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Informative articles or videos on anything equine related.

Tags: Equine DYI, Horse know-how, How-to

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Horse Massage - Get Hands On

Here is how you can connect with your horse through horse massage to make him a healthier, happier athlete.

Credit: HorseMassageSalSalvetti

It is time to look at horse massage in a different way. Too many people think of this type of equine therapy as inaccessible--an expensive luxury that few can afford, often reserved for the international-level competitor. While many understand the benefits of horse massage work, not everyone can afford horse massage every day, week or even every month. I want to tell you what you can do to help your horse is already at the ends of your arms and in your grooming kit. The cost is the price of a hoofpick and curry comb. The time is as little as a few minutes a day. The benefits are potentially endless, including a healthier horse and improved work under saddle. Most importantly, you will connect with him on a level that is impossible any other way.

Before we begin, I want to be clear about our goals for this work. This article will teach you to feel how your horse reacts to pressure and stretching in a more in-depth way. I will give you the tools to assess what feels normal and what does not on a regular basis. What this article will not do is turn you into a do-it-yourself professional masseuse. I don't expect you to identify each and every muscle by name by the end or professionally assess and treat all of your horse's muscle problems.

Consider this an unmounted variation of what you are already striving for every time you ride: connecting completely with your horse. Imagine the harmony between a top horse and rider during their best rides. My goals are also to improve the horse's performance, but the most enjoyable and rewarding moments are when I completely connect with him in the process. Another similarity between massage and riding is that you can use a professional massage therapist as you do your dressage trainer for the work we are discussing?at certain points, it might be helpful to work with him more frequently to get a better understanding. Other times, your therapist might come in to give a tune-up to your horse and give you a more in-depth look at how things are going or provide more profound physiological results. When you do have him out, don't be afraid to discuss your horse's status. Ask for personalized tips on how to work on your horse between sessions, related to what your horse is currently dealing with. In the end, all of the information you gain will only add to your toolbox and make you more aware of how you can help your horse.

Develop a Game Plan

The goal in all of this work is to explore your whole horse from head to tail. Take your time on this, and don't be afraid to ask a massage therapist or vet if you have questions. From the first time you do this, you are learning more about your horse and also identifying possible red flags to keep an eye on. As you prepare to start your first massage on your horse, you will need these items:

1. Your hands?make sure your
fingernails are clipped!

2. A hoofpick with a blunt handle that you will use in a specific exercise.

3. Any curry combs you might have in various sizes and shapes that will be used in various ways.

4. A printout of an outline of a horse from multiple angles and a highlighter pen. Many massage therapists use these during their sessions to mark/highlight when they hit a reactive point.

Here is how to use your tools: Put your horse in a location where you are most comfortable grooming him. You can try the crossties or, in my opinion, proceed more safely in his stall (where he's probably most comfortable and calm). I almost never work on a horse outside his stall. But with regard to making this choice, and throughout these exercises, you must use your best judgement as a horseperson. Remember, all horses have the potential to bite or kick as a reaction to palpation?even your sweet, middle-aged gelding who has never done anything wrong. So be cautious and prepared.

Step 1?Familiarize yourself with your pressure techniques: Let's begin work at your horse's neck. This is a great place to first practice all your pressure techniques because it is not threatening and you are in a relatively safe place.

Start with pressure from the pads of your fingertips. Using the pads of your fingers, apply a superficial (light) pressure to your horse with a
supporting second hand over the first. Layering your hands allows them to share the workload and prevent stress on your fingers. Make sure that any time you use your fingers on your horse, your fingernails are not digging into him.

Using the notion that the horse's muscle fibers generally are in the direction of the hair growing over them, apply your pressure in the direction of his neck hair with your finger-pad pressure.

As you start to work with your horse, notice how he responds to this superficial pressure. Try applying more pressure so you gradually build to a medium and then a deep pressure. It is important to interpret your horse's reactions from your massage and this begins with knowing what to expect. When your massage feels good to your horse he will give you subtle signs. He might start to lean into your pressure and try to groom you. He might extend his muzzle out and start to groom the wall. You might notice his breathing getting softer, his heart rate slowing or a general feeling that your horse is more supple to your hand.

On the other hand, if your horse feels pain or soreness, the signs are usually more obvious. He might move away from you, start to get an uneasy look in his eyes or tense his body. In more extreme cases, he might try to bite, kick, rear, strike or buck. Additionally, his muscles might start to spasm.

As you notice him have any type of larger response to certain pressure, it is most important to know that just because a horse is reactive does not mean he is sore. For example, while he might react to being touched on his neck (or later, on the rest of his body) that does not mean he is in pain. Soreness is pain that the horse feels in a specific activity and it needs to be addressed. While a sore horse will be reactive, a reaction to touch doesn't mean that point is sore. When you get a massage and a point hurts, that is reactive. If it doesn't affect your everyday performance, then it is not sore. What you can do with this information is notice how your horse reacts on either side of his neck. Does he react much more when you apply superficial pressure on the upper part of his neck, or on the left versus the right? Take that information and don't assume your horse is sore, but do note the difference. If you are concerned by the reaction, you can always call your vet to ask for a professional opinion. Regardless of what you feel, mark your printout with your highlighter to note reactivity.

Now that you are more familiar with using the pads of your fingertips, it is time to try out theheel of your palm as well. In the same direction of the hair, place the palm of your hand against your horse's neck. Use the side of your second hand (in the shape of a fist) on top of the firstcasino games to apply a medium amount of pressure to direct the first hand. This reduces fatigue and stress on your hands to use both together. Does this different pressure get a different reaction from your horse? Do you get more reaction when you go across the hair? This is a good time to start to see what feels best on your hands because not all techniques are best for everyone (or their horses).

Now try another type of pressure that can be superficial and heavy: thumb pressure. Apply your thumb to your horse and hook your other hand around it in a supportive way. By sharing the pressure with both hands, you can support that one finger and dictate the amount of pressure more easily. Again, note any reactions from this type of pressure and what is most comfortable on your hands and your horse.

Step 2?Apply your pressure techniques to the rest of your horse: Working your way down to your horse's shoulder, continue trying out the various techniques for applying pressure. Note how your horse reacts and write it down on your printout.

The introduction of deeper pressure in the shoulder area might be the first place you see some bigger reactions from a horse that is currently in work. Some people are quick to say that if you put deeper pressure in the left shoulder, and he steps away or starts to move his skin as if a fly is on it, then he is sore. Sometimes a horse's skin will move if your pressure is too light (and tickling him) or too deep. Either way, it is irritating him. Just because the left shoulder is reactive does not always mean the horse is sore and needs medical attention. However, what it always means is information. Perhaps performance has not been affected yet. By massaging your horse frequently, you will learn to understand what reaction is typical in your horse and what is new and probably represents soreness.

Return to your superficial pressure techniques as you work your way to your horse's torso and toward his tail. In the case of the rib area, the pressure technique you choose should be very superficial and refined in how much area you are covering. Thumb pressure is a great technique to achieve this.

Now work your way over his back and down to his hind end. As with grooming, don't massage as hard in the less-meatier areas like the shoulder. Notice how your horse reacts to pressure with and across the hair (muscle fibers).

Step 3?Use your tools: Return again to your horse's neck for safety's sake and try your grooming tools. They can give you a new way to apply pressure and might feel easier, especially if you have hand or wrist problems.

The curry comb: There are two ways to use the curry comb:

1. Use the edge as an extension of your fingers to give you a deep pressure.

2. The curry used flat, as during grooming, can give a more shallow pressure. This is a good approach to create compression (straight, repetitive pressure without leaving the horse) and friction (pressure across the muscle fibers and hair). Try different curry combs because a plastic one with short teeth can give a very different feel from a rubber one with long teeth.

Now continue on to other parts of your horse's body, excluding his legs. The rule of thumb is don't use pressure where you wouldn't curry your horse. Trust your gut and your years of experience around horses to know where you can apply various amounts of pressure and where it is safe to stand around your particular horse. Always err on the side of caution.

The hoofpick: Consider the blunt end of the hoof pick instead of your fingers only when asking for a low-back flexion (when you apply pressure in a line down your horse's hamstring to ask for him to lift his back). Apply the pressure gradually and avoid abrupt pressure. If you are not familiar with asking for a low-back flexion, I highly recommend having a vet or massage therapist show you this exercise in person.

Once you have a general idea of how your horse reacts to various types of pressure, keep track of changes over the course of several days and weeks on additional copies of your printout. For example, when you apply flat curry pressure to your horse's right shoulder on the third day, do you notice him react more sensitively than he did on the first day? Maybe your horse seemed reactive in his back when you applied palm pressure the first day, but now he is not. The most important thing is you are taking note of his typical reaction and how it changes. From that point, you can use that information to see how that translates to his being sore. Maybe he is reactive (steps away, tries to bite or kick out, flinches, etc.) because you are pressing too hard. Perhaps he was just at a long show or demanding clinic weekend. Does the reactivity continue the next day? Don't be afraid to call your vet and talk about what you are feeling. Communicate with your massage therapist, trainer, barn manager and farrier, etc. as you start to identify information they can help you with. The key is to know your horse better than you did before and connect with him in an even deeper way.

Using a Snaffle Bridle in FEI Tests

Barbi Breen-Gurley explains why you might choose to use a snaffle bridle in FEI-level tests

Dusty Perin
Credit: Dusty Perin 
The snaffle bridle is extremely useful for a horse’s true connection back to front and his lateral flexibility. If he is solid in his acceptance of the snaffle, he can compete in it in the national tests up to Grand Prix level.

Can I Use a Snaffle Bridle in FEI-Level Tests?

I’m planning on showing Prix St. Georges this year but would like to do it in a snaffle bit as my horse backs off the double bridle. Also, why should I use a double bridle when I have reached this level using a simple snaffle bit? What are your thoughts on riding at the FEI level using a snaffle bridle?

Barbi Breen-Gurley

First of all, congratulations on training your horse to the Prix St. Georges level. Many dressage horses don’t ever reach this level. Currently, in national competitions it is legal to compete at the FEI levels using a snaffle bit. Throughout the years, I have had some Grand Prix horses who preferred the snaffle bridle to the double bridle, and I am personally glad that this rule is in effect, as it can ease the transition to the higher levels. If your goal is only to compete in national tests—excluding CDI competitions, where the double bridle is required—there really is no need to push forward to find a solution to acceptance of a double bridle.

Through the numerous horses I’ve trained up through the different levels of dressage, I’ve grown to appreciate the individual strengths and weaknesses of each one. Some horses have the movement to die for, but maintaining soundness creates a challenge. Some horses learn extremely fast, but are too distracted by environmental changes. Some perform the upper-level movements easily, but fuss with a soft acceptance of the double bridle. Physical anatomy, previous experiences, trainability, character and innate sensitivity all have an effect on how each horse accepts new things. Some horses find a smooth connection to the snaffle or double bridle with confidence and ease. Others may find acceptance of even the snaffle bridle a challenge. We are fortunate that so many bit variations are available today, giving us many choices in our attempts to find the right bit for each horse. The height, width, shape and size of the port and shanks as well as harmony with the snaffle all play a part in each horse accepting the bit with comfort. If this is your horse’s “pea under the mattress,” and you want to find a solution, you’ll have to go through a lot of trial and error to find the right fit.

If your horse is solid in his acceptance of the snaffle bridle, the required collection and engagement, suppleness, power and adjustability can be daily improved through its use. This should be the bottom line upon which you present the exercises required at the Prix St. George level. The snaffle bridle is extremely useful for your horse’s true connection back to front and his lateral flexibility. And as previously stated, your horse can stay in the snaffle bridle and compete in the national tests up to Grand Prix level.

If your intention is to help your horse accept the double without resistance, you can gradually substitute the double bridle every few rides and try to attain the same quality of work. In your practice sessions, leave the curb rein looser and use a rubber or leather chain cover to soften the chain’s effect.

When introducing the double bridle, or if your horse is anxious about it, try using it on mellow trail rides. If your horse is reluctant to move out to it, have his teeth checked by an equine dentist, as sharp edges may be causing discomfort. The size of your horse’s mouth, the height of his palate and the height of his tongue all could be contributing to the bit not fitting the mouth properly.

Your goal really will determine which path to take. If your goal is to compete in international FEI-sanctioned shows, you must overcome your horse’s resistance to the double bridle. Even if competing in CDIs is not your goal, perhaps finding a solution to helping your horse accept the double bridle with confidence can be your goal outside of competition. At the end of the day, a happy horse is the reward we all seek, regardless of which path the rider chooses.

Unfortunately, this is as close as I am going to get to a horsie these days

This is Peeps, Long Haired German Shepherd young lady ~1 year.

Oh, what a great picture. LLL!

And Peeps is pretty attractive too! :>)

Keep on slippin' in any animal photos you'd like. This may be a horse group, but I certainly don't discriminate! And, heck--for quite a while now it's just been you, me, and Carol here, and I'm sure she wouldn't mind.

Did you get Peeps from a shelter?  She's a real beauty!!

Someone dumped her and three more GSs in out neighborhood. They were getting water and some food from different homes, but no one would get near them because, "They're too big."

\My wife finally told me they were at her girlfriends house a couple of door away and to see what I could do. I managed to leash two of them.  Took them to Vet, cleaned'em up and gave them necessary shots. They were not chip'd but both were neutered. Spent the rest of the day in the pool with them playing ball. German Shepherd Rescue out of Long Beach wanted the older dog, I adopted Peeps.

How totally wonderful of you and your wife!

So many people are, as you say, fearful of stray animals or just don't want to bother giving the time, love, and money. It's a shame how many animals never have homes--or worse.

Every pet I've ever had, save the first, was a rescue. I also took care of a pride of feral cats for 10 years, where I live now, until they were all gone through finding homes or death. Unfortunately, most of them had FELV or Feline AIDS. 

Thank you for helping lovely Peeps and her friend. They're two of the lucky ones. 

Riding and Judging an FEI Freestyle

Janet Foy explains points that need to be considered by judge and rider.

Credit: SusanJStickle.com
Kya Endreson and Pik L’s top Junior freestyle proved the importance of focusing on your horse’s strengths.

After judging the top 15 Junior freestyles and watching the best 15 Young Rider freestyles at the North American Junior Young Rider Championships (NAJYRC) in Lexington, Kentucky, I thought an article on this topic would be helpful. I am happy to say that over the years the quality of the technical performance, music and choreography has greatly improved at this championship. However, there are some points that need to be considered for both the judge and the rider.


Usually in my series, I divide the riding and the judging, but in this article (and the next one, which will cover USEF/USDF-level freestyles), I want to keep the thoughts together since they are so closely related.


 Technical Side of the Score Sheet


The judge will give you scores on the left side just as he would for a technical test. A word to riders and choreographers here however. Be sure you consider where you will be riding your freestyle. If showing only at a national show with one judge, then make sure the choreography is clear for the judge at C. If you plan to go to the USDF/USEF Regional Championships, then you need to consider how the choreography will look to the side judge as well. At a CDI with five judges, you need to think about the majority of the judges at the short end as well as make sure the movements are clear to the two judges on the long sides. 


As a judge, if I am not sure what you are doing, I will assume it might be an extended canter for example. I will tell my scribe to put a question mark in the box for the extended canter score. At the end of the ride, if there are no other scores in that box, I will give the rider a 4 with the comment “not obvious” and deduct .5 in the choreography, as this required movement was not placed in a pattern that was clear.


If your horse is a bit green at the level of the freestyle you are showing, then make the movements easier by riding longer lines and not putting too many movements together quickly. If your horse is more advanced and you can technically perform more difficult movements sequenced together, then do it. 


 Location, Location


Let’s discuss where to place some of your movements. First, remember that extensions look best on a long, straight line. If you plan a medium trot or canter on a circle, do it after you have done your extension so you don’t confuse the judge. I suggest for the FEI freestyles that you don’t do this at all. Don’t waste your time and choreography on non-required movements. Also avoid rein-backs, as they create an interruption in the flow of the freestyle ride. Only use walk pirouettes and half pirouettes as a way to interpret your music or string freestyle movements together, not as separate movements. 


Extended canter always looks best coming toward the C end. For maximum impact and to let the judges see the ground cover, do the extended canter on a diagonal. If you do two, then do one on a diagonal and one on centerline. I can guarantee the front end coming toward the three judges at the short side will score higher than those same judges seeing mostly the rear end and the hind legs. Ditto for the extended trot.


Half pass is another movement that also looks better coming toward the judge(s) at the short end. I recently judged a test where all the trot and canter half passes were away from C. I don’t understand this. Mix them up and try to have one in each direction toward the short end.


Judges are usually pretty smart, and if you hide the collected walk down at the A end and do it away from all the judges, we usually know there is a problem with the rhythm. However, if you can’t see the problem, you can’t lower the score. On the flip side, if you can’t see the movement, you can’t reward it either. So if your horse has an 8 extended walk, do a long line up in the top end of the arena and make sure all the judges see it and can reward it.


 The Artistic Side


The first two scores are really related to the technical side of the test. The first score would be the gaits and impulsion score and the second score would be the submission and rider score. These should relate to the scores on the left side. So judges, if you look quickly over to the left side and you have all 6s there, then a good reflection of that would be a 6.5/6 if there were some submission issues, perhaps lack of left bend, for example. If you as a judge felt there was a lack of impulsion or perhaps a lack of correct balance, then you might have those scores reversed, as a 6/6.5.


If there were half 7s and half 6s, then you would have about a 65 percent on the left side and your first two scores on the right side should reflect that (7/6.5, for example).




A rider needs to think about her horse’s strengths here. If a horse bends better to the right and has more lateral reach to the right, then do a short half pass left to a longer, more difficult half pass right. Try not to do the same half-pass patterns at trot and canter. 


Try to be creative and use the second track or quarterlines for your shoulder-in, etc. Try not to stay on the rail all the time. Avoid using the same patterns that are found in the test. Instead, find new ways to string movements together. A caution here however: Make sure you ride each movement for a long enough time that the judge(s) can recognize it and give you a score. Also make sure all five judges in a CDI have a clear view of the movement. 


Don’t overdo a movement either. If you think the highlight of your horse’s work is his extended trot, then do two of them. Five is overdone, and the judge should lower the choreography score for this. Balance is the key.


Try to avoid circles—they are boring. Half circles, which help develop another movement, are OK. If your horse is capable, string the movements together. For example: half pass left to shoulder-in right; extended canter to pirouette.


Be sure for all FEI freestyles to read the FEI rules. Make sure you have the required number of straight canter strides before and after your canter pirouettes. For example, Junior freestyles allow only a half-pirouette in walk, not a full-pirouette. Know the difference between counter change of hand (two half passes) and a zig zag (three or more), which are not allowed at some levels. 


Judges, it is also of utmost importance for you to know the rules. I remember one time a Junior had ridden only the one required freestyle to qualify for Young Riders. The USEF “S” judge gave the rider a very high score and said it was very difficult. When that same rider came to NAJYRC with an FEI panel, this same test received many deductions, as many of the movements were not allowed under FEI rules. This is devastating to the child and also makes judges look foolish. 


When judging, I use a plus (+) and minus (-) system in this box as well as in the difficulty and music box. For interesting patterns, movements strung together for example, I would add a plus for each item I found interesting. Then, at the end of the test, my base score is 6 (which is test-like and using the rail most of the time); I would go up, perhaps .5 for each plus.



Credit: SusanJStickle.com
Meagan Davis’ top Young Rider freestyle music matched her mount, Bentley.

Degree of Difficulty


The plus-and-minus system works well for this, too. So, for example, if the rider did a longer angle in the half pass than was required in the test, I would add a plus in this box. If the rider tries something difficult but fails, then I would add a minus. At the end of the test, I can quickly see how much more difficult the test was than the technical test of the same level. So, if the freestyle had only the same difficulty as the technical test (no pluses), I would put 6.5 here. If there were more flying changes than required or if they were done on a curved line, for example, and they were done well, there would be a plus here in difficulty and also a plus in choreography, and the scores would go up. 


Remember judges and riders: The difficulty box and choreography box will be related when it is time to decide scores. If the choreography is confusing or not clear, the difficulty box will also be affected. A test-like ride will give you a base score in both boxes no matter how technically well you performed the movements.




Again, I use the plus-and-minus system. I use 7 as my base score. If the music goes with the walk, trot and canter, I will stay with my base score. If there is interpretation and highlights with the movements, I will go up. If the rider gets ahead or behind the music, I will go down. If the rider hits all the marks in the music, I will go up. Bad edits will lower the score. Music that is not recorded at the same volume (i.e., very loud trot music and quiet canter music) will also lower the score.


Try to find music that will highlight your type of horse. If he is very light-footed, don’t ride to something powerful like Wagner. If your horse is a draft cross, don’t use Tinker Bell music. The judge is not supposed to score the music on whether he likes it or not. Judges need to decide if the music enhances the horse’s gaits and adds to the performance.


I have also seen many horses (remember, they have very sensitive hearing) overwhelmed and terrified with lots of clapping, drums or cymbals, as the rider wanted the music very loud. Please be considerate of your horse. Also remember that not every show has a good sound system. The system used at the show can slightly alter the tempo of your music as well. Make sure you take advantage of the sound check at the shows. 


Riding to music is fun and rewarding. For the judge to be good at freestyles he needs to judge a lot of them. Unfortunately, most shows only have only a few. Even in the international world, there is a lot of discussion about how to educate judges to score the artistic side correctly. It is an interesting discussion that I don’t think will be resolved any time soon. In the meantime, judges work on your education, and riders enjoy the chance to dance with your horse. 

Janet Foy is an FEI 4* and USEF “S” dressage judge and an “R” sporthorse breed judge. A member of the USEF international High Performance Dressage Committee, she also teaches judges’ training programs nationwide. Author of the book Dressage for the Not-So-Perfect Horse, she is based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

This is a Coffee update because he's now working with a behaviorist to overcome some fears that he has in the ring. so far I've been able to watch parts of 2 sessions and I understand that this week he's had two sessions so far. The behaviorist is using a combination of methods: operant conditioning and T-Touch. Yesterday she used mostly T-Touch methods especially the wand with a small flag attached. Since she is rewarding with treats for any incremental positive response, Coffee is paying close attention and he's calmer. Food always catches his attention! They have reached the point that she may get in the saddle tomorrow as opposed to just leaning across it stroking his right shoulder or putting her weight in the stirrup and keeping it there. He seems to be improving. 


That's GREAT to hear, Carol!!!  I'm so glad Coffee is getting help which will, hopefully, allow you to resume your productive partnership in the ring.

I remember attending clinics with Linda Tellington-Jones in the late 70s and thinking what a wonderful, compassionate way to relate to a horse--or any animal. It gave structure to what I and a few friends were trying to do on our own. I'm so happy to see that such a good thing has persisted and proliferated over the decades and is now touching Coffee.  Very cool. 

Footing and Horse Performance

The type of footing on which a horse performs strongly influences whether the animal has a long and productive career, or whether it has that career cut short because of unsoundness or injury. Footing also influences how well the horse performs. Bad footing often is equated with a poor performance, and good footing frequently is equated with a stellar performance. Unfortunately, with footing, it is not a case of one size fits all.

The type of competition has a bearing on footing. The jumper, for example, requires a surface that is more yielding than does the dressage horse. The reining horse needs a surface that allows it to perform its signature sliding stop, yet is firm enough that it can demonstrate its other moves -- figure-eights and spins. The cutting horse needs a surface that is relatively deep and forgiving as it makes sudden stops and hard turns. The list goes on.

Racetrack surfaces also vary. A typical Thoroughbred racetrack is far different than a typical harness track. Because of the tremendous concussion with each stride, the track on which a Thoroughbred runs must be relatively deep and yielding. The trotter and pacer travel at gaits that are far less concussive and, as a result, race on much harder surfaces.

If we are to understand the difference between good and bad surfaces, we must first understand exactly what happens when a horse travels over that surface.

Hilary M. Clayton, BVMS, PhD, MRCVS, holder of the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, has spent much of her professional life studying equine locomotion. (A problem she faced at this writing involved the type of footing to be selected at the state-of-the art equestrian center being constructed at Michigan State University.)

We turn over to Clayton the portion of the discussion involving the way in which a horse travels.

Stance Phase 
The stance phase is the period during which the hoof is in contact with the ground. The following parts of the stance phase can be recognized and measured or described during gait analysis -- initial ground contact, impact phase, loading phase, and breakover.

Initial Ground Contact 
The first contact of the hoof with the ground at the start of the stance phase is classified as heel first, flat-footed, or toe first. The manner of contact is influenced by gait, speed, farriery, and lameness. The hind limbs show a greater tendency for heel first contacts than the forelimbs. Heel first contacts occur more frequently during high-speed locomotion and when horses are trimmed with an upright hoof angle. The frequency of toe first contacts increases when the hoof is trimmed at an acute angle. In some movements, such as piaffe, toe first contacts are normal.

With certain types of lameness, the horse adopts an unusual gait as a means of reducing pain by shifting the loading away from the affected structures. The manner of initial ground contact is important because it affects the forces and accelerations applied to the limb during the subsequent impact phase.

Impact Phase 
This phase occupies the first 50 milliseconds (one-twentieth of a second) after the hoof contacts the ground. During this time, the limb undergoes rapid deceleration that causes a shock wave to travel up the horse's limb. The shock wave is characterized by high amplitude and a rapid vibration frequency. These characteristics are particularly damaging to the bones and joints, especially when they occur repeatedly, stride after stride, during locomotion. Prior to hoof contact with the ground, the muscles are pretensioned in accordance with the horse's expectation about how the surface will peel. The impact phase has such a short duration that there is insufficient time for the muscles to respond to unexpected changes in the surface in a manner that might protect bones and joints.

During the impact phase, the hoof is decelerated in both the vertical and horizontal directions. The fore hoof usually has a higher vertical velocity, but a lower horizontal velocity, than the hind hoof at the instant of ground contact. This might explain why there is greater concussion (defined as a combination of rapid oscillations and impulsive loading) and could be one reason for the higher incidence of chronic lameness in the forelimbs. As the shock wave travels upward through the bony column of the limb, it is attenuated (weakened) by flexion of the joint and deformation of the soft tissues.

The majority of injuries to the locomotor system occur not as a result of a single catastrophic incident, but as a consequence of the cumulative damage that occurs from the many strides taken during training and competition. Impact is the most damaging phase of the stride for the bones and joints. Factors that affect the amplitude or frequency of impact shock include speed, surface, and farriery. Faster speeds are associated with higher impact shock.

Horses which train and compete at speed often develop fatigue fractures or bone sclerosis as a consequence. Fatigue fractures are small fracture lines in bones (usually long bones) that have not adapted adequately to high-impact loading. Bone sclerosis represents over-adaptation, with the bone becoming excessively mineralized in response to high-impact loading.

A more chronic impact-related problem is degenerative joint disease, which is the most common reason for premature retirement of sport horses. The repeated traumatic effect of impact shock during years of training and competing is a primary factor in the development of degenerative joint disease, but the effects do not become apparent until permanent damage is present, and the horse becomes lame. Therefore, trainers must make every effort to reduce the effect of impact shock throughout the horse's career. This means working on good surfaces and taking care of hoof balance and shoeing.

Loading Phase 
Loading and unloading occupy the period from the end of the impact phase until breakover. During this phase, forces are applied more gradually than during impact, and without the rapid vibrations. In trotting horses, the vertical force increases steadily, peaking at midstance, after which there is a period of unloading. The longitudinal force retards the horse's forward motion during the loading phase and provides forward propulsion during unloading.

During the loading phase, the elastic structures that run down the back of the cannon region and over the fetlock are stretched. These structures, which include the deep and superficial digital flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament, store elastic energy as they lengthen.

Midstance of the forelimb occurs when the cannon segment is vertical, which corresponds with the time when the fetlock joint is maximally extended and the vertical force reaches its peak value. At midstance, the fetlock sinks to its lowest point and the joint is maximally extended. The magnitude of the peak vertical force determines the amount of fetlock joint extension.

After midstance, the vertical force declines steadily until the hoof leaves the ground. At the same time, the fetlock joint rises and flexes. During the unloading phase, tension in the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament is reduced, and they start to recoil elastically. The release of the elastic energy helps flex the distal (lower) limbs during the subsequent swing phase. The longitudinal force is propulsive during the unloading phase.

This begins when the heel leaves the ground and starts rotating over the toe of the hoof, which is still in contact with the ground. Breakover is initiated by tension in the distal check ligament acting through the deep digital flexor tendon, combined with tension in the navicular ligaments.

On a hard surface, the hoof remains flat on the ground until heel liftoff. On a softer surface, the toe rotates into the surface prior to heel liftoff, which reduces tension on the distal check ligament, deep digital flexor tendon, and navicular ligaments. This, in turn, reduces pressure in the navicular region. Therefore, a surface that allows the toe to dig in during push-off usually is beneficial, especially for horses with navicular syndrome or other types of caudal heel pain. Toe liftoff is the instant when the toe leaves the ground, after which the elastic tendons and ligaments are able to recoil and flex the joints.

Swing Phase 
In the swing phase, the limb is initially protracted (pulled forward) then, in the final part of the swing phase, it is retracted (pulled backward) prior to initial ground contact. The purpose of this "swing phase retraction" is to reduce the horizontal velocity between the hoof and ground at initial ground contact. The swing phase retraction has a considerably longer duration in the forelimbs than in the hind limbs, and this explains why the horizontal velocity is lower in the forelimb than the hindlimb at ground contact.

During the swing phase, the limbs act in a pendulum-like manner. The forelimb rotates with its pivot point in the upper part of the scapula. Since horses do not have a clavicle or a shoulder girdle, the whole scapula is free to rotate back and forth on the side of the chest wall. The hind limb rotates around the hip joint in the walk and trot and around the lumbosacral joint (just in front of the croup) in the canter and gallop. The lumbosacral joint is the only part of the vertebral column from the base of the neck to the tail that allows a significant amount of flexing (rounding) and extension (hollowing) of the back. At all the other vertebral joints, the amount of motion is much smaller. Moving the point of rotation from the hip joint to the lumbosacral joint increases the effective length of the hind limbs, therefore increasing stride length.

Movements of the proximal (upper) limbs are the result of muscular action. Movements of the distal limbs tend to follow passively -- without active muscular contraction and as a result of inertial forces. When the hoof leaves the ground, elastic recoil of the flexor tendons and the suspensory ligament raises the hoof, pastern, and cannon to initiate flexion of the carpal (knee), fetlock, and coffin joints. In the later part of the swing phase, these joints are extended in preparation for the next ground contact. In the hind limb, flexion and extension of the stifle, hock, and fetlock joints are coupled through the action of the reciprocal apparatus, which consists of strong, thick tendinous bands on the front and back of the limb.

Surface To Surface

With that thorough explanation from Clayton as background, we now can turn our attention to footing that either helps or hinders a horse as it goes through the various stride sequences.

There are extremes at either end of the spectrum -- a surface that is much too hard or a surface that is much too soft.

A hard surface, such as concrete or sun-baked clay, says Clayton, has high-impact resistance because it absorbs little, if any, of the impact energy. Consequently, the impact shock wave of the loading phase of a step must be absorbed almost entirely by the loaded leg. This means that high-impact resistance is associated with heavy concussion.

"Horses working on such surfaces," says Clayton, "tend to move conservatively in order to avoid excessive shock to their limbs. Under these conditions, riders find that their normally free-moving horses have become short-strided and stiff as they struggle to protect themselves against the unfriendly footing."

At the opposite end of the scale, other footings -- such as deep wood shavings -- create a surface that has low-impact resistance. This type of surface absorbs the energy of the footfall, thus reducing concussion on the legs. But at the same time, it requires a great deal of energy on the part of the horse to provide forward and upward propulsion.

"Normally," says Clayton, "a horse's leg stores some elastic energy in the ligaments and tendons during loading that is released to bounce the leg off the ground during unloading. To imagine what it is like for your horse to work on deep wood shavings, think of running on a track covered in pillows. This type of low-impact surface absorbs so much energy that your -- or your horse's -- muscles work much harder to provide sufficient propulsion. It has the effect of transforming a bouncy basketball into a medicine ball, and when this happens, there is premature onset of fatigue."

Riders should be aware of fatigue factors, says Clayton, such as raised heartrate, labored breathing, profuse sweating, and a detioration of performance.

When a horse is fatigued, there is a much higher risk of injury to muscles, tendons, and ligaments, and the potential for tying-up also is increased, says Clayton.

Time to learn still another new term -- shear resistance.

This term describes the resistance of the surface to penetration, for example, by the toe of the hoof during the push-off phase of a stride.

"Ideally," says Clayton, "the toe should be able to penetrate the surface in the terminal (end) part of the push-off. It is at this time that the navicular region experiences the highest forces. The higher the density of compaction of the footing, the higher is the shear resistance, making it more difficult for the toe to dig in. This explains why horses with navicular disease cannot perform well on hard footing."

On the other side of the coin is a loose surface, such as deep, dry sand or shavings. In these cases, the shear resistance is low so that the toe penetrates easily, but because the footing continues to yield during the critical push-off phase, it provides little or no support to the foot.

"Consequently," says Clayton, "the muscles must work harder to produce the necessary propulsion. Low shear resistance -- a condition referred to on racetracks as a 'cuppy track' -- not only leads to a rapid onset of fatigue, but because of the instability, invites excessive lateral movement in the joints and thus increases the possibility of sprains -- a condition exacerbated by fatigue."

Friction between hoof and ground is another important aspect of footing. As the word implies, friction determines the amount of resistance when the hoof is sliding over the surface.

When the hoof makes contact with the ground, it is traveling forward. If friction is high, the hoof will stop abruptly. friction equates to dramatically increased shock waves to the limbs.

If friction is too low, the foot might slide forward uncontrollably.

Not only does inappropriate friction set the stage for injury, it also can have a detrimental effect on a horse's attitude and performance.

In discussing inappropriate friction, Clayton used dressage horses as an example in explaining how it can affect performance.

"Either too much or too little friction reduces your horse's confidence in the surface and causes him to step shorter and adopt a shuffling gait, losing impulsion altogether. It often takes a horse a while to regain his trust in his footing, so even if the footing in the show ring is inviting; when you have to warm up on slippery grass or trappy mud, your horse may go through an entire test before he feels secure enough to 'loosen up.' Too much time spent riding on high- or low-friction surfaces risks making long-term changes in your horse's posture and locomotion."

Ideal Footing?

The next question to Clayton is an obvious one: What constitutes ideal footing?

"Ideally, an arena surface is somewhat deformable to absorb impact energy, yet sufficiently resilient to give the horse more spring. It allows him to move so that his hooves slide gently into the loading phase. It provides penetration during breakover as well as stability during pushoff."

The next question is just as obvious. How does one go about making this ideal surface?

This can vary from one region to another, she says, with materials also varying.

In 1995, Klaus Fraessdorf won the United States Dressage Federation Footing Award for the footing in his main ring at the Clarcona Horseman's Park in Orlando, Fla.

Fraessdorf's ring was a mixture of screened limestone (30% and shredded (pea size) car tires (70%). The surface, which is three to four inches deep, allows a 1 1/2-half inch indentation by the horse. It lies on an extremely hard bed of limestone that has been compacted to the density of a highway roadbed. Because of the sandy Florida soil, it needs no other drainage system.

The riding rings at Tempel Farms in Illinois provide excellent footing, but with different materials than those used in Florida. It is at Tempel Farms that the Champion Young Rider in dressage has been determined for the past decade.

Tempel Farms enlisted the aid of Hermann Duckek, an internationally renowned footing expert. The surface of the main arena is comprised of an equal mixture of No. 2 sand, the kind used on baseball diamonds, and bagged pine shavings to a total depth of no more than two inches. The ring sits on a rock-hard base of four to five inches of screened limestone. The limestone was laid on hard clay that was carefully left undisturbed during the process of removing the rich Illinois topsoil.

As mentioned earlier, locale can have a bearing on what materials are used. In Oregon, western Washington, and British Columbia, makers use a tanbark indigenous to the area. It is heavier than shavings, so that on impact it condenses to provide stability in the loading and breakover phases of the step while increasing energy in the unloading phase. The character of the bark and natural soil is such that these rings also require no drainage other than an engineered crowning of the ring.

Across the country in Virginia and Maryland, show rings use crushed rock or limestone, often mixed with sand. The sand prevents the limestone from compacting. They sometimes add pea-size wood chips or rubber for buoyancy. The absorbency of the stone precludes the necessity of additional drainage as the rings remain stable even under standing water.

Mix And Match

It is obvious that there is no single magic formula for good footing, and that a variety of products in a variety of combinations are being used.

However, there does appear to be one basic requirement that must be met whether one is providing footing on a racetrack or in a performance arena -- a base that is level and so hard that it can't be penetrated by a hoof. As already mentioned, a common material for this hard base is crushed limestone. The other requirement is that the surface material that covers this base must have elasticity because the base has none.

There is a great variety of surface materials available today, ranging from ordinary sand to such exotic components as coconut fibers and shredded athletic shoes and car tires.

A company that specializes in providing arena footings is Footings Unlimited, which is headquartered near St. Louis, Mo. The company, which advertises itself as "offering the largest selection of footing products in North America," also is quick to point out that no two riding arenas are exactly alike and different disciplines require different footings.

In its promotional literature, the company discusses the complexities involved in obtaining and maintaining good footing.

"Before you make any purchase, you need to decide just what it is you are trying to accomplish. Do you want to reduce dust, improve drainage, reduce shock, reduce watering, eliminate packing, modify take-off resistance, improve uniformity of density, improve grip, increase versatility, reduce dragging and maintenance, minimize effects of freezing, or increase/ decrease depth?

"As you can see, there is a bit of thought that needs to go into deciding just what you want from your arena footing. Unfortunately, you can't have it all. If any manufacturer tells you their product can do it all, you would probably do better to look elsewhere. No footing on the market today is dust-free, and all footing breaks down over time.

"There is, however, one thing you can be absolutely sure of -- maintenance is the key to good footing. Properly designed maintenance programs may very well save you the cost of replacing your footing. There are many things that can be done to improve your footing that involve little more than some time and creativity."

One component that has become popular in the footing world is rubber, either from tires or tennis shoes. A case in point involves the Empire Polo Club and Equestrian Center in Indio, Calif. Center management decided they wanted the surface of the training rings to be more forgiving for the jumpers that were preparing for a major competition.

To accomplish this goal, the training rings were covered with the shredded remains of 80,000 pairs of Nike athletic shoes. The shredded material was mixed in with existing sand to provide a more resilient surface.

Wayne Gregory, general manager of Footings Unlimited, said that his company sold about 200,000 pounds of material to the equestrian center at 25 cents a pound.

The shredded shoes, he reported, were rejects from Nike and not worn-out shoes. The uppers of the shoes were turned into fluff and the soles were ground into bits of rubber.

The shredded rubber used in arenas has variations. For example, Footings Unlimited offers the product in nine different sizes, four quality grades, and 45 colors. Colors are made from virgin rubber. The size and quality will depend on what it is being mixed with in the arena.

In some instances, if the size of the rubber is too large, it will come to the surface of the arena. On the other hand, if the rubber pieces are too small, they can become airborne and simply blow away creating a dust problem. About the only way to determine what type of rubber product is appropriate is first to have the material of the existing arena analyzed. Only then can it be determined what type of rubber should be added.

Nutty But Nice

Perhaps the most exotic arena footing material on the market is a substance made from coconut fibers. It also is one of the more expensive materials.

Natural coconut fibers, say its supporters, absorb shock, reduce compaction, improve traction, and help the arena maintain a proper moisture content. Coco-nut fibers have great strength. The fibers are extracted from the husk of the coconut through a time-consuming process that takes more than three years. The husks are placed in netted bags and hung in the sea for a year. Then they are taken out and beaten to soften them. The process is repeated again the following year, and ultimately, in the third year, the fibers are carefully separated.

The fibers then are converted into a commercial product that is designed to be mixed with the dirt or sand of an existing footing.

Man-Made Materials

Another footing material available to horsemen is polymer-coated sand. A similar substance, called Equitrack, was installed at Remington Race Track when it was constructed in Oklahoma City. The coated grains of sand compress when a horse's foot makes impact, providing both resiliency and proper shear resistance. While horses at Remington Park had fewer leg injuries than runners on conventional surfaces, Equitrack eventually was removed and replaced with a conventional surface.

Today, material of the same type has found a home in a number of arenas. In addition to its resiliency and appropriate shear resistance, it is as dust-free as a footing can be and needs no watering.

Fibresand is another material used with success on a couple of raceracks in England and was the footing for the World Equestrian Games in Stockholm.

It is a mixture of silica sand and tough, rot-proof synthetic fibers. One of the reasons for experimenting with the material in England was the difficulty involved in maintaining the traditional turf tracks during the frequent wet spells, especially during the winter months. Water infiltrates quickly through the material, and it is resistant to freezing.

Also available for today's arenas are plastic granules that are used to loosen tight clay footing.

Various components are available for treatment of footing materials, ranging from oil-based products to organic soil conditioners. A number of companies are competing for their market share with these products or others that are similar.

Back To Basics

While there are many variables for footing, there are some basic constants if you are building or renovating an arena.

For example, the arena should be located on dry, well-draining ground. The arena site should be level with a slight (one- to two-degree grade) to allow rain water to pass through the surface and flow off the base.

The base might be naturally occurring material or something that is added. Whatever the case, the base must contain no stones, and it needs to be packed or tamped as hard as concrete.

Before starting a project or adding material, one should find out what is already there by having the footing evaluated by a soil testing laboratory.

Once an arena is established that meets the above requirements for the discipline involved, one can rest assured that the footing should enhance, rather than detract, from the horse's performance capability and its desire to perform at an optimum level. And, most importantly, it should help to keep the animal sound throughout its career.

Away From Home

However, other problems can crop up. What if you head off to a show and find footing in the arena inadequate? The important thing is that first consideration be given to the horse. Anything less can have dire consequences.

For example, several years ago at a mid-Atlantic dressage show, four inches of new sand were added to the show ring the night before the performance. One of the competitors whose horse had not been conditioned on that type of surface decided to show on it anyway. The result was that he permanently compromised his horse's soundness.

This writer can recall arriving at a mid-western cutting arena to find that the footing was comprised of worked up heavy loam with many clods of dirt that were rock-hard. While some cutters opted to ride, another group of us simply loaded up and headed home. I don't know that any of the competing horses suffered injury, but I do know that those of us who left without competing did so with sound horses.

On another occasion, some dressage riders used an innovative approach to solve a problem. The competitors arrived at a prestigious east coast show to find the surfaces of the warm-up rings hard and unyielding. Fearing that the hard surface would bruise their horses' feet, the innovative riders rose at dawn and used the outer perimeters of the "groomed to perfection" show ring for schooling.

It's very important, Clayton emphasizes, that the horse train regularly on good footing in his home arena. Perhaps your horse can get by performing occasionally on bad footing at a show arena, she says, but soundness could be severely compromised if the horse trains daily on bad footing at home.

As was stated at the outset, one size doesn't fit all in the matter of footing. We have learned from Clayton why good footing is so important if our horses are to remain sound and perform well. Just what it takes to provide that kind of footing in different locales varies. The important thing is that the footing be suitable for the discipline involved. Determining just what that footing should be might require help from an expert in the field. At the very least, one should seek advice from someone experienced with footing. 




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