Stream Care Strategies for Your Horse Property
By Ava Shannon
Horse owners with a stream on their property know exactly what kinds of headaches a waterway can cause. Besides posing a hazard to your horses and other animals, or being inconvenient when moving machinery and vehicles around your property, use of your stream is likely subject to a host of strict government regulations designed to maintain water quality, which is something we all benefit from.
The value of your stream isn’t defined only by the regulations that govern it. A stream can be a clean and constant water source for your horses, and depending on its condition, it can also provide a habitat for fish and other wildlife. By following a few management guidelines, you can both protect the safety of your horses and minimize your impact on the natural habitats in and around a stream. You will benefit from cleaner water, more biodiversity, reduced erosion and land loss, and safer movement across the waterway for you and your horses.
Here are six best practices for waterway management:
Although your creek may offer a supply of beautiful water for your horses, streams and their banks (riparian areas) are sensitive to disturbances by large, heavy animals. The compaction and churning that happens in these wet areas results in erosion, low survival of riparian plants, and muddying of the water. Many fish and other aquatic organisms cannot survive in clouded water, and the bare soil means there is nothing holding the bank together, which means high water levels can wash them away more easily.
Horses and other livestock can cause considerable damage sensitive riparian areas, and contaminate the water with manure and urine. The wet, muddy conditions also put horses at risk of health problems. Photo credit: ©Canstockphoto/Ijdema
Standing in these muddy areas can put your horses at risk of foot rot, soft hooves, and other health problems. Horses also leave behind manure and urine, further contaminating the water and creating pathogen risks.
To keep horses out of these fragile areas, fence at least three metres (10 feet) from the top of the bank. This leaves room for riparian plants to grow, and for the natural shifting of the stream’s route.
Related: Horse Pasture Renovation
A fence and bridge were installed to exclude livestock from this stream. However, the fence did not leave enough space for the riparian area to allow for natural stream channel migration, which led to loss of land and a portion of the fence due to stream bank erosion. Photo credit: LEPS
After one year: The fence was moved back to allow for a healthy riparian area to be planted; large boulders were placed along the stream banks to prevent erosion. Photo credit: LEPS
Four years after completion. Photo credit: LEPS
15 years after completion: A healthy riparian area exists with no erosion problems or land loss. Photo credit: LEPS
Excluding your horses from the stream doesn’t mean they can’t access that fresh stream water. Water can be pumped up with electricity, solar power, or even a gravity system, to a watering spot away from those sensitive areas. Nose pumps are especially useful because they eliminate the problems of water going stagnant or getting wasted, and will supply fresh water on demand as long as there is flow in the stream.
Research which native plants in your area are water-loving (such as certain native varieties of willow, which can be propagated from cuttings for free). Plant these between your fence and the stream. Their roots will hold the bank together, reducing land lost to erosion, keeping your stream from changing its path, and mitigating flooding by slowing the flow of water toward the stream. If your stream flows so quickly that it might wash away your plantings, with a permit you can lay riprap (large rock pieces) in lines across the streambed to slow it down.
If you use the stream for watering your horses, a healthy riparian area will also filter inflowing contaminants, especially if your upstream neighbours aren’t as diligent. And as an added bonus, these plants will offer habitat for native wildlife (including ones that eat insects and rodents) and shade the water from the hot summer sun, cooling it and making it more suitable for fish, too.
A very degraded stream bank and riparian area. Photo credit: LEPS
The stream bank slope has been reduced at the point of the crossing to prevent erosion and degradation. The in-stream crossing has been completed with large gravel and fencing to limit the impact of the crossing livestock. Photo credit: LEPS
To allow your horses (and yourself) access to pasture or buildings on the other side of the stream, you need a good crossing. Before starting construction, make sure you’ve informed or requested approval from all necessary governmental bodies such as the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) Canada, and your provincial ministry of the environment. The key features of a stream crossing that will protect your horses and your waterway for years are:
- Free span: This means there are no supporting structures in the water. The bridge only stands on footings on the banks. By contrast, culverts are liable to clogging or even washing out and can be a major barrier to fish. Old semi-truck beds make an excellent strong and affordable deck.
A free-span bridge using a truck trailer bed as the bridge frame. Recycled yellow cedar from telephone poles was used to clad the bridge deck and railings. The bridge deck is longer than the width of the stream so the bank footings do not encroach on the stream, which reduces erosion around the footings and allows for stream channel migration over time. Photo credit: LEPS
- Clear of flood levels: Be sure your bridge would still be there after the highest level of water you’ve had in the last five years. Build it solidly so rushing spring run-off or debris won’t wash away its supports on the bank.
- Prudent In-Stream crossing: If an in-stream crossing turns out to be the only option for you (for example, if the slope of the stream banks is too shallow), be aware that this will require the most oversight from authorities. Be sure to lay down gravel to prevent erosion, and to continue your riparian fencing across the stream so your horses can still only access it at the crossing.
In-stream crossings are best suited for infrequently crossed streams that are naturally shallow with low flow and gradually sloped banks. The stream bed and banks should be sloped and strengthened so the act of crossing with vehicles and livestock has less impact. Credit for photos: LEPS
Before photo (above): The exposed soil on the banks leads to sedimentation in the stream.
During photo (below): Large gravel placed in the stream and on the banks allows livestock to cross without causing sedimentation to the stream.
Manage the flow of water and run-off that already happens on your property. Manure piles should be covered throughout the rainy season to prevent your stream from becoming contaminated with nitrogen and pathogens. Permeable paving materials like gravel can help reduce the amount of run-off, and run-off from roofs can be diverted away from high traffic areas. Create landscape features, such as rainwater gardens, planted channels, or shallow ponds, in strategic locations to slow the flow of surface water.
Bridges are the best option for stream crossings because they have the least impact on the stream in the long term, although they can be the most expensive to install. Photo credit: LEPS
Look out for the wildlife that your newly protected riparian areas may become home to. You may be lucky enough to see some endangered species and can even help research by reporting sightings:
In Alberta: https://www.alberta.ca/wildlife-loadforms.aspx
Elsewhere: Call your provincial ministry of the environment and ask how to report wildlife observations.
If you have farm status, and you complete a free and confidential ecological assessment of your operation through the Environmental Farm Plan, you may also be eligible for cost-share funding to complete some of the above work. Either way, it’s always a good idea to test your stream water periodically to monitor its health. You may even be able to watch your improvements take measurable effect. For more tips and information on stream and pasture management, download the Land Management Guide and the Stream Crossing Guide free at www.manuremaiden.com.
Related: Planning Your Horse's Run-In Shed
Ava Shannon is the interim Agriculture Program Coordinator at Langley Environmental Partners Society (LEPS). This project is supported by the BC Agriculture Council/ARDCorp with funding from Agriculture Canada, BC Ministry of Agriculture, and The Investment Agriculture Foundation.
Main article photo: LEPS