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Harnessing horse power

Forget what's under the hood, Mennonite drivers handling '1,200-pound bundle of nerves'

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 8/2/2013 (1506 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

WELLESLEY TOWNSHIP, Ont. -- It's a scene as old as the Mennonite faith itself. A procession of families cross the narrow bridge outside Wallenstein in black, horse-drawn buggies on their way to Sunday church.

Now picture a transport truck barrelling down the hill toward the crossing.

Waterloo Region's highways have long been an area where the horse-powered culture of the Mennonites collides with the outside world.


Waterloo Region's highways have long been an area where the horse-powered culture of the Mennonites collides with the outside world.

The nervous horses squeeze against the railing as the giant, rumbling rig passes by just feet away, often at high speed.

Then throw in a line of cars coming the other direction.

One spooked animal and the whole delicate dance can turn deadly.

Waterloo Region's highways have long been an area where the horse-powered culture of the Mennonites collides with the outside world, and that busy bridge on Highway 86 is just one of many friction points on local roads. But as crashes between cars and buggies continue to add up, one well-respected member of the Old Order Mennonites is asking motorists to take greater care around the horse-drawn carriages.

Aaron Bowman, a Dorking-area farmer and secretary of his community's safety committee, gave a rare interview to talk about the hazards faced by buggy drivers.

As traffic -- both in cars and buggies -- grows in Waterloo Region's rural areas and surrounding counties, he's worried there will be more crashes.

There were 39 reported collisions between motorists and horse-drawn buggies on major regional roads between 2005 and 2011, according to statistics provided by the Region of Waterloo.

That doesn't count crashes on smaller, local roadways maintained by the townships. One study, looking at crashes on those lesser roads, found some 80 collisions involving horse and buggies between 1980 and 1991. Plenty more minor crashes are never reported to police.

Of the collisions on major regional roads since 2005, 17 people have been injured, six of them with life-threatening or serious injuries.

There have been deaths, too, including a crash on Ament Line in 2009 that killed a buggy driver after he was rear-ended by an inattentive SUV driver. In January 2011, an 11-year-old Mennonite boy was killed when his buggy collided with a pickup truck near Arthur.

In a quarter of reported crashes between motor vehicles and buggies, motorists were blamed. But the biggest cause of collisions was attributed to buggy drivers losing control of their horse.

"The horse is the biggest thing in the equation. They're a 1,200-pound bundle of nerves," Bowman said. "They're temperamental, they have their own dispositions. Some are easy to get along with, and some are obnoxious. Horses aren't a perfectly predictable machine."

Horses typically pull a buggy at speeds of between 12 and 20 kilometres per hour, although that may increase as they approach their manger looking for a meal of hay. In a collision with a much faster-moving car or truck, the big animals and their buggies are almost always on the losing end.

There are an estimated 4,000 buggies in the region, and the horses that power them are as unpredictable as they are hard-working. Many are former standardbred racehorses, sometimes spooked by cars that roar by at close proximity.

Some motorists may be surprised to learn the Highway Traffic Act actually puts the onus on them to avoid frightening a horse pulling a buggy as they pass by. In other words, slow down and give them a wide berth.

Horses are animals, after all, Bowman said. They aren't used to being passed on the right side, making roundabouts a precarious arrangement. Unexpected movements in the ditch can startle horses and cause them to veer out into traffic. With their keen ears, loud noises from flapping tarps on a passing flatbed can have the same effect.

Horses can be stubborn, too. Some refuse to step over painted bicycle lanes, Bowman said. Stop signs aren't a simple matter either. Some horses prance back and forth when they're at an intersection, requiring drivers behind them to leave extra space.

Things other drivers take for granted, such as mountable curbs, can mean broken bones for horses that slip in their steel shoes. Those curbs force the buggies to drive in the roadway, sometimes sparking annoyed responses from impatient motorists.

But as quirky as they may be, the horses and the buggies they pull have a right to be on the road, said veteran Waterloo Regional Police Sgt. Sigfried Peters.

Buggy drivers are trying to improve their safety, too. All Old Order buggies are now required to carry reflective tape, a slow-moving vehicle emblem and front and tail lights.

Closed carriages also require rear-view mirrors. Some drivers are even installing battery-powered signal lights on their carriages, too, although that change has come slowly for some elder Mennonites.

While there is no licensing system for buggy drivers, most Mennonite teenagers spend several years learning the reins with their father at their side before they're allowed to drive on their own around 14 or 15, Bowman said.

Slowly, and with steady pressure, Bowman and his committee are changing habits within the Mennonite community around the buggies that are an integral part of their culture. They know traffic in Waterloo Region's townships is only going to increase, making travelling by their traditional method that much more complicated.

"Most people driving by think our buggies are some kind of tourist attraction."

"But these are our vehicles," he said. "And we need them to get around."


-- The Canadian Press


Updated on Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 12:38 PM CST: Update

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