Your horse is your treasured asset. How can you protect it from injury, and improve its performance, when deciding on a surface medium for your training arena? Every equestrian knows a slip, trip or stumble could result in serious consequences for both horse and rider. This article looks at some of the issues involved in choosing a surface for your horse arena.
Soundness and performance are the main focus in most discussions of optimum riding surfaces. Lameness and back pain are the most common problems requiring veterinary care and leading to loss of use in equestrian sport. Studies have shown that training and surface use interact to influence injury risk.
When discussing surfaces in relation to performance and reducing injury risk it is important to remember that the way you use a surface is as important as which surface you use and its properties.
The leg and hoof of the horse have to withstand great forces when the hoof hits the ground, when it carries the full weight of the horse, as well as during turns and when increasing or decreasing speed. Several factors influence the force and load on the leg; the properties of the surface, shoeing, the conformation of the horse, gait, speed and direction.
How a riding surface functions must be characterised based on how it responds to the load from the horse. These properties include:
- impact firmness - this influences the mechanical shock experienced by the horse when the hoof first hits the ground and relates to the hardness of the top layer of the surface. How firm/loose is it? How high is the impact shock when the hoof lands, and how much can the hoof rotate into the top layer?;
- cushioning - this describes how the surface is able to dampen and reduce the maximum force, when the horse puts its full weight on the leg during the support phase. Cushioning can be achieved either by a footing with a loose surface, or with an elastic footing. A compacted surface with no cushioning can help the horse perform very well because it provides solid support for the hoof, but the horse may also be injured much more quickly because such a surface offers very little shock absorption and the loads on the limb may become too high. On the contrary, a deep surface deforms as the hoof pushes against it, rather than resisting the push, the push would provide too much cushioning. To perform well on this surface the horse would need to work harder, so may fatigue more quickly;
- responsiveness - this is how active or springy the surface feels to the horse. It can be likened to using a trampoline; after the surface has been pushed downwards by the weight of the horse it can spring back and aid the horse in pushing off into the next stride. It gives energy back to the horse;
- grip - this affects how much the horse’s hoof slides during landing, turning and pushing off. Grip is determined by both surface friction and how well the top layer and the materials beneath interlock and hold the surface together to provide traction. Achieving the right balance of grip is a challenge for anyone wanting to produce a good riding surface as not too much and not too little is important for injury prevention. A high grip surface would stop the hoof too quickly, whereas on a slippery surface the hoof would slide too much; and,
- uniformity and consistency - these properties are concerned with how uniform the surface feels from stride to stride as the horse moves over it. A surface can be even and look level, but as you ride across it the impact firmness, cushioning and grip change. If these changes are quite small and gradual or readily visible the horse can probably adapt quite well. But if the variations within the arena are greater and more frequent the horse can find it difficult to adapt, and is more likely to trip, or even get injured.
A British University study, which looked into the issue of arena surfacing and horse injury, determined that the footing in a dressage arena is one of the major risk factors for horses developing lameness. It found that sand and woodchips were likely to become uneven in both wet and dry conditions, thus elevating the risk of injury. It also found that sand was most associated with horses tripping, with coarse sand more likely to cause loss of balance than fine sand. The study discovered that woodchips were nearly 13 times more likely to cause slipping than other surfaces.
Your choice of arena surface media is crucially important for the health, welfare and improved performance of your horse. Furthermore, installation can be an expensive exercise. The safe, long-lasting and cost-effective choice is shell.
Shell provides the ideal base surface for a horse arena, as it reduces leg concussion, giving support to the hoof without giving way. It provides an excellent non-slip surface and is easy care. Natural trace elements contained in the shell base, such as lime and calcium, will improve horse’s hoof health, making them less susceptible to injury or disease.
For more information see Wholesale Landscapes’ article “Choosing a Base Material for a Horse Arena”. This article includes testimonials from horse owners discussing the benefits of shell.
Contact Wholesale Landscapes today to discuss your horse arena surfacing requirements.