If you don’t have direct access to miles of trails or well-kept arenas, you may have to ride your horse on the road.
You’ll be shocked to hear that it’s completely allowed to take your equestrian pursuits off-property and down a country path in most places.
But wait a minute! Before you hit the road, make sure you’re aware with the local equine and traffic rules in your region – and that it’s safe for you and your horse, as well as the drivers and pedestrians around you. So is riding horse illegal? Let’s find out.
Is riding horse illegal?
The answer is not simply yes or no. Every state, county, and town will have their own set of rules and regulations governing the legality of riding your horse on public roads. While there are no federal restrictions prohibiting you from riding your horse through city streets, you must still ensure that you are not breaching any municipal regulations.
Horses as Vehicles vs. Horses as Livestock
Most horse laws treat them as livestock, governing how they should be housed, where and when they might be slaughtered, who is liable for equestrian accidents, and so on.
The majority of these restrictions, however, apply to horses that are ridden or driven as part of a “equine activity” or kept as a herd of loose animals.
Horses that are ridden or driven on the road are normally subject to traffic laws. They must share the road with motorized vehicles and are thus legally treated as such.
Individual restrictions differ by location in terms of when and where you can ride, but for the most part, riding your horse on the road is legal unless clearly prohibited.
Horse-drawn carriages and sleighs are classified as “slow-moving vehicles” and are subject to traffic legislation. There are few exceptions for carriages, mainly related to tourism.
For example, you can normally drive your own horse and carriage down the road to the corner shop, but if you wish to pick up passengers, you may need a special commercial license.
Licensing for Equestrians
A license is not required to ride a horse, but you may need one if you wish to do things like drive a buggy in certain locations, guide other people on a trail ride, or pick up passengers in a carriage.
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However, if you just want to hit the trail (which may involve some road sections), you don’t need a license.
Drivers’ General Guidelines
Many states have legislation in place to safeguard equestrians on the road, with some being more extensive than others. Here’s one from New Hampshire:
“Every person in charge of a vehicle shall, whenever on 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.”
Vehicles must generally defer to equestrians and avoid frightening the horses (no honking or racing past), and everyone must collaborate to share the road.
Equestrians must follow traffic laws as well as any posted signage. Highways, train tracks, and many bridges are normally off-limits. When possible, use equestrian crossings and avoid crowded crossroads.
Most states require you to ride on the right side of the road, against the flow of traffic (except in Colorado, where you must ride on the left). If you’re in a group, ride in a single-file line as close to the shoulder as possible.
When and where is it illegal to ride a horse?
While there are few regulations that specifically prohibit riding on the road, you should still be aware of the local norms. Here are a few examples of applicable traffic legislation:
- Louisiana: Do not tether your horse to a tree on the highway or allow him to stand in a dangerous position (the tree, not the horse). Riding on paved highways is also prohibited. (source)
- Alabama: Do not stake your horse or other livestock animals on a highway right-of-way.
- In Idaho, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania, you must cross bridges at a walk. (Fun fact, the fine for disobeying Mississippi law from 1857 is $5 – unless there’s no posted sign, and then the cost is waived). (source)
- Nevada prohibits “reckless” riding.
- New Jersey and Kentucky There will be no racing on the highways in Pennsylvania or New York.
- Don’t ride your horse across a levee in Kentucky.
While most states do not have constitutional amendments that clearly prohibit riding on state roadways, equestrians must nevertheless respect traffic laws (and most highways specifically exclude horses and pedestrians).
For your own and other drivers’ safety, you should always respect any posted signage when riding your horse. When possible, use equestrian crossings and avoid riding in areas designated for pedestrians only (such as sidewalks).
First and foremost, safety.
Even if you have the legal right to be on the road, you should always use caution when sharing the road with motor vehicles. Here are some general guidelines:
- As much as possible, stay on designated trails and bridle routes and avoid roads. It will be better on your horse’s feet because trails and bridlepaths are generally designed with your horse in mind, and you will be able to escape fast cars and trucks.
- Make a plan. If you can’t avoid roads, take a route with quieter streets, low traffic, broad shoulders, and no blind curves.
- Wear brightly colored, luminous apparel. Now is the moment to put on your most flashy outfit. The easier it is for a driver to notice you, the more likely you will avoid an accident.
- Spend some time training your horse and making sure he’s ready to go. If you intend to ride on the roads frequently, take the time to desensitize your horse to common sights and sounds, and educate them to handle spooking without throwing you into traffic. (source) Always wear your helmet and use the buddy system.