(c) 1996, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine

By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

Crossing a tranquil stream can be a pleasant enhancement to any trail ride, however unsafe stream crossings by riders and hikers contribute to numerous injuries and deaths each year. Often people in unfamiliar areas do not adequately size up the situation before attempting a crossing or they ignore dangerous changes which have taken place at crossings with which they are familiar. The purpose of this article is to remind everyone of some all-too- often forgotten elements in hopes of sharpening your judgement skills.

The two most basic issues to consider when crossing any stream are:

    Can my horse handle the crossing?

    What will happen to me if I fall off?

This second issue is often ignored completely!

Determining a Safe Crossing:

Under ideal circumstances someone in the riding party should have a detailed map which describes established water crossings. If the ride is within a park, recreation area or is on a designated equestrian trail, your pre-ride checklist should include contacting an appropriate park official or experienced rider familiar with area stream crossings. This inquiry will allow you to route your trip so that your most challenging crossing is within the capabilities of your least experienced horse and/or rider and may save you having to backtrack for miles or suffer an accident on a crossing which is too difficult.

Another advantage of a pre-ride contact is to gather some information on stream conditions. In certain areas of the country stream levels may change significantly during the day. As examples, snow fed streams will swell during warm afternoons as melting increases. Some larger streams are affected by predictable releases from upstream dams and hydroelectric plants. In some western areas, streams will often flood as a result of a thunderstorm miles upstream, of which there may be no evidence to riders expecting to come upon a safe crossing.

By learning local runoff cycles you can plan your trip with an emphasis toward timing your crossings during the safest period. If you plan to cross streams which are subject to "flash flooding", you can determine what a normal crossing should look like and if it appears flooded, wait until the water subsides before proceeding.

"Reading" the Crossing:

It is sometimes difficult to know exactly what a water crossing has in store until you are out in it. From a physics standpoint, horses are well designed for shallow stream crossings. Narrow legs and four points of balance can provide good stability (provided the footing is adequate) with little surface area for the force of water to act upon. However, once the horse is in up to his belly, the water will act on him in much the same way that wind acts on a sail. Here are a few general rules that you can rely on.

Water is heavy and the impact that it has on wading animals (horses and humans) is dependant upon depth, velocity (speed), and direction (which includes turbulence). A stream with a velocity of 5 feet per second is considered very fast, however 5 feet per second is only about 3.4 MPH, the speed of a comfortable human walk. As the speed of water doubles, the effective force of the water triples. Flooding streams may exceed 20 feet per second, or nine times the power of a "very fast" stream.

Since fast moving water causes most stream bed erosion, channels are generally deepest where water is flowing the fastest. Observing the relative water speed across the entire crossing can often reveal otherwise unexpected, difficult channels. Small pieces of wood or bark can be tossed into the water as floating "speed" references, but keep in mind that the movement of flotsam can be affected by the wind.

Due to inertia, water velocity is greatest on the outside of bends in stream beds. Thus a crossing from the inside of a bend may consist of a smooth, gradually sloping stream bed, but nearer the outside of the bend, the channel will likely be quite deep and the shore inclination nearly vertical. In many instances the water may actually undercut the bank on the outside bend. For this reason, avoid crossing at bends.

Unless the they are a result of an indentation in the bank or a large obstruction such as a boulder, visible helical currents (spiraling currents of water) between the main stream current and the bank suggest significant mid- stream flows. Helical currents and eddies in the middle of the stream suggest submerged obstacles such as large rocks which are often slippery, or submerged logs and/or man-made objects. Smooth water is generally the safest, and most desirably should appear with the least visible changes in velocity as one looks across the stream.

Where a stream widens along its natural course, it generally becomes shallower. Wide, shallow crossings are generally desirable as water velocity is consistently lower. There will likely be multiple small channels rather than one large, dangerous one. The bottom and/or hazards may be visible. Crossing can proceed from one eddy to the next.

Footing can be a tricky issue. While a horse may be able to cope with poor footing in shallow situations, he is likely to loose balance in a channel when the force of water is greatest and footing is not sufficient. Gravel stream beds are generally the safest, particularly when water is clear enough to see the bottom and avoid the more obvious submerged hazards.

Roots, snags and other entanglements should be avoided for obvious reasons. Avoid banks crowded with water loving trees, dead branches and such. Not only are submerged objects a hazard to your horse, they could be life-threatening to the rider if the horse trips and the rider gets entangled.

Planning for a Spill:

If your horse refuses, gets tangled up, slips, (you name it), what's going to happen to you?

Don't cross upstream from any hazards that you would not be comfortable swimming or floating through. Such hazards include waterfalls, rapids, low head dams (commonly used to control storm runoff), snags and entangling vegetation.

Most people disregard low head dams as dangerous as they are generally only a few feet high, however the water under the spillage can be very turbulent with serious under-tows.

Dead trees (snags) which have fallen across streams are often referred to as strainers as the water can get past and solid objects can't. Many people consider strainers as something to grab hold onto for safety, however strainers often trap out of control swimmers under water, and depending upon the current, can be difficult to get dislodged from.

When selecting a crossing, consider that you might take an unexpected bath and feel comfortable that you could make it to the bank safely before proceeding.

Taking a Bath:

If you feel your horse going down or having serious difficulties, prepare to get clear of the stirrups and off the horse before he rolls over on you. If it is not deep enough for him to swim, he will likely, but not always, roll over on his downstream side. If the water is shallow enough for you to stand and safely wade out, get to shore and worry about catching your horse from a safe vantage point.

If the water is over 2 feet deep, and especially if it is moving rapidly, you will probably have to do some swimming before you get things under control. Roll over onto your back with your legs pointing downstream. Use a backstroke or sidestroke to get to shallower, calmer water where you can safely swim or climb out.

If you stand up and the water is pounding you, stand sideways to the current. Your upstream leg will help protect your downstream, bracing leg. If you are back on your feet but the current is too swift to wade out, you have several options available.

A stick used as a walking staff oftentimes can provide the extra balance you need. Perhaps one can be floated down to you.

Two other fit members of your party could help balance each other and come out to aid you. The three of you then could form a circle, one with his/her back to the current and the other two stabilizing the circle until all are out of harm's way.

Someone could throw you a rope and help pull you in, however if this option is used it is absolutely imperative that the rope be easily released at both ends. If the wader falls and the rope snags, he/she could be held under and drowned. The best way for the wader to hold the rope is by wrapping it around his/her chest one time and holding the end between the teeth. A non-cinching loop, such as a bowline, loosely fit around the wader is also reasonably easy to get out of. Don't forget that the wader can use his/her hands to hold onto the rope for support, and if he/she gets pulled under, it has to easily come loose!

Finally, when walking out in rocky stream beds, there is always the possibility that you could get a foot stuck in a hole or crack. If this occurs, it may be necessary for someone to help you keep your balance while you attempt to extract your foot. To attempt to do so prematurely can result in your falling over and not being able to get back up! If in doubt, remain calm, get your friends to help you by implementing a rational, organized plan.

Stream Crossing Common Sense:

Experienced horses and riders should go first, with another experienced horse and rider bringing up the rear. You don't need some John Wayne wanna-be leading off, getting into trouble, and throwing the whole crossing into chaos. Help less experienced riders (or horses) pick safe routes across. Hopefully, if the leaders do things well, the less experienced horses will have more confidence in the operation.

Disconnect martingales or any other form of tie down. The horse will need to be able to get his head up to breathe and for balance.

Designate a coach in the event someone gets into trouble. A rider with a problem is seldom helped by several people shouting conflicting suggestions. The coach should talk the novice through the crossing and the others should be listening for instructions should they be needed to cope with a failing situation.

With more difficult crossings, some strategies should be planned in advance such as who is a good swimmer, an experienced wader, has a rope, etc., and who will be expected to do what in the event someone does takes a bath.

Everyone should stick to the proven route across any challenging stream.

In the event a horse becomes agitated or shy, work things out in the shallows before venturing out into the current. Make a game out of it if you have to. Take the time it takes to get the horse used to the experience. Many horses like water once they feel comfortable in it. Once the horse is responding well, the group can proceed. Even if it takes an hour to teach a horse to work well in water, it is time well spent and it is much less disruptive than the catastrophe which might result from rushing things.


When riding in unfamiliar areas with large streams, check maps for water crossings and get detailed information on any crossings which may be over 2 feet deep and/or have very fast (3.4 MPH) water.

Don't put inexperienced horses and riders in situations which they can't handle unless you are willing to take the time to make a lesson out of the event and proceed when the horse is ready.

Be observant of "man" and weather caused changes in water levels.

Pick a good crossing, on a straight stretch of water, free from soft mud, snags and large, slippery rocks.

Observe downstream conditions in preparation of someone coming off.

In fast water, develop a brief action plan in the event someone comes off (where to try to swim, who can do what to assist, etc.)

Establish your crossing order in advance, with an experienced horse and rider picking out the course and another experienced horse and rider supporting the rear.

When crossing, be deliberate in your actions. Stick to the plan. Indecisiveness and fumbling about can make the horse nervous and get you in trouble.

Remove all restrictions to your horse's vertical head movement.

Cross in an organized fashion, leaving sufficient room for each horse and rider to work out difficulties without involving another horse and rider.

Prepare for an emergency dismount if your horse gets in trouble.

Stay calm if someone does take a bath and implement your action plan. Deal with the wader first, then the horse.

Don't try to catch horses mid-stream. Particularly if there are riders on both sides already, someone will likely be able to catch the horse as he comes out.

If the situation starts to go bad, try to make corrections or abort the crossing before you get into serious trouble. Drowning, particularly for equestrians, is a tragedy which is pretty much preventable.

Rider's Challenge:

You are riding in a group in an unfamiliar semi-wilderness area. You are following an established trail which runs alongside a fairly wide creek. Your group wants to pick up a trail which runs alongside the opposite side of the creek. One rider starts out into the stream from a gravel bar. About two thirds across, his horse looses its footings, rolls over, and both the horse and rider have to swim for the far shore, being swept several yards downstream in the process.

  1. What should you do first?

  2. What problems / hazards could you expect?

  3. What are your priorities?

  4. What actions should you take?

Before you do anything you should determine if the rider and horse are OK. The situation probably does not require any high risk heroics at this point, but if the rider is exhausted from his swim on a cold and/or windy day, he may need reasonably prompt assistance to prevent hypothermia.

If the rider is unhurt and can move about ably, he should attend to his horse, securing the animal and staying put for now. The remainder of the group, not the wet rider, should scout out a more appropriate crossing.

Your priorities include the safety and condition or the wet rider and his horse, as well as prevention of additional mishaps. A decision will need to be made; should the group cross over to the wet rider, or should he cross back and rejoin the group? The correct choice should be based on a number of factors.

If the weather is good and the wet rider is able to complete the ride as planned, the members of the group should decide if they want to attempt to cross or go back in the direction they came. If the rider cannot rejoin the group, someone will need to cross over to assist him and head toward the nearest shelter or staging area.

A water crossing incident where the group gets split is a classic situation where there are no "pat" answers and common sense must prevail. Since the rider is already wet, if a safer crossing location can be found you may opt for your soggy comrade to come back over to your side. His horse, however, may have ideas which don't include going back into the water.

Leading a horse across moving water requires proper equipment and skill. One must be wary of drifting into a paddling horse when swimming alongside it in moving water (either during a planned swim or as a result of the handler being pulled into the water by the horse). Unless it tends to float and the water surface is clear of debris, a long, loose rope can get tangled and create major problems. These are all issues which should be considered when deciding whether to join the wet rider or have him and his horse come back.

If the map shows a safer crossing within a reasonable distance, such as a bridge, the safest choice may be to have an experienced rider pair up with the wet subject and everyone can meet up at the bridge. Such a tactic may be embarrassing for the wet rider, but if the crossing is really tricky, you are better off being conservative and not ending up with more undesired "swimmers".

Obviously the first rider did not adequately size up the crossing. Before anyone else attempts to go across for any reason, the stream must be read more carefully. You want to be part of the solution, not add to the problem!

Finally, prevention is always the best cure. When navigating unfamiliar streams make sure the group is in agreement that they will size up every significant crossing before anyone starts across. Mishaps don't happen that often, but they can have devastating consequences. At the very least, an unexpected and chaotic swim by one rider can unnerve some of the less seasoned horses in the group and make their crossings more difficult and precarious. If such an event does occur, a calm, deliberate response will help avoid complicating the situation and help keep the remaining horses settled.

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

Email the author

Return to Safety Main Page

Go To KBR Horse Net