I'll bet we're not the only horse enthusiasts who find the biomechanics and forces of horse movement fascinating. Some of the people who study such things are the people who develop footing for riding arenas.
What is Footing?
Footing is the term we use for the surface laid down for horses to move on during exercise or horse-riding events.
Competition to be the company that supplies footing for high-visibility equine events is fierce. This benefits all of us who love our horses because it means the development of better and better footing for us to ride on.
Arena Footing First
When building your own riding arena, putting thought and dollars into the footing should be one of your highest priorities. Footing gives your horse a sense of security as it moves, allowing the horse to pay attention to what the rider is asking him to do, rather than being distracted by a feeling that he might slip and fall.
Sure, we see our horses doing all kinds of gymnastics in a field. But not while trying to balance a rider on their backs.
The forces carried through your horse's hoof during movement are tremendous. When the hoof strikes the riding surface, the response from the surface is either concussive, absorptive, or reflective.
A concussive surface would be like asphalt or concrete with no "bounce back." The violent shock waves travel back up the horse's skeletal system.
An absorptive surface would absorb all the impact but have no "push back," a force that helps the hoof push off to the next portion of the stride. A horse struggles in this surface. Think of your own experience of trying to run in deep sand.
A good footing absorbs some of the impact, and then gives enough resistance and grip to enable the motion to be reflected back up into the next phase of the stride.
Surface Type & Riding Style
Your style of riding greatly influences the depth, conditioning, and material of your arena footing. A reining or working cow horse requires a different footing from a dressage horse or a jumper. Some events require the ability to slide and others don’t. Some events need great purchase or grip and others don’t.
The universal footing for equine competitions has been sand because since sand is universally available. It is also the least expensive arena footing except for native dirt, which may work in some arenas for working cows.
Sand has vary little resilience and bounce. It is a "dead" footing. It can be improved through aeration with an arena drag, but can quickly turn to concrete unless frequently worked with the drag.
Sand also breaks down into finer and finer particles with use, and produces increasing amounts of annoying and unhealthy dust (remember, your horse has those enormous lungs).
When we specify sand for client riding arenas, we use a coarse, washed, angular sand to minimize dust, increase lifespan, and provide greater resistance. Sand that is produced in rivers has been rolled into round particles that are like little ball bearings that work together to support the hoof.
Upgraded Sand Footings
The next upgrade to sand is the use of an additive to increase the air spaces between the sand particles and increase the absorption and rebound. Lots of materials have been tried and developed for this purpose.
Wood fibers are one of the least expensive additives but have a downside in that they deteriorate over time. They do, however, help hold moisture and reduce dust. It is important that the wood particle size and shape not be slippery.
Various sizes of recycled rubber have also been added to sand to get greater resilience. The rubber however does nothing to help hold moisture and is difficult to keep evenly integrated with the sand for consistency.
21st Century Materials
The most recent advancements in footing utilize geosynthetic fibers. These irregular shapes, once incorporated into the sand, provide pockets of air to introduce greater cushion. They also may retain greater moisture or provide space for moisture along with the air.
Now, c'mon. Did you ever think your horse's striking hooves could be so fascinating? More development in this area is undoubtedly coming and it's all good news for horses and their riders.