Anyone born after 1980 is unlikely to recall what it was like to school and compete exclusively on grass horse arena footing. But riders of any age, know someone who knows someone with horror-stories and an amenity we all take for granted – synthetic horse arena footing and the base on which it is installed.
Sadly, both in the UK, where I worked at the cutting edge of footings in both equestrian and racing for 20 years, Europe and the USA, customer-care has languished alarmingly behind technology. As the customer is largely uneducated in this area, he is easy pickings for the “chancer”. It is an industry that attracts too many individuals from a construction background who feel arena construction and footing is not rocket science and easy to get into.
Tales abound of arenas that fail promptly, with chunks of membrane working their way to the top within months, or attracting enough surface water to delight a family of ducks!
I cannot remember a week when the UK headquarters of Martin Collins has not been asked to do remedial work on another supplier’s failed installation, the client having been stranded once the bill was paid.
Equally, when elite riders are understandably fussier about surfaces at competitions, upon which they are asked to produce their multi-million pound steeds, no-one yet is demanding a blueprint across top FEI shows.
Horse Arena Footings Should be Standardized
If anything should be standardized, it surely would be horse arena footings. Aside from the potential financial loss, a “dead” footing with minimal energy can harm your horses’ limbs and tendons – a situation may be worsened by the fact the rider often works the horse for longer sessions, mistakenly believing the new footing is doing it 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 but 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 one-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.
Surface quality is one thing and may be harder to legislate; that should be led by the International Equestrian Federation (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 is 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.
In April 2014, the FEI published the world’s most extensive study into the effect of arena surfaces on the orthopedic 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 centers and two horse charities in Sweden, the UK and United States. The white paper brings 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 analyzing the physical properties of the specific brands.
Dr Murray did however, highlight that wax-coated surfaces are less likely to cause un-soundness 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.
Our industry has changed dramatically over the past 20 years, base construction has become more precise and the manufacture of footing more sophisticated and technical. Constructors and manufacturers alike should have one common goal and that is to build an arena that will stand the test of time with a footing that will allow the horse to work to the best of its ability with the least amount of stress and strain.
Members of our industry must be willing to come together and be enthusiastic to see the formation of a professional governing body whose responsibility it would be to create standards and bring them into effect. This governing body could surely be made up with representatives from existing established, reputable companies thereby drawing on expertise already available to us.
This is a subject that has long been talked about without any positive action being taken. It would initially require collaboration from several leading companies to come forward but I fear that here lies the rub … who else is willing to stand up and be counted?
CEO, Martin Collins USA