Surface Testing, Part Two: Evaluating Arena Footing

This is the second article in a series looking at how researchers test and maintain equine competition surfaces worldwide.

As we learned last month, no matter the discipline—be it a horse race, show jumping competition, dressage test, reining pattern, or any other equine events that take place every year—all have one singular requirement they need to take place: appropriate and safe footing.

Mick Peterson, PhD, is the current director of University of Kentucky (UK) Ag Equine Programs, faculty member within UK’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, and executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL). With the RSTL, he has a 10-year history of examining competition surfaces at racetracks and equestrian sports venues around the world, developing maintenance protocols and standards, and offering recommendations. In this role, Peterson is considered one of the world’s premiere experts in testing of high-level competition surfaces.

Last month, Peterson discussed racetrack surface testing. Here, he’ll share information about testing for arenas used in sport horse competitions, especially Federation Equestre Internationale (FEI) events.
Just as with racing surfaces, there are criteria for competition arenas that must be met to ensure optimal footing. Peterson said there are five main components to arena testing:

  • Firmness;
  • Cushioning;
  • Grip;
  • Responsiveness, and
  • Uniformity.

These perimeters impact the limb-loading the horse experiences, as well as horse performance; how much support and give the surface has; how much the horse’s hoof moves during landing, turning, and pushing off; how consistent the surface feels; and the surface’s consistency over time. It is also important to factor in the rider’s perception of how the arena footing affects the horse’s performance when doing arena surface testing.

”Safety and fairness are the goals of arena testing,” Peterson said. “The biggest challenge is making sure that the last competitor to go in the ring has the same footing as the first competitor did.”

The steps to examining a competition arena are similar to those used on a racetrack. First, RSTL engineers will review the design and maintenance protocol of the arena(s) at the venue being tested. They will examine arena construction, subsurface materials used, and the venue’s layout, along with how the arena was installed.

Then, they test the arena’s materials and its functional performance and compared that data to laboratory performance testing information to ensure that the installation meets the manufacturer’s specifications. These tests allow the researchers to give the venue recommendations about how its surfaces can be better maintained and/or improved. During the initial design and the installation, the materials undergo extensive scrutiny, including content analysis for characteristics including footing fiber, sand mineralogy, sand shape, and particle size distribution, as well as being analyzed for permeability, shear strength, sand durability, and water-retention abilities.

After the researchers assess the surface and match it to manufacturer specifications, they begin functional performance testing. Just as in racetrack surface testing, the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester (OBST) is used. Because it simulates a horse’s hoof impacting the footing, it can be used to quantify the cushioning, responsiveness, impact firmness, and grip that are part of the arena testing criteria. The OBST is either used in situ (in the actual arena) or using the “track-in-a-box,” which is a smaller sample of the overall arena collected during the initial design evaluation. The engineers also use other tools, such as moisture and temperature probes, as well as air quality testing, to gather on-site information.

Similar to the racetrack surface testing, the data gathered from arenas helps inform the RSTL staff and venue maintenance personnel about the footing’s state. If any tests performed on arena surfaces come back less than optimal, the maintenance team and the laboratory can work together to make improvements. Test results can also be compared to previous results of that particular surface, which can be used to evaluate the surface’s quality over time.

Although the detailed arena surface testing is very technical, its goals are relevant to any equestrian competitor. An optimal surface can help contribute to horse and rider safety, and it can help ensure that everyone from the very first horse and rider pair to the very last ones to compete get to experience the same high-quality surface so everyone is, quite literally, on equal footing.

Maddie Regis, a junior marketing major, is the communications and student relations intern for UK Ag Equine Programs.

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More information on Gluck Equine Research Center and UK Ag Equine Programs.