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Choosing appropriate sites for water crossings is a responsibility all trail riders must take seriously

By Jennifer M. Keeler

Some of the most picturesque and pleasant places on the trail are water crossings.  But while enjoying the beauty of shady streams, it is important for trail riders to be aware of precautions they should take to protect not only their safety, but also their access to treasured trails in the future.

The highest priority of any equestrian is safety for rider and horse.  But when approaching a body of water on the trail, how does one determine where it’s a safe place to cross?  According to Jan Hancock, an equestrian facilities and trails consultant with Hancock Resources LLC in Phoenix, AZ, there is much more to consider than just avoiding those obviously deep, muddy areas.  “Some streams and rivers actually have quicksand that can be very dangerous.  Quicksand can even travel to different water locations which 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.”

rock armoring credit USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancock

Rock armoring of a stream crossing helps reduce streambed siltation. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancock.

Besides safety concerns, Mike Riter of Trail Design Specialists in Danielsville, GA, says that, when trail riders make careless or poor choices in where to cross water, it can make much more of a damaging impact than they may realize, even to the point of causing restricted trail access for horses.  “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 issues related to crossings don’t come from the bottom itself, but from the banks on either side.  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 which 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 agreed.  “Sedimentation occurs any time an animal steps in a stream; and prolonged sedimentation can reduce the natural roughness along the stream bed and eventually decrease the water depth, cause changes in the water flow, and widening of the water channel.  Sedimentation can also harm fish habitat.”

The first thing trail riders can do is educate themselves as to what to look for in a safe, suitable water crossing.  “The best crossings are done on shallow sloping banks in places the water is not undercutting the bank on either side,” notes Riter.

“The best crossings are done on shallow sloping banks in places the water is not undercutting the bank on either side,” Mike Riter, Trail Design Specialists

“A good rule of thumb for identifying these areas is to look for vegetation growing all the way to the water’s edge.”  Contrary to what riders may think, fanning out to cross streams in different places is not better, as this actually multiplies the damage.  All riders should cross in the same safe area, and avoid laboring through deep mud which can cause injury to horses’ legs.  Locate fords in an area where the stream is straight and shallow, ideally with natural rocks and pebbles for soil stability so as to help prevent horses’ hooves from damaging wet edges of the crossing.  While some natural rock is good, avoid areas that have exposed sheets of rock which can be very slippery and cause a fall.  In addition, avoid crossings with water deeper than two feet or with a strong current to help prevent a horse panicking or losing its footing while crossing.

geotextiles credit USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancock

Using geotextiles in wet areas and water crossings on trails helps minimize erosion. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancock.

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, proper location and construction of water crossings is critical for reduction of environmental impacts.  “When water crossings are planned into a trail system, options such as soil hardeners, gravel, rock armoring, or other synthetic materials such as geotextiles are now readily available and 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.”

For the multitude of existing trails currently in use by equestrians across the country, measures can be taken to preserve and improve the quality of water fords by reinforcing crossings with gravel, rock, soil hardeners, and geotextiles to reduce erosion and siltation issues.  “Also, if existing trails have steep descents into stream beds, trails can be realigned with climbing turns and installing rock swales and bioswales, naturally slowing the flow of rain and melting snow on these slopes,” Hancock says.  “The reduction of water runoff and the resulting capture of natural seeds help to re-vegetate barren slopes and reinforce the impacted stream banks.”

….one of the most important ways equestrians can help protect the sustainability of trails, especially in stream crossings areas, is to stay home when trails are wet. – Jan Hancock, Hancock Resources, LLC

Hancock also stresses that one of the most important ways equestrians can help protect the sustainability of trails, especially in stream crossings areas, is to stay 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 we could encourage equestrians to refrain from riding natural surface trails until 48 hours following rain and wait for the snow melt to dissipate, we could 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, buffalo, etc. in streams and rivers can be significant,” Hancock explains.  “On recreational trail systems, damage from equestrians in these areas may be greater than that caused by other non-motorized trail users such as hikers.  When a rider makes poor decisions such as riding a trail when the surface is soft or wet or choosing unsuitable fords, then they may be causing trail access and sustainability problems.  Trail sustainability is a team effort between the trail user and the trail management agencies, 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 decisions will be made to close a trail.”

hoof prints credit USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancok

If your horse is leaving hoof prints like this, the trail is still too wet for use. Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service and Jan Hancock.

Riter emphatically agrees.  “The best way for a rider to be a part of the solution is to get involved; 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,” he says.  “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 has to go into creating a stable crossing that will resist problems, and as users and stewards of the land, it’s every equestrian’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.”