Dust-free footing (left) versus a blend of silica sand and fiber.
Water-dependent footing is generally more budget friendly, right?
Sure. And if someone says they want to spend as little as possible, or that they’re looking at sand in their region, we will source a good quality masonry sand as close to their location as possible. Then we will weigh the pros and cons of that sand against a higher quality sand that comes from further away. If somebody comes to us and just wants the best water-dependent footing that they can get, then we already have predetermined, high-quality silica sand and fiber blends on hand.
Is there a general watering rule?
Absolutely. With water-dependent footing, it is often misconstrued that the water is just there to prevent dust. In a high-quality blend, the water acts as a binder and is integral to its performance. If it’s dusty, it’s already way past the point where it should have been watered. This is one benefit to silica sand, which retains some moisture. The fiber holds some moisture as well, but not to a great degree. Local masonry sand will never be balanced fully with additives. Additives can help retain moisture or stability, but they’ll never make a lower quality sand equal the performance of a higher quality sand. Again, the key component of footing is the sand, not the additives.
Does geography play a large part in arena surface functionality?
Nothing is winter proof. If anyone ever tells you they offer winter proof footing, well, buyer beware! The only footing that we offer that is winter resilient, is the dust-free option. Because it absorbs the sun, the snow melts off of it faster, it loosens up faster, and it gets less deep of a freeze than other surfaces. Other than that, pretty much every base and every type of footing is going to have the same reaction to cold weather.
So we’ve talked about base, sand, additives, irrigation…is there anything else we’ve missed?
Well, maintenance, or grooming. First, don’t buy a groomer before the footing! Choose the footing first, then the tractor, then the harrow. I’ve had situations in which people have large arenas and a lot of square footage to groom, and they buy a little tiny garden tractor. I’ve had other situations in which people have a little tiny arena, and they buy a 60HP monster. Make sure your tractor and harrow match the footing and size of the arena.
The amount of arena grooming required is dependent on the footing. A footing that compacts easily will require more dragging, which also means burning more fuel, more wear and tear on your tractor, worn out teeth on your groomer, etc. It does add up. Dust-free footing generally requires less grooming, but of course all grooming depends on use and weather. As a rule of thumb, I always recommend grooming before a heavy rainfall to aid in consistent drainage of the arena.
We’ve talked about jumpers and dressage riders. What about western riders?
There should be crossover between jumpers and dressage riders. You might want to groom the same footing differently, but the right footing should be able to be shared happily by both. Western is a bit more complicated, specifically in regards to reining. Reining requires a completely different footing due to the sliding stops. The footing is there almost as a buffer, because when the horse slides it does so on the base, so reining requires a footing that will allow that to happen. It also requires a particular base that is compacted differently and has a different texture.
What are some common injuries that happen due to footing?
I’m not qualified to get into the physiological aspects of the horse, but I can get into the simple stuff. I do know that deep and loose footing (which are often the same), can create suspensory and soft tissue issues. A footing that is too hard or compacted can create sore feet, and bone or joint issues. Also, a footing that is too “grabby,” or that doesn’t have enough give on the surface, can create joint issues, especially over time. As a horse turns, the footing should give a little bit, and that’s actually the most difficult part of a footing to create. It should have stability so it doesn’t sheer, but also needs to give enough that it’s not putting stress on the horse’s joints. When dust-free footing was first on the market, it was firm and compact, which is what the equestrian world wanted. However, people started to realize this was not great. We have over time worked on creating better shear and cushion, but keeping good traction and stability in the blend.
How can you visually identify a footing as decent or poor before you get on and ride at a new location?
Someone with experience in footing can do a toe test by simply jabbing a foot into it, but that’s a skill that develops over time. It’s obviously not an exact science, but it’s a good start. And depth is central. Of course, optimal depth depends on the footing, but a local masonry sand shouldn’t be deeper than two to two-and-a-half inches, while a higher-grade footing can be as deep as six inches. Consistency is very important, though. A horse will typically do better on bad footing that is consistent, than $100,000 of inconsistent high-grade footing. Consistent depth and performance are paramount.
Lastly, if you’re having a footing specialist to your farm, don’t groom the footing before they get there. It happens to me all the time, but I need to see the penetration of the hoof. I need to see footfalls!
Very special thanks to Lawton Adams for sharing his expertise!