Find­ing Your FOOT­ING

Re­searchers and foot­ing providers tell sto­ries that re­flect the cur­rent state of arena foot­ing.

Dressage Today - - Tips From Trainers Who Teach - By Pa­tri­cia Lasko

What sort of foot­ing do you ride on ev­ery day? Who has the best foot­ing at shows? Do you of­ten think: I can’t ride there—the foot­ing is too hard and dusty. The foot­ing in dres­sage are­nas both at home and at shows is one of the most im­por­tant com­po­nents in any dres­sage rider’s life. You want to ride your horse on a sur­face that is good enough to keep him sound through­out daily train­ing.

What we know is that arena foot­ing has be­come a sci­ence, but not an ex­act one. Re­search is be­ing done to find out how horses (in all dis­ci­plines) can avoid in­jury, and foot­ing/sur­face providers are work­ing to find the best so­lu­tions for in­di­vid­ual are­nas in the United States and around the world. Here are a few sto­ries from the trenches about what goes on in the world of foot­ing for dres­sage horses.

Foot­ing Re­search

Su­san Stover, BS, DVM, PhD, is a pro­fes­sor of anatomy, phys­i­ol­ogy and cell bi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Davis. She and her col­leagues are part of the de­vel­op­ing field of foot­ing sci­ence. “There are def­i­nitely groups fo­cused on foot­ing-sci­ence re­search,” Stover ex­plains. Her re­search team in the Vet­eri­nary Or­tho­pe­dic Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory at Davis, is funded by the Grayson-Jockey Club Re­search Foun­da­tion, the Cen­ter for Equine Health (UC Davis) and the Vet­eri­nary Or­tho­pe­dic So­ci­ety.

Stover says there are other groups work­ing on arena foot­ing both na­tion­ally and in­ter­na­tion­ally. “Our group is pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in foot­ing and foot­ing man­age­ment to op­ti­mize sur­faces and shoe­ing [the in­ter­face between the sur­face and horse] to pre­vent in­juries in sport horses.” She goes on to ex­plain, “Es­sen­tially, the kin­der we can make the sur­face for the horse, the less likely horses will be in­jured dur­ing train­ing and com­pe­ti­tion. We think we can make the biggest im­pact with sur­faces be­cause they can be de­signed and man­aged to meet a stan­dard, and all horses are af­fected by the sur­face.”

Stover says that “The key and our long-term goal is to iden­tify the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the ‘ideal’ sur­face for dif­fer­ent sports so that sur­faces can be de­signed and man­aged as is ap­pro­pri­ate for what­ever cli­mate to have a con­sis­tent me­chan­i­cal be­hav­ior for the horse.” She ex­plains that the arena sur­face is of first im­por­tance in pre­vent­ing in­jury. “So far, the biggest fac­tor we know that af­fects sur­face be­hav­ior is the amount of cush­ion in the sur­face, which can be more im­por­tant than the ma­te­ri­als the sur­face is made of. So tak­ing time to man­age the sur­face is im­por­tant.

“Sec­ondly, we know it takes less work to main­tain a fit horse than to get him fit in the first place. So be care­ful not to over­train fit horses, par­tic­u­larly older cam­paign­ers who largely know how to per­form their given tasks.” She adds that it is the repet­i­tive­ness of the same ac­tiv­ity that can take a toll on horses’ mus­cu­loskele­tal health. “The sus­pen­sory ap­pa­ra­tus of the fet­lock is the most com­monly in­jured struc­ture in dres­sage horses. Mus­cu­loskele­tal struc­tures need time to re­cover from very in­tense or long pe­ri­ods of repet­i­tive bouts of ex­er­cise.

“The ideal sur­face can pre­vent overex­ten­sion of the fet­lock by main­tain­ing sur­face cush­ion. This means the sur­face must be firm enough to sup­port the horse while pro­vid­ing cush­ion with a low enough stiff­ness to dampen the load. It must be re­spon­sive to re­turn en­ergy to the horse in an ef­fort­less man­ner, pro­vide enough grip to al­low some slide and pre­vent jar­ring with hoof con­tact but sup­port the hoof dur­ing propul­sion. It must also be uni­form to pro­vide a con­sis­tent ex­pe­ri­ence with each stride.”

When it comes to the recipe for good foot­ing in dres­sage are­nas, Stover says this de­pends on the cli­mate, use of the

arena and other fac­tors. “For in­stance, an out­door arena in a hot, dry cli­mate needs dif­fer­ent sur­face ma­te­ri­als than an out­door arena in a wet, cold cli­mate. How­ever, both sur­faces would be ide­ally de­signed and man­aged to pro­vide the same me­chan­i­cal be­hav­ior—sup­port with cush­ion and some elas­tic­ity to re­turn en­ergy to the limb.”

Stover’s foot­ing-sci­ence team is work­ing to­ward their goal to guide arena de­sign and man­age­ment to op­ti­mize sur­faces for in­jury pre­ven­tion.

Arena Sur­faces

Heidi Zorn, pres­i­dent of Pre­mier Eques­trian, the of­fi­cial foot­ing sup­plier of the USEF, agrees that there are many fac­tors that con­trib­ute to a great arena sur­face—con­struc­tion, water, groom­ing and maintenance, the rid­ing dis­ci­pline, et cetera—but the biggest one, she be­lieves, is the sand that will be used. “The sand will de­ter­mine the qual­ity and con­sis­tency of the arena sur­face,” says Zorn. “The foot­ing ad­di­tives [tex­tiles and rub­ber] are nec­es­sary to buf­fer, en­hance and sup­port the nat­u­ral qual­i­ties of the sand. No amount of foot­ing ad­di­tives will im­prove an un­suit­able sand.”

Zorn ex­plains that find­ing suit­able sand is a foot­ing ex­pert’s biggest dilemma. “The chal­lenge is not in­door or out­door but rather where the arena is lo­cated and what the ge­ol­ogy is in that re­gion.” But buyer be­ware: “A sand quarry will call some­thing ‘arena sand’ be­cause a guy down the street put it in his arena. Most of them have no idea what dres­sage is, let alone the me­chan­ics that are needed from a sand. There are more than 10,000 dif­fer­ent sand names in the U.S. alone.” As an aside, Zorn adds that “the rea­son Aiken, South Carolina, and Ocala, Florida, be­came des­ti­na­tion horse-sport areas is be­cause those re­gions pos­sessed very nice sands. The old-timers knew that a qual­ity sur­face was im­por­tant years ago.”

She goes on to say, “Peo­ple think buy­ing a clean, washed sand is what they need. But this is prob­a­bly the worst sand they could pur­chase for a dres­sage arena. If the sand is washed and not graded well, it will feel like you’re rid­ing at the top of the beach in the dry, deep sand. If I could stress any­thing to help horse own­ers, it would be: Do not buy sand be­fore speak­ing with a foot­ing ex­pert. This will save thou­sands of dol­lars and lots of frus­tra­tion.”

An­other chal­lenge for a foot­ing provider is an arena in a drought re­gion where peo­ple do not have the abil­ity to water an arena. “Water cre­ates a molec­u­lar bond between sand par­ti­cles,” Zorn says. “It is a key fac­tor in main­tain­ing a high-per­for­mance arena. Water­less foot­ings that con­tain oil, wax or poly­mers will change con­sis­tency with tem­per­a­ture. The grip and trac­tion can vary greatly and af­fect the horse’s biome­chan­ics, whereas water has ex­actly the same con­sis­tency from 33 to 165 de­grees Fahren­heit.”

In the end, Zorn says that some­times it is just bet­ter to start over and re­place the sand in an arena. Stone dust or man-made sands can be amended with rub­ber prod­ucts to keep them from com­pact­ing and get­ting hard.

Iden­ti­fy­ing Prob­lems

Cyn­thia Brew­ster-Keat­ing, na­tional ac­count man­ager for GGT-Foot­ing, the eques­trian divi­sion of Polysols Inc., has seen many chal­lenges with foot­ing ma­te­ri­als in re­cent years. One of the most chal­leng­ing was at a large out­door show arena in the Mid­west. “The fa­cil­ity was new and was run­ning a big horse show when, dur­ing the first week of com­pe­ti­tion, it be­came clear that the arena foot­ing ma­te­rial was not bind­ing up prop­erly,” Brew­ster-Keat­ing re­calls. “Bind­ing up is when the sand and tex­tiles cling to one an­other and form a ball that stays pretty much to­gether. For ex­am­ple, if you grab a hand­ful of foot­ing and make it into a round, meat­ball­shaped ball then drop it, you want it to give way on land­ing but still mostly stay to­gether. If that hap­pens, you have a nice bind­ing and a prop­erly wet arena.”

Brew­ster-Keat­ing says, “The orig­i­nal arena builder was out of town, so the man­age­ment called in an­other ex­pert in­staller, and he quickly went to work cre­at­ing strips to test the foot­ing ma­te­rial. It turned out that the quarry and gen­eral con­trac­tor had de­liv­ered the wrong kind of sand. The consultant quickly or­dered a spe­cial fine sand to cre­ate the per­fect mix for the com­ing Grand Prix com­pe­ti­tion that was sched­uled to be held in just a few days. He ad­justed some of the quan­tity of tex­tiles and with the new sand, the show was good to go.”

This sounds good for a big show venue, but how do rid­ers who board their horses, for ex­am­ple, de­cide if the foot­ing is OK? Brew­ster-Keat­ing gives these tips: “Foot­ing that is too slip­pery, hard or deep can be dan­ger­ous. You must pro­tect your horse’s ten­dons and lig­a­ments from strain in too deep sand that gives way.

“A rider should be able to stub her toe into the foot­ing and see if it feels like con­crete, is too deep or if the sand has a slight give, which is what you

The ideal sur­face can pre­vent overex­ten­sion of the fet­lock by main­tain­ing sur­face cush­ion. — Su­san Stover

want. As far as too slip­pery, that would be a com­bi­na­tion of things. If it is too hard, a horse’s hoof has no sup­port around corners and the hind end can fall out around turns. Foot­ing can be slip­pery if it is sloppy, wet or mushy, even if the horse is wear­ing caulks on his shoes.

“For a boarder, I sug­gest go­ing to the fa­cil­ity right af­ter a big rain­storm to see how the arena drains. Does it have a lake in it or a series of pud­dles? If so, then you know the foot­ing is not drain­ing well, so the base and the sub­se­quent top lay­ers are out of grade. You should ex­pect an arena with good foot­ing to be dragged daily, de­pend­ing on en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions, such as if the arena is in full sun or full shade or on top of a windy hill. Most pro­fes­sional horse­men water and drag their are­nas ev­ery day. I have a dres­sage-sized ring and I water it three hours a day. The end re­sult should feel as if you were walk­ing along the edge of a beach. The arena foot­ing should be wet [prob­a­bly more than most peo­ple think] but not mushy. It should show a nice im­print of the horse’s hoof.”

When an arena be­comes dusty, it prob­a­bly means the sand has bro­ken down and no longer sup­ports the horses’ weight prop­erly. It is time to re­place it, says Brew­ster-Keat­ing. “When an arena no longer drains prop­erly or looks un­even es­pe­cially to the hu­man eye, you know it’s time to redo by grad­ing or in­stalling new drainage lay­ers. All op­tions should be dis­cussed with an ex­pe­ri­enced arena builder. Tech­nol­ogy has changed and the ma­te­ri­als used to­day are much bet­ter for the horses and the en­vi­ron­ment. You’ll need an ap­pro­pri­ate drag and enough water. These are the best ways to pro­tect your arena for years of use. We have are­nas in Europe that are 23 years old. With proper sil­ica sand that is sub-an­gu­lar and proper tex­tiles and care, your arena will last for many years. Un­for­tu­nately, the biggest en­emy is ma­nure and other or­ganic ma­te­ri­als such as leaves or grass.”

Ad­dress­ing Chal­lenges

Hav­ing sur­faced are­nas all over the world, Nick Attwood, CEO of Attwood Eques­trian Sur­faces, re­al­izes that all are­nas come with chal­lenges, mainly cli­mate and avail­abil­ity of lo­cal ma­te­ri­als. “Seat­tle comes with plenty of rain while Scotts­dale comes with plenty of sun,” says Attwood. “The East Coast is blessed with many op­tions for great sand, whereas the West Coast not so much. When work­ing within a bud­get, our job is to ex­plain the trade-offs and try to de­sign the arena and for­mu­late the foot­ing to max­i­mize the rid­ing ex­pe­ri­ence while min­i­miz­ing the amount of maintenance.”

Attwood re­calls a foot­ing dilemma he re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced on the East Coast. “We com­pleted three large com­pe­ti­tion are­nas at Mor­ven Park in Lees­burg, Vir­ginia. The main dif­fi­cul­ties were op­ti­miz­ing the drainage ver­sus the abil­ity to keep three huge are­nas watered dur­ing shows,” he ex­plained. “For­mu­lat­ing the foot­ing to keep the jumpers and dres­sage rid­ers equally happy and try­ing to lo­cate 10,000 tons of high-qual­ity, suit­able sand takes years of knowl­edge and ex­pe­ri­ence. You would think most quar­ries would be ec­static to re­ceive such a large or­der, but even for large fa­cil­i­ties, 10,000 tons puts a strain on their abil­ity to sup­ply their reg­u­lar cus­tomers.”

Other chal­lenges Attwood has faced in­clude an arena in Hawaii where he had to bring sand in from China to achieve the op­ti­mum foot­ing prop­er­ties and an­other steep-hill­side ring in Brent­wood, Cal­i­for­nia. “Some­times, are­nas are in tightly con­fined spa­ces,” re­called Attwood. “We in­stalled an arena above the sta­bles on a rel­a­tively steep hill­side. A neigh­bor­ing res­i­dent lo­cated above the arena on the hill­side in­sisted the arena should be dust-free so they could en­joy their pool with­out dust from the arena drift­ing in. We did that, and af­ter the arena was com­pleted, the con­struc­tion road that led up to the arena was re­moved and re­placed with a nar­rower horse trail. When we re­turned many years later to carry out some arena maintenance, we had to get a huge crane to lift the nec­es­sary equip­ment, in­clud­ing a trac­tor, into the arena.”

The world of arena foot­ing can be more com­pli­cated than one might think. But with proper re­search and a ded­i­cated team of ex­perts be­hind a project, the out­come will lead to more time rid­ing and train­ing.

One of three large com­pe­ti­tion rings lo­cated at Mor­ven Park in Lees­burg, Vir­ginia.

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