By Maggie Slepian • May 18, 2022
I was ten years old when I first realized how much my horse hated bikes. Our dark brown mare was one of the calmest horses I’ve ever known, and I spent a lot of time riding her along a quiet stretch of dirt road where we rarely encountered people or cars. But on this day, a bike quickly and silently entered her field of vision from behind, with no advance warning. She bolted to the side and I went flying onto the dirt road, unharmed but embarrassed and shaken. The cyclist felt terrible, my horse ran back to the stable, and I had to take the shoe-leather express of shame to go find her.
Horses are prey animals, which means no matter how calm they seem, they can get spooked when something triggers their fight-or-flight response. Bicycles are one of these things, and on a trail, hikers can be scary to horses as well.
Shared-use trails are a beautiful aspect of our public lands, and if you’ve spent enough time on these trails, you’ve likely encountered horses and pack strings. Over my decades of riding and pack trips, my former job as a horseback guide, and my current job working in tight spaces with crowds as a film wrangler, I’ve picked up some insights into safely sharing the trail with horses.
1) Know (and Follow) Correct Trail Yield Etiquette
You’ve probably seen the signs: Bikes yield to hikers and horses, and hikers yield to horses. When you pass a horse, make sure you’re off to the side of the trail, the rider knows you’re there, and you avoid sudden movements. For bikers on a shared-use trail, use your bell around corners and blind spots. I usually get off and walk my bike around the horses, unless the rider tells me the horse doesn’t care. Must be nice to have a horse who isn’t scared of bikes.
2) Announce Your Presence to Horses and Riders
As soon as you see a horse and rider approaching, step off to the side and let them know you’re there, loudly. Horses don’t like to be surprised by a silent creature standing behind a tree. I usually say something like “Hey, I’m off to the right of the trail and I don’t want to spook your horse.” You might feel like a dork, but as a rider, I really appreciate the heads up from hikers and bikers.
3) Consider Leaving the Headphones at Home
The sooner you let the horses know you’re there the better, which might mean hiking without headphones on a shared-use trail. Horses are big animals, and you should be able to hear them coming far enough ahead of time to greet them and avoid surprising them. This is also helpful if a horse is catching up to you from behind—their rider needs to let you know they’re there. Being alert goes for all directions, whether you’re coming up behind them, crossing paths, or they’re approaching you.
4) Predict The Unpredictable
We always say that there is no such thing as a “bomb-proof horse.” Even the calmest, most trail-experienced horse can get spooked by something unfamiliar, activating that prey instinct and causing them to bolt. Most horses weigh 800-1,400 pounds, and they can move quickly and unpredictably, so move slowly around them and avoid sudden movements, especially around their faces. Always ask the rider if you can pet them, give them a wide berth, and never walk directly behind them.
5) Recognize That Horses See The World Differently
Horses have both monocular and binocular vision, which means they have a range of about 350° of vision, and can see scary things (bikes) approaching from behind. Like all prey animals, their eyes are located along the sides of their heads, so they can see approaching predators with each eye independently, as well as using their eyes together to see in front of them. However, only about 65° of their vision is binocular (looking ahead) and the remaining 285° is monocular (each eye working separately). For this reason, a horse often turns its head side to side to see better.
6) Keep Your Dogs on a Leash!
Congrats on having a dog with excellent recall! Still, please put them on a leash when you approach a horse or know a horse is approaching you. This is for everyone’s safety, including your dog’s. I’ve seen enough horse-savvy dogs get tangled up under the wrong horse to know it’s best for the dogs to be kept far away and under leash control. You don’t know the horse’s experience or attitude toward dogs, and if your dog hasn’t been around horses, they also don’t know how to act around flying hooves.
Maggie Slepian is a writer and film wrangler, with decades of horse experience on trails, film sets, and in the arena. Learn more about Maggie at maggieslepian.com .