Stay safe and share the road

By on August 2, 2017
An 18-wheel truck hauling chickens approaches a horse-pulled carriage on Railroad Avenue in New Holland. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

An 18-wheel truck hauling chickens approaches a horse-pulled carriage on Railroad Avenue in New Holland. Photo by Art Petrosemolo

It can be dangerous out there.

There are close to 8,000 Amish and Old Order Mennonite households in Lancaster County all using horse-pulled carriages and wagons as their means of transportation.

Each home has at least two carriages or wagons —most have more. It means there are thousands of horse-drawn carriages that, during the year, take to the backroads and main roads that crisscross the farmlands, towns and suburbs, says Steven Nolt of the Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College

Accurate County-wide accident records are hard to come by. However, local authorities investigate dozens and dozens of minor and major accidents between horse-pulled carriages and modern horse-powered cars and trucks each year. The carriages usually get the worst of it. And about 1 percent of the accidents end in a fatality.

Although the number of accidents has declined in recent years with emphasis on carriage driver education, as well as increased use of brighter, LED lights to illuminate and call attention to these carriages. However, it can still be dangerous out there and surprisingly it isn’t the tourists who cause the problems.

The Amish Safety Committee in Lancaster County works with families in local gatherings to discuss safety issues. They stress courtesy, respect and common sense and, at the same time, alert carriage users of the danger of “cowboying” on the road as well as keeping all body parts within the carriage.

Driving at night or in bad weather adds to the risk for horse-pulled vehicles, and when a battery fails, driving dark-sided carriage without lights on a narrow road could be a recipe for disaster.

Anna and Lois Hoover, New Holland, have been training carriage and farm horses for local, as well as out-of-town and state owners, for more than a decade. Although many Amish and Mennonite families train their own carriage horses and have done so for years, there are a number who like the initial training done by professionals.

For the sisters, both in their early 30s, it is a labor of love and something they learned from their dad and brothers and have continued the tradition. They also studied other trainers for years and have adapted techniques for their use. They train draft horses for farm work, as well as several breeds of carriages horses including Haflingers, Percherons, and Dutch Carriage Horses on their Reidenbach Road farm.

The pair say it can take up to six months to get a carriage horse road-ready but training goes on forever with the owner. And the trainers emphasize anytime you work with a horse, you are adding to its training either in a good or bad way. Most formal horse training takes place during good weather from early spring through fall.

Trust is key, explain the sisters, and the horse and driver need to be in synch. They emphasize that a driver, by even holding the reins too tight, can send signals of nervousness to the horse and it responds in kind.

The Hoovers purchased and trained their first horse for the farm when they were young. A veterinarian from New Hampshire got wind of their abilities and sent two horses to them to train before they even said yes. The vet uses the horses for an English two-or-four-horse carriage.

The sisters look for certain attributes in carriage horses.

“They need good conformation — long legs for stride — as well as a calm temperament which translates into a quieter horse,” the sisters stress.

Although it is generally believed that out-of-state tourists not paying attention and long-haul truckers cause the most problems. However, statistics show it is just the opposite. The horse trainers explain tourists are usually fascinated with the carriages and actually go slow and miss safe passing spots as their kids are taking photos. And, they explain long-haul truckers with 18-wheel rigs are generally very courteous and wait, sometimes for several minutes on a back road, for a clear area.

It turns out that the biggest problems for carriages are local drivers and delivery trucks.

“Both are very impatient,” the trainers say, “and will take risks and chances in trying to get around a carriage, especially where visibility is restricted on a curve or hill.”

Two particular situations are difficult for horse-pulled carriages. They are at traffic signals and crossroads. When a horse is stopped, carriage drivers will tell you it rarely stands completely still. It could move or even back up a few steps. If a vehicle is too close, it can result in an accident. Also, affecting a carriage horse, which is out of the driver’s control, are road distractions like large trash cans, barking dogs or farm animals close to the road and a passing carriage causing a horse to spook.

Also, the trainers say, traffic on many of the state roads — that are popular with visitors during the tourist season — have vehicles moving in excess of the speed limit making it very difficult for carriages to cross safely.

Carriages travel at about 8-10 mph and a good trip is 10 miles each way. The state (PennDOT) even prints a manual for carriage drivers that includes information on courtesy to pedestrians, as well as right-of-way for bicycles and scooters.

There isn’t an Amish or an Old Order Mennonite family who has not been involved in a carriage-auto accident or known someone who has. Most are minor but some are not.

The Hoovers smile about a recent accident that could have been much worse when they talk about a relative who was clipped by a speeding teenager on a back road in early June. It sent both the car into a ditch and flipped the carriage.

“The carriage was carrying 50 quarts of strawberries,” the sisters explain, “and when the police arrived, they thought it was a very serious accident as the strawberries were squashed and spread all over the road and looked like blood making it appear worse than it turned out.”

Many horse-pulled vehicle drivers believe their safety depends on training, experience and also a little bit of luck. The Hoover sisters agree and encourage their English neighbors to keep an eye open for carriages and to both pass safely and not to tailgate.

“If we both exercise courtesy and caution, we’ll all stay safe,” they say.

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