Dead, or dead slow? How to drive safely around horses

The British Horse Society’s guide to horse risk assessments.

By Remy Maisel

You don’t need to be out in the countryside to encounter a horse – the Met police had 110 equine officers in 2016 1and there are two working stables right in the heart of London, near Hyde Park. 

According to the BETA National Equestrian Survey, released in March 2019, 3 million UK adults have ridden a horse at least once in the last 12 months 2This is less than 5% of the population – compared to 74% of the population aged 17 and older who hold a full driving licence 3, it’s no surprise that people who generally know how to handle a car may not know what to make of horses.

The problem is that a lack of horse sense can be catastrophic. Driving too close to horses, too fast – or even making too much noise – can cause a fatal accident. According to Alan Hiscox, Director of Safety at The British Horse Society (BHS) and former mounted police officer, that’s because horses are prey animals with a strong ‘flight’ instinct – which can make them react in ways that are difficult for even experienced riders to control.

Meet Alan Hiscox, BHS Director of Safety

Alan’s interest in horses goes back to his youth, and he joined the police in the late 1970s. He combined these two interests by joining the mounted police in 1984. After leaving the police, Alan joined the BHS as the Director of Safety.

“I’ve ridden on some of the busiest roads in the world in London, trained horses and desensitised them,” says Alan. “I’m really passionate about educating drivers and cyclists. There’s 3 of us in the department and between us we’ve had everything happen – dog attacks, low flying aircraft, drones – but 90% of our time is spent educating drivers.”

Although police horses are desensitised to almost everything, the natural flight instinct can’t be completely eradicated. “When you consider that they’re flight animals and they allow a natural predator, i.e. a human, to sit on them… the trust is incredible,” says Alan.

Alan Hiscox
Alan Hiscox (photo courtesy of the BHS)

I ask him if a particular horse comes to mind. “My favourite horse was a police horse – his name was Harlequin.”

Full disclosure – I, the interviewer, am an equestrian and a horse owner, too. I tell Alan about my American Paint Horse gelding, Alibi, who I recently flew to England from the United States to join me. I’ve had him for 10 years, I tell Alan, and he’s my best friend.

We’ve had everything happen – dog attacks, low flying aircraft, drones

Alan Hiscox

Alan tells me he and Harlequin used to travel together, too. “He used to lead the police display ride where we used to jump through fire and a solid paper wall. We performed at the Olympia international horse show and we went abroad to Holland. The trust between the two of us was quite considerable, I would say.”

“Meanwhile, my horse was terrified by his first sighting of some frolicking lambs last weekend,” I tell Alan, somewhat sheepishly. And change the subject.

Horse sense

A horse’s eyesight, hearing, and sense of smell are all constantly trying to search out something that might harm them. Horses can see nearly 360 degrees around themselves, but because of the placement of their eyes, have narrow blind spots in front of their faces and behind their tails – so approaching them in a fast-moving vehicle from those spots can be especially scary.

“Horses carry out risk assessments. They’ve been carrying them out for thousands of years. They do not want to get eaten. So, they’re either going to try to avoid the risk by moving away or kicking out,” he says.

Horses carry out risk assessments.

If every driver passes horses wide and slow, and adheres to Dead? or Dead Slow? campaign messages (more on this later), they can help the horse accept the risk. “There’s the rider’s brain, and the driver’s brain, but don’t forget the horse’s brain!” says Alan. “If the horse decides they want to reduce, remove, or avoid the risk they perceive, they’re going to do it. Drivers have a big part to play, and they can help horses understand they are going to pass safely.”

The risk of road kill

“In a collision, even a slight knock can break a horse’s leg. It’s just not worth it. A horse with a broken leg is going to have to be euthanised,” Alan says. “There’s the risk of injury or ultimately the horse and rider being killed. There was also a tragic accident where the driver was killed. They are big animals and they can do serious damage to your car. Three quarters of a tonne is bigger than a deer.”

In the numbers

According to BHS national statistics, between February 2018 and February 2019, there were 845 road incidents involving horses. In these incidents, 87 horses were killed and 117 injured, with 4 riders killed and 115 injured. Seventy-three percent of incidents occurred because the vehicle passed too closely to the horse, and 31% occurred because it passed too quickly 4.

Alan estimates that only 1 in 10 incidents are reported to the BHS – so the true figures are likely to be higher. The accident statistics are going up, but only because more people are reporting. “The situation is getting better.”

"Wide and slow"

Rule 215 of the Highway Code says to treat all horses as a potential hazard and pass them wide and slow 5.

I think the vast majority are considerate drivers.

Most of the Highway Code is advisory, but if you do pass a horse too close or too fast, that could meet the Road Traffic Act definition of careless and inconsiderate driving and be subject to points and a fine 6. “We’re working to strengthen Rule 215 with the Dead? Or Dead Slow? campaign.”

The campaign pledge

If I see a horse on the road then I will...

  1. Slow down to a maximum of 15mph
  2. Be patient – do not sound the horn or rev the engine
  3. Pass the horse wide and slow, (if safe to do so) at least a car’s width if possible
  4. Drive slowly away

Most of the time, Alan says, riders don’t want to be on busy roads. “Horses are vulnerable road users the same as cyclists, the same as pedestrians – we need to use the roads. Of course you aren’t going to ride your horse down the A4. If there are horses on some of the busier roads, they’re only there because there trying to get somewhere else. That safe off-road access to bridleways is lacking.” The BHS is working to increase the number of bridleways.

At the same time, it’s not inherently irresponsible or dangerous to ride on the roads – especially if drivers are cautious and respectful. “I think vast majority are considerate drivers. It’s just that they don’t understand how they should pass horses. If you did a poll 90% would say ‘Yeah, I should pass slow’, they just don’t know what ‘slow’ means.

Alan believes things are getting better – but it’s still a challenge for horse riders on the roads. “And that’s why they shouldn’t take it for granted. We are really pushing the message with young drivers – doing presentations at the Road Safety GB conference. Our campaign is making a difference.”

Although he doesn’t believe it will be possible to reach every driver on the road, Alan does believe that the BHS can reach most of them and help them understand the main messages, using tools like their virtual reality headset – this can help drivers understand what it’s like to be on a horse that’s rearing up because it’s been spooked by a car.

“We also offer free driver training,” Alan says. “We’ve done it for Ocado and every London bus driver. We’re working with a lot of organisations.”

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Video transcript

Horse rider in high-vis
Remy and Alibi at his new home in Maidenhead – high-vis is required on the yard grounds

What can riders do?

“Not only do drivers have responsibilities on the road, riders do,” Alan says. “The Highway Code says you should be able to control your horse. Of course enjoy your ride, but don’t switch off as a rider – you’ve got to think, what is my horse looking at? They will hear and see things much sooner than you.

“Think: ‘Hang on, there’s a lawnmower, are they gonna start the lawnmower?’ If you have a horse you know is not too good on the roads, then go out with another horse. Try and do a bit of desensitisation in your stable, too. And horses are individuals as well, they have different levels of confidence and trust. We have got to learn to understand their language.”

Much like drivers, Alan believes most riders have been taught how they should ride on the roads at some time in the past,  but may not really remember. And it’s all advisory – except the requirement to wear a helmet under age 14. Riders should wear high visibility clothing and, though it’s not in the Highway Code, thank drivers when they do pass safely. “We’ve got to love drivers,” he says.

Drivers should note that riders may not be able to wave – it’s safest not to, especially with a nervous horse. “We encourage people to keep two hands on the reins. But riders can still smile and mouth ‘Thanks,’” says Alan. “It’s important drivers know the BHS is working with riders to be safer too. We aren’t pointing the finger at drivers. We want riders to know drivers aren’t trying to cause you harm.”

We’ve got to love drivers.

Visit the BHS website to find out more about the campaign.