Water-Crossing Guidelines

While enjoying the beauty of streams and rivers, take precautions to stay safe and protect your access to treasured trails in the future. Here are five expert guidelines.
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While enjoying the beauty of streams and rivers, take precautions to stay safe and protect your access to treasured trails in the future. Here are five expert guidelines.

Some of the most picturesque and pleasant trail rides feature water crossings. But while enjoying the beauty of streams and rivers, take precautions to protect not only your safety, but also your access to treasured trails in the future. Here are five expert guidelines.

Credit: William J. Erickson  While enjoying the beauty of streams and rivers, take precautions to protect not only your safety, but also your access to treasured trails in the future. Here are expert guidelines.

Credit: William J. Erickson While enjoying the beauty of streams and rivers, take precautions to protect not only your safety, but also your access to treasured trails in the future. Here are expert guidelines.

Stay Safe
The highest priority of any equestrian is the safety of the rider and horse. But when approaching a body of water on the trail, how do you determine where it’s safe to cross?

According to Jan Hancock, an equestrian facilities and trails consultant with Hancock Resources, LLC, in Phoenix, Arizona, there’s much more to consider than just avoiding those obviously deep, muddy areas.

“Some streams and rivers actually have quicksand that can be very dangerous,” she notes. “Quicksand can even travel to different water locations that were previously thought of as safe.”

Many riders don't realize that simply riding along the bank parallel to a stream or river while looking for a suitable crossing can be dangerous.

“Moving water can wash out underneath the trail itself,” says Hancock. “A hiker’s weight won’t collapse the trail surface, but it can certainly cave in under the weight of a horse. These collapsed areas often have tree roots that make it very difficult for a horse to climb out of a sunken trail area.”

Save the Banks
Besides safety concerns, Mike Riter of Trail Design Specialists in Danielsville, Georgia, notes that when you make careless or poor choices in where to cross water, you may be making a more damaging impact than you realize.

Such damage can even cause restricted trail access for horses in the future.

“Damage from horses is the number-one issue with most land agencies in regard to water crossings for equestrians,” Riter explains. “It’s very important that we, as users, not create situations that are harmful to the environment.

“Most siltation (water pollution from particulate silt) issues related to crossings don’t come from the bottom itself, but from the banks on either side,” he notes.

“Horses loosen up the soil as they move down and up the banks, and then rain runoff washes that material into the water, causing downstream siltation which can have a disastrous effect on riparian zones by covering amphibian eggs (causing them not to hatch) and choke out plants that feed aquatic species.

“Riparian zones, which are areas adjacent to or including a body of water, are extremely sensitive to change, so trails and crossings located in them need to be designed and managed carefully to avoid impacting them.”

Hancock agrees. “Sedimentation occurs any time an animal steps in a stream; and prolonged sedimentation can reduce the natural roughness along the streambed, eventually decreasing water depth and causing changes in the water flow, widening of the water channel.”

Cross With Care
Here’s what to look for in a safe, suitable water crossing.

Credit: Photo Courtesy of the USFS and Jan Hancock  Respect the trail. If your horse is leaving hoofprints like this, the trail is still too wet for use.

Credit: Photo Courtesy of the USFS and Jan Hancock Respect the trail. If your horse is leaving hoofprints like this, the trail is still too wet for use.

“The best crossings are done on shallow, sloping banks in places the water isn’t undercutting the bank on either side,” notes Riter. “Look for vegetation growing all the way to the water’s edge.”

Contrary to what you might think, fanning out to cross streams in different places isn’t better, as this actually multiplies the damage. All riders should cross in the same safe area and avoid laboring through deep mud, which can injure horses’ legs.

Locate fords in an area where the stream is straight and shallow, ideally with natural rocks and pebbles for soil stability to help prevent horses’ hooves from damaging the crossing’s wet edges.

While some natural rock is good, avoid areas that have exposed sheets of rock, which can be very slippery and cause a fall.

Avoid crossings where the water is deeper than two feet or has a strong current. These conditions can lead to your horse panicking or losing his footing while crossing.

Establish Quality Fords
Routing a trail to a well-established, good-quality natural ford is almost always better than building a new crossing. But when establishing new trails, find the proper location, and use the right construction, to help reduce environmental impacts.

“When water crossings are planned into a trail system, such options as soil hardeners, gravel, rock armoring, or synthetic materials — such as geotextiles — can be incorporated into new trail construction before environmental damage ever occurs,” explains Hancock.

“Also, structures, such as bridges or other forms of elevated corridors installed above a stream, can often be introduced as part of the programming and budget for trail systems where a water-crossing is required.

“When water-crossings become part of the initial trail planning process, the maintenance of the trail system can be significantly reduced, as well."

The same measures outline above can also be used to preserve and improve the quality of existing water-crossings.

Notes Hancock: “If existing trails have steep descents into streambeds, trails can be realigned with climbing turns by installing rock swales and bioswales, naturally slowing the flow of rain and melting snow on these slopes.

“The reduction of water runoff and the resulting capture of natural seeds help to revegetate barren slopes and reinforce the impacted stream banks.”

Respect the Trails
Hancock also stresses that equestrians can help protect the sustainability of trails, especially in stream crossings areas, by staying home when trails are wet.

“Horse hooves dig deep into wet, muddy trail surfaces, creating pockets for the collection of natural water,” she explains. “If you refrain from riding natural-surface trails until 48 hours following rain, and wait for the snow melt to dissipate, you greatly reduce the environmental impact.

“The more we ride on wet trails, the more soils we indirectly displace, and the greater we impact our trail crossings of waterways.”

Both experts emphasize that protecting trails, especially water-crossings, should be an urgent concern for all horsemen, since damage to land is the primary reason access is lost.

“The water-crossing damage from horses, cattle — and heavier wildlife, such as elk, moose, and buffalo — in streams and rivers can be significant,” Hancock explains.

“On recreational trail systems, damage from equestrians may be greater than that caused by other nonmotorized trail users, such as hikers. If you ride on a soft or wet trail, or choose unsuitable fords, you can cause trail access and sustainability problems.

“Trail sustainability is a team effort between the trail user and the trail-management agencies,” Hancock continues. “So the more equestrians who take an active role in trail maintenance and reinforcing water crossings through volunteer and fund-raising activities, the greater our positive impact on water systems throughout our nation will be, thereby lessening the chance that a trail will close.”

Riter emphatically agrees. “The best way for a rider to be a part of the solution is to get involved,” he notes. “That can range from raising money to pay for improvements to taking a Trail Master course and learning how to make the improvements and lead the way.

“Land managers, environmentalists, biologists, and other concerned parties unfortunately tend to judge a user group by their mistakes rather than their successes.

“A lot of thought, and often a lot of work, have to go into creating a stable crossing that will resist problems. And as users and stewards of the land, it’s every trail rider’s responsibility to protect the resource we recreate in.

“If we ignore it and make it someone else's problem, we may find ourselves without a place to ride.”

To find out how you can conserve equestrian lands and trails in your own community, call the Equine Land Conservation Resource, (859) 455-8383, or go to www.elcr.org.