By Toby Elford, LEISURE RIDE GROUP
When, in 2014 The Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) commissioned a detailed white paper on riding arena surfaces – it was clear that at last, people in the corridors of horsepower were coming to realise the importance of the surface to performance and overall health of the horse. Whilst it’s impossible to condense a 51-page study into a short article – it’s important that owners understand different surface types, how they affect the horse and how each surface material behaves over time. If you do, you will save money, time and most importantly you will understand the factors that could affect your horses’ wellbeing. So pay attention class! – arena surface 101 is about to begin:
TYPES OF MATERIAL
Surface materials vary, but you have natural materials such as turf, sand and wood, and synthetic ones, such as textile fibre, rubber, PVC and wax – many surfaces, especially those with fancy brand-names are the manufacturers own cocktail of materials and the recipe is a closely guarded not-so-secret – but the basic components are these:
It’s what nature intended – but unless you have your own clerk-of-thecourse, have unlimited acreage, and an army of grounds-people turf isn’t suitable for the average arena – five circuits and you’ll have a pronounced track, and beyond that it deteriorates to mud – a swamp in rain and like concrete in summer. Anyone that’s done Pony Club camp in a field knows exactly what I mean.
Woodchip is a surface material that unlike the others, doesn’t need to be mixed with anything else. Most other surfaces are a mix of sand and additives. Woodchip is relatively inexpensive, so for a long time was used on arenas and racing gallops and it’s enduring popularity is based on price, (or lack of!). Wood chip is exactly that: chipped wood, so is mostly natural cellulose. It has a slight springiness underfoot. Whilst it may save you a few quid, remember that wood is a natural material, and composts down – so your wet arena woodchip will go a bit slimy then eventually turn to soil. Because it’s a material rotting down, the behaviour of the surface underfoot is also constantly shifting – a year on and it will ride nothing like the day you put it in. The only answer is to add more wood chip – and to change a woodchip arena over to a more modern surface is costly - a classic case of “buy-cheapbuytwice”.
Sand is by far the most popular arena surface type. So, I hear you ask: “What’s wrong with lovely natural sand for my arena?” - In riding terms there isn’t the wrong kind of snow – but there is the right kind of sand. Pointed Silica to be exact – and there are only a few quarries in the UK that have it.
The only problem is that sand alone lacks the stability and consistency to be the sole ingredient – if you’ve ever seen a sand dune blowing about, or have sunk up to the ankle whilst paddling on the beach you’ll see what I mean – there’s a huge variance in how sand behaves when very wet or very dry. A sand only surface tends to be dry, dusty, deep and can cause tripping. Builders sand often has salts & chemicals in – so check with your supplier that it is silica suitable for equestrian use. So once you have your sand – the next question is what you add to it to create that lovely firm, cushioned ride.
Good old rubber…or bad old
rubber – it really depends on who you talk to. Some hate it, others swear by it. Either way it’s advisable to simply understand it’s properties and pitfalls and make your own mind up. Equestrian rubber is
mostly recycled auto rubber – that’s chopped up synthetic car tyres to you and me – designed to perform on asphalt roads with the warmth that friction generates. It’s mostly advertised as 99.9% wire-free, so there’s always that 0.1% somewhere.
To make it ready to be used in arenas they strip the wire out and shred it.
Rubber is bouncy, frost resistant and drains well. However it’s oft reported to have a tendency to break down over time and turn the arena black under the surface of the sand. It’s also costly to get rid of as it’s not very enviro-friendly (have you ever tried to take a tyre to the council tip?).
Also consider the effect of walking on rubber – arguably too much rubber in an arena has masses of energy return– but the forces go in all directions, which raises questions about sureness of footing. It’s down to personal opinion, but ask yourself if the Olympics, or World Equestrian Games took place on a rubber surface?
PVC can be bought on its own as an additive for sand, or is often sold ready-mixed as an off-the peg surface.
The PVC is either granular, or is the chopped up recycled sleeving from electrical cables. When mixed with the sand it produces a frost resistant riding surface. The ready-mixed surfaces may also contain wax to help the sand/pvc mix bind together.
The pitfalls really all boil down to longevity and ride depth. These surfaces tend to ride deep, and the harrows to tend them are the leveling type – moving material around the school to return it to flat. For the waxed ones, the wax eventually deteriorates and the ride goes deeper and deeper – but can be reversed by re-waxing. Again however, top-level competition doesn’t take place on this surface type as the competitions demand a surface where the horses go “off-the-top”.
These surfaces are the ones currently used for top level competition – at London 2012 the surface at Greenwich was a sand and fibre surface. The fibres can come from many different sources, and be of many different materials: wool, cotton, rayon, nylon, polyester etc etc. At the budget end of the market there is recycled chopped carpet and underlay – it’s called all sorts of brand names, but its quite simply recycled chopped used carpet. The main pitfall with this stuff is about what actually is in it – the answer is: Whatever the recycling centre was processing that week before it was shipped to you.
So it could have natural fibres in that rot or synthetic ones that lack tensile strength – meaning your surface deteriorates over time. At the better end of the market there are fibres that are 100% polyester – meaning they don’t rot and you get many years of consistent riding. The fibres are ultimately there for a few simple reasons: To stabilise and firm up the sand. And to add structure and energy return. The very best sand and fibre surfaces are springy, allowing the hoof and joint to perform the movement without jarring or twisting and where the hoof penetrates only the top half inch of surface – just like natural turf.
There is currently an ongoing study by the University of Central Lancashire that is impact-testing all the main fibre surface brands – but whilst we await those results it’s telling that most top competition organisers and many leading professional riders all choose sand and fibre surfaces to compete and train on.
Arena wax is used in conjunction with a sand-based surface – it won’t stabilise sand itself – rather is used as a binder to help sand and additives stay together. It can also offer a degree of cold resistance, as it’s the water content in a surface that freezes, not the components themselves. The London 2012 surface was a waxed surface – and the wax is useful where the user wants to not have to irrigate – especially in indoor arenas, and where water is metered. Because the wax is a dust inhibitor – the surfaces are useful where dust sensitivity in the horse could be an issue. The main drawback is cost – a waxed surface costs considerably more, but the benefits could make it worth spending the extra.
In conclusion – there is plenty the FEI study can help owners, riders and those interested in equine health make an informed choice (you can read it for yourself at http://www.fei.org/ system/files/Equine%20Surfaces%20White%20Paper.pdf) However in the meantime,
whilst more research is being done – consider what surface materials offers the most consistency, longevity, quality and firmness of ride and cushioning for the joints - buy the best surface you can afford, and put it on a well-constructed free draining base - the long-term rewards will be felt by both the horse, and your pocket.
Toby Elford is the UK Sales Manager at Leisure Ride Group, a leading provider of arena surfaces.
For more information or if you have any questions relating to this article please contact Ross or Toby.