It's a well known fact by anyone who road hacks in Ontario how scary it can be. Even on low traffic country roads, the lack of knowledge and understanding when it comes to sharing the road with horse and riders can be shocking. In my personal experience, I have been sped by at high speeds, with the drivers not even merging in the slightest bit into the opposite lane. I have had people honk at me, and completely ignore my hand flailing aimlessly to slow them down. It is frustrating to say the least but beyond that it is just plain dangerous - deadly at times.
I was very spoiled when I lived in Scotland. The hacking there was incredible, the horses were 100% road safe, and for the most part the drivers respected you and your horse. I would say 95% of the time drivers slowed right down and passed wide, some even stop completely and turn their cars off. The behavior was surprising at first, but greatly appreciated, especially when ponying one horse while riding another.
However - if you are like me, road hacking is not only a great source of enjoyment, it is a necessity. I road hack very often and it is my main source of conditioning work. I would have a hard time cutting it out of my system, so I always do my best to ensure my horses - and my own safety.
Some Safety Tips for Road Hacking
Hack only on a safe, experienced horse;
You should know whether your horse is road safe. Never go out on a road with traffic on a horse that is not road safe, it is an accident waiting to happen. If you want to get a green horse accustomed to traffic, start out on very quiet roads with large shoulders so you can get off the roadway ENTIRELY when the cars pass. If possible, go out in a group. It will really help with a nervous horses confidence. Get your friends to help and have them pass wide and slowly by you until your horse is ok with it. It takes time, and patience. Never let a green rider take an inexperienced horse on a road hack.
It's common sense. You want people to be able to see you easily and from a distance so there are no surprises. Always wear bright colours and whenever possible use reflective gear. There are tonnes of products from helmet covers, boots for your horse, vests, whips, breastplates etc you can get with reflective gear. You can find sticky reflective strips at the dollar store that are easy to apply and work well. A great excuse to go shopping! There are some really cool ideas here: V-Bands.co.uk
If possible, ride in pairs or groups;
I know it isn't always an option, and in my case it rarely is an option, but safety is in numbers. Larger groups are more visible and drivers are likely to have more respect for a group of horses than for one rider. If an accident should occur, there is someone to go for help or to catch a loose horse. Also, horses are more likely to feel safe and behave when they are among other horses.
The only thing worse I can think of than being involved in an accident, is lying there injured and helpless for hours because no one knows you're missing. If there is no one around, call or text your friend and ask them to call or text back when you expect to be done. If they don't hear back from you they will know something happened and can send help. I always bring my phone, it is possible it would break in the event something happened but I would rather take the chance and hope it survives enough to dial 911.
Know your laws, and hand signals;
Most of the time I hack out, drivers completely ignore my hand signs. However, there are some who respect them, and at the very least I am doing my part in ensuring my horse and I are safe. In Ontario horses have the same legal rights as a motorized vehicle. That means you stop at stop signs, you signal when you are turning. I was always taught to ride on the same side of the road as cars do in the direction you are going. There are always discussions on which is correct, I would think if horses are considered vehicles they should travel in the same direction. For me, exceptions to that would be if you are on a blind hill with narrow shoulders, or maybe a sharp curve. I like to be on the opposite side when descending a hill so the driver isn't surprised by my horses bum and has to slam on the brakes to slow and pass. If possible, post horse crossing signs in the area you frequent. Drivers will know to keep an eye out.
Once when I was living in Scotland, my employer and I headed out for a hack on a lovely breezy day. Half way through we encountered a massive hail storm with gale force winds. We had no jackets, couldn't see, and had to ride sideways all the way home. It was stupid of us, we should have checked the forecast and we would have seen that coming. If it's windy, wear a jacket. If it's sunny, wear sunglasses. If it's chilly, wear gloves and dress warm. Throw a quarter sheet on your horse. It not only makes your ride more enjoyable, but you will be distracted by discomfort and that could be dangerous
Know your route, know your limit;
Check the roads before you go. Make sure you know where any potential spook areas might be. Is there a bridge over water? Are there loose dogs, cows, or say, ostriches? (YES, that happened to me). Look out for railroads, they can be very scary and dangerous. Are you riding at the hours the school bus is dropping off kids? Are you riding during the garbage pickup time? Buses, dump trucks, transports are extra scary for horses. Try and avoid them if at all possible. Don't ride down any road if you feel at all uncomfortable about the situation. The road is NOT a place to school a spooky or young horse. If your horse is acting up, get off and walk them. You will have more control on the ground to avoid vehicles. It is not a place to race your friends, or dilly dally along with your head in the clouds.
Most importantly: WEAR A HELMET!
If you never wear a helmet, now is the time to start. Cement is hard, your brain is soft. When you fall on the road without a helmet and hit your head, you WILL be seriously injured. I did just this when I was 7 years old, I was wearing a helmet. I was lucky to get away with a broken nose and two black eyes. Imagine a car hits you? Your brain will be splattered all over the road. Please please PLEASE wear a helmet!!
Happy Hacking everyone! For more information on safely hacking, the BHS has a book "Hacking Out Safely"