Horse sense lacking

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GREENE – Riding horseback along College Road, Gary Moody’s been yelled at, honked at, threatened. Speeders have whipped by, nearly missing him. Once, a driver revved his engine just as he got close, spooking Moody’s horse so badly the animal took off – with Moody hanging on.

“It’s like a mini-racetrack out there,” Moody said. “They don’t realize that’s a 1,000-pound animal.”

To get to trails and pastures, horseback riders often have to spend at least some time traveling roads. To safeguard them, Maine law gives them virtually the same rights and responsibilities as cyclists, and requires cars and trucks to make almost the same accommodations.

But riders say drivers who are anything but accommodating are endangering their lives.

“People go by 50, 55 miles per hour, tooting the horn, giving us the finger,” Moody said. “Me, I just want to get off the horse and throw something at them.”

For generations, Maine law has protected animals on the road. As cars took over, fewer people used horses to get where they were going. Riders now often use roads only for short distances.

Moody, who owns Moody’s Riding Stable in Greene, rides his horses for a quarter-mile on College Road, a favorite street for commuters and speeders. He stays on just long enough to go from his stable to the woods.

“I go out and hug the side of the road as much as possible,” he said.

In West Paris, horseback rider Dawn McNutt travels along Ellingwood Road, a narrow, shoulderless back road. Drivers honk or blare the radio so loudly she can feel the thumping bass as they pass. She stays on the road just long enough to go from one trail to another.

“I would avoid it entirely if I could,” she said.

McNutt, who’s worked to desensitize her horses to the chaos, hasn’t been injured. But, she said a car once drove so close to her horseback-riding neighbor that she went off the road and into a ditch.

“Anything can happen, and it will with horses,” she said.

Under state law, horseback riders must abide by the same road rules as drivers. That means signaling, halting at stop signs and riding in the same direction as traffic.

Also under state law, drivers must give horses the right of way and must be reasonably cautious. That means slowing down and giving horses a wide berth. And no honking.

“I have friends even who do that. What are you thinking when you honk your horn at me? Sure, you want to say ‘Hi,’ but are you trying to kill me?” said Moody, who’s built a trail between his stable and the woods to lessen his dependence on the road.

Drivers who throw things at a rider, frighten a horse or don’t use caution can be fined $139. Androscoggin County Sheriff Guy Desjardins said his department gets complaints once in a while, but he can’t remember giving a ticket.

“We never could catch up with them,” he said.

Sometimes, horseback riders say, drivers really don’t mean to cause a problem.

“I think it’s just ignorance. They don’t know any better,” said Sandy Craig, president of the Maine Trail Riders Association and a horse owner.

When she takes her horses onto Route 9 in Lisbon Falls, she said, drivers unintentionally crowd the horse as they pass.

“You can feel the air as they go by,” she said, adding she’s had a car touch her stirrup.

The answer? Education, riders say.

“People need to be aware,” Craig said.

Advice for drivers:
• Slow down

• Watch the horse as you approach. Be ready to stop if it’s spooked

• Give riders a wide berth when passing

• Turn down the radio if it’s blaring

• Don’t honk or yell

• Don’t throw things

• Be courteous
Advice for horseback riders:

• Wear bright colors during the day and lights at night

• Know the road and be familiar with the area

• In groups, ride single file

• Stay as far to the right as possible and obey the rules of the road

• If you must take a young horse on the road, do so within a group of older horses and experienced riders

• Pay attention to what’s going on around you

• Don’t presume a car will give you the right of way

• Say thank you to courteous drivers

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