Cross-Country Footing: The Wet, the Dry, and the Ideal

As some of the world's top three-day event riders prepare to head out on cross-country at the 2011 Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event this weekend, they'll be looking closely at the footing on which their horses will perform. With nearly two weeks of on-and-off severe weather drenching Lexington, Kentucky--home of the Kentucky Horse Park and venue for America's only four-star event (the highest level of international eventing)--the riders will meet the challenge of finding the safest, speediest route around course.

But according to three-day event rider and ambulatory veterinarian N. Chris Newton, DVM, a partner at Rood & Riddle Equine Hospital in Lexington, despite the copious quantities of rain that have fallen, the footing on cross-country might not be too bad.

"The ideal cross-country footing is turf, preferably a bluegrass-type base or grass base with a loamy dirt that has been wet and is in the process of drying," explained Newton. "If it didn't rain any more at the Horse Park, the footing would be perfect on Saturday."

Footing Follies

The loamy dirt and turf footing Newton favors is generally forgiving on horses' legs and tends to handle moisture well. Newton's second-favorite footing choice is a sand base combined with loam, which is similar to what is found in Central Florida around Ocala, he noted. Like the loam-based turf, sand is relatively forgiving and handles moisture well.

As with most equestrian sports, less-than-ideal footing on cross-country can lead to an increased risk of injury for the equine athletes. The most common footing problems on courses are either deep, muddy footing or overly dry, hard footing, with the latter being more of a problem from an injury standpoint, Newton said.

"In my opinion, the very worst possible footing for running cross-country is ground that is very hard and dry, and then you get a bit of rain just before going out," he said. "That footing tends to cause a lot of injuries to the suspensory branches. You get a lot of significant slips and falls."

Newton relayed that in the past, injuries specific to the superficial digital flexor tendon (SDFT) or bowed tendons in general--due to inconsistencies in footing--were common in deep, mucky footing. But with the change in format from the long-format cross-country (which included two phases of roads and tracks and a phase of steeplechase in addition to the cross-country test) to the short format (just the cross-country test), he said, the risk of this type of injury has lessened.

"Steeplechase was a big player in SDFT injuries because of the quality of the track (at each event); it was generally used once a year and ... you'd find holes or things like that," he said. "Now, more frequently in the deeper footing, you're going to see horses that might slip, fall, and injure themselves in that manner."

Riders will often travel at a slightly slower, more conservative pace to try to prevent slip-and-fall accidents in slick footing.

Bone-dry footing, on the other hand, is a much bigger concern, notes Newton: "With overly dry footing, you're getting into more concussion on the feet and the lower joints of the leg. The pounding tends to get to the horses quickly.

"I think that if you asked any of these event riders competing at Rolex if they'd prefer a deep, mucky footing or a hard, dry footing, they would all take the deep, muddy footing," he added. "It makes more work on the horse and they might get more fatigued, but it's going to be more forgiving on their legs.

"When they're running on hard footing, much more attention will be paid to treating the feet afterward; every competitor will be icing the feet and doing the feet up in poultices," Newton explained. "When they're running on deep, lush footing, they'll use the traditional poultice and icing of the lower limbs as immediate after care."

Studs: Size Matters

"The nice thing about the deeper footing like this is you can use studs effectively," Newton said.

Studs are screw-in traction devices that attach to the bottom of shoes that every horse competing at Rolex will use, he explained. Prior to arriving at the Horse Park, all of the horses' shoes will already be drilled to receive these studs. He explained that there are numerous different types of studs that can be used, however, selection will depend on the footing that the horse will be running on. Three of the most commonly used studs are:

  • Grass Studs: pointy studs of varying length designed to dig into and grip turf; used on dry grass and in slippery conditions;
  • Road Studs: flat, blunt studs; used on hard surfaces (hence the name) or very firm footing; and
  • Mud Studs: relatively long and usually square in shape; designed for use on extremely wet or soft surfaces.

"When the ground is really hard, you can't have a large stud; even though it's slick, you'll need studs that are shorter and sharper in order to break through the turf," Newton explained. "With very hard footing, the consequence injuries begin to occur. Sometimes the studs will grab the turf, but because the ground doesn't give at all, it will actually grab a hold of the stud, causing immediate stopping of the limb. Limbs that are going from rapid movement to an immediate stop are at a higher risk for injury."

When used properly, studs will provide the horse with additional traction to make his trip around the cross-country course safer.

Fingers Crossed

Newton explained that in preparation for the 2010 World Equestrian Games held last September at the Horse Park, the management team worked diligently to add moisture to the cross-country track--a task that they won't have to accomplish leading up to Saturday's cross-country competition.

"The management team at the World Equestrian Games had such an aggressive approach to watering the cross-country track," he said. "If that had not been done, I believe we would have seen more traumatic injuries (related to hard, dry footing)."

But Newton is optimistic that, providing the weather cooperates, the cross-country track will be in good shape for the horses and riders hoping to conquer it Saturday: "I think there will be some boggy areas, but the course at the Horse Park handles rain exquisitely well. If it dries out for a few days, we'd be looking at perfect footing."

About the Author

Erica Larson, News Editor

Erica Larson, News Editor, holds a degree in journalism with an external specialty in equine science from Michigan State University in East Lansing. A Massachusetts native, she grew up in the saddle and has dabbled in a variety of disciplines including foxhunting, saddle seat, and mounted games. Currently, Erica competes in three-day eventing with her OTTB, Dorado, and enjoys photography in her spare time.

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