If you don’t have direct access to miles of trails or well-maintained arenas, you may find yourself needing to ride your horse on the road.
You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn that in most places, it’s perfectly legal to take your equestrian endeavors off-property and down a country lane.
But hold your horses! Before you hit the highway, you’ll want to plan ahead and make sure that you’re familiar with the local equine and traffic laws particular to your area – and that it’s safe for you and your horse as well as the drivers and pedestrians around you.
The Legality of Riding on the Road
Every state, county, and town will have specific rules and regulations that govern the legality of riding your horse on the road.
While there are no federal laws that prevent you from taking your horse down city streets, you still need to make sure that you’re not breaking any local rules.
Horses as Vehicles vs. Horses as Livestock
Most laws pertaining to horses regard them as livestock – they govern how they should be kept, where and when they can be slaughtered, who is liable for equestrian accidents, etc.
However, most of these laws apply to horses being ridden or driven as a matter of an “equine activity” or managed as a herd of loose animals.
Horses being ridden or driven on the road are generally governed by traffic laws. They must share the road with motorized vehicles, and are therefore treated as such in the eyes of the law.
Individual rules can vary from region to region with regards to exactly when and where you can ride, but for the most part – it’s legal to ride your horse on the road except where expressly forbidden.
Horse-drawn carriages and sleighs are considered “slow-moving vehicles,” and are also governed by traffic laws. However, there are some exceptions for carriages – usually regarding tourism.
For example, you can usually drive your own horse and buggy down the road to the corner store, but you may need a specific commercial license if you want to pick up passengers.
You don’t need a license to ride a horse, but you may need one if you want to do other things like drive a buggy in specific areas, guide other people on a trail ride, or pick up passengers in a carriage.
But, if you just intend to hit the trail (that may include some sections of road), you don’t need a license to do so.
General Rules for Drivers
Many states have laws in place to protect equestrians on the road, although some are more comprehensive than others. Here’s an example from New Hampshire:
“Every person having control or charge of a vehicle shall, whenever upon any way and approaching any horse, drive, manage, and control such vehicle in such a manner as to exercise every reasonable precaution to prevent the frightening of such horse, and to insure the safety and protection of any person riding or driving the same.” (source)
For the most part, vehicles must yield to equestrians and avoid frightening the horses (no honking or speeding past), and everyone should work together to share the road.
General Rules for Riders
Equestrians need to make sure they’re obeying traffic laws and any posted signage. Highways are generally off-limits, as are train pathways and many bridges. Use equestrian crossings wherever possible, and avoid busy intersections.
Most states specify that you should ride on the right-hand side of the road with the flow of traffic (except in Colorado, where you must ride on the left). Ride in a single-file line if you’re in a group, and stay as near to the shoulder as you can. (source)
When and Where it is Illegal to Ride
While there are few laws expressly forbidding riding on a road, you still want to pay attention to the specific rules of your area. Here are some examples of applicable traffic laws (although this is far from an exhaustive list) (source):
- Louisiana: Don’t tie your horse to a tree on the highway, or let him stand in a way that endangers it (the tree, not the horse). Riding is also not permitted on paved highways. (source)
- Alabama: Don’t stake your horse or other livestock animals on the right-of-way on a highway.
- Idaho, Mississippi, Pennsylvania: You must cross bridges at a gait no faster than a walk. (Fun fact, the fine for breaking Mississippi law from 1857 is $5 – unless there’s no posted sign, and then the fee is waived). (source)
- Nevada: No “reckless” riding.
- Kentucky, New Jersey Pennsylvania, New York: No racing on the highways.
- Kentucky: Don’t ride your horse on a levee.
While most states don’t have constitutional laws that expressly forbid riding on state highways, equestrians still have to follow the rules of the road (and most highways specifically exclude horses and pedestrians).
You should always obey all posted signage when riding your horse, for the safety of you and the drivers around you. Use equestrian crossings when applicable, and avoid riding on areas designated for pedestrians only (such as sidewalks).
Find the Laws in Your State
Navigating your state’s laws and statutes can be a tricky business. While consulting a lawyer is your best bet, you really just need to do a quick search to find out if there are any unique laws in your area.
This table provides a link to the search page for each state’s legislature. When searching for traffic statues, use terms like “animal riding,” “horse riding,” “horse,” “livestock,” or “non-motorized vehicle” to get the best results.
If you find your state’s website too unwieldy to navigate, you can also try Michigan State University’s Legal and Historical Animal Center (starting with these horse-related statutes). You can also try https://lp.findlaw.com/ to search for more specific laws in your area.
Even if you don’t understand all the fancy legalese, just know that it’s pretty much legal in most places to ride your horse on the road – as long as you’re being safe about it.
Even if you have a legal right to be on the road, always take safety precautions when sharing the road with motor vehicles. Here are some basic tips (source):
- Stick to appropriate trails and bridle paths as much as possible, and avoid roads if you can. It’ll be better for your horse’s feet, trails and bridlepaths are often designed with your horse in mind and you can avoid speeding cars and trucks.
- Plan ahead. If you can’t avoid roads, choose a route that includes quieter streets with little traffic, wide shoulders, and no blind corners.
- Wear bright, reflective clothing. Now is the time to break out the flashiest gear you can find. The more easily a driver can see you, the more likely you’ll avoid an accident.
- Spend some time training your horse, and make sure he’s ready to hit the open road. If you plan to ride on the roads often, take the time and desensitize your horse to common sights and sounds, and teach them to handle spooking without tossing you into the street. (source)
- Use the buddy system, and always wear your helmet.
Avoid Dangerous Situations
Even if your horse must follow traffic laws, you can’t get a ticket for speeding or running a red light, and you can’t be “pulled over” for lawfully riding your horse in a place where you are legally allowed to be.
However, there are still consequences for riding your horse recklessly or breaking explicit traffic laws.
Don’t drink and ride – Horseback riding under the influence
Most DUI and DWI laws apply to people operating a motor vehicle while under the influence, which may or may not apply to riding a horse.
In some states, people have been charged and convicted of driving under the influence or driving while intoxicated (including California, Texas, and Florida) while riding their horse drunk.
In states where it’s not technically illegal under the traffic code to ride a horse after a few drinks, they were found guilty of other misdemeanors like public intoxication. (source)
Texting While Horseback Riding
In today’s tech-savvy society, the same laws would probably apply to texting or using the phone while riding as they do while driving (which can vary greatly from state to state).
Generally speaking – if it’s illegal for drivers to do it, then consider it illegal for equestrians on the road as well.
Other Legal Consequences
Even if you can’t be charged with a DUI/DWI, you should still avoid doing anything that could compromise the safety of you or your horse.
If an incident occurs, you could be liable for damage that happens to someone’s property or vehicle.
You could also be charged with animal endangerment, public endangerment, or public intoxication if you’re caught riding your horse while under the influence. (source)