How to cycle around horses

The recent Cycling Scotland advert, told drivers to treat a cyclist like a horse. That’s all well and good, and makes for a rather funny video, but how should cyclists treat horses and horse riders?

Jessica Drake, a member of Horses and Road Safety Awareness, wanted to share with me a few of her tips as a horse rider of how we cyclists should behave. As I didn’t know most of these, I thought it would be useful to share on London Cyclist.

Horses are sensitive to their surroundings by smell, sound, feel and vision; they detect movement under foot and have good hearing but although they can see perfectly well, the blind spot of a horse is HUGE and if you are in the blind spot, the horse won’t see you.

Think about how you would get a shock if someone passed you at speed on the street when you didn’t hear them coming. Now think about how a horse would react, whose natural instinct is to flee. They will often tell us that something is ahead before we can see it ourselves. It is usually the case of surprise that makes horse and rider jump, the recognised term is ‘spook’. A horse can spook at a pigeon flying out of a tree or cows behind a hedge. Sometimes it can be something they have walked past many times before.

As riders we do our best to stay safe on the roads and it is relatively easy to control your horse when a noisy motorbike comes along or we can see or hear a tractor approaching, we collect our horse and calmly control until the vehicle has passed safely, or we signal for them to slow down while we find a safe place to pull off the road and allow them to pass.

Cyclists however, are silent (especially the ones who maintain their bikes) who creep up from behind!

The blind spot of the horse is much bigger than most people realise and a horse can’t see you until you are practically level with its head. By which time, it may well spook and jump sideways, bolt forwards or it may even spin around so it can get a better look at the silent monster behind.

The best practice for cyslists is this

As you approach a horse, please let us know you are there by either ringing a bell or just shouting “MORNING” or “BIKE BEHIND” anything (nice!) that will alert us that you are there.

Don’t worry about shouting a warning, horses can cope with this far better than you appearing out of thin air!

We can take measures to alert our horse you are there and we recommend you take a wide berth, making sure it is safe to overtake. If cycle races are being held on country roads, ask the organisers to put notices out a couple of days before so that riders can avoid riding on that day or on that route. There is nothing more terrifying than a group of 20-30 cyclists whizzing past, horses can kick out when frightened and can pack a mighty punch.

If you are taking part in a cycling event, your concern will be to get by as quickly as possible, but please pass slowly. A speeding cyclist coming out of the blue may startle some horses and a group of speeding cyclists is even more likely to do so!

Please take great care and if it is obvious you need to stop, then please do so; it may save a serious incident. Also please heed a rider request to slow down or stop if the need arises. It may be that the horse is young or nervous. Equestrians may be attempting to get out of your way into a safe place in order to let you pass – help them to do so by adjusting your speed and keeping a safe distance from them.

Most horse riders appreciate it when drivers/cyclists make an obvious effort to pass wide and slow and will thank them or nod/wave. I know that I do! So on behalf of all horse riders – THANK YOU! And thanks also to HRSA (Horses and Road Safety Awareness) for helping me write this article. They are a small group which aims to educate drivers, cyclists, walkers and riders on how to use the road in a safe and courteous manner.

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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.

36 Responses to How to cycle around horses

  1. Mark 06/03/2014 at 8:18 pm #

    Glad to know this is the right way to do things. Although the other day I tried precisely this approach, ringing my bell first at 50 yards behind a couple of horses and again at 10 yards, and then passing them on the other side of the road. For my trouble I got a ticking off from the riders, who informed me in no uncertain terms that I should never ring my bell near horses as it scares them….!

    • Nick 06/03/2014 at 10:35 pm #

      A bell can spook horses – it is not a noise they are used to. However they are very used to the human voice so shouting out is by far the best thing to do.

      • Andreas 07/03/2014 at 3:14 am #

        I must admit, when I’ve encountered a horse on the road in the past whilst cycling, I’ve had no idea what to do. My approach was to approach slowly, and overtake slowly. I had no idea I was supposed to announce my presence, with a shout. I thought that would spook them more!

        • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:30 pm #

          Yes, but now you know! Thanks for reading it.

      • Mark 07/03/2014 at 6:13 pm #

        Thanks for the tip Nick, I will certainly try that when I get the chance. Although the incident in question was in a fairly busy urban area (I’m a suburban commuter rather than a country rider!) so I’m not sure how well a shout would have carried over general background noise. And thinking about it, I’m a bit doubtful if people should really take horses into towns if they’re that easily spooked by unfamiliar noises – I’m sure they will encounter worse than bicycle bells!

        • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:32 pm #

          Unfortunately alot of us don’t get a choice of where to ride. I have to negotiate roads to get to the bridle paths.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:30 pm #

      Oh dear! That wouldnt’ve been me! Yes try calling out next time.

    • Alehouse Rock 17/03/2014 at 5:11 pm #

      [[[[[[ Yup.....one sure route to failure is to try to please everybody! I've rarely cycled past horses, but when I did (in quiet country lanes), I engaged the riders in calm conversation---before drawing level---on the assumption that if a horse hears its rider talking calmly with me, it'll feel that there's nothing to get alarmed at.
      A.R.

    • Teresa Griffith 07/04/2014 at 11:02 pm #

      I always call out delightedly when I see horses (I LOVE them).. The thing is they LOVE to hear you. Just speak to them. Even if they are bucking and kicking it can calm them down. They love people and are not scared of them. It’s things that flap and shoot past them they’re not so keen on…

      On a separate note: If you do/have ever/might ever cycle through London – please click on an appropriate post code and lobby the candidates for that area. LCC have spent over a year persuading us to gather this information together.. Volunteers in each “ward” have selected something achievable to ask candidates to promise to deliver upon election… http://action.space4cycling.org/

  2. Roisin McCourt 07/03/2014 at 10:31 am #

    Thank you so much for this article! It is spot on.

    I’m a keen cyclist and also ride horses; I know that cyclists just don’t realise that shouting is fine but it really is and it’s so much better to shout than to suddenly appear …

    Quite often we ask cyclists to shout in advance and they get quite cross, but we’re not telling you off! Just letting you know how to help.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:33 pm #

      Thanks for the support!

  3. Elisabeth Burleigh 07/03/2014 at 11:24 am #

    That’s like ringing a bell – some people think you’re telling them off or telling them to get out of the way, rather than letting them know you’re there.
    And some people never hear them at all!

  4. Kate 07/03/2014 at 11:43 am #

    Thanks for this useful article. I’ve always patiently waited until the rider knows I’m there before I pass – but had no idea that shouting to alert a rider is acceptable.

    Also worth thinking about lights – I run on flash mode during the days to make myself seen when passing from bright light into heavy shade, which often happens on country lanes. Once a skittish horse coming towards me got quite unsettled by my front light and the rider told me off for it (fair enough). First thing I do now if I see an approaching horse is switch it off or cover it.

    Always nice sharing the road and saying hello to horse riders though on a sunny Sunday morning, which hopefully we will have this weekend, finally! :)

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:35 pm #

      You sound like a responsible cyclist kate. And yes, I was out today in the sunshine, hacking, lots of bikes out too!

  5. Toria 07/03/2014 at 11:59 am #

    Another important note you may wish to add is to always single out, if possible, and NEVER pass on both sides of the horse*.
    If the animal thinks it’s being cornered, it will panic even more and be more unpredictable than ever.

    *yes, it’s obvious but you’d be surprised how many people in a rush have gone past me when I’ve been slowing for a horse, and considered a different route

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:38 pm #

      Yes! Today we had traffic on the right, which included a group of cyclists, and this one guy on his bike tried to come up from behind and cycle past us on the pavement! I shouted whoa! To warn my friend in front, in case her horse spooked into the traffic!

  6. Pontylad 07/03/2014 at 12:33 pm #

    Passed a bunch of horses the other day on a narrow lane ,I had no choice but to stop and announce myself ,got a nice thank you for doing what seems to be the right thing by mistake .

    On the same ride I slowed down while approaching a horse coming in the opposite direction ,said horse looked away to the side saw a brightly coloured rubbish bin and spooked itself turning sideways to block the road so I guess you need to be careful when approaching from the front as well .

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:39 pm #

      Thanks for your responsible cycling!

  7. Andrew 07/03/2014 at 2:04 pm #

    +1 for turning off flashing lights (or putting your hand over).

    As well as all of the above (voice being better than bell), our group, which rides on the Cotswolds and see a lot of riders & horse, was also asked recently just to keep chatting as we cycled past. Humans are known to horses, strange brightly coloured silent things aren’t.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:40 pm #

      Well done!

  8. John Somers 07/03/2014 at 2:07 pm #

    I have found from significant experience of “bumping” in to hay burners in the Chilterns is that when you see a horse on your side of the road and are approaching from astern…whistling a tune to both get the riders attention and “warn” the horse that something is approaching from behind does REALLY work. (I usual resort to Lili Marlene…!)

    Then just exceeding the speed of the horse move over by at least 6ft/2m from the horse and overtake at a steady pace with no excessive noise or sudden movements…DO watch all the movements of the horses ears, they can really inform you of the state of mind of the horse and watch for any muscle ripples in the side…both sudden twitches of the ears and muscles can indicate nervousness or surprise. Sometimes chatting to the horse and rider in a soft voice can also help reassure both the horse and rider you are being careful and are taking due consideration.

    When you can pull back in front of the horse(s) leave a good 10-15ft before doing so and DO NOT sprint off like a rocket as that can even spook a horse, gently accelerate away.

    Points to note…if the horse is skipping sideways at all, try and talk to the horse rider and ask when it is OK to overtake and watching out for horse defecating because if they are startled than can “drop a load” prior to taking off, if that happens drop back until the beastie is calm again.

    Try to give as much consideration to both the horse and rider as “we” demand from motorists and you’ll find you will have made yet more friends in you cycle ride!

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:41 pm #

      I wish all the cyclists were like you!

  9. Jules 07/03/2014 at 3:17 pm #

    Living and riding in the Surrey Hills I encounter many horses.

    I shout “Horse, Horse!” as soon as I seem them ahead. I repeat it periodically as I get nearer until the rider turns around or signals recognition. I always ask if it’s okay to pass but KEEP talking as I do pass. I’m no expert but I think horses hear the human voice but may not expect the spinning shiney wheels and bight clothing necessary for riding on British roads (SMIDNSY etc.) If I’m riding in a group I always tell the horse rider/s if there is anyone in our group lagging behind and likely to appear soon after me.

    Most horse riders are lovely (Okay I must admit I find a woman on a horse very attractive ;) ) and will thank you. Some don’t but generally you can see they are either very preoccupied with dealing with their horse, maybe inexperienced or, they have encounter selfish bike riders who just blast passed them.

    Please let’s all just be decent human beings and be polite & considerate and don’t treat them how a vast number of car drivers treat cyclist.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:43 pm #

      You are so lovely!

  10. SteveP 07/03/2014 at 5:42 pm #

    I see a lot of horses on my country rides, and I always give them a wide berth, announce my presence and slow down. For the most parts, I have few problems, but unlike other road users, it would appear many horse riders are not really in control of their “vehicle”. I was almost taken out by a youngster on a huge horse when the horse was spooked – not by me, but by a piece of paper that blew into the road.

    On bridleways, it’s slightly different. Horse owners tend to have a few bob, and I have sometimes had the impression they not only do not expect to see a bicycle on a bridleway – they actually resent it, as in no thanks or acknowledgement when I step off the track for them. It’s a bit like landowners and ramblers – most of each are fine, but there’s a strong contingent that hate each other.

    • Eddie 08/03/2014 at 10:03 pm #

      I know what you mean by horse riders on a bridleway, (most) that i came across do think that they own it & that cyclists should not be there. I always move to one side to let them pass & get nothing in return. They should be more concerned with people walking their dogs off the lead.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:44 pm #

      Unfortunately not all horse riders are nice like me!

      • Eddie 10/03/2014 at 7:26 am #

        I wish more horse riders were like you Jessica. :) I know some cyclists can be a right pain, :/ but it is nice when we all get along together.

        • Jessica Drake 10/03/2014 at 6:50 pm #

          I don’t know what it is about our area – the cyclists don’t talk! I am on a mission! We hear them coming, we turn our heads and shout “morning” at the top of our voices as they pass us (in an effort to train them!). Mostly they reply, but sometimes they don’t. We can’t understand it!

  11. Clare Chick 07/03/2014 at 7:51 pm #

    I found this interesting because I realised I’d never really checked whether my own approach was preferred by horsey people.

    I slow down, call a greeting and ask if I’m ok to pass. Then I go past as wide as possible.

    Having read this post I asked a friend who keeps very highly-strung dressage horses, what she thought. Encouragingly she said that she has never experienced a problem with cyclists, who she described as ‘easily the most considerate road users’.

    Her advice: “Horses can’t hear cycles until the last moment and so could easily be spooked. We riders also have trouble hearing cycles approach, partly because of the noise of the metal shoes worn by the horse. If a rider alerts us in time we can ensure that the horse is controlled and nobody gets hurt. Just call out, let us know you are there. A rider should also thank the cyclist for that warning, as they pass.”

    She did also point out that a horse weighs around 600kg and can kick out 9ft. That’s even bigger than Jeremy Clarkson.

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:45 pm #

      I wish the cyclists round my way were like the cyclists on this blog :(

  12. mike 08/03/2014 at 8:04 pm #

    Don’t even bother trying passing horses in Newmarket! All my experiences have been negative- mainly argumentative riders who demand you wait until they are off the road, and even demanding you stop if you’re going the other way extremely slowly on the other side of the road.
    there’s no pleasing some people

    • Jessica Drake 09/03/2014 at 3:46 pm #

      Yes I suppose there are good and bad cyclists and horse riders…

  13. David 15/03/2014 at 5:49 pm #

    I always pass very slowly, and give the animal a wide berth. If I’m passing from behind, I’ll usually cross to the other side of the road and hug the kerb as I go past. If we’re passing in opposite directions, I usually pull in and stop. Horses are such beautiful creatures, it would be a shame to frighten one of them. The riders are always very grateful for this.

  14. Hannah 20/03/2014 at 11:44 am #

    Only just found this – great tips though! I work for a horse charity and this is spot on advice :)

    Having seen one of my very big beefy colleagues (male btw) absolutely floored by a pony whose head head hardly reached the height of the guy’s shoulder – it’s definitely worth treating horses with a bit of consideration. They generally don’t mean to hurt people but they are so big and fast, and they cna take fright so quickly, that they can do so anyway.

    Thank you considerate cyclists, we love you guys :)

  15. Teresa Griffith 07/04/2014 at 11:08 pm #

    I’ve enjoyed reading all these comments. I love horses and it’s brought back many happy memories of seeing them out in the countryside – and in London – Hyde Park’s full of them :)

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