How Does Arena Footing Affect Equine Athlete Longevity?

An equine sports medicine specialist shares how footing can impact soundness and offers footing selection advice.

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horse arena footing
Footing and hoof care are essential to the longevity of the sport horse. The interaction of the footing and the mechanics of the shoe can either add or relieve stress to the tissues of the lower leg. | Photo: iStock
Q. How important is horse arena footing to equine athletes’ health and longevity, and what do you look for in good footing?

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A. Footing and hoof care are essential to the longevity of the sport horse. The interaction of the footing and the mechanics of the shoe can either add or relieve stress to the tissues of the lower leg.

A surface that is “sticky” or “grabs” the foot as it strikes the ground tends to sharply load the soft tissues and potentiate the possibilities of injury if they are not conditioned properly. A surface that is too “loose” will not support the foot and leg structures during propulsion and/or give way on leg loading to cause abnormal force curves that could lead to injury.

The surface should allow the tissues to load evenly, provide firm support at maximal loading (peak stance phase), not give way dramatically as the horse pushes off at break over (pressure on the deep digital flexor tendon), and not be too deep to fatigue muscles easily.

I believe a decent ring of sand/clay mixture with maybe a small amount of filler (organic or synthetic) is probably good for most uses. I don’t believe that exclusive use of the latest, greatest synthetics (such as polymer or polymer-coated footings) are helping horses condition for the variety of surfaces they experience when at shows. Horses might go great at home but perform differently when on an alternate surface. So, I suggest training horses at home on a variety of surfaces to aid their proprioceptive abilities of joints and tissues as well as condition the different tissues.

Horses should work on hard, soft, heavy, and light surfaces for all that conditioning and the ability to adapt to different environments when they encounter them. Essentially, if we work them on one surface or environment at home, it is likely they will not do well when they encounter something different at the competition. It is like a person that runs on a track all the time for training and then tries to run a cross-country race over natural ground—the outcome is usually not up to expectations).

Additionally, horses’ routines typically change when get to a show, sometimes after traveling a long distance. We might work the horses differently (usually harder) than we do at home, or longe them in tight circles, or medicate them, or change their feeds, or keep them up all night because barn lights are on for braiders and grooms, etc. The stress level and fatigue level is up, which could affect not only movement but also tissue stress. This could lead to injury.

Get horses out of the rings and on to some different surfaces, where there might be some rocks and ground deviations and undulations and variety of softness and hardness. Don’t go to extremes, but some variety in surfaces will only help in most cases.


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Written by:

Duncan Peters, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVSMR, ISELP, is the co-owner and founder of East-West Equine Sports Medicine and focuses his practice on locomotor pathology and the diagnosis, treatment, and management of sport horse health for optimum performance. A University of California, Davis, graduate, Peters has also served as as director of the Clinical Equine Sports Medicine Program and associate professor of Large Animal Clinical Sciences at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. An FEI veterinarian, he was member of the 2010 Alltech World Equestrian Games’ veterinary commission. Peters is an active horse owner and competes hunter-jumpers.

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