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On the Road.......Again!
by Robyn Cuffey

Living in an area without many dirt roads, I have driven my horses countless miles on paved roads. The majority of my conditioning miles have been done on highways with driveways and intersections becoming my kilometer markers. I have driven many green horses, singles and pairs, on their first road trips. While driving on the road isn't the first and best option for everyone, with thoughtful preparation it can be a good alternative to driving in the arena or fields.

Driving on the road can be the most dangerous place to take your horse. The combination of unpredictable horses and unpredictable motorists can make your driving very hazardous. A sensible horse that travels straight and forward is a must!

If driving on a traveled road is necessary, preparation of the horse is of utmost importance. The first consideration is how steady the horse is in equation when driving on the road. What makes the trip more dangerous is the variety of distractions that will be encountered on the side of the road such as trash cans, mailboxes, dogs, cows, lawn mowers, guard rails or running children and in the road itself like manhole covers, changes from light to dark pavement, cement or wooden bridges and painted lines. These distractions are what will end you up in front of an oncoming vehicle. It only takes one spook to put you in extreme danger. If you can't get down your driveway without your horse looking at things he may not be a good candidate for driving on the road.

Before heading out on a busy highway you must be as sure as you can be, considering the nature of horses, that your horse will not be spooking at these distractions. To find out what his reaction will be, lead your horse down to the road and let him stand and watch cars go by. Start taking short walks down the road to see if there is any nervousness. I always start on a less heavily traveled road, one with many open yards and driveways in case an escape route is needed. I then progress to long lining the horse on the road. Now the horse will have to head off boldly in front of you without you beside him for security. Be sure he will stand quietly for whatever length of time you ask. You never know if you'll have to wait for a school bus and you must stop for traffic and stop signs like everyone else.

Work at home on moving your horse's body from side to side using your whip. This can be done by standing next to him and placing your hand or your whip on his side while saying some voice command like "step over". Praise him when he responds. Then try standing behind him in your driving position and touch him on the same spot with your whip while saying the same voice command. Being able to control your horse's sideways movements will make him safer on the road if he decides to spook at something.

Meanwhile, planning some controlled horse-and-vehicle meetings will give you and your horse safe exposure to these dangerous moving objects. While holding the horse without blinders on, have someone you know drive towards you very slowly. When the horse doesn't react, have the car pass wide from behind. Very carefully increase the speed of the car. From a safe distance have your assistant slam doors, beep the horn and rev their engine. Remember that most vehicle drivers don't understand the flighty nature of horses and some will beep their horns to let you know they are going by, thinking they are doing you a favor! Often, they creep halfway past you and then accelerate quickly. If you are driving a Standardbred, this revving engine taking off could remind him of a starting gate at the racetrack and he may try to follow it. Just remind him to stay at your chosen speed and eventually he won't react.

Desensitize your horse to as many sounds as possible. Do this without and then with blinders on. Thump, rattle or bang as many things as you can think of around your horse at home. There are sound effects tapes you can buy at music stores that have lawn mowers, barking dogs, cows, construction workers, air raids, motorcycles, crowds, trucks and such - play them in the barn! You want to be prepared when your neighbor goes by you hauling his new boat trailer, rattling and clanging all the way.

When you feel that your horse is a solid citizen in controlled situations it's time to try the unpredictable. Be sure to have someone with you to get out and steady the horse if needed. Plan your first trip down a road with driveways and places to get out of the way if needed. Don't head down roads with shoulders that drop off sharply or dense woods along the roadside or fences. Be sure to carry your spares which should include a halter, lead line, rein and trace splice, pliers, knife, duct tape, wire, small hammer and spares of any bolts or fasteners that may come undone. No matter how far you are going DO NOT forget your spares. An accident or equipment failure can happen 10 yards or 10 miles away from home.

Put a slow moving vehicle sign on your cart (one of those orange triangles you see on tractors). These are required by law in most states. Horses do not always have the right of way. You need to check your State motor vehicle laws to know your responsibilities. A tall bicycle flag can also be used to make yourself more visible. Be sure you and your passengers have safety helmets on.

I have found that taking a lane of the road has always been my safest option. Trying to stay towards the shoulder encourages two opposing vehicles to try to squeeze by each other while passing you, putting you in a very dangerous situation if your horse should shy out into the street. Taking that lane as another vehicle forces the vehicles coming up from behind you to take heed and wait to go past when there is no opposing traffic or until you have a safe place to move out of their way. I am very pushy about this position and will even position my whip out over my left wheel to "take up" more room especially when I am in my jog cart . My safety is important and I pay taxes for that road, too, so I feel confident taking this position. I have had no accidents and rarely a truly rude driver go by that puts me in danger. I do still have people pass me going fast so be sure your horse is prepared.

Be ready to signal people to slow down or wait to pass especially on blind turns and hills . Use hand signals to let drivers know where you are going. Thank people for being courteous whenever possible.

Think like a horse! Always be watching for potential distractions far in advance. Don't plan on being right beside a big group of black trash bags just as a delivery truck is coming from the opposite direction no matter how good your horse is. Why take the chance?

The concussion of trotting on the pavement stresses the horse's legs and feet a great deal. Pads or rubber shoes may help soften the jarring on the horse. Long term driving in these conditions will eventually take it's toll on the animal, not unlike racing on a hard racetrack.The smooth surface of a paved road will make pulling a heavy load up and down hills harder as there is less traction. Shoeing with borium or some type of non- slip shoes like rubber is necessary. Just a few trips on pavement with regular steel shoes will wear them out. Taking a horse barefoot down the road will wear his feet down and make him very sore very fast.

Driving on the road is not the most relaxing driving you will do but sometimes it's the only option or not drive at all so . . . . . take care and be as prepared as possible.

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