Treading Lightly

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From barrel racing to jumping and from flat tracks to therapeutic riding rings, horses are called upon to perform in all sorts of disciplines under all sorts of conditions. Day after day they pound the track or arena and that shock is transferred to bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments. For some equine athletes, especially jumpers, racing Thoroughbreds, reining horses and barrel racers, those forces amount to between 4,000 and 6,000 pounds per square inch each time hoof meets ground.

From turf to recycled crumb rubber, different types of footing offer varying degrees of performance and convenience. Though there are virtually no independent scientific studies of the materials currently available, the experts do agree on some aspects related to good horse surfaces.

According to Dr. Hilary Clayton, who studies horse gait and locomotion in the department of veterinary medicine at Michigan State University, there are three main ingredients for safe high-performance tracks and arenas. Number one is that, as with any construction project, the end product is only as good as its foundation. “The footing,” says Clayton, “will never be better than the base.” In fact, almost every company contacted for this story agreed no footing will give good results if laid on a poor base (see “Laying the Foundation”).

After that, she says, footing composition will determine its ability to absorb shock and provide a stable platform. Third on her list is depth, which will vary somewhat according to discipline. For most performance surfaces, says Clayton, three inches is a safe maximum. Too deep and you risk straining tendons and ligaments and tire the horse out prematurely (think about walking through deep dry sand). Too hard a surface can result in impact injury. Too much cushion can send energy back up into the legs and feel unstable. Footings also need to offer the proper amount of friction and the right amount of resistance to penetration by the hoof.

The following rundown describes the most popular types of footing used today. The descriptions explore the advantages and disadvantages of each type. Each manufacturer has their own recommendations for determining the amount of footing to use and should be contacted directly for specific cost analyses. Maintenance issues will also, naturally, differ depending on whether the arena in question is located indoors or out.

Turf Demands Attention

Besides being pleasant to look at—as long as it gets light traffic—and helping to keep an arena cool, turf underfoot provides good traction and springiness. On the downside, it requires a great deal of work to maintain, needing weeding, fertilizing, seeding, watering, aerating and mowing. And that’s after you’ve lucked out in establishing resilient grass to begin with. In an arena that sees real workouts, especially jumping, bare spots and dusty stretches often appear so it’s wise to regularly move the location of jumps. There are also mud holes and slick, wet grass that characterize spring and the hardpan that can form during dry spells and when the temperature drops below freezing.

It’s the surface horses first competed on and is still widely used by Thoroughbred training facilities, polo clubs and hunter/jumper barns?and others who can’t stand the thought of riding on anything but natural grass.

Michael Dickinson, is so obsessed with footing that his Thoroughbred training facility, Tapeta Farm in North East, Md., takes its name from the Latin word for carpet. There are four training tracks at Tapeta and three of them are turf tracks, each using a different mix of grass types to provide a dry-weather track, a wet-weather track and a normal-weather track. They get mowed to the appropriate height every second day, are aerated numerous times a season, require the application of various costly conditioners and, says Dickinson, demand dedication and passion to keep in top condition.

Sand and its Relatives

The fourth track at Tapeta is surfaced with Dickinson’s patented footing. He says he spent $30,000 on mistakes while developing what he calls the perfect all-weather material for its surface. Though it’s not yet commercially distributed, it will most likely be marketed under the Tapeta name and is based on sand and seven other materials. Dickinson is understandably secretive about those other substances, but he did say rubber and wood are not among them and that 75 percent of the mix is washed sand. He says it is the perfect footing for jumpers, eventers and polo arenas.

“Not all sand is created equal,” says MSU’s Dr. Clayton. She explains that perfectly good arenas can consist solely of sand or sand with additives. It all depends on the type and quality of sand available in your area. The different types of sand are set apart by shape, grain size and hardness. Beach sand, for example, is round and won’t pack well. Because of that, it is very unstable and won’t support a horse’s efforts, acting like microscopic ball bearings. On the other hand, sand created by glacial action rather than continuous water tumbling has angled edges that resist movement when force is applied. Because of that, glacial or quarry sand, especially when it contains hard minerals like quartz, works well in equine applications. (Round sand, however, can sometimes aid in loosening up a silty or clay-based arena that becomes too compacted.) Quarried sand is generally less expensive than manufactured footings, but more expensive than other quarried materials and sand of lesser quality. In the Northeast, covering a 100-foot by 150-foot arena (15,000 square feet) with one inch of quarried, washed sand can cost between $1,500 and $1,800, excluding delivery charges.

Sand can be quite dusty and inhibits drainage if not chosen carefully. That’s why most experts say it is vital to choose a medium to coarse-sized, hard sand that has been washed to remove silt and clay. It is often called mason’s sand and usually costs $1 to $3 more per ton than “construction-grade” sand and up to $10 more per ton than screened sand. It needs regular harrowing and requires careful, regular watering. When it is too dry, it shifts around too much. And it can become rock hard in freezing weather. It is also very abrasive and can wear away at the toe of the hoof. Sand can resist being washed away in heavy rains, but depending on its quality will need to be added to from time to time as it breaks down.

Stone dust, which goes by many names, is often cheaper than most sand, but requires as much, if not more, maintenance. However, some stables in colder climates find it perfect for outdoor, winter riding. Sarah Dalton-Morris at Frazier Farm in Woodbury, Conn., says snow can be plowed off and the surface’s dark color absorbs the suns rays. In no time, the footing is soft and ready to ride. It drains well and is also a better surface than her sand arena when wet. Winter plowing, however, means adding material each spring.

But because of its nature, dust is a concern during warm, dry spells. In many regions stone dust is most appropriate used indoors in conjunction with sophisticated watering systems. Depending on local type, the material can set up well, eventually become rock hard and need regular harrowing, or it will resist setting and remain cuppy and unstable.

Shake and Bake Sand

Of all the footings, polymer-coated sand is purported to require the least maintenance indoors or out. It never needs watering and requires harrowing only to maintain a level and consistent surface. Aside from that, the only thing you have to do is spray mineral oil on it every two to five years. So far, at some arenas in Europe where it has been in use longer than in North America, it has lasted 30 years. The major downside is price. At $75,000 to properly lay the footing for a 15,000-square-foot arena, it is easily the most expensive footing product out there. The reason for the high cost??Simple, it’s a very expensive thing to make. But when factored against a sprinkler system, maintenance, replenishing and replacements of other footings, the overall cost is about 40 percent more, according to Wayne Gregory, general manager of Footings Unlimited.

Footings Unlimited markets Terra 2000 and Equation, two polymer-coated sand products manufactured by Equestrian Surfaces. Both are distributed through West Coast Footings and are made to order. A technician is sent to your operation to shop for the best sand in your area, rent an asphalt plant and bake a plastic-rubber composite onto the sand’s individual grains. The material is then laid into the arena while it’s still hot and tuned while it cools. The coating is resilient, acts as a binder without allowing two grains to actually stick together, resists the ultraviolet rays of the sun, offers traction, never freezes and prevents dust from forming.

“It acts exactly like damp sand,” regardless of the weather, says Gregory. The material feels like brown sugar when handled and it doesn’t move around as much as straight sand and many sand-rubber combinations.

Terra 2000 uses a better polymer than Equation for a more tenacious shell around the sand grains and has a 25-year guarantee. It won’t blow away in strong winds and is less likely to wash out of an arena than most other materials during heavy rainstorms, so shouldn’t require any reapplications.

Wood is Cushy but Decomposes

Wood-based products, however, decompose and require replenishing. And while wood fiber products like Fibar, Horsecarpet and Wood Edge are designed to knit together over time, some of the hardwood material will also float and wind up being lost to heavy downpours, but less so than sawdust, shavings and other chipped bark products.

Manufacturers will recommend depths from three to about 12 inches of compacted wood-fiber footing depending on the arena’s primary focus. In general, however, placing three to five inches of fiber footing in a properly-built 15,000-square-foot arena will cost between $2,000 and $4,000, not including freight or taxes. That’s more than quarried sand, but less than most rubber products.

Fiber footing is usually manufactured from most hardwoods except cherry and walnut. The wood is shredded into elongated chunks about a quarter-inch thick that have a tendency to weave together to form a resilient and stable top layer that offers good shock absorption and resistance to the formation of holes. It seems to be particularly well suited for indoor arenas where conditions are more easily controlled. The footing requires regular watering to keep it lively and flexible. That can mean watering daily or as infrequently as once a week. When maintained properly it keeps dust down, though dust will form when the material dries out.

According to Bob Zeager, principal in Zeager Bros., the manufacturer of Horsecarpet, the footing can last eight to 10 years before needing replacement. Most users will have to top it off with additional material every three to four years. Out of doors, that will probably occur more often. Regular maintenance means harrowing, usually amounting to dragging with a section of chain-link fence to keep the surface level. Disposal is a snap:?Because it is a natural product, it can be composted.

Recycled Tires and Wire Insulation

Crumbled rubber products, say manufacturers, don’t ever have to be removed and replaced (a couple of products are guaranteed to last a lifetime), but it can be a challenge to figure out what to do with it if you do decide to replace it. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has declared crumbled car and truck tires inert, some municipalities won’t accept it at landfills while others have allowed it to be mixed with soil used in landscaping projects. On the positive side, however, the average arena saves about 3,000 tires from landfills.

Most rubber footing products are made from tire rubber, some of it is recycled from sneakers, industrial sources and medical equipment. And even among footing manufacturers who use tire rubber, there are differences owing mainly to whether the nylon filaments found in tire rubber are removed. Most manufacturers pull steel belting out of the tire before it is ground up and then run the product past giant magnets to remove any other metal particles. But some users of crumbled rubber that contains nylon fiber have reported seeing filaments floating as dust.

Crumb rubber is usually mixed with sand to provide resiliency and help drainage. It also adds loft, so two inches of washed sand mixed with five-eighths of an inch of crumbled rubber will result in three inches of footing, that, depending on the quality of sand, might only need occasional watering. Rubber doesn’t absorb water, so in outdoor arenas, drainage is helped. Most manufacturers recommend dragging the surface every 10 to 14 days. That will change depending on whether the rubber is crumbled, shredded or flat in shape. Most will float and wash away in torrential rains, requiring replenishing.

The cleanest tire rubber (containing no steel or nylon fibers) is the most expensive because of the manufacturing process. Our 15,000 square-foot all-purpose test arena—with two inches of top-quality sand in it—will require between 16 and 25 tons of Equi-tread or Shoc Bloc, costing between $4,000 and $9,000, excluding taxes and shipping. The range is wide because manufacturers calculate coverage differently and some suggest a 1:1 rubber to sand ratio.

“The biggest issue is transportation costs,” says Alf Caldwell of Summit Flexible Products, which sells ShocBloc. Crumbled Shoc Bloc aids the drainage of sand arenas, he says, which allows riders to “get on it sooner after it rains and stay on it longer after a dry spell.” Both Shoc Bloc and Equitread recommend no more than an inch to two inches of crumbled rubber for most arenas, seemingly in accordance with Wayne Gregory of Footings Unlimited. “Too much rubber deconditions the horse,” says Gregory. He explains that though dressage horses on deep rubber have pronounced movements because the surface is springy, the horse will learn to use the rubber surface as a crutch and appear flat on any other surface. His company sells shredded, crumbled and chipped products that started life as items ranging from Nike sneakers (Airfoot and Lightfoot) to high-tension wire casings (Surestep). Each is used to different ends depending on the type of sand to be supplemented.

From Belts and Gloves to Footing

One of the rarer types of footing available today is shredded leather. It is generally recycled from old glove and belt factories that have gone the way of the LP record. Leather footing was very prevalent in New England 20 years ago because that’s where the largest leather goods manufacturers were located. But because of increased regulation related to the tanning process, which involves toxic chemicals, tanning in the U.S. became too costly and factories closed up and moved offshore.

The material costs next to nothing because there’s really no other use for the scraps and it holds moisture well. It has good resiliency for about five years before it starts to break down into dusty particles. The Boston Equestrian Center in North Oxford, Mass., has been adding leather to a previously neglected indoor arena for the last three years. According to Barn?Manager Julie Mann, the arena sees at least 10 lessons a day and the leather gets turned into the clay-based footing through constant use.

“We just keep adding to it,” she says, “and it never gets to the point of being dusty because we keep at it.”?That amounts to watering the footing twice a week in warm weather and about once a month during the winter. She doesn’t see it working well outdoors because it can get slick when too much moisture is absorbed. She says the center has a good store of leather left, the result of a client’s grandfather’s goodwill, and isn’t sure how long the supply will last, but will use it as long as it keeps working.

What works best is often a matter of discipline preference. Should you specialize or opt for a good multi-use surface? Do you want to cut down on maintenance??Do you need to cut down on dust??Is your existing surface too loose or too tight? Regardless, say those who have built arenas and rebuilt arenas, seek the advice and analysis of the experts when shopping for footing.

Laying the Foundation

If you’re on a budget, spend your money on a solid foundation. According to the experts, a high-tech footing can be laid in at a later date. It doesn’t make sense to put expensive footing on top of a questionable surface. When approached correctly, the arena base will drain well and stand up to years of abuse.

1 Siting and Drainage. If you haven’t chosen one, pick a spot where water won’t drown your efforts. Even if it’s a hilltop, plan on digging drainage swales around the perimeter. Depending on natural water flows, other sites may require more extensive drainage work.

2. Scrape off Topsoil. Remove soil and vegetation from the site to eight feet out all the way around. Topsoil is a poor base and can cause havoc, especially in climates that see regular freeze-thaw cycles.

3. Compact and Grade. The layer now exposed should be graded to a 1 to 2 percent slope down from a centerline (in some instances the grade can run completely across) and then compacted to at least 92 percent. Compacting should be checked by a soils engineer.

4. Lay fabric. Experienced arena builders suggest laying a heavy duty geotextile fabric before adding base material. The fabric will prevent material below from migrating up, help stabilize the foundation and prevent potholes. Overlap the edges a minimum of 18 inches starting two feet past the sides, ending with a cap layer.

5. Base Material. Stretch the fabric and add crushed-stone aggregate. The material is called many things (crush & run, stone dust, D.G., etc.) in different parts of the country. The important thing is to get a uniform mix that compacts well. It should be professionally compacted to at least 95 percent to a depth of at least five inches, following the grade of the sub base. The end result should be a hard surface impervious to water. Now is the time to install the fence and a rot-resistant footing border.

6. Footing. Manufacturers differ on how to lay the footing, but many suggest starting with an inch of angular, washed sand. Others suggest a mix (call manufacturers for ratios) of no more than three inches. Some wood products can be deeper, say manufacturers.

7. Maintenance. Each surface requires different maintenance from watering regularly to harrowing or tilling the footing occasionally. Speak directly to manufacturers for specific guidelines.—JG

Footing Products

Sand and Minerals

Call your local quarry for everything but coated sand.

Recycled Rubber

Wood Fiber