In this article we’ll look at some ways to determine how the footing in your arena is holding up, why you should care and some tips on fixing it if the footing is “dead” or dying. We know that secure footing is important to the safety of horse and rider and longevity of your athletic equine companions. In this article we’ll look at what happens to footing as it matures and gradually wears out.
Footing is a cushion that helps the horse perform by absorbing concussion and therefore reducing the risk of injury. In an educational session at a past U.S. Dressage Federation, Hilary Clayton, BRCVS, PhD, MRCVS, explained, “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.”
How Is Your Footing Holding Up?
The footing you ride on is most likely sand, stone dust, wood chips or a synthetic blend. Below that surface should be a solid base of compacted soil or sand. “The sand keeps the footing off the base material,” said John Dienhart of West Coast Footings.
“The hoof grinds sand down to smaller particles,” he said, while reminding us that every day horses are pounding on our riding surfaces. 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 said.
Footing has to be forgiving, and yet it needs to 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 added.
Nick Attwood of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces called shear strength “the strength of the sand,” explaining that it relates to the footing’s firmness or “how deep the horse gets into the footing.”
Footing that is too soft makes the horse work harder, which means more fatigue to the muscles, which can lead to injury. Clayton recommended, “Look for something that’s not too hard, not too soft.”
To evaluate footing, Clayton advised that you look and listen. “If you watch the horse go by, look at the surface afterward. If you see an imprint, then you know that the surface is not terribly hard. Also listen—the less you can hear the hoof beat is a good indication of softness.” 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,” said Attwood.
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 advised, “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 Industrial Supply analyzes mail-in samples. “We have a full-service laboratory in-house,” said the company. “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,” said 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,” said Cornell. But watering requires careful attention. She notes that watering is often inconsistent. Dienhart agreed, 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 said, “Look at maintaining a 6% to 9% moisture level.” Too much water can make the arena unusable. For that reason, he added, “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 recommended, “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 advised 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 said, “We recommend keeping track of your footing, and making adjustments as necessary.”
Dienhart advised, “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 suggested, 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,” said 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. The smaller rubber stays suspended in the sand and helps keep the sane from compacting, and it will absorb some of the concussion.
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 might contain pieces of wire from steel-belted tires. 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,” said 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.”
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,” said Cornell.
Dienhart said, “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% compacted as possible,” said 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 said. “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,” said Dienhart. “He will never be better than the surface he’s riding on.”
What’s Your Depth?
“We look at putting 2.5 to 3 inches of sand, consistent over the entire arena,” said 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 1.5 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 added, “With just sand, you definitely know the difference between 2 and 3 inches.”
John Dienhart of West Coast Footings said, “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% of the time people don’t have enough sand.”
To add crumb rubber, experts suggest a 1:2 ratio of rubber to sand. To add 1.5 inches of rubber order 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. This approach is easier than having a 2,000-pound bag delivered to the middle of the ring because no matter how much you rake it out, you will always have too much rubber in the one area. Experts also advised to only add 1.5 to 2 inches.