The call for standardised arena footing

Anyone born after 1980 is unlikely to recall what it was like to school and compete exclusively on grass arena footing. But riders of any age know someone who knows someone with horror stories and an amenity we all take for granted – synthetic arena footing and the base on which it is installed.

Equally, while elite riders are understandably fussier about surfaces at competitions, upon which they are asked to produce their multimillion-pound steeds, no one is yet demanding a blueprint across top FEI (International Equestrian Federation) shows.

The Peter Minnie arena at Kyalami Park Club, installed and maintained by Martin Collins SA

The Peter Minnie arena at Kyalami Park Club, installed and maintained by Martin Collins SA

The call for arena standardisation

If anything should be standardised, it surely would be arena footings. Aside from the potential financial loss, a ‘dead’ footing with minimal energy can harm your horse’s limbs and tendons – a situation that may be worsened by the fact that the rider often works the horse for longer sessions, mistakenly believing the new footing is doing him good. When I first came to the US, I was horrified at the shallow depth of footing installed (mainly abrasive and loose) on a sealed base.

The arena industry has existed for decades, yet despite advances in technology and the introduction of a wide range of synthetic riding surfaces, it lags way behind other construction sectors by failing to protect customers with agency-enforceable standards. Stakeholders do not even have an agreed code of conduct.

The British Equestrian Trade Association (BETA) once explored a code of conduct, but did not get very far. Who should be in charge, and whether manufacturers will butt into the notion, is the proverbial ‘can of worms’.

A code of conduct is long overdue. We come across too many people for whom an arena is a once-off, major investment and who, not unreasonably, believe their contractor knows what he is doing. We ask more of our horses and so should pay even more attention to their welfare. Many of us need somewhere safe to ride because of dangers on the roads.

Setting the standard

Surface quality is one thing and may be harder to legislate. It should be led by the FEI and then filter down to professional and amateur levels. Kickback, slide, movement and deepness are more of concern, and are not criteria with a standard or approved method of measurement.

The most important criteria for a surface are firstly that it is not injurious, and secondly that it’s fair to everyone in a class. An over-tight, unyielding surface will not move at all; however, it could injure horses, as it will not allow the foot to slide a little. There again, one that allows the foot to slide too much could be equally as concerning. The going should be a safe, fair one from the first to the last to go in a class, whatever the discipline.

True physical benefits

In April 2014, the FEI published the world’s most extensive study into the effect of arena surfaces on the orthopaedic health of sport horses in the seven FEI disciplines and in racing. The Equine Surfaces White Paper was the result of a four-year collaboration between eight equine experts from six universities, three equine and racing-specific research and testing centres and two horse charities, in Sweden, the UK and United States. The White Paper brought together the latest data and published scientific papers on arena and turf surfaces, and the effects these have on horses in training and in competition.

Prior to the publication of the FEI study, the most major piece of research, led by Dr Rachel Murray of the world-renowned Animal Health Trust in the UK, had largely focused on surface types that predispose a horse to lameness more than another, rather than analysing the physical properties of the specific brands.

Dr Murray did, however, highlight that wax-coated surfaces are less likely to cause unsoundness than woodchip, sand or sand-plastic granule mixes and imperfect turf, though these have been slower to take off in the US.

A constructor surely has a moral obligation to ensure his arenas will last for a minimum of 10 years. What should be achievable is an agreed industry standard for the sub-base. The integrity of the drainage and sub-base influences the overall performance, yet it is where people mostly cut corners and end up with problems.


Text: Courtesy of Martin Collins (USA)