessary, and anything they would like you to do to make the interaction go smoothly. Horses have the right-of-way on trails, and unlike bikes, which may be a hassle to get off the trail in a brushy spot, it’s probably easier for you to step off the trail and let the horse’s four feet stay on the trail. There may be occasions where the rider prefers to get the horse off the trail and at a safe distance while you pass. Just follow their lead and instructions of the rider. And as mentioned in the other sections, the rider may offer you a treat to give the horse, and please do so if you’re comfortable.
If you are hiking with your dog(s), please leash them or at least hold onto them by the collar or harness if you see a horse. If you know your dog is experienced around horses, ask the rider if they mind you letting the dog loose, but if you have any question about your dog’s ability to leave the horse completely alone, or if the rider asks you to, continue to keep your dog contained. Some horses either have no experience, or have had a bad experience with dogs. Even if your dog is well-behaved, the horse may not be comfortable and a kick or bite from a horse could be disastrous. If you have a dog, it may be easier for you and the dog to stay put, and allow the horse to pass, but communicate with the rider to determine the best course of action.
Cyclists Don’t: Do not honk a horn or ring a bell (except from VERY far away, to warn of your presence). Definitely do not hide in the bushes—this does not help, as the horse will see you, and then will think you’re something they should be afraid of, since you’re lurking in a hiding spot instead of just hanging out like a normal human. Be careful get too close or risk crashing into a horse.
Riders Do: Spend some time with your horse and a helpful friend with a bike desensitizing your horse. You can start by building from the horse following the bike, then to the bike approaching the horse from all angles, and lastly the bike following the horse. Until your horse is comfortable around bikes, do your best (and ask your friends for recommendations) to avoid trails where bikes are common. Maston (just off the Cline Falls Highway) is a good middle ground, where bike trails criss-cross and parallel horse trails, but are always separate trails.
Remember it may be easier for your horse to step off the trail than for a cyclist to either push or carry his bike through brush. Face the trail (rather than being parallel to it), so the horse can watch the bike approach, pass, and retreat from a safe distance.
The vast majority of my experiences with other road and trail users have been positive. But I hope these tips and tricks will result in even more positive interactions between horses, cars, ATVs, bikes, and all humans out on our beautiful trails in Central Oregon.
Shawna Bowin is a horse owner and rider, and has interacted with each of these types of trail users as a rider, but has also been on the other side of each type of interaction, and speaks from experience and a desire for these interactions to be safe and positive for everyone.