Working Horses on Hard Surfaces

In England, tradition dictates that foxhunting horses be turned out in the spring and brought in during late summer, when they are summarily trotted on tarred roads in a process known as "legging up" in preparation for the season to begin in the fall. Ouch.

In Amish communities, retrofitted Standardbreds trot for miles each day, barely missing a beat. When they do miss a beat, or two, or three, you might find them in the local horse auction the following week. Ouch.



Some horses make their livings by working on hard surfaces every day. Many of today's horses are "arena-ites," raised in small pastures and exercised in circles on the lunge line. Without their leg gear, they look naked and vulnerable. And maybe they are.

At a stonedust racing surface like The Meadowlands in New Jersey, it's not unusual for a horseshoe on a Standardbred to break in two. Remember, that's even without a rider's weight. Ouch.

On a busy city street in downtown Boston, a police horse steps on an unsteady manhole cover as he trots along. The horse scrambles, loses his footing, and his hind end disappears into the manhole. (I'm not making this up.) Ouch.

All you want to do is ride your horse on the pavement to get from Point A to Point B. Or, you have to train in this cement-like arena two days a week. You don't want your horse to risk lameness or any tendon/ligament damage. You don't want to risk wearing his shoes until they are paper-thin. Are the risks too great? Is your horse tough enough to pound the pavement?

Carrying a rider on any hard surface is a tough job for a horse. Assuming there are no dangers from car traffic, loose manhole covers, lightning, broken bottles in your path, attacking dogs, or dive-bombing crows, there will always be that "shoe thing" in the back of your mind when you are working or training on hard ground. Is everything okay down there? All four shoes holding on nice and tight? Here we go!

Hard surfaces come in many forms. There's that parking lot where you lunged your horse last weekend at the horse show. There's that cracked-clay pasture where your horse was turned out all last summer. There's that poor-excuse-for-an-arena down at the fairgrounds where you practice your schooling figure-eights. (You know, the one that hasn't been harrowed in a couple of years, but is too hard for even the weeds to poke through.) And then there's that concrete pad outside your barn, where all the horses stand, all the time. You don't have to ride your horse on a tarred road to risk concussion injury. Hard surfaces are all around you!

In the back of your mind, you know you might be overdoing it. Nagging doubts pop up. But it's a beautiful day and your horse is really enjoying this session. You remember when you were a kid, and rode your pony over hill and dale, all day, every day, all summer. And he never went lame.

But the next morning, your horse can't move. His feet are planted. He doesn't want to come out of the stall. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

The Right Surface For Your Horse

Many of us can remember a time in America where there was room to ride, and it was safe (relatively) to ride on the street. That was a time when life was simpler, and it seems, in retrospect, most horses were a little tougher. Many of today's horses are arena-ites, raised in small pastures and exercised in circles on the lunge line. They are finer boned, and their feet might be flatter, or have thinner soles and hoof walls. They live in bandages; they work in boots. Without their leg gear, they look naked and vulnerable. And maybe they are.

Hot-house horses can be athletic and strong, without being tough. Think of them as balance-beam gymnasts, while the rugged little horse you grew up on might be more akin to a member of the hockey team.

Most horses are sensitive to hard surfaces, and yet many people, particularly in the western United States, have few alternatives to working horses on dry, hard ground. So-called "sports medicine boots" are credited with keeping a lot of horses sound in these conditions. Alternately, they help the horse which has difficulty working in deep footing, as well. However, trouble can come if a horse becomes "boot-dependent," or if the boots are left on too long, creating a patch of heat beneath the neoprene. Is the heat enough to penetrate the skin? No one knows, but riders should follow the manufacturer's directions, and not exceed the recommended usage time. One policy can be to use the boots only when you are actually riding the horse; if you are lunging or waiting to use the arena, stand by with boots in hand.

Sometimes, you can go to a new arena for a clinic or show, and the footing just "feels right" under your horse. His gait is springier, the responses quicker. Or, perhaps you notice that your horse doesn't stock up as much after a lesson in another farm's indoor arena. You might have found a more ideal training surface for your horse than the one to which you are accustomed. This is a wakeup call to ask yourself if you are making your horse work too hard under other conditions, and to try to evaluate how adept your horse is to changing conditions.

Arena surface technology is an advanced science. There are dozens of prepared surfaces that can be "installed" in an indoor arena or laid down on an outdoor ring. A few years ago, the United States Dressage Federation started giving awards for "best footing" to shows that made the extra effort (and went to the extra expense) of upgrading their rings. Some horses go better in competition with a firmer surface beneath them; others like a deep, forgiving cushion. And either horse can be lame the next day from the stress of new ground.

Biomechanics Of Concussion

Right now, at several research centers affiliated with veterinary colleges around the world, engineers and veterinarians are working together. They want to learn exactly what happens when a horse's foot hits the ground and a wave of shock travels up the horse's leg until it pushes off to facilitate the propulsion of the next limb in the gait sequence.

Where is your horse's concussion zone? Horses with run-under heels which land heel-first might be jarring the wings of their coffin bones each time a foot hits. Remember that a horse's foot is a bit like a landing airplane: it hits with the caudal (posterior, or heel) zone first, then transfers the load to the cranial (front) portion. Some horses do land flat, or even toe first. Biomechanics experts think that the heel-first landing might be the most efficient functional loading of the foot, since the foot has a two-phase landing to deal with shock. Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, has hypothesized that the heels might actually act as a sort of natural, flexible shock absorber for the foot, by hitting first and deforming at higher speeds. She has also found that the entire hoof wall deforms more at high speed gaits than at the walk, and that the horn tubules, which transmit shock up the hoof wall, seem more adept at shock absorption than the laminar system within the hoof wall, which transmits the shock from the hoof to the bony column of the leg, beginning with the coffin bone.

The best surfaces for horses to work on allow the toe to dig into the ground, then hold firmly, giving the horse something to push off against. The worst surfaces are those that are rock hard, giving no dig, and those that are too soft, like sand, which collapses behind the horse's foot and makes him work harder.

Most surfaces fall somewhere in between, and, of course, different surfaces are suited for different types of horse sports. You wouldn't want to ride a dressage test in a cutting arena, or ride your Paso Fino in a furrow behind a Shire plowing a field.

Equipping The Foot For Concussion

Plenty of products on the market are designed to absorb shock and make life easier on a horse's feet. How well they work--if they work at all--is dependent on a few variables. The first, of course, is the surface on which the horse is working; the second is the horse's overall condition. Also consider the way the horse is shod (for a specific sport or perhaps a lameness or conformation problem) and how strong his foot is. Factor in how long it has been since the horse has been shod, the horse's relative threshold for pain, and the negative or positive effects of tack and the rider's balance--or lack of it!


Pads are the first thing that come to people's minds when shock-absorption is mentioned. Most pads are made from plastic or leather, but they are available in different thicknesses and angulations. Some have heel pads, some have frog pads, and some are designed to help stabilize the heels. Pads are available in "rim" patterns, which are open in the middle over the frog so you can clean the foot easily, or "full," which cover the entire foot.

There are many reasons why a pad might be used on your horse, but if footsoreness and "ouchiness" from hard ground are your problems, think about which pad you will use, and talk it over with your farrier. A full pad will cover up the sole, and you won't be able to see any bruises. If your horse is prone to thrush, you might have trouble with the wet environment trapped under a pad. There also are some pads that cover only the heels, if that is where your horse is sore.

A leather pad forms to the foot; a plastic pad retains its flat shape to a great degree. Leather pads absorb moisture and seem to support the foot; plastic pads depend more on packing to fill the cavity. Farriers tend to prefer one type or the other; don't try to talk your farrier into something new, since he or she might not have the right cutter on hand, or any special pads. Many farriers will use a "medicated" substance like Hawthorne's Sole-Pack, or Les Care's Nature Pac.

If your horse hasn't been wearing pads, it is probably best to start with the simplest flat pad, whether a wedge or rim, and see what effect it has on your horse's attitude. If you feel that the horse's soreness is mainly in the sole rather than within the foot, ask your farrier if you should try a product like Durasole, Sole Freeze, Keratex, or Crossapol to toughen the sole. He or she will know the condition of the sole by how it feels in the jaws of the nipper. A hard, dry foot is usually a tough foot, and the farrier will have to work to close the jaws of the nipper and hear that satisfying "Snap!"

Special shock absorbing pads are available on the market; one popular pad is called Shock Tamer; another is Sorbothane. Bright green "Impak" pads by Castle are designed for concussion too. The high-tech "Honeycomb" pad has topped many product comparison tests in ability to absorb shock. A new line of pads from Germany called "Luwex" comes in bright colors and has a unique design that works on shock absorption while stabilizing the heel area. Shock Tamer and Luwex pads are available in rim or full models. If your problem isn't serious, but you want a high-tech pad and are willing to pay for it, start with the rim model and see if it helps, so you will have "somewhere to go" if the condition worsens. Warning: shock-ab-sorbing pads aren't cheap!

Your farrier will pack silicone, Sole Pack, Nature Pak, Forshners, or oakum with pine tar under a full pad to protect the bottom of the foot. This also can help cushion your horse.

Don't put great hope in pads as a permanent fix, since you are basically covering up a weak point on your horse, instead of helping it to heal. Some horses become "pad dependent" and need them for a long time. Always be willing to take a break from pads and see if your horse is better, particularly as the seasons change and the ground softens up.


A few years ago, many people experimented with the "Seattle Shoe," a device that engineered the shock from the ground and softened its effect on the leg. Many people jokingly called them "the pogo stick shoes," and some racetracks even outlawed them, thinking they might give horses an advantage. The shoes still haven't caught on, but you can't fault the inventors for trying to solve a problem.

There probably isn't much difference among the steel and aluminum shoes on the market. But what they lack in shock absorption, some might make up for in protection and support. Some horses which have been stressed by hard work on rock-hard arenas have responded well to a simple switch to a wider "web" (thickness) shoe. The St. Croix Xtra and Eventer models were designed for this function--to give extra coverage and support, without causing sole pressure. The Natural Balance shoe comes to mind, with its wide, straight branches and rolled toe.

Your farrier might suggest a composite shoe, made of metal and plastic or rubber. Aluminum shoes sometimes are bonded with rubber to help racehorses with stinging feet. The most obvious composite shoe is the "Sneaker" from Equine Orthotics; it is a metal plate with a bight plastic "shoe" that meets the ground. They have been used successfully in endurance, as has the Slypner shoe. Slypner is a wonderfully unique design of a stainless steel shoe that nails onto the foot, while different designs of plastic inserts snap onto the shoe. The only drawback is that inserts--since they aren't easily customized--suit horses with feet shaped like the shoes. Seeing a horse cross the finish line at an endurance event wearing these unique shoes makes you believe in the future of horseshoes to help horses overcome the obstacles we throw in their paths.

A plastic-coated metal shoe called "Nail Shu" from Mustad is popular with police horses, endurance riders, and many pleasure riders. Made in Europe, it is very lightweight, and has a rounded edge that makes breakover easy.

Finally, handy Easy Boots are a lifesaver for many sore-footed horses, particularly if you are in a situation where your horse loses a shoe or if you have been hacking on a tar road and the horse starts to limp from stinging feet. If you anticipate sore feet, you can put the Easy Boots on at home and ride out wearing them. Make sure they fit properly and that your horse is comfortable with them. Foam can be used to fill in gaps. Some people even use Easy Boots instead of shoes, slipping the boots on only when they need protection, particularly on horses which aren't used often.

Management And Training

Horses with sore frogs or pads are one thing, but horses which have been worked long enough and hard enough on the road or in a baked arena to be lame are another. Navicular syndrome is one of the first major problems that is suspected; sidebone and ringbone are close behind. Problems like windpuffs, stocking up, and arthritis are common.

As always, look at your management program in hope of preventing problems. Ask your veterinarian about your horse's age and condition, and if you should be feeding any supplements to the horse. Glucosamine and/or chondroitin sulfate supplements are the most common products designed to ease joint problems in horses. Many people claim to see a difference in their horses' performance, gaits, or attitude.

If you are pushing your horse hard, on a hard surface, consider shortening your shoeing schedule. A loose shoe, and even a few loose clinches, can be a formula for irritation; corns are a common minor lameness from shoes left on too long, particularly with riveted pads. Remember that there is shock to be absorbed not only between the ground and the horseshoe, but also between the horseshoe and the foot. Try to keep the bond between shoe and foot tight and functional.

Remember the basic tenets of training and warm your horse up slowly before hard work. If you're in an arena, work equal amounts of time in both directions. If you're going out for a short trail ride, consider "dressing down" your horse and riding with lighter or less confining tack. If you haven't taken a lesson in a while, try it; a good trainer will pick up any imbalance problems in your hands or seat that might be making your horse work harder than he needs to work.

If you are showing the horse, work with your trainer or advisor to plan for a show in advance. Find out all you can about what the surfaces at a particular facility are like. If your horse will go better on a grassy outside hunter course than in the arena, aim for classes held in that section of the showground. On outdoor arenas, remember that they are probably groomed for the morning classes. Then, as the sun bakes the arena, they will harden up, possibly making afternoon classes harder on your footsore horse.

Finally, consider your horse's collection; horses which work on the forehand will always pound more than a collected horse.

And don't forget to pray for rain...or at least a drag harrow.


UnderFoot: USDF Guide to Dressage Arena Construction, Maintenance, and Repair; US Dressage Federation, Inc., Lincoln, Neb.

FIBAR All-Weather Riding Surface educational materials, Armonk, N.Y.

McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine web site, featuring presentations by Dr. Hilary Clayton ( dressage)

When the Body Says Ouch! Identifying Pain in the Performance Horse, by Kim Henneman, DVM (video)

Horseshoeing, A Biomechanical Analysis, by Maarten Willemen (PhD thesis, 1997, Utrecht)

Development of Equine Locomotion from Foal to Adult, by Willem Back (PhD thesis, 1994, Utrecht)

On the Kinematics and Kinetics of the Distal Limb in the Standardbred Trotter, by Christopher Johnston (PhD thesis, 1997, Upsaala)

Horse Foot Studies, by Chris Pollitt MRCVS (video)

A Force Measuring Horse Shoe Applied in Kinetic and Kinematic Analysis of the Trotting Horse, by Lars Roepstorff (PhD thesis, 1997, Upsaala)

A Finite Element Computer Model of the Equine Hoof Capsule, by Dr. Christine Hinterhofer, University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria.

About the Author

Fran Jurga

Fran Jurga is the publisher of Hoofcare & Lameness, The Journal of Equine Foot Science, based in Gloucester, Mass., and Hoofcare Online, an electronic newsletter accessible at Her work also includes promoting lameness-related research and information for practical use by farriers, veterinarians, and horse owners. Jurga authored Understanding The Equine Foot, published by Eclipse Press and available at or by calling 800/582-5604.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners