equine competition surface testing

No matter the occasion—be it a horse race, show jumping competition, dressage test, reining pattern, or any of the many other equine sport events that take place every year—all equestrian events have one singular requirement they need to take place: They need an appropriate and safe surface to compete upon. Ensuring proper footing selection, installation, and maintenance is important not only for equine injury prevention, but for horse and rider safety of horse and rider.

This is the third in a series examining equine competition surface testing and maintenance worldwide.

Mick Peterson, PhD, is the 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. He cofounded the nonprofit Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL) with Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, DSc, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, a professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences. The RSTL has a 10-year history of examining equine competition surfaces at racetracks and equestrian sports venues around the world, developing 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.

In previous installments, we discussed general surface testing practices for both racetracks (TheHorse.com/139419) and arenas (TheHorse.com/155374). Although the details very important, testing’s practical applications is even more crucial. In this final installment, we’ll take a look at applied surface testing practices, specifically pertaining to surfaces that will be used at the upcoming Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) World Equestrian Games, at the Tryon International Equestrian Center, in North Carolina, as well as those used during the Winter Equestrian Festival, at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, in Wellington, Florida.

Testing New Watering, Drainage Methods

Arena watering and drainage are important elements of proper surface maintenance. The RSTL has been working with Bacher Products GmbH on testing a subsurface watering system that could be used in arenas such as the ones at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center.

The Wellington facility represents a unique footing challenge, due to southern Florida’s extremely wet environment in addition to the normal requirements—good drainage and properly selected footing materials. Adding to the challenge are Wellington’s occasional dry periods, during which arenas must be watered. The new system the RSTL has been testing waters the arena from underneath, while allowing excess water to drain vertically through the footing.
Most arenas (and racetracks, as well) primarily drain water horizontally, in which the arena slopes off in certain areas to allow the water to drain. The vertical drainage system currently being tested combines a novel padded subsystem which, if successful, could be used with for a variety of surfaces in different arena and track environments currently using horizontal drainage with suboptimal results.

“Wellington is a challenging model due to the high usage and environment, so if the vertical drainage and subsurface watering system can hold up there, it can hold up anywhere,” Peterson said.

Surface Testing for WEG Footing

Further north, the Tryon International Equestrian Center is facing the massive task of preparing to host the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games, which are expected to attract about 1,000 athletes, 1,500 horses, and 500,000 spectators. Safe arena footing and maintenance is a priority for this prestigious event, and RSTL has been involved with a team from Swedish University of Agricultural Science, in Uppsala, to help construct, install, and maintain all of the new arenas and surfaces in a relatively short timespan.

“Due to the challenging schedule, preparing for WEG has been a real test to get the footing in place and validate it using FEI standards,” detailed in TheHorse.com/155374, Peterson said.

Equestrian Surfaces International provided the footing for all the arenas at North Carolina facility, and engineers used the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester (OBST, TheHorse.com/139419 and TheHorse.com/155374) to test the footing as per FEI standards. The OBST represents the horse’s trailing front leg on the landing side of the fence, which is a leg and location that has a high level of impact.

“If the surface can handle the trailing forelimb landing impact, it can usually handle everything else as well,” Peterson said. “Show jumping surface maintenance is very challenging. For a racetrack surface you have one clear objective: supporting the hoof of a galloping horse. In show jumping you must account for all the movements of the horse such as takeoff, landing, and turns. On the racetrack, the job is really pretty straightforward.”

Once installation is complete, staff will also perform moisture, temperature, and material monitoring to the FEI standards for the WEG surfaces. However, there are other factors that RSTL is not involved with that play into proper surfaces, as well. Peterson said the course designer is a critical player in maintaining footing safety and maintenance. The daily show schedule must also allow enough time for proper maintenance, including dragging and watering the arenas, as necessary.

Everyone involved with running the Tryon International Equestrian Center will work alongside the monitoring team to ensure that the surfaces stay safe and properly maintained for the high level of use and competition that takes place during WEG.

Take-Home Message

Many equestrians have heard the saying “no hoof, no horse,” and the old adage could be rephrased to say “no footing, no quality ride.” This series highlights the importance of surface testing and maintenance from a safety and fairness standpoint. Whether the surface is handling racehorses thundering down the track, an FEI horse performing the test of his life, or the average rider exercising their horse after work, footing quality and maintenance is paramount.

Maddie Regis is a senior marketing major and former communications and student relations intern for UK Ag Equine Programs.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the Bluegrass Equine Digest e-Newsletter.

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