by Francesca Prescott
I recently went for a nice quiet trail ride with Céline, a lovely lady and Grand Prix rider who has become one of my trainers. It was a beautiful sunny day, relatively warm for January, and our horses were happy to be out, strolling along peacefully. Céline rode a friend’s horse, a grey Lusitano stallion tending to be pretty laid back about the world at large. As for Qrac, he’s become far more laid back during outside rides than he was when I first bought him; he’ll look at things, sometimes stop and think about them, wiggle around them if he thinks they might be a bit dodgy, but rarely does he spook and spin like he used to. He’s far more sure of himself and sensible.
So Céline and I ambled along, chatting, our horses behaving particularly politely on this gorgeous day. We didn’t go far, just walked the easy hour-long loop through quiet country lanes and forest paths. And then we headed back to the stables.
To reach my stables you have to go down a long stretch of narrow country road and then turn right, down the private entrance to the barn. It’s not a busy road, and for part of the way there are open fields on both sides, so if there’s a car coming, or a tractor coming, you can push your horse over onto the grass and have plenty of space. However, as you get closer to the right turn for the stables, the fields on the right-hand side turn into horse paddocks, so there’s only a narrow grassy verge between the road and paddocks. But it’s usually fine, and I’ve found that the majority of people in cars slow down when approaching horses, or if they don’t do so spontaneously, they are willing to slow down if you turn around, smile, raise an arm and make “please-slow-down” gestures. Most tractor drivers do the same.
Naturally, as a rider, I always slow down, or even stop when I see riders, giving them plenty of room to pass. So if I was a farmer driving a tractor down a narrow country road or down any road on the planet, and I saw people on horses ahead of me, I’d slow down and try to keep a safe distance. As a farmer, surely I’d know enough about the unpredictability of horses (or dogs, or cows, or sheep, or any animal) to have the common sense to take my foot off the accelerator, hang back a little, give the riders time to get themselves organised, find a safe haven if necessary, or turn their horses to show them what is approaching. Surely I’d have safety in mind. Surely I wouldn’t hurtle towards them at full speed when I could see full well that the only place they’re allowed to go without breaking the highway code is onto a narrow grassy verge between the road and a line of paddocks. Surely I’d have enough imagination to conjure up disaster scenarios and do everything I can to avoid them.
I know it’s a stereotype and that I’m naïve, but I tend to have this image of farmers being friendly, kind, nature-loving people with rosy cheeks and big, bouncy dogs, as depicted in the English pony stories I read during my childhood. Sure, they’d give you a bollocking if you ploughed through their fields on horseback, and they’d have every right to do so. But they would never behave like the criminal moron Céline and I met on the road back to the stables. As far as I’m concerned, nobody would. Ever.
I heard the tractor long before I saw it. I could tell it was going fast, and something in my gut told me it might cause trouble. I turned in my saddle and saw it speed down the hill, past the church, hurtling towards us, just as we approached the area where, if traffic approaches, you’re supposed to ride along the grassy verge between the road and the paddocks.
“Uh-oh, there’s a tractor,” I said to Céline. “Coming fast.”
“He’ll slow down,” she answered, matter-of-factly. She’s very poised, Céline.
“I’m not so sure,” I replied, glancing behind me worriedly as I pushed Qrac to the side of the road and onto the grassy verge.
We didn’t have the opportunity to discuss whether he would or he wouldn’t. Because the moron in the old red tractor definitely didn’t want to, and was only forced to do so because, as he powered towards us, coming really REALLY close, our horses freaked out and clattered into the middle of the road.
At that point I figured tractor-twit would stop, allow us to reassure our horses, get them back under control, let us ride ahead and turn right down the private road into the barn. Yeah right. As Céline’s horse launched himself across the road and into the field on the left hand side where he took off at a gallop (she stopped him within a few strides), and my panic-stricken Qrac swung left and right, cantering on the spot in the middle of road, slipping and sliding, totally petrified, the tractor continued to roll forwards. I couldn’t believe it. Speaking reassuringly to my horse, I encouraged him to cross over to the left side of the road and into the open field. As I did so, the tractor continued to come towards me. The man scowled at me, gesticulating impatiently for me to get out of the way. I managed to get us into the field where Qrac also took off, coiling his haunches underneath him for a couple of strides before I could stop him.
“We’ll trot,” yelled Céline, dealing with her own panic-stricken, seriously coiled Lusitano. Her idea was to reach the turn-off to the barn as quickly as possible as tractor guy wasn’t going to give us a break, and we’d almost reached the walled private property at the end of the field and couldn’t go any further. There was no way in heck that the horses were going to stand still and wait for the tractor to pass, so we power-trotted forwards, clattering back across the road and to the relative safety of the right turn to the yard where at least we knew the tractor wouldn’t follow. As we coaxed the horses back to a very tense walk, tractor-man roared past us, revving his engine, scowling.
“I can’t believe it!” I exclaimed, still trying to steady Qrac’s nerves, not to mention my own.
“There are idiots everywhere,” said Céline. She has her own stables a few minutes away by car, and told me she regularly deals with morons in tractors.
Qrac’s heart was still pounding and my legs felt like jelly as Céline and I dismounted about two minutes later. A few people had watched our misadventure from the stables’ car park and asked me whether I’d got the tractor’s license plate number, knowing what exactly what I meant when I replied that I’d been far too busy trying to stay alive to do anything of the sort.
I’ve thought about this incident many times since, wondering what the heck was wrong with that guy in the tractor. I’m aware that many farmers around here dislike horses. They harbour a lot of animosity and jealousy towards riders, even towards barn owners, whom they consider rich and spoiled (incidentally, the owners of my stables are also farmers). But harbouring animosity and putting lives at risk danger isn’t the same thing.
I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if Qrac or Céline’s horse had slipped on the road. I don’t want to imagine what could have happened if it hadn’t been Céline and me out there, but other less-experienced riders, who hadn’t been able to regain control over their horses. I don’t want to imagine the dozens of other catastrophic scenarios that could have gone down. However, I’d like to believe that the twit in the tractor has since had his licence revoked, been locked up for criminal behaviour, and is sitting in a dingy prison cell being forced to write “I won’t harass riders with my tractor ever again” a gazillion times. Sadly, I doubt it.
Have you ever been bullied on the road while out riding? Why do you think people behave that way? Of course, as Céline said, there are idiots everywhere, but what do you think could be done to increase awareness and discourage people from behaving like this?