On the hoof – an unlucky encounter with a horse shoe, Tim Dawson (2011)

Original article frirst published at thesundaytimes.co.uk January 2011

A horse knocked me from my bicycle this week. My physical injuries were slight – but the shock left me reeling and it was days before I realised why the incident was affecting.

I was riding alone along one of my favourite stretches of single track road. The ten foot width of tarmac, between Stonham Aspell and Coddenham in Suffolk, swoops and curves through cornfields, passes a curious medieval church and fords a tiny stream. Occasionally I pass other road users as I pedal its course, but not often.

I am used, however, to encountering equine road users and I have evolved my own code to try and avoid startling the horses. I slow down, shout a warning that I am about to pass, and give them the widest berth possible.

It was the first time that I had seen a horse on this stretch of road, but when I came upon one from behind, I observed my usual courtesies. The horse pulled to one side and I gingerly made to ride by. As I came upon its hind legs, however, the horse turned suddenly, so that it blocked my progress altogether. I braked hard and avoided a collision by a couple of inches. With my gear fixed, however, and my feet cleated in, I could not avoid hitting the deck.

I swore as I fell, and landed on the wet tarmac, grazing my hand and my hip. The horse stood over me, its back feet inches from my head.

“Are you alright” enquired the horsewoman, from her lofty mount (I have since worked out that her head was nearly nine feet above mine). I picked myself up, feeling bedraggled, humbled and terrified that the horse would yet kick me. Livid and shaking as I was, I was determined to avoid a slanging match. I got back on my bike and started to move again.
“Mind how you go”, called the horsewoman to my back.

For quite some time, I thought that my fury stemmed from her failure to apologise. She too was probably startled, though, so with hindsight, I can forgive this.

It was only when I told my mother the story, though, that I realised what made the experience so searing. As I recounted the tale, blood visibly drained from her face. Before I had finished my yarn, mother, in a hollow whisper, filled in. “She didn’t get off her horse”.

Only then did she tell to me how, as a teenage cyclist herself she too had been brought down by a horse. Pedalling through the highways of Denbigshire in the 1940s, she had come upon a hunt. She and a horse accidentally collided, knocking her and her bike to the ground. Then the assembled hunt party had roared with laughter from the backs of their steeds. The faltering nature of its telling marked this out as an incident of which she had never before spoken.

Unexpectedly finding yourself lying beside the hoofs of a horse, with its rider towering above, is to experience a powerlessness that hadn’t dimed in my mother’s memory in over sixty years. I still shake at the recollection of my own experience. It is to understand in a profoundly visceral sense why mounted soldiers carried all before them for over 1,000 years of human warfare; and why Police horses are crack force of crowd control to this day.

I have since discussed my incident with Clare Walkenden of the Pony Club. She points out that riders are often unwilling to dismount, because they have no means to get back up. A fair point, but my advice to horse riders is that, in similar circumstances, they should at least explain this to the unfortunates on the ground. Indeed, if there is any chance that someone has been hurt, then surely the moral responsibility to help the injured is greater than the potential inconvenience of walking home?

Alas, the Pony Club can offer no better advice to cyclists as to how they should approach horses than to follow my self-devised road etiquette. On balance, though, I would add this.

Not only should you should slow down to walking pace when approaching horses, but you should also wait until you have exchanged eye contact with the rider before passing by.
Frustrating as it is to reduce to such a speed it is a small sacrifice to avoid a hoof-first encounter with a horse.

TD Jan 11

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