How we share the road

Gwen Chamberlain
Sunday morning is a busy time for horses and buggies on area roads. This horse quickened its pace when it approached and passed the photographer.

An important element that contributes to the rural charm of the Yates County area is the presence of horse-drawn vehicles on the roads and streets. But sharing the roads with these sometimes slow moving rigs can create the need for different driving strategies for motorists.

And occasionally, an incident with a horse-drawn vehicle can put motorists or passers-by in a position to lend a hand to a buggy or wagon driver.

Last Wednesday in Penn Yan a group of motorists and passers-by assisted a man whose team of horses hitched to a spring wagon fell to the pavement.

The driver was able to calm the horses and instruct others on how to unhitch the harness while several motorists waited patiently at the intersection of Liberty and Elm Streets.

The team of horses was soon up and under the experienced control of their driver.

“That sounds like a nice scenario of how it ought to work,” says Ivan Martin, after hearing an accounting of the incident. Martin has been driving the same buggy that he brought when he moved to Yates County in 1977. Recalling a similar incident he and his wife, Anna, experienced a few years ago, he said the most important thing to remember if you witness a horse in some kind of distress is to follow the direction of the horse owner or someone who is knowledgeable about horses.

“If the owner of the horse doesn’t maintain control, things could get bad,” he says.

The first thing the owner of the downed team did last week was to warn others to stay clear of the animal’s legs and hoofs.

Martin says horses get frustrated sometimes when they have to stop, so motorists might notice what seems to be agitation or anxiety. In the Martin’s case, their horse was ready to go home from P&C, and although Ivan attempted to keep the horse still, the animal slipped, lost its footing and fell to the pavement. It was unable to keep from slipping while trying to regain its stance until someone brought a rubber mat. In the meantime, witnesses attempting to be helpful with comfort, water and offers of medication were anything but, says Martin.

When the horse was up, all he wanted to do was go home, so he set off in a trot, fleeing the scene. Another motorist, misunderstanding what he was seeing, scolded Martin for “running” the horse.

Ivan and his daughter, Mary Ann, have a few tips for sharing the road with horse-drawn vehicles, and helping out when things might go awry.

They say motorists should give a horse and buggy or wagon more room than you would give a car when you are following. When stopped, give extra room. “If a horse wants to go backwards, there’s little you can do,” explains Ivan.

“A good rule of thumb is to stop your vehicle far enough back so that you can see where the rear wheels of the buggy touch the road,” says Yates County Sheriff Ron Spike. This should give you 10-12 feet of clearance between you and the buggy.

Ivan suggests motorists and pedestrians pay attention to a horse’s body language. Is the head held high? Is the stopped horse “dancing around” acting impatient? If so, be careful about sudden actions, sounds or other things that could startle the horse.

Loud engines, “jake brakes,” flapping tarps, sirens, leaf blowers or other potentially startling sights or sounds could also have an impact on a horse.

Mary Ann suggests that motorists should know that the horse is traveling at the pace he chooses. They often know their routine routes and know when they are headed home, or another familiar destination, which may make them pick up the pace. “Horses look froward to going,” adds Ivan.

Sharing the road with horse drawn vehicles is also another good reason to be attentive to your own driving. “One of the greatest risks recently is people on cell phones while they are driving,” says Mary Ann. Spike adds, “The slowness of the buggies and the inattentiveness of motor vehicle drivers is the main safety issue.”

Vehicle drivers need to be extra cautious when passing horse-drawn buggies or farm equipment. To avoid other possible collisions, car drivers should anticipate turns made into fields, farms, businesses, and driveways, adds Spike.

If there is an incident, such as when Martin’s horse fell, or the team of two horses went down last week, stay calm, and follow the directions of the horse owner or anyone who is knowledgable.

Don’t try to “comfort” the animal. Let the owner or driver handle the animal, and stay away from legs and hooves. Don’t attempt to hug or pet an animal in distress, and know your own limitations.

Don’t make unhelpful comments or remarks. “Things work best when people are courteous and reasonable,” says Ivan.

Spike reminds motorists, “The horse and buggy is considered a valid traffic unit on our public highways. We have made efforts to have many highway horse and buggy yellow warning signs posted on roads where traffic is regular.”

He is working on securing a grant to pay for additional road signs to remind motorists of buggies on the roads.

Spike adds, “Many of our town roads are narrower than county and state roads, so there is less room to maneuver both the vehicle, as well as the buggy. Passing a buggy can be dangerous if the vehicle operator is not alert and doesn’t reduce speed.”

Most horse drawn buggies travel at 5-8 mph, and can be even slower on hills, so the “closing” speed of a motor vehicle can be an important factor.

“Horses do often become tired, especially inside the village as they have travelled a few miles already to get there,” he adds.

Spike also notes buggy driver’s view of the road and surroundings may not be as clear as one would think, given the design and position, and if there are mirrors on the rig. Thus, the buggy operator may not be aware that vehicles are behind, and if so, how close.

Ivan Martin says, “Most of us are aware that even though we have a legally acceptable vehicle on the road, we can cause some inconvenience. We could drive out in the lane of traffic, but we stay to the side. It would be nice to see a nod of recognition if we’re off on the shoulder so you can safely get by.”

“We’re willing to deal with the traffic if society is willing to let us live in peace,” adds Mary Ann, later adding, “People generally are courteous and respectful of us on and off the road, and we appreciate their patience and courtesy when at times we do slow down traffic.”

Also noting the number of businesses in the area that welcome the horse-drawn vehicles by installing hitching rails in convenient locations, she adds, “We feel fortunate to be living among people so accepting and accommodating of our different lifestyle.”

Suggestions for safely sharing the road with horse-drawn vehicles

These guidelines should help enhance the safety of all concerned in the presence of horses or for emergency personnel working with mishaps and accident scenes involving horses.

Do’s & Don’ts For Motor Vehicle or Machinery Operators and Others

1. Do provide extra space around horses to allow for their unpredictable nature, and do not approach or pet strange horses without permission.

2. Don’t ‘’triple lane” in passing a buggy unless there is adequate space. If the horse “shies” sideways, your vehicle might be side-swiped if adequate space is not allowed.

3. Don’t tailgate. A horse can stop very suddenly. At a traffic stop, an impatient horse may suddenly back up. This maneuver is very hard for the buggy driver to control.

4. Don’t make sudden unexpected movements or noises with equipment or trucks. Stop the backhoe or jackhammer. Secure that flapping tarp. Let up on the engine brake. Avoid air brakes directly next to horses if possible. Pick up the blade or stop the snow plow. (A picked up blade on a moving truck looks less threatening to a horse than a stopped truck does).

Emergency Personnel and Others at the Scene of an Incident or Accident

1. When first approaching a scene, don’t immediately call law enforcement, first responders or veterinarians unless you are actually requested to do so. Maintain a safe distance, unless you have experience with horses. Ask how you can help.

2. In any incident involving an out-of-control or runaway horse, every effort should be made to stop and secure the horse, or divert the horse and buggy from a roadway. However, this should be under the direction of the owner or experienced horse person.

3. In any incident involving a horse that is “down,” the first priority is to secure the horse. A “down” horse can be controlled by simply holding his head down. Every effort should be made to prevent the horse from escaping and causing further damage or injury.

4. Once a down horse is secured, the buggy should be unhitched. This can be dangerous, as a down horse can kick violently, and flailing hoofs can be deadly. Ideally, this should be done by an experienced person, or under the supervision of such a person. After the situation is stabilized, the horse and buggy should be removed from the roadway.