Killer River

A cautionary tale advises riders how to ford rivers, and explains the human body’s response to a cold-water plunge.

 By RYAN T. BELL

Killer RiverEven a river that appears calm can quickly turn deep and dangerous for horses and riders.

A river might be the most lethal obstacle a horseman encounters in the backcountry.

Whether through the danger of drowning or the risk of hypothermia, a frigid mountain stream can truly take your breath away.

Raul Castillo, a gaucho I worked with in Argentina, almost learned that lesson the hard way. We worked together on Estancia del Cielo, a cattle ranch in the Andes Mountains.  e headquarters was a three-hour ride into the mountains from the closest road, so one of our jobs was to make weekly supply runs with pack horses. On the return leg of the trip, the last hurdle was to ford the Trocoman River, a sizeable body of water with deep runs, cascading riffles and wide pools that stretched 100 feet across.

It was springtime on the day Raul and his brother Luis were sent on the supply run. While they were gone, unseasonably warm temperatures caused snow to melt in the high country. The brothers returned to find the Trocoman running dangerously high.  ough the gauchos couldn’t see the river bottom through the turbid water, they forded along a gravel bar, the contours of which they knew by heart. Or so they thought. Halfway across, Raul was in front when his horse stumbled into a sinkhole where the gravel bar had been blown out by the high water. The current swept them downriver, the horse submerged up to its neck with Raul clinging to its mane.

What happened next is an illustration of how, when fording a river, a sequence of decisions can create a deadly situation. First, Raul and Luis didn’t know how to swim. Second, the brothers had taken the river for granted, thinking of its shape as a fixed entity. And third, a factor that nearly proved fatal for Raul, they both rode with the lead ropes of their pack horses tied fast to their saddles.

Initially, Raul’s saddle horse was able to swim across to safety. But as the horse and rider climbed out of the channel, the floating packhorse yanked them back in. In the tumult, the tied-off lead rope swept across the saddle, clothes-lining Raul broadside against his horse, with his head underwater. The tangled mess of gaucho, pack and saddle horse floated downriver in a thrashing mob.

Oddly enough, the frigid water temperature was the best thing going for Raul’s survival. The human body has a “diving reflex,” a physiological response when the face is exposed to water temperatures below 70 degrees, which increased Raul’s chances of survival. Before going under, the shock of the cold water caused Raul to gulp a large quantity of air into his lungs. Then his heart went into bradycardia, dropping his heart rate by 10 to 25 percent. A slow heart rate conserves oxygen. Also, the capillaries constricted in Raul’s extremities, further conserving oxygen by reducing blood flow. Altogether, Raul’s body was helping him survive a prolonged submersion.

The diving reflex has a downside. Raul couldn’t think clearly or make proper use of his arms and legs—not that it mattered with his body pinned by the lead rope. Instead of grabbing his knife to cut himself free, Raul clung to the rope, trying to pry himself loose.

From shore, Luis watched Raul go under. Acting fast, Luis released his packhorse, drew his facón knife and galloped after his drowning brother. Endangering his own life, Luis spurred his horse into the raging Trocoman, slashing at the lead rope as it floated by. Luis’s knife did cut through the rope, but also sliced a four-inch gash across Raul’s palm, narrowly missing the radial artery. Luis towed his brother to shore, bandaged the hand with a neckerchief, and fetched the horses that were now scattered downriver.

In hindsight, Raul’s near-drowning is a cautionary tale about how to safely ford a river. Backcountry horsemen can avoid their own close brush with death by committing to memory the following key points on the left.


How to ford a river

• View from Above
The contours of a riverbed can be seen from a high vantage, where the sun doesn’t cause a glare on the water’s surface. Rivers follow predictable sequences of riffles, runs and pools. Even in turbid water, a rider can “read” a river to determine the safest crossing. The brightness or darkness of the water indicates depth, and remember the adage that “calm waters run deep.” An easy way to find a safe crossing is to look for game trails to determine where animals entered and exited the water.

Shallow is Safest
Shallow depth is the first priority, followed by slow current speed. For every inch a horse’s legs and body submerge, the force of water against them increases exponentially. And buoyancy actually works against a horse’s ability to maintain contact with the riverbed. A fast-moving riffle that’s only 12 inches deep might be safer than a slow-moving pool that’s 3 feet deep.

No Restrictions
Before entering the water, remove whatever tack could hamper your and your horse’s movements: lead rope, mecate, lariat, martingale, chaps, spurs. Kick your feet out of the stirrups and pull your knees up towards the pommel. Too often, riders sweep their legs behind them, which rocks their bodies into a precarious position that’s difficult to get out of if a horse capsizes. As a rule, in case of an emergency, eject from the saddle and get clear of your horse.

Downstream and Diagonal
Anyone who’s gone river walking knows that it’s easiest to walk with the current, not upstream against it. The same goes for horses. As a four-legged animal, when a horse walks downstream its back legs break water for its front, creating a pocket of calm water for the front hooves to walk in. Use this to your benefit by fording in a diagonal direction downstream. If upstream is the only option, maintain a sharp diagonal bearing. The worst a rider can do is ride perpendicular to the current, which lets the river blast all four of the horse’s legs at once.

Eyes Fixed Ashore
Rushing water can give a rider vertigo. Dizziness is especially dangerous because it compromises your balance in the saddle and causes you to give your horse miscues with your reins. Combat vertigo by focusing on a fixed point on the far shore. If dizziness encroaches, take hold of the saddle horn and close your eyes.

Free Rein
The worst thing a rider can do is use his reins to micromanage a horse’s movement midstream. Fording is an exercise in trust; the horse can “feel” the riverbed, even if you can’t see it. Give a loose rein, making only broad directional cues. At a certain point in a river crossing, a horse commits to getting across. Trust that he’ll get you there.

Contributing editor RYAN T. BELL lives in Montana. Read more Backcountry columns on his website at ryantbell.com. Send comments on this story to edit@westernhorseman.com.

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