Over the past couple of years, there has been an increasing trend of people installing arenas with a mix between sand and synthetic materials, such as CLOPF® fibre, silica sand and wax. “There are different kinds of fibre that offer different properties. Some need to be used with specific sands and others tolerate a wider range of sands. Silica sand on its own can ride deep unless it is VERY wet and has a good drainage system below it,” explains Peter. Show venues started with these first, but riders are now choosing to install these surfaces at home as well. The question of whether these surfaces actually make a physical difference to their horses and their training has been asked on numerous occasions.
Installing an arena
Building an arena is about much more than flattening some ground and adding some sand on top. “Ideally the arena should be built on a full stone drainage blanket with drainage lines underneath that. There should then be a membrane over the stone layer onto which the surface is laid. This ensures absolute consistency in drainage and surface performance. With this type of construction, arenas can be built in most areas, as the stone layer not only is your drainage layer but also acts as the base for your arena,” says Peter.
“The area for the arena to be constructed is generally up to the client, but proximity to the stables and slope of the ground are important factors to consider. Sand is one of the most important elements of an arena build; in some cases where suitable sand is not available in the immediate area we transport in from as far as 500km away,” adds Peter.
Spoilt for choice
When deciding which arena surface to install, riders need to consider their primary disciplines. Surface characteristics include area firmness, cushioning, rebound, grip, shock absorbance, energy return and support. Poor footing can be problematic for your horse’s performance and can cause injuries in worst-case scenarios. “By adding fibre you are also able to ride on a deeper surface of 125mm as opposed to a sand-only surface of max 80mm, which gives you significantly more cushion,” says Peter.
A popular choice these days is CLOPF fibre arenas. According to the Martin Collins group, CLOPF fibre is designed to reduce dust and increase surface stability, thereby allowing the horse to work on top of the surface rather than through it.
Martin Collins’ Ecotrack is popular among competition venues, because it features a mix of CLOPF fibre, silica sand and PVC, and is finished off with a wax coating. The footing is incredibly secure and returns energy, allowing horses to perform more optimally, and is suitable for indoor and outdoor arenas with no irrigation needed.
Activ-Track is another footing option that is favoured by racing yards, once again owing to the stability it provides. Polytrack was specifically developed with racehorse studs and courses in mind, because this type of surface mimics the properties of typical turf.
Does the footing make a difference?
Research conducted over the past few years has shown that a horse’s stride is dependent on how the hoof interacts with the surface. The horse’s leg has to process landing, loading and pushing off. When the horse’s leg strikes the ground, bones in the leg collide from the impact on the ground. During the loading phase, the leg straightens and the whole hoof is in contact with the ground, carrying the full weight of horse and rider. The fetlock and suspensories are then responsible for shock absorbance. Weight can increase depending on certain movements, such as the piaffe, pirouette or collection, or the height of the jump.
An arena surface that is too hard will ultimately have less shock absorbency, forcing bones and joints in the leg to absorb the impact. Horses might compensate for the sting of this shock by altering their striding. On the other hand, surfaces that are too soft, such as deep sand, will absorb shock well but will not support the hooves. Ideally, you want something in between.
“An ideal surface depth would be between 125 and 150mm in order to give sufficient cushion to the horse. A surface of this depth would need fibre to stabilise it, allowing the horses to work on top of it or in the top 25mm. You should only see the hoofprints,” says Peter.
When considering an area surface, you also want to look for something that will ‘return energy’. You want the surface to rebound, meaning that it returns to its original form after it has been compressed by the horse’s hoof striking the surface. When the surface rebounds, it returns energy to the horse – almost creating a bouncing effect. A surface that is too compact rebounds quicker, meaning that the horse has to absorb additional shock. Surfaces that are too loose rebound too slowly, causing the horse to use additional energy in the form of tendons, ligaments and muscles to move out of the surface. “A surface that is too deep (too loose) causes the horses to work too hard and causes stress on tendons and soft tissue,” adds Peter.
Grip is another factor that needs to be considered when it comes to footing. Too much grip will stop the foot too quickly, and this can increase the chances of injury. If a surface lacks grip, it will cause the horse’s hoof to slip, and result in the horse’s hoof pushing too far down into the surface, ultimately hindering the horse’s ability to propel off the ground.
Horses are athletes
Just like you’d expect any professional athlete to have access to top facilities, so should our horses. Horses who are ridden regularly or competing frequently should be training on the best possible surfaces, not only for their own physical wellbeing, but also for the sake of performance. Grass is still an ideal surface, but working through sand that is too deep or shallow can cause damage to your horse’s joints and tendons in the long term.