On Equal Footing

"It's too hard." "It's too deep." "It's too slick." "Watch out for that low spot!" At horse shows, exhibitors often find fault with the footing in the competition arenas. They complain about the ground, blaming show management for how the surface inhibits horses' performances or even endangers animals' well-being.


Different disciplines require different footings for the safety and welfare of the competitors. Photo by Charles Mann

Footing is a complex subject, and a source of controversy. Racetracks have worked to engineer optimum surfaces to help horses perform, and now shows are following the lead of the racing industry. The American Horse Shows Association (AHSA) recognizes more than 2,600 shows annually. At its 1999 annual meeting, AHSA sponsored a Special Summit on Footing to address how shows can improve footing to meet exhibitors' expectations. A panel of experts addressed issues of concern to all parties: show management, exhibitors, and the AHSA.

Stronger Than Dirt?

Trainers and riders have become sophisticated about ground, and about how good footing protects horses' feet and legs. Many owners spend large sums to install the best footing at home. Indoors or outdoors, they control the type of ground their horses work over. They expect the show facility to have footing that meets their standards for show arenas and warm-up rings.

For the show horse, ideal footing is engineered on top of the natural terrain. Layers of materials form the performance surface, with a firm foundation supporting a softer cushion. The horse moves across the cushion, with the base supporting the topmost surface.

"You cannot have a good show without good footing," said Linda Allen, jumper course designer of the 1996 Olympic Games. "The more money you spend, the better your footing is going to be."

Preparing a firm base is an investment, requiring funds to match the foundation to local conditions. O.A. "Matt" Matkin, of Soil and Plant Laboratory in California, is an expert with the Santa Anita racetrack. He also managed the footing for the 1984 Olympic Games. Matkin described an arena's base as a hard, compacted layer, and noted that a racetrack might compact the soil or use a crushed limestone.

"On top of the base, we install a cushion, or may simply use native soil if it conforms to the specifications we impose. The soil needs to be of such structure and composition so it does not deteriorate rapidly due to abuse."

The man-made performance surface of the show facility is similar to at-home, yet must endure much more abuse than a typical training facility. Just as footing should not stress the horse's feet and legs, horses should not stress the footing. When hundreds of horses pound the ground, the facility must use durable material that won't pack down.

Tom Struzzieri builds rings for hunter-jumper shows in outdoor settings on East and West Coasts. He said, "At home, for a private-use ring, I would get the base as hard as a rock, then bring in fine sand. At the show, we use a rubber product that has 25% plastic and 75% rubber." The blend of tiny pieces of resilient material supplies a cushion that supports the horse without giving way upon impact or being too firm.

Struzzieri builds upon a base layer of crushed stone that is six inches thick when compacted. The stone is soaked with water and rolled into a packed surface. If necessary due to groundwater, he might build the base on top of a layer of fabric. The matting protects the foundation from water seeping upward, which can result in a soft spot in the footing.

Indoors, good footing also uses two-layer construction. Some shows are held in multi-purpose arenas, where the ground is built up on a concrete slab.

One example is the National Reining Horse Association's major competitions in Oklahoma City. Bob Kiser manages footing for those shows. He builds up the footing, using a special mixture of dirt that's stored on site between NRHA events.

His base, packed to 10 inches on top of a concrete floor, is a mixture of 75% silt, 15% clay, and 10% sand. When he's graded the base, he adds a top layer, 21-2 inches thick, of the cushion. He said, "The top material is 80% sand, 15% silt, and 5% clay. I don't feel there's a need for clay, but when you blend material and look for 15% silt, you end up with clay in it. Clay can make the top material pack too hard, so you may have to add a higher percentage of sand."

Matkin prefers a cushion with limited silt and clay. "I like to see no more than 15%-20% silt and clay, with no gravel and very little coarse sand. That leaves medium to very fine sand as the primary component of the surface."

The two layers need to bond. Allen said, "You want the sense of integrating into the base and the soft cushion. With something that's mixed, the two won't push apart."

To help bonding, one approach is using similar materials in both bottom and top. Another approach is to scarify (scratch up) the top of the base, adding artificial surface to mix slightly into the the base. The result is an intermediary layer between base and cushion. "We scarify one, maybe two, inches of the firm base and mix it with the rubber and plastic," explained Struzzieri.

Building the cushion involves more than a one-time application. To integrate the layers, experts recommend adding a controlled amount of cushion material at one a time.

"We may start with half of what we ultimately want," said Struzzieri. "Many times you hear, "If four inches is good, eight inches is twice as good." We know that's not the case." For example, he may add a half-pound of the rubber and plastic mix to a square foot, after scarifying the base, and build up from there.

Organic material such as conifer tree bark can be blended with dirt. Shavings or manure tend to decompose more quickly, although any organic matter must be augmented periodically.

Making The Grade

Building a show ring is only the first step. Maintaining its qualities requires attention before and during the show.

Any type of ground requires moisture, to reduce dust and keep the footing from packing. Yet outdoors, weather conditions can damage footing. All-weather footing should withstand rain, wind, and heat.

The show manager has the task of controlling the moisture content of the cushion. The show must go on, despite the weather. Rainfall can destroy footing, unless the ring is constructed to divert excess water.

A ring can be sloped, so its surface is free from standing water. The ground might be crowned, with a peak that makes water run off either side, or sheeted (slanted on an angle). A sheeted ring has one side slightly higher than the other.

"This is a horse show application, not at your home," said Struzzieri. "At a show, when you have lots of trips, and many people drive your drags, we sheet our ring." A crowned ring would require a crew trained to drive a tractor and harrow according to the slope of the ring's construction.

Struzzieri noted that when constructed with a slope of only one-half of a percent, riders don't notice the amount of the pitch of the ground. Recent Olympic arenas have been sloped more, with the Los Angeles arena at 1%, and Atlanta from 1% to 11-2%.

In an all-weather ring, synthetic materials can accelerate water absorption. A cushion of "sports grid" plastic fibers or other polymers can maintain a stable surface that "sponges up" water, yet won't pack hard.

Matkin mentioned the use of sports grids in turf at Santa Anita. "The grids were about two inches long. They stabilized the surface, for fast times and no penetration."

A conscientious show management pays careful attention to footing prior to the facility's accepting horses. Ring crews drive harrows or arena levelers to prepare the ground, adjusting the cushions's depth and amount of spring with just enough moisture.

During the show, exhibitors expect the footing to be tended during convenient breaks in the schedule. The arrival of the water truck and tractor signals an intermission in the show ring--but an irritation in the warm-up arenas. Allen advised, "Watch the surface, and work it as often as you can. In the scheduling, you need to plan for time to work the ring."

Grooming the footing requires water--at a big summer show, as much as 50,000 gallons a day. Kiser explained how his arena drag can move sand and simultaneously apply water, for an exact depth and hydration. He said, "I use an incorporated watering system on this drag. I can completely control the moisture. I don't water every time I drag the arena, but I monitor moisture all the time."

A spray boom gives him precise control of the water added. Even indoors, footing is affected by temperature and humidity. Intense lighting can dry out the ground.

Kiser observes the horses' performances, in warm-up sessions and in the event. "I see how the horse can get up underneath himself. Some horses will go deeper than others. I watch for pulled shoes. If many pull when they stop, chances are the ground is too sandy, too slick." In the NRHA events at Oklahoma City, he drags the ring after every 10 horses.

For safety, the ground must help horses move efficiently at show gaits, over fences, or pulling a vehicle. Ideal footing is consistent across the surface. Variations in the surface's composition can trick the horse, when he's surprised at a low or slick spot.

When a jumper pushes off the ground, he needs to feel a firm resistance against his feet. The experienced horse knows how much strength he needs to clear the fence.

The quality of footing will generate individual opinions, as horsemen discuss seeking the standards. With hundreds of show facilities across the country, organizations are faced with the difficulty of regulating footing. AHSA invites exhibitors to submit ratings of horse shows, with its "Competition Footing Evaluation Form." The results of the survey will help develop standards for good footing�ground that permits equine athletes to perform with confidence.

About the Author

Charlene Strickland

Award-winning writer Charlene Strickland lives in Bosque Farms, N.M. She has published 8 books and over 600 magazine articles, and is a member of the International Alliance of Equestrian Journalists.

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