Dan Sherriff, an international grand prix rider and trainer, who has multiple national titles to his name and is also trainer to the British Dressage pony progress squad, shares his thoughts on riders’ responsibility on the roads and productive hacking
The roads have been busier this year, especially during the second lockdown, and some of the statistics on road incidents released recently by the British Horse Society are shocking (news, 26 November).
With the extra road users has come an increase in road rage, and my clients and I have experienced dangerous situations while out hacking over past months. We try to avoid riding on the roads as much as possible, but in the winter months we cannot access bridleways without using the roads, and it seems as though every month I hear of another incident near us involving horses.
The pandemic has affected many people’s mental health, but it seems that this is translating into aggressive behaviour while driving or cycling – maybe it’s because people are feeling cooped up, or fed up with being told what to do.
I also wonder if there is a psychological element involved, with drivers resenting the fact that in most cases, riders quite literally look down on them. Not everyone shares the same empathy towards horses and country culture, particularly in more built-up areas or near cities, such as where we are in Hatfield, just north of London.
But there are things riders can do to help prevent and diffuse risky situations. It goes without saying that riders should always wear high-vis out hacking – I think there should be a law about that. Carry a phone and try to wear a camera too if you can. Carefully choose the times you hack, especially in winter – the sunlight can get dangerously low quite soon after lunch.
Pay attention to the road: what’s behind you and what’s approaching, and only ride in double file if you have to – for example, if you have an inexperienced horse or rider on your inside, or on certain stretches of road where it is important to prevent cars passing you until you reach a safe passing place. In those situations, make an effort to reach a safe place as quickly as you safely can.
Assess a driver’s speed before asking them to slow down – it isn’t always necessary and can be annoying to drivers who have already adopted a safe speed. And of course, never forget to thank other road users, every time without fail, whether that’s with a smile and wave, or a nod if you don’t want to take a hand off the reins. As a driver myself, it rattles my cage if I am not thanked.
It’s important that riders don’t antagonise situations with other road users, whether by dawdling or failing to thank a driver. It’s our responsibility to stay calm and not add fuel to the fire, even though this can be hard if people are being rude or abusive. If you find yourself involved in a dangerous or aggressive situation, I suggest that you contact your local police force’s countryside liaison officer.
Hacks help horses
Hacking has so many benefits as part of a horse’s routine. I tend to let my horses relax on hacks, and give them a break from schooling. But if we are going uphill, I will ask them to work round and over their back – it is good for them aerobically, and also helps to engage their core muscles and encourage them to push from behind.
I also use bridleways to work on developing a good-quality extended walk, or free walk on a long rein, where the horse is walking with purpose. You can also add shoulder-in along the road, and this is brilliant for horses who tend to spook.
We are lucky to have four miles of disused railway track nearby, which is well surfaced, and I often use it to work on my horses’ straightness in canter and flying changes, without corners getting in the way.
Riding on different terrains – on grass or through the forest, for example – helps a horse learn to adjust and pick his feet up, and I also take my horses down steep banks and through streams, which teaches them to trust me. These differing environments induce tension in a similar way to being at a show, and it’s a chance for you to practise dealing with these emotions and teaching your horse to react calmly.
Whatever your discipline, there is plenty you can do on hacks to help your horse become more balanced, supple and obedient – and that always makes for a nicer ride. And to me, there is nothing better than getting out in the countryside and experiencing nature from your horse’s back.
● What do you think? Have our roads become more dangerous for riders this year? Let us know at email@example.com
Ref: Horse & Hound; 10 December 2020
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