Pajarito Riding Club members ride the local trails. Courtesy photo
BY LAURA MULLANE
Vice President, Pajarito Riding Club
As the weather becomes warmer and many of us head outside to enjoy the County’s excellent trail system, now is a good time to talk about how best to share the trails with horses.
It’s good to start with a basic understanding of how horses see the world. Horses are prey animals. This means they’re ruled by one primary fear: the fear of being eaten. Never mind that most domesticated horses today have never known anything but safe, comfortable lives. Millions of years of evolution tell them that a mountain lion could be hiding around every bush or rock, ready to pounce. This is why seemingly innocuous things such as cyclists, hikers, mailboxes, balloons, umbrellas, tarps, etc. can be the stuff of equine nightmares.
A scared horse has a variety of moves in their repertoire, including leaping forward or sideways, spinning, rearing up, bucking, kicking out—sometimes all at the same time. No matter which trick they pull, each is a threat not only to the rider (who can easily be thrown to the ground), but to anyone nearby as well. A leaping, spinning, or rearing horse can easily knock a person to the ground. A horse kicking out can severely injure someone walking or riding by. A riderless horse will likely bolt and could run people over. That’s why it’s so important to exercise a few simple courtesies when you see a horse and rider on the trail:
1. Make your presence known. Again, horses are prey animals who see everything around them as a potential predator. As such, they hate surprises. The best thing you can do if you are walking or riding near a horse is to let your presence be known as soon as possible. If you’re coming up behind a horse on a bike, call out as soon as you see the horse. Bikes approach quickly, so the sooner the horse and rider know you’re there, the better. Do the same if you’re on foot.
2. Let them know you are human. Sometimes, from a distance, humans look shadowy and very un-human—especially if you’re wearing a helmet or hat, sunglasses, a backpack, or carrying walking sticks. (Babies in backpacks make you some sort of strange, two-headed creature in the eyes of a horse.) The best way to let a horse know that you are, indeed, human is to simply talk to them. Say “hi,” loud enough for the rider to hear you. Chat with the rider (we’re friendly, I promise); chat with the horse (they’re even friendlier). Most horses, as soon as they hear a human voice, will relax, knowing that their chances of being eaten have greatly diminished.
3. Ask the rider for instructions. Stop walking or cycling and ask the rider what they would like you to do. But when you stop, please do it in full view of the horse. Many people, trying to be helpful, will see a horse coming and immediately step off the trail and behind a tree. While we riders appreciate the effort to make way for the horse, shapeless figures hiding behind trees worry horses. Because what else hides behind trees? That’s right, mountain lions. So stop where the horse and rider can see you (if you can step off the trail without hiding, please do) and ask the rider what they would like you to do. They might move off the trail themselves and tell you to come ahead, or ask you to move off the trail further. Or they might ask you to take off your hat and sunglasses or lay down your walking sticks. Rest assured that if someone asks you to do this, it’s because they’re very concerned about how their horse will react to you. So if it’s not too much of a burden to do so, please accommodate the request.
4. Leash or restrain dogs. If you have a dog off-leash and see a horse, please call the dog back to you and restrain it—then follow the same instructions above. Dogs that chase or get too close to horses are a serious danger to the horse, rider, and itself. A well-placed kick by a horse can be fatal to a dog—and a horse that feels threatened won’t hesitate to kick.
These simple rules will help keep everyone happier and safer on the trails this season. If you have questions or would like an opportunity to get to know horses better—or introduce your dog to a horse—email the Pajarito Riding Club at PajaritoRidingClub@gmail.com. We’re based in White Rock and would be happy to share more information with you. Happy trails!