Ground for Improvement

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To train safely, your horses need confidence in the riding surface, indoors and out. Secure yet resilient footing lets the equine athlete gallop at speed, turn sharply, and jump with stable takeoff and landing surfaces.

Footing is a cushion that helps the horse perform by absorbing concussion and therefore reducing the risk of injury. In a footing session at the 2007 convention of the U.S. Dressage Federation, Dr. Hilary Clayton, BRCVS, Ph.D., MRCVS, explains, “The surface affects both performance and soundness. Hard surfaces are associated with bone and joint injuries, and soft surfaces are associated with tendon and ligament injuries.”

Whatever the discipline, follow a proactive approach to analyzing your riding surface. Learn from footing experts what symptoms to look for—and prescriptions to improve less-than-perfect footing.

How Is Your Footing Holding Up?

The footing you ride on is most likely sand, stone dust, wood chips, or a synthetic blend. Below it should be a solid base of compacted soil or sand. “The sand keeps the footing off the base material,” says John Dienhart of West Coast Footings.

“The hoof grinds sand down to smaller particles,” he adds, noting that every day horses are pounding on your riding surface. Whether those particles are sand—ground-up rock—or a wood product, as they shrink or degrade, you lose the airy feel, and the surface hardens.

Hard footing produces more concussion through high impact resistance. In her footing presentation, Clayton explained that hard footing causes problems because the horse’s toes must be able to dig into and penetrate the surface as the horse walks or runs. “The horse’s body rotates forward over the leg on the ground, and the joint angles change,” she says.

Footing has to be forgiving, and yet help the horse. “Surfaces with moderate shear strength allow the toe to penetrate, and they also give sufficient resistance that the hoof can push off from the surface,” Clayton adds.

Nick Attwood of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces, also a presenter at the 2007 USDF session, called shear strength “the strength of the sand,” explaining that it relates to the footing’s firmness, “how deep the horse gets into the footing.”

Footing that is too soft makes the horse work harder, fatiguing the muscles, which can lead to injury. Clayton recommends, “Look for something that’s not too hard, not too soft.”

To evaluate footing, Clayton advises to look and listen. “If you watch the horse go by, look at the surface afterwards. If you see an imprint, then you know that the surface is not terribly hard. Also listen—the less you can hear the hoofbeat is a good indication.” You might notice that the footing is uneven, with deep, low places, accompanied by higher, hard, areas. The horse feels these inconsistent surfaces under his feet. “Consistency is absolutely one of the keys to having an arena that is safe,” says Attwood. (For checking footing depth, see “What’s Your Depth,” page 34.)

What’s the Prescription To Fix Footing?

As in any health condition, you want an easy, affordable remedy—not major surgery or an extreme makeover. For an at-home sand test, Attwood advises, “Look for sand to form a shape in your hand. Then take your thumb, and try to break through that shape that you formed. From experience, we’ve gleaned that when it forms a nice shape, and you can break it fairly easily by pushing your thumb through it, you’re pretty close to getting those two properties: low concussiveness and the optimum amount of shear strength.”

Don’t trust yourself with that test? You can also obtain an expert examination. Midwest Equestrian analyzes mail-in samples. “We have a full-service laboratory in-house,” says Stephanie Cornell. “We do testing and send our recommendations and conclusions on the sample.”

Once you’ve determined that your footing needs help, where do you start? First, think about how to return air and water to the riding surface.

“In all arenas, we control air and water,” says Dienhart. “If we can’t control our air, we can’t control the softness.”

Dragging the arena renews its air content. Attwood recommends using something with good teeth, especially ones that are spring-loaded and adjustable. The harrow should also have a float bar to level the footing.

Is the surface too soft? Water can improve the surface by helping the sand bond. “Water adds a lot of hardness and compaction to footing,” says Cornell. But watering requires careful attention. She notes that watering is often inconsistent. Dienhart agrees, saying, “Water is your bonding agent. Most of the time the biggest problem is an inadequate watering system. If your sprinklers are uneven, footing will harrow in differently, and it will never ride the same.”

Attwood says, “Look at maintaining a 6- to 9-percent moisture level.” Too much water can make the arena unusable. For that reason, he adds, “You need a way that water can get out of the arena, which can by any one of three ways: some evaporates, some leaves through the arena base, or it goes to the low side when the arena is built with a crossfall.”

What if you have a problem with the arena base? To repair holes, Pam Jorgenson of Equi-tread recommends, “Pull the footing back and get down to the base to address the problem. Fill in that area with the original material. Rent a small compactor, water it, and patch it up like a pothole.”

Dienhart also advises to “glue” the seam around the patch. “When water goes down that crack, the seam can flake off or expand. I oil the seam with driveway oil to seal it. It decreases the water going down, and that patch will last a lot longer.”

Ultimately, the goal for barn owners is to reduce the need for first aid in the first place. That means regular inspections. Cornell says, “We recommend keeping track of your footing, and making adjustments as necessary.”

Dienhart advises, “You should look at your ring every year—study it to understand what it’s telling you. It’s cheaper to perk it up every year for better riding than to have to do a complete replacement.” When you build a new arena, he suggests, keep a sample of the footing from the old one. That fresh sample gives you a benchmark of the original.

The Options in Footing Additives

Another first-aid option in the footing arsenal includes additives. “An additive can change the footing by increasing or lowering shear strength,” says Attwood.

“They can increase the shear strength without making the footing too hard. For example, a sand knitted together with felt or fiber gets a three-dimensional network that doesn’t tend to shift. It has a little spring to it, and a level of rebound.”

For an existing arena, crumb rubber is one easy-to-mix additive. “Once it’s mixed in, the smaller rubber stays suspended in the sand,” says Todd Opacinch of Surfacing Resources. “The rubber helps sand from compacting, and it will absorb some of the concussion.”

Jorgenson explains that the most common material is “industrial rubber. The SBR [Styrene-Butadiene] rubber that comes from tires is the strongest.” This rubber is not post-consumer; that comes from used tires, and may contain pieces of wire. The crumbs made from industrial rubber are irregularly shaped, for a resilient footing that won’t degrade.

If you have a low spot in your arena, examine the cause. “If you have a low spot, it’s higher somewhere else,” says Dienhart. “Did something go down, or did something come up?”

One premium product is all-weather synthetic, polymer-coated footing. World-class examples are the two arenas of Sweden’s dressage superstar, Jan Brink. His footing is 15 cm [5.9 inches] deep. “It’s almost like cotton, never needs water, and gives you an elastic feel,” says Brink. “It can never be packed too much, and it does not move at all.”

Starting Over

Your footing is declared dead. Now what?

“If you have a footing that is highly degraded, you’re better off pulling at least half of it out and adding new footing,” says Cornell.

Dienhart says, “If 20 horses a day are riding in an arena, you lose 50 tons of sand a year. So put in two truckloads a year. That’s really good for your budget, and good for the horse.”

If your arena’s beyond a retrofit, a complete renovation means removing all footing and building a new base. “You need the base prepared as close to 100-percent compacted as possible,” says Jorgenson. “When you construct a new arena, take one bag of Portland cement, sprinkle it on, and water it in to ensure the base won’t crumble up on you. That will actually repair itself in an outdoor arena with a lot of rain.”

Attwood looks for a material that packs solid—stone dust or decomposed granite—that is graded level and compacted before adding the riding surface.

For the footing, “We always go to sand,” he says. “You want a subangular sand, and we tend to go for masonry sands more than concrete sands. Then we add either felt or fiber.”

By assuring that horses have the best footing you can afford, you help them perform better, and keep clients happy with your facility. “If a horse is trained on consistent footing, he will move up,” says Dienhart. “He will never be better than the surface he’s riding on.”

What’s Your Depth?

“We look at putting 2-1/2 to 3 inches of sand, consistent over the entire arena,” says Nick Attwood of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces. When he builds an arena, he puts in half the sand, then drags in felt or fiber additive. “Then we bring in the other 1-1/2 inches of sand and drag again. We’re pulling the fibers up through the footing, which is 100 times easier than trying to get them to go down.” He adds, “With just sand, you definitely know the difference between 2 and 3 inches.” John Dienhart of West Coast Footings says, “I have a probe on my tractor, so I can tell if the ring is getting shallow. You want to keep your footing up to 2 or 2-1/4 inches. When I do a consultation, the first thing I do is measure—and 80 percent of the time, people don’t have enough sand.” To add crumb rubber, Todd Opacinch of Surfacing Resources suggests a 1:2 ratio of rubber to sand. To add 1-1/2 inches of rubber, he advises ordering the 50-pound bags and spreading them around the arena. Then open the bags and rake out the rubber, or pull a tractor over it. “With the smaller rubber, you don’t have to keep working it,” he says. He notes that this approach is easier than having a 2,000-pound bag delivered to the middle of the ring. “No matter how much you rake it out, you will always have too much rubber in the one area,” he cautions. He also advises adding only 1-1/2 to 2 inches. “It’s easier to add more rubber than take it out,” he notes.

For More Information:

Attwood Equestrian Surfaces


Midwest Equestrian

Stabilizer Solutions

Surfacing Resources LLC

West Coast Footings

Dr. Hilary Clayton, Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center, Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI