Road Horse Chronicles — Why I Ride Roads

Mocha on one of the roads

“We used to do club rides to the rodeo grounds along the highway,” my barn owner said as we drove along the route I planned to ride my horse along to her new pasture. “Too much traffic for that now, but it’s a good wide ditch.” I studied the ditch. Would it be a safe ride? I wasn’t too worried about the rest of my ride, but that highway exposure was problematic. Still, as long as Mocha cooperated, we could handle the half-mile distance.

Two days later, I cussed as Mocha balked at a short length of picket fence with a wagon wheel mounted on it while heavy vacation traffic approached.

“You didn’t flick an ear at the three oversized loads of construction equipment roaring up behind you, but this sets you off? THIS?!” I grumbled as I bailed off, grabbing my split reins and leading her past the offending fence while wildly signaling oncoming traffic to slow down. Luckily it was just a short walk to our turnoff but nonetheless the cluelessness of drivers roaring past us was annoying.

Fortunately, that’s one of the rare problematic moments I’ve encountered while riding horses on roads over the many years I’ve done it. And it has nothing on a few encounters I had as a kid and much less-experienced rider — riding a horse that wasn’t as well-trained as Mocha, with no helmet. There’s nothing like having a horse getting ready to buck with you just as a log truck roars around a steeply-banked turn.

So why do I ride on my local roads now that I’m in my sixties and should have the good sense to do otherwise? Because in spite of the hassles, I still enjoy doing it. My horse enjoys it. And it’s good for her. Plus for short distance movement, it makes more sense than hooking up the horse trailer.

I will caution that road riding is not for many people. To do it requires the right combination of horse and rider experience and temperament, as well as rideable roads.

And even then there are no guarantees of safety. It’s a question of when, not if, the horse reacts to something. A rider on the road needs to have the ability to anticipate trouble and respond effectively without panicking. Not everyone can do it.

Why ride horses on roads? Several reasons. Perhaps there are no other options. Or long walks on hilly, quiet roads might be just the thing for a horse recovering from an injury to build up strength. It might provide a mental break from schooling for both horse and rider. Road riding can be a part of training. And, in some locations, it can provide a nice scenic alternative to bicycling or hiking. You see more from a horse’s back than you do in a vehicle or on a bicycle, faster than if you were on foot.

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The spectrum of opinions on riding horses on the roads runs from those who insist that it should not happen anywhere, anytime, period, to those who ride everywhere on the roads, at any gait. I grew up doing a limited amount of road riding on a very busy highway with many log trucks as well as a short spur road with limited traffic. A friend of mine galloped her horses on the narrow shoulder along the road, much to the dismay of our local 4H group and leaders. She never got hurt, but how, I don’t know. Her horses were saints. I wouldn’t have dared do it with either of my regular childhood mounts, in part because “do not gallop your horse on pavement!” had been drilled into my head from my earliest days riding. Galloping on pavement (besides the obvious safety issues) is hard on a horse’s feet and legs.

I started riding on the roads because I only had a pasture to ride in otherwise. My parents did not own a horse trailer and had no inclination to buy one. If I wanted to get to a 4H club meeting I had to ride the roads. If I wanted to ride in something other than slick muddy slop in a wet Western Oregon winter, I had to ride the roads. Fortunately, I had a neighbor with the desire to get out and ride, and a lot of experience in road riding. I learned basic safety and confidence while riding with her, and developed a fondness for it then. It was a nice break from pasture riding and I got to see new things.

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Time passed. I spent many years not owning a horse but riding in lessons, riding as a working student, and talking with trainers about road riding. When I got my own horse as a green five-year-old, I got her solid in the arena, then started venturing off of the place. Talk about a drastic difference between the horse of my childhood and Mocha. Road riding took her away from familiar walls and fences. We had a quarter-mile extra wide stretch to learn about riding on the roads on — and we needed every bit of it. The first time we went out, she must have looked like a drunk, because instead of turning her head while walking in a straight line, she veered off in the direction we were looking. Between laughs as I straightened her out, I realized she needed to expand her horizons…and so road riding became a nice little break after a schooling ride.

But the roads weren’t our main focus of riding. Not then. The local roads had minimal to no ditches and shoulders, and a lot of fast drivers and race bicyclists riding in packs that spooked horses. I’d seen what happened when a group of cyclists blew by riders. Experienced it myself in an arena next to the road. The sharp swish-swish of racing bicycle tires in a pack is a scary noise even for horses accustomed to other types of bicycles. We stuck to a safe stretch by the barn, and I didn’t ride on the road when the training cyclists were out in the summer.

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We moved Mocha to a small rural Eastern Oregon community upon our retirement, while she was in the midst of recovering from a severe attack of white line disease and other issues that affected her soundness. That first summer we didn’t hit the roads because she wasn’t rideable. But I kept eying the possibilities. So many quiet gravel roads. Stunning views. And, as she recovered, it became obvious that riding in an arena wasn’t going to provide the work she needed. Plus she was living in pastures where riding wouldn’t be possible. It was expensive and time-consuming to hitch up the horse trailer to haul her for a ride, and she needed riding time. I needed riding time. So…the roads.

One of the assets of road riding was as part of her recovery, Mocha had to work in long straight lines at the walk to strengthen her hocks, longer than in an arena. The cost in time and gas of hooking up the horse trailer to go elsewhere was an issue.

Plus she simply wasn’t mentally ready for trail riding. Mocha was a barn and arena horse for fifteen years. For her, carrying a rider up and down hills was a mental challenge. Traffic was not a problem for her since she had grown up next to a large commercial nursery and had seen and heard large equipment regularly. But traveling up and down even the smallest inclines was something she needed to learn about. Our nearby gravel roads provided gentle to more steep slopes for her to learn on. She knew how to handle roads already from our past experience. So off we went.

After the first few rides, she relaxed and began to enjoy them, from the antics of easily startled whitetail deer to cows who saw the appearance of a horse as an indication that maybe it was time to move to a new pasture for better grass (in the cow mind, at least). Instead of being nervous, she started looking for new roads to explore, ears forward, head and neck level, lining out in a big walk that helped build up her hind end. The road exposure not only strengthened her physically but it helped prepare her mentally for trail riding. When she did move on to trails, she wasn’t fazed by seeing different things or traversing up and down steep hillsides.

But here’s the catch. I couldn’t have done this without my past experience, her past training, and our temperaments. Successful and safe road riding requires a combination of qualities in both horse and rider — and that’s before you throw in the variables of the various encounters horse and rider will have with pedestrians, bicycles, and vehicles. Some people and horses just can’t handle those challenges.

I’ll discuss those elements in another post.

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