According to some statistics, Florida is home to 500,000 horses, placing our state third in total number of horses behind Texas and California.(1). Ocala, in Marion County, is widely recognized as “The Horse Capital of the World,” and Wellington, in Palm Beach County, is marketed internationally as “The Winter Equestrian Capital of the World.” Although horses are used in a wide range of disciplines, the majority are dedicated to recreational activities including trail riding. (2).
Development of raw land in Florida has reduced trail access for equestrians, requiring larger numbers of riders to share Florida roadways with motor vehicles. Although statistics for traffic incidents involving horses in Florida are not available, other jurisdictions, such as the United Kingdom, have noted a significant rise in horse-and-car related incidents. (3). Anecdotally, this author, who resides in a residential equestrian community in Palm Beach County, has noted increasing numbers of drivers speeding past equestrians, even when the riders were clearly having issues controlling their mounts. (4).
A number of states have traffic regulations which apply to vehicle operators encountering equestrians on the roadways. These states include Maine, Tennessee, New York, New Jersey, Arizona, and Wisconsin. Other states, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, post safety tips for vehicle operators passing riders and horse-drawn buggies on their respective Department of Transportation websites. (5).
Florida is among those states with legislation on the books which aims to protect horses and their riders and handlers on the roadways. Florida Statute section 316.0825 provides:
316.0825: Vehicle approaching an animal. – Every person operating a motor vehicle shall use reasonable care when approaching or passing a person who is riding or leading an animal upon a roadway or the shoulder thereof, and shall not intentionally startle or injury such an animal. A violation of this section is a noncriminal traffic infraction, punishable as a moving violation as provided in chapter 318.
“Reasonable care” is, as all lawyers know, a slippery standard. While one could argue that the flexibility a reasonable care standard allows is beneficial because it allows for all of the facts and circumstances to be considered, this standard is also fraught with many issues. First, many vehicle operators simply do not know what constitutes “reasonable care” in passing a horse. Those who do not work with horses regularly may not realize that a particularly loud engine, or unusual-looking vehicle, or a loud stereo, or excessive speed, could spook a horse which seems otherwise calm. Second, the reasonable care standard fails to provide clarity for vehicle operators, who may be conscientious enough to want to avoid spooking the horse but who may not know exactly what to do or not do. Equestrians are also disadvantaged by the lack of clarity in Florida law, for it is harder to judge whether one’s horse may be “road safe” if the standard of safety from the vehicle-operators’ perspective is undefined. Third, from the viewpoint of law enforcement, the lack of a clear description of conduct discourages enforcement efforts.
For comparison, consider New Jersey’s statute, New Jersey Stats. Title 39, section 4-72:
4-72.a. When approaching or passing a person riding or driving a horse, a person driving a motor vehicle shall reduce the vehicle’s speed to a rate not exceeding 25 miles an hour and proceed with caution. At the request of or upon a signal by putting up the hand or otherwise, from a person riding or driving a horse in the opposite direction, the motor vehicle driver shall cause the motor vehicle to stop and remain stationary so long as may be necessary to allow the horse to pass.
b. The administrator shall include in the New Jersey Driver Manual information explaining the requirements of subsection a. of this section and cautioning licensees on the need to exercise caution when operating a motor vehicle near horses.
c. A person who violates subsection a. of this section shall be subject to a fine of $150.
The clarity of the New Jersey regulation above cannot be denied: the driver is told to reduce speed to no more than 25 mph, to stop in response to the rider’s raised-hand signal, and to remain stationary to allow the horse to pass. New York’s statute prohibits a driver of a vehicle from sounding the horn when approaching or passing a horse on a public roadway. (6). Tennessee makes it a misdemeanor to intentionally or negligently violate its regulations governing operation of vehicles near non-motor vehicles and animals, and a felony to do so willfully or maliciously. (7). Maine prohibits a person in a motor vehicle from throwing an object or substance from the vehicle toward an animal being ridden or driven on or near a public road. (8).
Regulations regarding vehicle operation near horses protects the vehicle operator as well as the animal and its rider. Most horses weigh more than 1000 pounds, and a collision with an animal of that size is a serious danger for the vehicle occupants. In addition, a horse that is spooked and becomes out of control can cause accidents among other drivers as well as damage to adjacent property.
Of course, every horseback rider has a significant responsibility -- to themselves, their equine, and to vehicle operators -- to use good judgment and basic safety measures in an effort to prevent accidents on the road. Achieving safe sharing of our roadways is a joint responsibility. Green and skittish horses should be desensitized and undergo proper training before venturing out along public roadways. Riders should properly evaluate their abilities as well as their horse’s. The pace of the ride should be reasonable given the traffic, obstacles, and terrain. Safety gear such as helmets should be utilized, especially when riding near vehicle traffic and paved roads. But riders who make every effort to be safe when adjacent to public roads are entitled to better, clearer regulations to govern the operators of vehicles whom they will necessarily encounter.
There is no doubt that Florida benefits financially from the equine industry which thrives here. Our legislature should acknowledge the risks associated with the increasing number of horses and riders accessing Florida roadways and enact better regulations to prevent avoidable calamities.
Amy B. Beller, Esq., is a founding partner in the boutique firm of Beller Smith, PL, in Boca Raton, Florida. Ms. Beller is Board Certified in Wills, Trusts and Estates, is a Florida Supreme Court Certified Circuit Civil Mediator, and is a member of both the Animal Law Section and the Real Property, Probate and Trust Law Section of The Florida Bar.
1. www.ridewitheequo.com, “The Horse Industry By The Numbers” (Jan. 16, 2017), citing a recent study commissioned by the American Horse Council Foundation and conducted by the Barents Group. See also the Martin County Horse Council webpage at mchorsecouncil.org.
2. Id., stating that of the estimated 2 million horses in the US, 85% are used recreationally.
3. See, e.g., www.horseandhound.co.uk posts, including “ Rider urges Others To Buy Camera After Road Incident”, by Sarah Radford, 2/4/18; “one Rider Involved In Road Incident Every Day, Says BHS [British Horse Society]”, by Rachael Turner, 3/8/18; “Protests Won’t Help: Rider’s Open Letter to Driver Goes Viral”, by Rachael Turner 12/12/17.
4. Riders in my community of “Homeland” in western Lake Worth, Florida, have taken to wearing t-shirts which say, on front and back: Slow For Horses to 10 MPH, which is our community regulation speed for passing equestrians Unfortunately, the shirts have had very limited impact.
5. See websites penndot.gov and dot.state.oh.us.
6. New York Statute Section 1146-a(3).
7. 2010 Tennessee Code Title 55, Section 55-8-178(f).
8. Maine Rev. Statutes Title 29-A, Chap. 19, Subchapter 1, section 2055(5).