‘Be Seen - Be Safer’ is an ongoing RAF campaign aimed at the horse riding community to promote the wearing of high visibility clothing. MOD flight trials have shown that high-visibility clothing significantly improves the detection range of riders in the open countryside. Whilst high-visibility clothing may not prevent an overflight (there may be other safety considerations), it does provide a considerable, cost-effective improvement to rider safety. If it is safe to do so, military aircraft will avoid over-flying horse riders if they can be identified in sufficient time. However, conducting violent avoiding manoeuvres when close to riders actually increases the potential for disturbance. So, if riders are seen late, military aircraft will usually over-fly, without manoeuvring, as this is the safest option.
Helicopters routinely operate down to 100 feet, but may operate down to ground level for certain tasks. Some more vulnerable groups of riders, for example RDA sessions, are given avoidance status. However, the very large number of horses in the UK means that avoiding every area where there are horses would significantly reduce the area available for training. Instead, low flying is distributed as widely as possible to minimise its concentration in any particular area – there are many other considerations other than horse riders. It is possible to gain temporary avoidance for specific events, in most circumstances. The RAF Low Flying Cell already works with a variety of equestrian organisations to minimise potential disturbances to major events and is usually able to grant temporary avoidance to organised events where large numbers of horses and riders are gathered.
As most experienced riders know, horses have a highly developed sense of hearing and extremely mobile ears that allow sound from all directions to be detected. Horses can also hear sounds that are inaudible to humans, and can detect faint noises up to 4km away. The horse’s ears prick up and turn towards the sound, and this ‘Preyer Reflex’ can show where the horse’s attention is focused. If a sound is unusual, eye movement and head movement may follow to try and identify the sound, providing a warning signal for the rider.
Why do horses spook? Originally, horses were grazing herd animals, and their hearing was a primary defence against predators. Even today, the horse’s basic instinct has not changed; they are creatures of fright and flight and, in response to real or imagined danger the horse will run away, particularly when faced by something unfamiliar.
Because visual acuity is the pilot’s friend, the RAF has equipped the majority of RAF Saddle Clubs with high visibility accessories, including horse quarter sheets, hat bands and riders’ tabards designed specifically for the horse rider. It wants RAF saddle club riders to lead by example, to be seen in high visibility clothing and to inspire the civilian community to follow suit. It has extended its donation of high-visibility merchandise to non-RAF equestrian organisations, explaining the double-hatted safety nature of this kit, which is largely used by civilians to offset the risk of road vehicles, which pose a much greater frequency of hazard.
The British Horse Society is very pleased to be working with the RAF to improve rider awareness and increase the understanding that riders and pilots have in promoting any safety issues. It’s most important that riders give pilots every chance to see and avoid them, by wearing Hi Viz clothing all the time. It’s also just as important that riders realise the challenges pilots face when they are on low flying exercises, and that they do make every effort to avoid horses and riders if at all possible.
Alan Hiscox – British Horse Society
The British Horse Society supports the initiative, and the RAF has been seen in their tents during the 2017 season of horse riding events. If you are the organiser of a civilian equestrian organisation, and you have an opportunity to promote high visibility, you can drop the RAF a line by emailing Gillian McGlinchey at the RAF safety centre: email@example.com.