The watershed is a fragile ecosystem that is easily disturbed by horses, particularly when there are large numbers using a popular water crossing. One significant impact on the watershed by horses is the erosive damage done to soil by their hooves. What can you do to minimize this impact on the ecosystem?
First off, stay on maintained, designated trails--these trails are often designed with erosion control measures and are reasonably sloped and of firm footing that is moderately impervious to wear-and-tear. Use a ford where vegetation grows all the way to the water’s edge and preferably one with a shallow slope where water doesn’t undercut a stream bank. This best avoids damage to the sides of stream banks that could add to erosion and sedimentation.
Silting up of the watershed not only reduces water depth and alters water flow, but it is also injurious to organisms within the riparian habitat, such as hatching of amphibian eggs and viability of aquatic plants. A similar impact to the watershed is experienced when horses move over muddy trails--this disturbs soil with more entering the creek through runoff. It’s best to refrain from trail riding during muddy or snow-melt periods.
Do your homework before hitting the trail. Train your horse to step quietly into water; otherwise, a horse that is resistant to crossing will tear up the ground with repeated refusals to cross. This turns what was once a level, decent footing crossing into a quagmire of sucking mud and overturned rocks, making it less safe for others to pass.
If riding in a group, try to cross in single file so only a narrow area of the creek bed is disturbed. Scout out the safest spot to cross, and have an experienced horse lead the way. Generally, less-confident horses will follow quietly. Pass through the stream as quickly as possible to minimize the chance of horses dropping manure into the watershed. One issue that has been put to rest is the concern over watershed contamination with manure-generated microorganisms, such as Giardia, Cryptosporidium spp., and E. coli. Horses are not a contributor to water contamination with these bacteria, but manure debris in the water leaves a cosmetic “bad taste” for other users who follow.
There is nothing more annoying to other riders than a horse pawing and splashing in the water in close proximity. In addition, this behavior thrashes the ground, potentially turning that area into a safety hazard. If your horse starts to paw and splash, pull his head up and urge him forward so he doesn’t persist. In many cases, a pawing horse is thinking about lying down and rolling in the water, which isn’t probably something you want him to do with you in the saddle and your horse attired in your expensive saddle and gear!
Although you might have crossed a particular creek safely in the past, never take it for granted that creek bed conditions haven’t changed. Remember to scope out each crossing as if it were the first time you’d encountered it if for no other reason than other horses might have overturned rocks or altered the footing as they passed through.
By taking care to practice careful stewardship of the land and waterways, you will help with trail and ecosystem sustainability that helps keep trails open and safe for equestrian use.