The footing type and constitution on which a horse performs strongly influences whether the animal will have a long and productive career, or whether it has that career shortened significantly due to unsoundness or injury. Footing also influences how well the horse performs. Bad footing often runs alongside poor performance, and good footing frequently is equated with a more productive and better performance. Unfortunately, with footing, it is not a case of one size fits all, that is why Equipro’s surfaces come from a knowledge base background and have been curated to give optimal performance.
Your chosen competition type has a bearing on footing. A show jumper, for example, requires a surface that is more yielding than does the dressage horse or show pony. The reining horse needs a surface that allows it to perform its signature sliding stop yet is firm enough that it can demonstrate its other moves, including figure-eights and spins. The cutting horse needs a surface that is comparatively deep and forgiving as it makes sudden stops and hard turns.
Racetrack surfaces also vary from that of many other equestrian disciplines. A standard Thoroughbred racetrack is vastly different than a comparable harness track. Due to the high concussion impact generated with each stride, the track on which a Thoroughbred is worked on must be quite deep and yielding. The trotter and pacer travel at gaits that are far less concussive and, as a result, generally race on much harder surfaces.
Want to understand the difference between good and bad surfaces? In that case we must first understand exactly what happens when a horse travels over that surface and how it interacts with said surface.
The stance phase is the period during which the hoof comes into contact with the ground. The following parts of the stance phase are recognized and measured or described during gait analysis — initial ground contact, impact phase, loading phase, and breakover.
INITIAL GROUND CONTACT
The initial contact of the hoof with the floor at the start of the stance phase is classified as heel first, flat-footed, or toe first. The way in which the contact is made is influenced by gait, speed, farriery, and lameness of the horse. The hind legs show a greater tendency for heel first contacts than the forelimbs. Heel first contacts occur more frequently during high-speed locomotion and when horses are trimmed with an upright hoof angle. The frequency of toe first contacts increases when the hoof is trimmed at an acute angle. In some movements, such as piaffe, toe first contacts are normal.
Lameness of a certain type forces the horse to adopt an unusual gait as a means of reducing pain by shifting the loading away from the affected structures of the body. The way in which the initial ground contact is made is important because it affects the forces and accelerations applied to the various limbs of the horse during the subsequent impact phase.
Impact phase occupies the first 50/ 60 milliseconds after the hoof contacts the ground. In this time, the horse’s limb undergoes rapid deceleration that generates a shock wave that travels up the limb. The character of the shock wave is that of high amplitude and a rapid vibration frequency. These characteristics are quite damaging to the bones and joints, especially when they occur repeatedly, stride after stride, during locomotion, this can be referred to as a ‘high wear and tear’. Prior to hoof contact with the ground, the muscles are pretensioned in accordance with the horse’s expectation about how the surface will peel. The impact phase has such a minuscule timeframe and there is insufficient time for the muscles to respond to erratic changes in the surface in a manner that might protect bones and joints.
When undergoing the impact phase, the hoof decelerates in both the vertical and horizontal directions. The fore hoof typically has a higher vertical velocity, but a lower horizontal velocity, than the hind hoof at the instant of ground contact. This might explain why there is greater concussion and could be one reason for the higher incidence of chronic lameness in the rear end of the horse. When shock wave travels vertically through the bony column of the limb, it is weakened by the flexing of the joint and deformation of the soft tissues. Most of the injuries to the locomotor system are not a result of a single catastrophic incident/ accident involving the horse, but as a consequence of the cumulative damage that occurs from the many strides over a lengthy period of time. Impact is the most damaging part of the stride for the bones and joints. Horses which train and compete at high speed or have a high degree of galloping often develop fatigue fractures or bone sclerosis as a consequence of their actions. Fatigue fractures are hairline fractures in the bone that have not adapted to accommodate high-impact loading. Bone sclerosis represents over-adaptation, with the bone becoming excessively mineralized in response to high-impact loading.A more chronic impact-related problem is degenerative joint disease, which is the most common reason for premature retirement of sport horses. The repeated traumatic effect of impact shock during years of training and competing is a primary factor in the development of degenerative joint disease, but the effects do not become apparent until permanent damage is present, and the horse becomes lame. Therefore, trainers must make every effort to reduce the effect of impact shock throughout the horse’s career. This means working on good surfaces and taking care of hoof balance and shoeing.
Loading/ unloading are the period from the end of the impact phase until breakover. At the period of this phase, dynamic forces are applied more gradually than during impact, and with little vibration. During trotting horses, the vertical force increases steadily, peaking at midstance, after which there is a period of unloading. The longitudinal force impedes the horse’s forward motion at the loading phase and provides forward movement during unloading. At the loading phase, the elastic structures that run down the back of the cannon region and over the fetlock are stretched. These structures, which include the deep and superficial digital flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament, store elastic energy as they lengthen. Midstance of the forelimb occurs when the cannon segment is vertical, which corresponds with the time when the fetlock joint is maximally extended, and the vertical force reaches its peak value. At midstance, the fetlock sinks to its lowest point and the joint is maximally extended. The magnitude of the peak vertical force determines the amount of fetlock joint extension.
After midstance, the vertical force declines steadily until the hoof leaves the ground. At the same time, the fetlock joint rises and flexes. During the unloading phase, tension in the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament is reduced, and they start to recoil elastically. The release of the elastic energy helps flex the distal (lower) limbs during the subsequent swing phase. The longitudinal force is propulsive during the unloading phase.
This begins when the heel leaves the ground and starts rotating over the toe of the hoof, which is still in contact with the ground. Breakover is initiated by tension in the distal check ligament acting through the deep digital flexor tendon, combined with tension in the navicular ligaments. On a hard surface, the hoof remains flat on the ground until heel lift-off. On a softer surface, the toe rotates into the surface prior to heel lift-off, which reduces tension on the distal check ligament, deep digital flexor tendon, and navicular ligaments. This, in turn, reduces pressure in the navicular region. Therefore, a surface that allows the toe to dig in during push-off usually is beneficial, especially for horses with navicular syndrome or other types of caudal heel pain. Toe lift-off is the instant when the toe leaves the ground, after which the elastic tendons and ligaments are able to recoil and flex the joints.
In the swing phase, the limb is initially protracted (pulled forward) then, in the final part of the swing phase, it is retracted (pulled backward) prior to initial ground contact. The purpose of this “swing phase retraction” is to reduce the horizontal velocity between the hoof and ground at initial ground contact. The swing phase retraction has a considerably longer duration in the forelimbs than in the hind limbs, and this explains why the horizontal velocity is lower in the forelimb than the hind limb at ground contact. During the swing phase, the limbs act in a pendulum-like manner. The forelimb rotates with its pivot point in the upper part of the scapula. Since horses do not have a clavicle or a shoulder girdle, the whole scapula is free to rotate back and forth on the side of the chest wall. The hind limb rotates around the hip joint in the walk and trot and around the lumbosacral joint (just in front of the croup) in the canter and gallop. The lumbosacral joint is the only part of the vertebral column from the base of the neck to the tail that allows a significant amount of flexing (rounding) and extension (hollowing) of the back. At all the other vertebral joints, the amount of motion is much smaller. Moving the point of rotation from the hip joint to the lumbosacral joint increases the effective length of the hind limbs, therefore increasing stride length.
Movements of the proximal (upper) limbs are the result of muscular action. Movements of the distal limbs tend to follow passively — without active muscular contraction and as a result of inertial forces. When the hoof leaves the ground, elastic recoil of the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament raises the hoof, pastern, and cannon to initiate flexion of the carpal (knee), fetlock, and coffin joints. In the later part of the swing phase, these joints are extended in preparation for the next ground contact. In the hind limb, flexion and extension of the stifle, hock, and fetlock joints are coupled through the action of the reciprocal apparatus, which consists of strong, thick tendinous bands on the front and back of the limb.
SURFACE TO SURFACE
We now can turn our attention to footing that either helps or hinders a horse as it goes through the various stride sequences.
There are extremes at either end of the spectrum — a surface that is much too hard or a surface that is much too soft.
A hard surface, such as concrete or sun-baked clay, has high-impact resistance because it absorbs little, if any, of the impact energy. Consequently, the impact shock wave of the loading phase of a step must be absorbed almost entirely by the loaded leg. This means that high-impact resistance is associated with heavy concussion. At the opposite end of the scale, other footings — such as deep wood shavings — create a surface that has low-impact resistance. This type of surface absorbs the energy of the footfall, thus reducing concussion on the legs. But at the same time, it requires a great deal of energy on the part of the horse to provide forward and upward propulsion. Typically, a horse’s leg stores some elastic energy in the ligaments and tendons during loading that is released to bounce the leg off the ground during unloading. To imagine what it is like for your horse to work on deep wood shavings, think of running on a track covered in pillows. This type of low-impact surface absorbs so much energy that your — or your horse’s — muscles work much harder to provide sufficient propulsion. Riders should be aware of fatigue factors, such as raised heart rate, laboured breathing, profuse sweating, and a deterioration of performance. When a horse is fatigued, there is a much higher risk of injury to muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and the potential for tying-up also is increased.
What constitutes ideal footing?
Ideally, an arena surface is somewhat deformable to absorb impact energy, yet sufficiently resilient to give the horse more spring. It allows him to move so that his hooves slide gently into the loading phase. It provides penetration during breakover as well as stability during push-off.
The next question is just as obvious. How does one go about making this ideal surface?
MIX AND MATCH
It is obvious that there is no single magic formula for good footing, and that a variety of products in a variety of combinations are being used. However, there does appear to be one basic requirement that must be met whether one is providing footing on a racetrack or in a performance arena — a base that is level and so hard that it can’t be penetrated by a hoof.
ARENA FOOTING & EQUIPRO SURFACES
As we have now discussed everything from phases of motion to what constitutes a sound arena footing it is now time to look and consider what makes our surfaces the best for rider and horse.
Our surfaces boast multi-performance benefits, ranging from reducing stress and dynamic loading on your horses joints to rider comfort.
Consistency and durability – our surfaces are curated, not mass produced. This helps to ensure that you are always receiving and riding on a uniform surface that as outlined above significantly reduces impact and fast twitch muscle fibre response that can damage your horse long-term.
Our Superior Fibre in particular, due to it’s durable backing and fibrous nature provides unrivalled support and comfort for your horse and helps prevent hoof penetration into the surface.