Take a look down. What kind of footing do you train on? Do you ever really look at the footing that you ride on every day? Now think about competing your horse. Are there venues you simply will not ride at because the footing is too hard, too deep, or too slippery? Are there venues that you pick time and time again because the footing is so good? The footing you ride and compete on can be very influential to your horse's health and longevity. So let's take a look. Down.
Over the past few decades, equestrians have come to learn that there is real science in arena footing. The FEI published a White Paper in 2014, which was declared the world's most intensive research into how the biomechanics of a horse is affected by arena surfaces.
It involved eight equine experts from six universities, three equine and racing-specific research and testing centers and two horse charities in Sweden, the UK, and the United States. Heralded as groundbreaking in its insight, the researchers asked the question of how can horses avoid injury in daily training.
While some horse arena footing specialists will tell you that their blends are a recipe developed from feel and experience, Attwood Equestrian Surfaces will show you how their blends are born in the laboratory and field tested under all kinds of conditions. The perfect surface can prevent soft tissue damage, such as an overextension, by giving the horse the proper amount of support, or cushion, each step of the way. Just like the fable of the Three Bears, the footing cannot be too hard or too soft, it must be firm enough to support the horse while maintaining enough grip to "dampen the load".
Good footing should create recycling of energy to the horse so the horse seems to spring forward in an effortless manner instead of slogging along, creating more of a workload on the muscles. Think of running up a sand dune versus sprinting across a well-groomed track.
Good footing provides enough grip so a horse can execute turns and tempi changes but still have a bit of slide so that it's not jarring when the hoof comes into contact with the footing.
Above all else, good footing must be consistent each stride.
When footing is inconsistent, the horse remembers. And at that moment when you get to the corner where they slipped the last go-round, the horse's attention leaves your aids and goes to keeping himself upright. This is instinct and self-preservation… not a naughty or frisky horse.
The perfect formula for good footing is not a static thing. It is a recipe that needs to be fine-tuned to the location and climate of the arena. The footing needs to be adjusted to the discipline whether you are jumping a meter or a meter six. And the recipe for good footing should include how much use the arena will see.
Dusty footing is rarely considered good footing. The cause of the dust is commonly manure breaking down, mixing into the footing, and shortening the lifespan of the footing. Other causes could be the sand breaking down after much use. A dusty arena puts the health of both humans and horses at risk. A horse working hard in a dusty environment will breathe in the equivalent of a quart of particles per ride. Not good! A 2006 publication cited that the incidence of the respiratory infection bronchitis was 35% higher for riding instructors than for the general population (5.4%, American Lung Association, 2001), simply from working out in all that dust. By choosing premium materials and creating a sensible watering/grooming plan, this will lessen the chances of having a dust bowl in your back yard.
But what about recycled products, are they a help or a hindrance in creating good footing?
Putting recycled products into footing has been popular for a long time, from carpet scraps to shredded tennis shoes to the now trending yoga mats. Recycling can be a good thing but there many fascinating reasons why one should use only premium raw materials in their arena footing. When you know exactly where your materials are made and their quality, you now are able to control how they behave and function. This means you are going to have very consistent footing across the boards. Use ingredients that you can count on.
When it comes to recycled products such as rubber and assorted textiles like carpeting, at the end of the day, you really don't know what is in there. By that, we mean what kind of chemicals and chemical processing is in that additive. It could be toxic and its now leaching onto your pastures every time the footing gets wet. If you are not 100% sure of what is in the footing, how can the supplier guarantee that it will hold up ride after ride?
The secret to good footing is in the sand. Nick Attwood, president and CEO of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces says that there are many aspects to creating a superior riding surface — construction, dragging, water, basic maintenance but the most important one is the sand. “The most common mistake among arena builders is choosing the wrong sand. It doesn't have to be the most expensive sand, it just has to be the right sand,” says Attwood. “Sand determines the quality of the footing, the consistency of it. Even the most premium of additives cannot compensate for the wrong sand so we spend a lot of time in the labs making sure we are using the correct sand. That’s why all our footing formulas are really custom creations.”
In choosing a footing that is right for you, the questions shouldn’t begin and end with the square foot price. There are so many hidden costs when it comes to the footing, the biggest being labor in keeping the ring useable. The other is watering. If you live in an area where there watering restrictions, then a sand blend is probably not the best choice for you. And then there is the last thing any horse person wants to add in, vet bills. If your horse is getting hurt by constantly being worked on an unforgiving surface, there will be calls to the vet and downtime.
One of the best questions you can ask your footing professional is how long will this footing last. Good footing is an investment. You are creating an environment where your training can flourish and adds value to your facility. A beautiful arena with good footing can be a centerpiece to any farm.
So here is our primer to choosing footing that is not just good for your pocketbook but is good for your horse for years to come.
1. Do your homework by looking at and riding in as many arenas as possible. Find out what works to your satisfaction.
2. Plan out the exact size of your arena so you can calculate how much footing you will need.
3. Plan out how you will water your arena and how much water you will need. This may mean switching from a sand blend to a polymer-coated sand if there is not a good source of water on hand.
Enjoy the ride.