Horses are well adapted to move over a variety of terrain and their entire bodies benefit tremendously from doing so.
Variable ground surfaces in a horse’s environment challenge and stimulate the healthy development of hooves, supportive connective tissues and musculoskeleture — all the while weaving in resiliency and soundness for the horse.
Footing is a term commonly used when referring to the surfaces, either outdoors or indoors, that are specifically designed for horse activities. Footing surfaces can be as simple as a minimally groomed earth surface or they can be very complex, engineered and highly manicured, intended to meet the needs of an individual equine sporting discipline such as cutting, reining, barrel racing, polo, dressage, jumping or driving.
Although the perspective of ideal footing can vary broadly between horse owners and competitors, most horse owners would agree that the footing surface impacts the quality of performance from the horse and can even bring a risk of injury to the horse.
Many riders are able to appreciate the influence of footing surfaces upon the movements of their horse and can readily recognize the base or foundation of a good ‘working’ surface. A solid base, generally of clay construction, creates a firm and even ground force reaction for the steadfast placement of a horse’s foot.
This stability is necessary to effectively fire the horse’s stabilizer muscles and brings a level of sure-footedness and confidence to the horse. Since the base is generally covered with a sub-base and surface materials, the quality of the base is more often felt than seen by both the rider and horse.
The sub-base is the middle layer, between the base and the surface layer. The sub-base is typically built into the footing to ‘knit’ the base layer to the surface material, otherwise the surface material has a tendency to ‘slip’ over the base foundation. Its primary importance to the horse is to secure traction upon foot landing and push-off. Without proper traction during propulsion the foot and leg structures will give way upon loading and result in forces that torque and twist against the line of travel during push-off.
The material for the surface layer can be a mixture of sand, soil, rubber, textiles, shredded wood, or synthetic materials. The purpose of the surface layer is to cushion the horse’s footfall. The depth and type of material used for the surface layer are generally determined by the activity and/or discipline for which the arena’s space will be most commonly used for. Depths of surface materials, such as sand beyond two inches, can contribute to muscular fatigue and potentiate the event of an injury or misstep. Anyone who has run on the sands of an ocean beach can attest to the degree of difficulty that comes with movement in deep sand.
Footing surfaces and their materials undergo compositional and property changes over time with weather and horse traffic. So in a sense footing surfaces themselves are ‘alive’ and dynamic. As a result good footing surfaces require upkeep and some type of ongoing maintenance, grooming, texturing and dust control. Dust control is often not associated with footing yet the two are highly relatable due to the fines that loft into the air from the surface materials. Dust accumulation in the air can be troublesome to the health of the eyes and respiratory systems of both the horse and rider.
Footing can become uneven and shift with increasing horse traffic. If not properly conditioned the footing surfaces develop patterns of wear and tear. For example, ‘paths’ of compaction are commonly found along the rail, diagonals, centreline and perhaps around barrels or poles.
This footing becomes less desirable losing its cushioning and eventually, if unchecked, can lead to scarring of the highly valuable stable and compacted foundation. The surfaces of the paths may become moulded and initiate a repetitive footfall pattern from the horse. This sets the stage for repetitive stress injuries and chronic habituated patterns of movement and motion.
In addition, horses trained in these environments lose a type of resiliency and ability to readily adapt and perform as expected on unfamiliar surfaces. As a result, they tend to be at a greater risk for injury in unfamiliar footings, particularly in timed events.
Any type of footing surface is ultimately a type of terrain. Therefore, it becomes beneficial to expose and condition the horse to a variety of terrains and ground surface variations. Textures such as gravel, sand, rocks and grass, undulations and various degrees of soft and hard pack incorporate a type of resiliency and adaptability into the horse’s soundness that prepares the horse to better navigate variable foot surfaces.
This type of training conditions and stimulates the development of a healthy hoof, strengthens the proprioceptive abilities of joints and the elastic and plastic qualities of connective tissue.
As a result, a general robustness is integrated into the entire musculoskeletal system of the horse.