We’re gonna die, teenaged me thought, as the combine roared onto the blacktop side road in the summer dusk in front of me and Sparkle. She jerked her head high and cantered backwards three steps as I kicked my feet out of the stirrups and bailed out of the saddle before she could either run further or start bucking.
“Who — a — a,” I breathed, clutching the reins. The dark bay mare stopped, snorting at the unfamiliar metal monster. We stood there until the machine passed, Sparkle dancing against my tight hold on her reins. Once the beast had gone by, I walked her a few feet ahead, then remounted. Somehow, we made it back home.
I was lucky that evening. Things could have gotten much, much worse — which is always a possibility when road riding. It takes a certain combination of skill, training, and experience for both horse and rider to minimize the risks. Even then, stuff happens.
But there are certain characteristics of both horse and rider that also come into play. Some riders should not attempt road riding. Some horses cannot be ridden on the road. Self-knowledge as a horseperson and a realistic assessment of the horse in question is required. While my current horse, Mocha, has her moments, she is a much safer road ride in today’s conditions than the Sparkle mare of my youth ever was. Sparkle was a safe enough road mount for a young and bold rider of that era. I doubt she would be considered one now.
When I was a kid, most of us rode the roads. In that era it was less expensive to buy and maintain a horse, with fewer expectations. Many of us owned cheap horses without fancy breeding that we kept on small acreages rather than at boarding stables with arenas. Most of us were self-taught riders. If we were fortunate, we either had a few lessons or else learned some of the finer points of horsemanship from a 4H club, books, or magazines. Trailer ownership was not as common, so if we wanted to ride anywhere other than the pasture, we had to hit the roads.
It’s different these days. There’s more traffic traveling faster, with less awareness of equine behavior than before. The reliable, safe, cheap horses of my youth simply don’t exist unless they have retired from show and school horse careers — and most often they end up in the kill pen instead. There are fewer inexpensive places to keep horses, especially near metropolitan areas, and certainly a lot fewer backyard horses. There are exceptions, such as the urban black horsepeople who manage to live the working class horse life we did as kids. But outside of those circumstances, horse ownership these days ends up being limited either to those who can afford the luxury, with less acceptance of risk, or rural kids.
Add in the horrific opening scene of The Horse Whisperer (book; because of that scene in the book I chose not to see the movie) where a young horse and rider are injured in a nasty traffic accident, and you just don’t see many riders on the roads. This varies by region, but overall…there are fewer road riders. Some people miss that. I won’t forget the driver who pulled over when I was riding my horse in my small town who hollered “That’s great! I miss seeing horses in town!”
But there are others who adamantly insist that horses do not belong on the roads. Period.
I disagree — with the caveat that it depends on both horse and rider.
Let’s start with the horse. What’s required for a good and safe road ride? First of all, the horse needs to be trained, steady, predictable, and reliable in pasture and arena. That doesn’t rule out high-energy and reactive horses necessarily — as long as the horse listens to its rider and does not have a default of bolting or bucking when confronted with something new or scary.
Here’s a couple of examples from my own horses.
Sparkle’s reaction in the beginning is an example of what you don’t want on the road. She tended to run or buck when pressured. Sometimes she balked and would not move forward for any sort of persuasion. She didn’t have a solid whoa. While she got better over the years, I have other stories of touchy situations with her. Some of that might be an issue of training, but a huge part of that behavior was rooted in her own basic personality.
On the other hand, Mocha’s default reaction is to stop dead, back a couple of steps, and then whirl. Because she has been trained as a reining horse, it’s easy for me to cue her to continue the spin so that we end up facing the problematic whatever-it-is. She doesn’t run. She doesn’t buck. She also signals her worry before she reacts, so I have time and preparation to deal with her reaction.
The difference between the two is temperamental as much as it is training. Sparkle lacked Mocha’s depth of training. But even though she was more phlegmatic and less reactive than the hotter Mocha, her behavior was less predictable. I didn’t always know what I would end up with when something upset her. Her training didn’t always stick. She insisted on being the lead horse when we rode with others, and she wasn’t always observant of her surroundings, which could lead to some interesting moments when something surprised her. The problem with a phlegmatic and less-observant horse is that things end up startling them when you don’t anticipate it. She also was not consistent in her reactions, so I couldn’t anticipate a potential problem. Sparkle just did not have a “tell” to warn me that something was going to set her off. Instead, she would go from relaxed to bam! A bolt or shy, without a warning.
Mocha is a hotter and more reactive horse than Sparkle ever was. She is very forward, with high energy. She notices everything when we go riding, and specific things — big white hay tarps, pigs, a certain design of vertical slats — trigger a reaction. But she has been trained as a show horse as well as basic trail training.
Most crucially, Mocha respects the verbal cue whoa. Because she is attentive to her surroundings, I can anticipate her reactions by looking ahead and be ready. She has a clear and distinctive “tell” to warn me that there’s an upcoming problem. She will raise her head high, ears forward. Then she stops, followed by backing a step, then starting to turn.
Mocha also remembers her training so that even when we approach a problematic trigger for her, I can take up a firmer contact, perhaps talk to her, and work her past it. I rarely have to bail out of the saddle in the face of an issue. Even though her temperament is hotter and more reactive than Sparkle’s, that combination of attentiveness, training retention, and predictability of reaction makes her a safer ride in iffy situations than Sparkle ever was.
Remembering training, being attentive to surroundings, and predictability of reaction is very important in a road horse. But enjoyment is also a factor and part of my delight riding her on the road. For Mocha, getting out on the road is entertainment. She lines out in a big, back-swinging walk with a level head and neck, ears forward, watching everything we see. I have as much fun observing her reactions and curiosity about what we see as I do observing things myself.
Not every rider has the nerves, awareness, and skill to handle road riding. It takes a confident rider who isn’t easily rattled by unexpected situations to go out on the roads. It’s never a question of if you will run into a situation where the horse reacts; it’s a matter of when the horse reacts. Even the calmest horse will encounter something that fries their little pea brain. What happens after that often depends on the rider. If the rider panics or reacts fearfully to a problem, then the horse thinks that there definitely is something to be worried about, and will react. But if the rider remains calm and steady, then either that confidence passes through to the horse or else the human can find a means to safely work through the situation.
A nervous rider simply doesn’t belong on the road alone. Period. There are too many complex problems which arise to be safe, even on the quietest gravel backroad. Going out with a confident and skilled rider might be all right, depending on the setting. Otherwise — no. Just no.
Road riders need to be aware. One of my trainers constantly said that the rider has to be aware of what’s going on fifty feet ahead in arena and show ring situations. On the road, the rider needs to be looking ahead not just fifty feet but five hundred feet or more. Anticipating oncoming vehicles or a potentially reactive situation is crucial for safe road riding. The rider not only needs to be looking for vehicles but potential escape lines, and have a plan to evade problems. While road riding is enjoyable, it is not a scenario where the rider can check out and be a passenger. Things just happen too fast.
Skill also plays a huge factor. Besides being calm and aware, the rider needs to know what to do to prevent a problem or ride their way out of it. It goes without saying that the rider needs to have a good, balanced, independent seat. If the horse suddenly balks in the face of oncoming traffic, the rider needs to be able to make the quick choice to push the horse through whatever it is that they are balking at, or bailing out of the saddle. Sometimes the right choice is to ride through it. Sometimes the proper solution is to bail. Each situation is different, and the rider needs to have the skill set to handle it.
And, of course, riding with a helmet on the roads is an absolute MUST.
When all is said and done, the decision to ride on the roads comes down to what the rider feels comfortable in doing. It’s not a choice for the less-skilled rider these days, nor is it an option for a horse more comfortable with being ridden in the arena. There are times when I just don’t choose to ride on the roads, and that may depend on my perception about what the safest option is for what the conditions are like, how I’m feeling, and what kind of physical and mental shape the horse is in on that particular day.
But when everything is working right — road riding is a lot of fun, as long as safety parameters are respected. And that’s a whole different topic.
(Disclaimer: riding horses on the road is not a safe choice for every horse and rider. This essay is not meant to be an endorsement of this choice, especially for riders who are less-experienced)