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From the Ground Up – 10 years of exploring surfacesAugust 2013

Researcher Dr. Jeff ThomasonThe idea of one perfect training surface for all horses does not hold water. Over the past ten years, University of Guelph researcher, Jeff Thomason has been covering a great deal of ground studying a multitude of different riding surfaces. Patterns and contrasts are becoming apparent providing a bigger picture to answer the question of ‘what can be done to optimize surfaces in order to reduce sports injuries?’

As Equine Guelph’s Functional Anatomy instructor, Thomason has no trouble explaining the many contributing factors that can cause injury to a horse such a conformation. His surface studies take a detailed look at the interaction of the hoof with the ground and the shock and forces acting on the horse’s leg. In the first five years of data collection (using sensors to record strain and shock), Thomason developed a really good feel for the issues related with footing. “Comparing traction, cushion, slip and slide on various types of footing across different disciplines is creating a picture that hangs together well,” explains Thomason. The results of these studies stand to benefit horse facility owners trying to choose the right surface for their operation. Designers of surfaces have shown interest in, and some support for, this research.

“Each surface has its own characteristic effect,” says Thomason. The challenge is coming up with footing solutions that meet the demands of each discipline while prioritizing injury prevention. What works for a private boarding barn will not necessarily stand up to the compaction from many hooves at a busy training centre. The need for cushion in a surface is a similarity shared across all disciplines to reduce the chance of concussion injuries. Frequency of harrowing to maintain cushion is directly related to the amount of use a surface sustains.

Another collective requirement is the need for a consistent surface. Consistent moisture content is ideal but can prove challenging in climates that experience freezing and thawing. Moisture content can also change throughout the day as the sun effects the surface. Consistency is also key when it comes to grip, slip and slide. When you start to look at different disciplines and the assortment of footings utilized, the variances become apparent.

Thomason’s studies to date have looked at thoroughbred and standardbred tracks and a number of show jumping surfaces. When it comes to thoroughbred surfaces, Thomason explains that turf is generally good but wet turf and longer grass can pose problems when it comes to the amount of grip. Bowed tendons, carpal problems and going back at the knee are a few injuries that can occur when there is too much slide. Of course, the effect of a race track surface is just one small part of a much bigger equation of cause and effect and exertion injuries can occur due to the horse running at maximum capacity. The surface interacting with amount of exertion can make it more or less dangerous.

Thomason has also observed relatively strong grip in wax-based artificial surfaces. Grip is really good for traction but does not always allow for enough slide at the beginning of the stance. For example, it is possible for a horse to fracture a tibia while turning if the grip of the surface does not allow for sideways rotation. This is not a problem found on standardbred tracks which tend to allow for slip and traction quite nicely but tend to come up short on cushion. Thomason emphasizes the amount of concussion on impact is way too much on standardbred track surfaces. The challenge is to strike a balance that will reduce concussion and still allow the pulling of the sulky cart. Thomason states, “Concussion should come down between 50 – 80% to reduce related injuries.” Bruising of the feet is common in this sport and a common practice among trainers is to use a shock absorbing shoe. Thomason recounts the practices of one astute trainer who pays close attention to the condition of his horse’s feet through careful inspection between races. He takes the shoes off to have a look and decides on a future racing schedule from there.

In the eight types of jumper arenas studied, Thomason found certain footing was good at cushioning impact but had too much or too little slip. Others had good slip characteristics but were horrible at cushioning impact. In a side study where riders were asked to comment on how the surfaces felt; it was noted that riders could detect subtle differences such as cushion but not slip and slide. Similar to the thoroughbred surfaces; finding the right amount of grip and slip proved important. Firm footing is required for take-off and landing at the jumps but there still needs to be a bit of slip especially when it comes to turning questions. Exercises involving mid-air turns put a huge amount of torque on the lower limbs. Thomason explains the subluxation of the pastern joint which can be witnessed using high speed video; “the long and short pastern can actually pop out and back in again.” Horse’s legs are not well designed for sideways torque.

The next step in Thomason’s research will start to look at correlations between surface types and injuries. A direct link is recognized between forces and impact on the hoof and the resulting tissue or bone damage. Thomason explains, “It is harder to measure stresses and strains higher up the leg.” These studies will require a long term commitment following the participants. Stay tuned for what is afoot as research continues on optimal riding surfaces.

Funding for this project has been provided by private donation. Funding for the research mentioned in this article has been provided by one or more of the following agencies: Equine Guelph, Footing First, Grayson Jockey Club and Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC).

Choosing a Footing
  • -Research your options and gather references from your colleagues

    -Discuss your needs with a professional footing designer and be prepared to modify your own opinions according to their advice

    -Follow recommended maintenance schedules as discussed with the manufacturer

    -Customize your surface to your discipline, climate and amount of use