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Horse Trails and Water Quality Protection
Gene W. Wood
Water quality has become the most basic indicator
of ecosystem health. Any decline in the quality of water is being taken as a symptom
suggesting that the ecosystem is being degraded. Because recreational trail horses
are large and tend to leave obvious traces in the form of manure and hoof prints,
they are often suspected as culprits in water quality decline in wild and semi-wild
(managed forests and rangelands) ecosystems.
Concerns about recreational
trail horse impacts are often focused on manure left on trails and the possibilities
for the spread on potentially pathogenic organisms to humans or wildlife. Typically,
the greatest causes for concern in the United States have been focused on Giardia
spp., Cryptosporidium spp., and fecal Escherichia coli. U.S. studies have shown
that the first two organisms are rare in horse manure, and the third occurs in
densities far lower those found naturally in many wild mammal species. Therefore,
as a source of potentially pathogenic organisms that might degrade water quality,
the trail horse is not an important concern.
A source of more likely legitimate
concern is impacts on riparian areas and the siltation of streambeds. Both of
these problems are caused primarily by improper trail design, construction, and
maintenance. To the extent possible, trails should be kept out of riparian zones,
and cross these zones with minimal disturbance. This usually means crossing at
minimum zone widths and hardening the trail tread as is appropriate to preventing
the development of quagmires.
Where trails have been constructed on slope
fall lines, soil erosion by water is guaranteed. These soils typically end up
in streambeds as silt, and could potentially adversely affect aquatic life. This
problem can develop on any trail regardless of type of use, but among non-motorized
uses, recreational trail horse use exacerbates the problem to a greater extent
than any other activity.
No recreational trail user needs direct access
to water at a level equal to that of the recreational trail horse user. Horses
must have adequate water or they risk colic followed by death on the trail. How
the horse is provided water or access to natural surface water requires considerable
forethought in trail design, construction, and maintenance. The degradation of
banks of streams, ponds and lakes can be a significant problem and must be carefully
considered by the trail manager and rider.
The activities of the horse
once in the water also must be considered by both the manager and the rider. Horses
that routinely defecate in water should have water brought to them. Horse that
tend to paw at the stream bottom must be removed from the water immediately. Horses
must not be ridden up and down the streambed. Some of these problems can be mitigated
by hardening the approach to the stream and the stream bottom. Barricades on either
side of the watering point will also prevent the occurrence of any traffic above
or below the watering place or trail crossing.
Owners Guide to Water Quality Protection (pdf 908 kb);
Water Quality Best Management Practices (pdf 123 kb)