A Complicated Science
By Pam Gleason
Photography By Gary Knoll
Back in the spring of 2014, the Fédération Equestre Internationale released its Equine Surfaces White Paper, a 47-page document that presented the “latest data and published scientific papers on arena and turf surfaces, and the effects these have on horses in training and in competition.” According to the FEI, the paper was the result of four years of collaboration between eight experts from six universities in three countries, as well as three research testing facilities and two equine charities. The purpose of this project was to come up with a prescription for the best type of footing for horses in various kinds of competition.
The resulting document does not actually contain a prescription for footing so much as it identifies areas for further research, both into the characteristics of equestrian footing itself, and into ways that footing can be tested. Lars Roepstorff, a professor of functional anatomy of domestic animals at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences was one of the authors of the paper.
“The Equine Surfaces White Paper is a living document, and we will continue to update it as we develop our knowledge on surfaces and their influence on horse performance and soundness with new scientific studies and surface data, which is absolutely key as horse sport continues to grow around the world,” he said in a press release from the FEI.
Nick Attwood, who is the owner of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces based in Virginia was aware of the research that went into making the FEI white paper and has consulted with one of the authors, Mick Peterson at the University of Maine. Nick says that his company has installed hundreds of riding arenas and that he has been working to improve surfaces for different sports for over 30 years. His equestrian clients include international caliber event riders such as Boyd Martin and Will Faudree. In Aiken, Attwood is best known as the creator of the highly-praised arenas at Stable View Farm. Nick says that the white paper goes into a lot of detail, but one of the main things that it indicates is that we are still in the early days of identifying the optimum footing for horses in sport.
“The core to the paper is a diagram that they have that shows the interaction of the hoof with the surface,” he says. “They try to characterize these different things that happen when the hoof meets the surface in terms that everyone can appreciate. When we are formulating our footing, we are thinking about all of the four phases that they describe.
“The first phase is concussion, the impact of the hoof striking the footing,” he continues. “You can have it too firm and you can have it too soft. There is a sweet spot, which is the right level of firmness, and we have our own test for that with a proprietary device that we use. When you walk on an arena, it is quite an easy thing to feel, and it is quite an easy thing to see from the evidence that the hoofprint gives you – we’ve all seen arenas that are maybe too firm, and ones that are maybe too soft and this is probably the first thing that people can identify when they ride on the footing. So we use our tests, and we also use our own observation to make sure that we have gotten it right.”
According to Nick, the second phase is starting to get more attention. This phase is what happens between the time the hoof hits the surface and the time that the horse’s full weight is on the leg. In this phase, it is important that the hoof is able to slide forward slightly and doesn’t simply stop as soon as it hits the ground.
“If you consider jumping and dressage, then we’re talking probably half an inch of slide,” says Nick. “We think it is very important, because we think that if there is no slide, or there is too much slide, that can lead to injuries in the horse.” Ideally, the footing needs to have enough sheer strength to keep the horse from slipping, but not so much that his foot can’t move forward to dissipate some shock. The various horse sports might require differing levels of sheer strength: a jumping horse might need less slide than barrel racer for instance. The particular needs of individual disciplines are currently being studied in several places.
The third phase is the support phase, when the horse’s full weight is upon the leg. During the support phase, it is important that the footing does not shift too much under the weight of the horse, again a question of the sheer strength of the footing, as well as of its firmness, evenness and stiffness. If the footing collapses too much under the horse’s foot, this can be excessively tiring. If it does not have any give at all, it can be hard on the bones and joints.
The final phase is when the horse begins to push off the surface. Here, there is a question of springiness, bounce or responsiveness. An ideal surface will have some amount of spring, but not too much. Too little spring and the surface will seem “dead”; ironically, too much spring might make the surface seem dead too, since a very springy surface will not bounce back until after the horse’s weight has shifted completely off his supporting leg, and will feel like it has no spring at all.
“There is a sweet spot for all of these things, and it is much more complicated than most people realize,” says Nick. To get it right requires experimentation, testing both in the laboratory and in the arena itself, and, crucially, correct and consistent maintenance.
According to Nick when his company creates a footing blend for a riding arena, they look at five different elements, each of them equally important. The first element is sand, and it is important to use the right variety and quality. “We go far and wide to find the best sand, because it is really, really critical,” he says. The sand has to be hard, and it has to be consistent. If the good arena sand does not exist in the area where the arena is being built, Attwood will truck it in.
The second and third elements are two kinds of additives. For instance, the outdoor arenas at Stable View use German Geo Textile footing (GGT) that consists of two different types of material that are mixed into the sand. The first type is pieces of chopped polyester felt that range from about an inch in diameter down to the size of a fingernail. The second element is polyester fibers that range from about a quarter of an inch to an inch and a half in length. The felt helps to hold moisture, while the fibers contribute to sheer strength and mimic the action of grass roots in a turf field.
The fourth element is water. For the footing to behave the way it is designed to, it needs moisture: again not too much and not too little. Finally, there is what Nick calls the “magic ingredient.”
“Air. This is one of the reasons why you drag the footing,” he says. “With these five ingredients, you can formulate it so that you get the properties that you want. We experiment with the first three elements in the lab to come up with the right prescription, but the customer still has to add the right amount of moisture and they still need to drag the arena to put the right amount of air in it. The deeper that you drag the arena, the more air you are putting in. Horse people can tune the footing to be the way they want with watering and dragging, and everyone has their own personal preference.”
The FEI white paper also included analysis of some of the most recent studies that have been done on how different types of footing affect horses physiologically. Much of the data that is available is derived from the racetrack, where various artificial surfaces have been installed. One of the main conclusions is that footing that has characteristics that make horses able to perform exceptionally well also tends to be associated with more injuries. This association between excellent performance and increased injury has not been seen in studies of human sports, and seems to be unique to equine athletes. The white paper’s authors do not have a clear answer as to why this is the case, but it is a phenomenon that is familiar to those who have spent time studying arenas and how to make them better. Creators of footing must understand how to balance issues of performance with issues of equine welfare.
Shane Doyle, who owns and runs Shane Doyle Farm Services LLC, says that he has been called in to fix arenas that initially appear to be fantastic, but in the long run have been associated with horses having various joint and tendon issues.
“Horses tend to perform well on tight arenas,” he says. “But what you lose with that tight surface is give: there is not enough give to absorb the shock or the impact of the horse landing and pushing off. And if you train in an arena without enough give, you might have increased softtissue injuries.”
Shane says that sometimes the solution is to add more sand, other times to work with the customer to show them how to water and drag the arena to make it a little softer. “We’re encouraging arena owners to work the footing a little deeper,” he says. “Common sense needs to come into play: there needs to be a balance between performance and the long term effect on the horse.”
Joe Watkins from Longwood Farm in Ocala, Fla. has created worldclass arenas in many places, including his own farm, which regularly plays host to the USEF High Performance eventing training sessions as well as to various international Olympic teams. In Aiken he built the arenas at New Bridge Polo Club and at Bruce’s Field in the new Aiken Horse Park. He says that the newer arena additives, specifically GGT Footing, if properly applied, can provide that perfect balance, providing a surface that is both high performance and horse friendly.
“GGT was created to simulate grass roots, and if you mix it with sand, in the proportions supposed to, and you take care of it, it will behave like a natural footing,” he says. “At some show grounds they add in clay or other things that make the footing too firm. Then the arena holds up well, but it isn’t good for the horses. That arena is not built for the horse’s health: it’s made so that the show owner can run as many rounds as possible.”
Joe says that he believes that when there are problem arenas it is because people try to cut corners, creating an arena that does not have the proper five to six inches of footing installed over the base. Sometimes there is enough sand, but it is not mixed properly, and sometimes builders try to save money by skimping on additives.
“It isn’t all the builders’ fault, either,” he continues. “Making a good arena is expensive. If an owner tells the builder he wants to spend less money than it costs, then the builder doesn’t have much choice. I think that it’s up to horse people to become educated about footing and to do it right. As an equestrian, you should know. Tiger Woods knows more about grass than anybody in the world, I guarantee you. He knows how the greens play, how that changes when they are wet. Equestrians should know just as much about the footing they are riding on.”
Of course, just because a horseman understands footing, this does not mean he can necessarily create what he wants without professional help. Nick Attwood knows how complicated it can be to get it right, and he says that this is also one of the main take-aways from the FEI white paper.
“What we are working towards is trying to get empirical data so that we can literally formulate a footing that satisfies all the elements mentioned in the white paper. It’s actually really quite difficult to get all those properties in perfect balance. When you make changes to one, it changes all the other ones, and not always in the way that you want.
“The purpose of the white paper is to try to identify what all the sweet spots are,” he continues. “We’re always looking for definitive answers – they don’t have those yet, but they are getting them. We’re all working towards this point where we can take sand, water and additives, mix it and test it and create perfect footing every time. But it’s a lot harder than you might think. I think, with the current trend of using these products that are specifically made to be added to sand in an equestrian arena, we are on the right road. But we are still just at the start of the journey.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.
This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.