A horse’s gait is described as a coordinated pattern of movement, that is repeated to form a stride.
During each stride, the leg goes through three distinct phases: landing, loading and breakover. As we learn more about each of these phases, we’ll see how key surface characteristics, such as firmness, cushioning, cupping, responsiveness and grip can greatly impact the health of a horse’s bones and joints. Understanding the relationship between a horse’s locomotion and the riding arena surface is important, especially when deciding which type of footing will be most suitable for you and your horse.
Phase One: Landing
The very first phase of a horse’s stride is when the hoof makes initial contact with the ground.
As the hoof lands, it slides forwards and downwards into the surface – absorbing the weight of the horse and rider, before coming to a momentary stop.
This halt in the movement causes the bones in the horse’s leg to collide, generating impact shockwaves and vibrations that travel through the ground, hoof and leg.
Phase Two: Loading
The loading phase of a stride occurs when the horse’s hoof is in full contact with the ground.
As the weight of the horse and rider is loaded onto the leg, it generates a significant amount of force that is absorbed by the horse’s fetlock joint and tendons. As downward pressure is applied to the hoof, it expands laterally at the heel and the frog is compressed down against the surface.
This begins a cycle commonly known as Hoof Mechanism, which helps to stimulate circulation by pumping venous blood from the hoof capsule, up the leg and back to the body.
Phase Three: Breakover
The third and final stage of a stride is when the horse’s heel rotates off the ground and rolls over onto the toe.
As the heel pivots off the surface, the hoof contracts back to its original shape and pressure under the frog is relieved; allowing arterial blood to circulate from the leg into the hoof capsule, which completes the Hoof Mechanism cycle.
The foot then pushes off from the surface, into a stage of suspension, before beginning the next stride sequence.
The Role of Arena Surfaces
Now we have a better understanding of how the horse moves and interacts with the ground, we can appreciate how important it is to select the right arena footing.
An ideal equestrian surface should allow the horse to transition safely and efficiently, through each phase of the stride, with no loss of momentum or energy. All riding arena surfaces possess distinct characteristics that help to determine how well the footing will perform when ridden on. These characteristics are: firmness, cushioning, cupping, responsiveness and grip.
Characteristic One: Firmness
The firmness or hardness of a riding arena surface will affect how much support is given to the horse upon landing and determine how well impact shock forces are dispersed throughout the footing.
Compacted or firm surfaces provide the horse with a high level of support but lack the ability to dampen impact forces sufficiently. Instead, these shockwaves are absorbed by the horse’s bones and joints, increasing the risk of concussion related injuries.
Surfaces that are too soft or loose, absorb impact shock forces well but lack support. This type of footing can cause the horse to work harder; wasting important energy, negatively impacting respiration and increasing the risk of tendon and ligament related injuries, such as over-extension.
Ideally, your chosen riding surface should be firm enough to offer the horse a high level of support, but soft enough to minimise concussion by absorbing impact shock forces well.
Characteristic Two: Cushioning
Cushioning is the characteristic that determines how well shock forces are absorbed by the surface during the loading phase of a stride.
A hard surface lacks cushion and is therefore unable to provide the horse with adequate shock absorption, which helps to relieve stress when weight is loaded onto the leg.
In comparison, a soft or deep arena surface has too much cushion, making the footing unstable. As the surface shifts under the hoof, the horse is forced to work harder for balance and support, which can often lead to inflammation of the leg’s soft tissues and other injuries.
A surface that has a good amount of cushioning will distribute shock forces effectively, support the sole of the hoof and provide the horse with enough resistance to balance and transition smoothly into the breakover phase.
Characteristic Three: Cupping
Cupping is an important characteristic that not only determines how well the sole of the hoof is supported, but also directly influences Hoof Mechanism.
Firm or overly compacted surfaces will prevent the horse’s foot from penetrating down into the surface. As a result, the sole of the hoof has minimal contact with the ground and Hoof Mechanism, which is most effective when the frog is completely compressed against the surface, is hindered.
A soft arena surface will mould or cup around the hoof but does not provide enough pressure under the foot, to maximise Hoof Mechanism. If Hoof Mechanism is hindered, the amount of blood flowing through the foot will be reduced, which can damage the hoof capsule and may lead to diseases such as Laminitis or Navicular Syndrome.
Your riding arena surface should therefore be soft enough to cup around the sole and collateral groves of the foot, but firm enough to achieve Hoof Mechanism.
Characteristic Four: Responsiveness
This characteristic affects how well energy is returned to the horse as the surface rebounds back to its original form.
An excessively hard or firm surface will return energy too quickly, creating additional shock vibrations that are absorbed by the horse’s bones and joints.
Surfaces that ride deep will rebound energy too slowly, forcing the horse to use its own energy to push out of the surface, increasing the strain on muscles and respiratory system.
An ideal surface, which is active and springy, should return energy back to the horse at the same rate that it was applied; reducing the horse’s need to use its own energy for momentum, preventing injuries, strain and fatigue.
Characteristic Five: Grip
Grip is a key characteristic that is determined by the overall tightness of the arena surface.
During landing, an overly compacted or tight surface will provide the horse with too much grip, which stops the hoof suddenly, instead of allowing it to slide forwards and downwards into the surface. As a result, the horse’s range of motion is restricted, and the risk of concussion to the bones and joints is increased. A tight footing will also increase strain on the horse’s leg during breakover, as the toe is unable to rotate down into the surface.
In comparison, a loose surface doesn’t have enough grip and allows the hoof to slide more than it should, causing the horse to strain or over-extend vital tendons and ligaments. This type of footing will also offer reduced grip during breakover; instead of pushing off the surface, the hoof sinks into it, decreasing propulsion into the next stride.
A surface with the right amount of grip should allow the hoof to slide slightly on landing, without over-extending the leg. The surface should also provide enough stability during breakover, for the horse to push off into the next stride with no loss of momentum or energy.
A horse’s stride is a complex series of movement, with three distinct phases: landing, loading and breakover.
Every stride the horse takes is influenced by how the hoof interacts with the footing. All equestrian surfaces possess five key characteristics: firmness, cushioning, cupping, responsiveness and grip. These characteristics, if not correctly balanced, can affect the overall performance of the horse and cause serious injuries to bones, tendons and ligaments.
An ideal riding surface should provide enough firmness to support the horse during all three phases of the stride, whilst also being soft enough to absorb and disperse impact shock. The surface should also ‘cup’ the hoof correctly on loading, actively return energy back to the horse and provide enough grip to prevent slips and falls.
If you’re unsure about which type of footing is most suitable for you and your horse, our experienced team are here to help. Simply give us a call on 0800 044 810 or complete our online contact form, and a member of the team will be in touch.