Though you won't see equestrians on the trails too often it is still important important how to deal with an encounter with someone on horseback, should it occur. There aren't a lot of horse riders or equestrian groups out there but knowing how to deal with those on horseback is critical.
Otis Calef, who isa long time rider and has assisted me on a lot of trail maintenance trips with his pack stock, provided me with a lot of good information about hiker-equestrian and mountain bike-equestrian encounters on our local trails that I think is valuable to pass along.
"I think it is very important to discuss this issue, especially with with mountain bikers, because horses can be very dangerous," he said. "There are many different kinds of horses with different personalities, physical abilities, and training. There is stock which is pretty reliable on trails. These animals pay attention to where they put their feet. They know, recognize and can deal with hazzards, and they have experience with most of the conditions they will encounter on a mountain trail.
But that still doesn't mean wrecks don't happen. I have lead our Forest Service string of mules past backpackers with high external frames and the animals have walked very wide of those people and have been highly relieved to get past alive. When you consider that a lot of people who go on an occasional trail ride in the mountains have only one horse and that horse may be young and green, in training, or that it is mature but not as suited for travel on mountain trails as our Forest Service stock, you can begin to visualize the dangers."
This hit home for me, primarily I think because I've always felt a bit uneducated about horses. I've never really felt I understood them or how they act. Here is a short primer on horse behavior taken from the fall 1999 edition of the Terra Times published by Corba, the Concerned Off-Road Bicyclists Association which, hopefully, will enlighten you a bit.
• Horses are “fear and flight” animals. This means that when something threatens them, their first tendency is to run.
• Horses can sleep while standing up. They can “lock” their hips (kind of like a using a kickstand).
• A horse can see nearly 330 degrees without moving its head. It’s only blind spot is directly behind it. However, they are “monocular,” which means their eyes see independently of each other; If a horse sees something with its left eye and not its right, its brain will catalogue the memory for the left eye only. The horse needs to see something with both eyes (from both sides) to have memory for both eyes.
• Horses have extremely sensitive hearing, an excellent sense of smell, and fair vision.
• Horses learn by experience. The only way they become comfortable around hikers or mountain bikers is by being exposed to them over and over again.
• Horses use “emotional imprinting” to learn. This means that they associate a certain emotion (i.e. happiness, fear, anger, etc.) with everything that they see, smell, hear, or taste. In some cases this is a good thing; in others it’s a bad thing. A horse that has had one bad experience with a hiker or a mountain bike will remember that incident for a long time. One scary encounter with a mountain bike will erase months of positive conditioning.
• Horses like to smell you. If you get the chance, and the rider says it’s okay, gently blow into a horse’s nostrils. In response, the horse will blow back. It’s kind of like the universal horse-to-horse greeting.
• Horses are naturally “high-strung” animals. They like to keep moving. The younger they are, the more they hate standing still.
• Horses are herd animals. When horses are together, their reaction to a situation will be different than their reaction to the same situation when they are alone. As a general rule, when a horse is alone, it is hyper-aware of its surroundings. This can make a horse more prone to spooking. When horses are together, they tend to rely on each other for security. In groups, horses will take cues from each other as to how to react to approaching hikers or bicyclists, leaves blowing in the wind, balloons tied to a fence post, dogs, etc.
The ten things you should do when meeting horses on trails to make sure both you and the equestrian have a safe and pleasant encounter:
• Greet equestrians as you approach them. Continue talking to them as they approach you. (This way the horse knows you’re human and not some strange creature made of metal, lycra, plas-tic, and rubber).
• As you approach an equestrian, ask if you should pass or if you should stop and let the horse pass you. In most cases, just be ultra-polite, stop at the side of the trail, and signal for the horse to continue its approach.
• When stopping on the trail so a horse can pass you, bicyclists should get off their bikes and stand next to them. Do not sit on the ground next to your bike; this could spook the horse, who may see you as a crouching animal about to pounce. Hikers should mve off the trail and ask the equestrian what he or she would like them to do.
• If you are on a bike, slow down when approaching blind corners on the trail. In this situation, horses will hear you coming before you see them. Use a handlebar-mounted bell to signal your approach when coming to a blind comer.
• Weird sounds can spook horses. When riding around horses on the trail, avoid making any sudden noises. Horses especially disike the kind of sounds that skidding or brakes squealing produces.
• Give the horses as much room as possible when passing. Do not pass equestrians by walking or riding off the trail and into the brush, undergrowth, leaves, etc.
• Control the speed and motion of your bicycle when encountering horses on trails. Sudden movements like jumps, wheelies, endos, etc., may be perceived by horses as attacking motions. Trail runners should stop and wait for the horses to pass by rather than continuing to run around them.
• Look for a red bow on the tail of any horse you are approaching. Equestrians tie red bows on the tails of horses who frequently kick. Stay away from the back or sides (yes, horses can kick out to the side, too) of a horse with a red bow on its tail.