The classic mistake with footing is creating an arena too deep. Sand is normally around 2″ deep maximum in an all-purpose arena. You are risking serious suspensory injuries if you continue to ride in footing that is beyond 2 inches deep. Think of trying to run in deep, dry beach sand. I see a lot of leg and hoof problems with footing too deep, and that is with all disciplines, EVEN WESTERN PLEASURE! Deep footing fatigue happens very fast in a work session, then the injuries happen. I would rather ride on something a bit too firm than too boggy. I hate to say this but i will. The most injuries a vet clinic sees? As a discipline, is from barrel racing (because the footing is so deep). I would also like to go on record and say, that IF your horse is properly conditioned you can keep injuries at bay with barrel racing and any speed events that require a lot of torque, twist, point, shoot, bend and GO! 🙂 Top barrel racers do a lot of conditioning in other arena surfaces and exercise 6x a week to stay as fit as they can to avoid injuries. AND, deep and heavy sand is the real culprit in terms of injury. Deep and light sand isn’t as drastic in terms of injuries. But that 2nd combo still creates injuries.
In an arena, footing is tricky. You want it to be deep enough to provide some traction, and deep and springy enough to provide a little cushioning, but you don’t ever want it to be too deep because then it becomes a threat to the horses’ tendons. Uneven footing is also dangerous, which is why a good arena will have a flat, well-compacted base and just the right amount and type of footing for the sort of riding that will be done there.
When a horse moves in sand two things happen. The heel of the horse’s hoof is narrower than the front and middle so the heel sinks and puts stress on the tendons. Since sand places a huge amount of stress on the tendons, riding in it should be done with care at first. When a horse is conditioned correctly using sand he will have tendons of steel. If you rush it, you can easily blow a tendon or tear a ligament and that requires months of healing.
Second, as the horse pushes with its hind legs, the sand absorbs much of the force and the horse compensates by pulling with its front legs. You need to be mindful of these movements when you start to condition your horse in sand. Even sand that is 2 inches deep.
Horses that are conditioned in sand usually have well-developed forearm and shoulder muscles. Most horses have relatively small forearm muscles and these muscles are incredibly large groups that need to be brought along slowly. I went to the barn and looked at my horses and they do NOT have well-developed muscles here. So that is why i am being on-guard…..i don’t want injuries. That is always my goal in riding. I don’t care if i win a ribbon or what i look like. People can ride circles around me and they do. But i want to feel that my horses don’t have a chance at being injured. THEN, and only then, do i personally enjoy my ride.
Watch the legs carefully for any sign of inflammation. When a horse moves in the sand, his fetlock joints move in ways they don’t normally move. This can cause inflammation; sandy conditions are harder on the joints than hard surfaces.
Sand has lower impact resistance than hard soil, combined with a low shear resistance, which allows the toe of the hoof to penetrate deeply.
Deep, dry sand tends to give way during push off, resulting in loss of traction, making it very tiring for the horse to work on. Trainers, owners, riders, 4H program horses need to be careful to reduce the amount of exercise when working in deeper sand footing – otherwise there is a risk of overuse injuries to the soft tissues.
Anything over 2 inches is considered “deep”. Less is more when it comes to sand in an arena. You can observe mild lamenesses in a horse. The horse is holding his body a bit different, compromising his stride and the way he is carrying himself, due to a slight lameness. Remember, slight lameness leads to moderate lameness. So i’m coming not from wanting a dressage depth arena but a place of wanting soundness in all horses.
Shear resistance describes the ease with which the footing is displaced by a shearing (rotational) force. When the leg is pushing against the ground to generate propulsion, the toe tends to rotate into the surface. The shear resistance of the footing should be low enough to allow the toe to dig in as the hoof pushes against it (Figure 1), which has the dual benefits of reducing tension in the distal check ligament and reducing pressure of the deep digital flexor tendon on the navicular region. The shear resistance can, however, be too low. When this is the case, the ground does not offer sufficient resistance to the hoof pushing against it. Instead, the surface gives way during push off and the muscles have to work harder to generate propulsion (think about how it feels to run on deep, dry sand on the beach). As a consequence of having to work harder, the muscles become fatigued more quickly and this predisposes the horse’s ligaments and tendons to injuries. Surfaces with a very low shear resistance, such as deep, dry sand, are very tiring for the horse and, if used in excess, may lead to ligament and tendon injuries.
Hard surfaces (concrete, blacktop) have high shear resistance, which does not allow the toe to dig in. These surfaces not only exacerbate problems associated with concussive injuries, but they also tend to increase lameness in horses with palmar heel pain or navicular syndrome. Sometimes the shear resistance of a surface can be changed by management practices. For example, the addition of water to deep, dry sand increases its shear resistance – this explains the difference between running along the beach at the edge of the water versus running in the sand dunes.
Common deep sand related injuries in the horse
Wind puffs are soft, fluid-filled swellings toward the back of the fetlock joint, resulting from inflamed deep digital flexor tendon sheaths. The swellings occur where the digital flexor tendon sheath covers the two tendons that go around the back of the fetlock. In chronic cases, the sheath lining will remain thickened, and fluid levels will vary with the horse’s exercise levels. Once a horse has a problem with wind puffs, they are almost always a chronic condition.
Tendon and ligament strains and sprains involving the superficial digital flexor tendon, deep digital flexor tendon, accessory ligaments, and the suspensory ligament need to be watched for. Injuries can range from minor inflammation with no lameness to complete rupture of the tendon strap. Superficial flexor tendons run down the back of the foreleg, between the knee and foot. The deep digital flexor tendon runs under the superficial digital flexor tendon.
In the hind leg, they run between the hock and the foot and they cause your horse’s joints to flex when stimulated. Suspensory ligaments run behind the cannon bone over the fetlock joint to the pastern bones. They support the fetlock joint, which is your horse’s ankle.
In soft footing, your horse can also suffer pulled or strained hindquarter and forelimb/shoulder muscles. The muscles have to work extra hard because they lack traction. The foot will tend to slip at every step, adding more work to a leg already under stress.
Unfortunately, you might not notice this type of problem soon enough to prevent injury. You might remember later that your horse seemed to be sweating more or working harder than usual, but you didn’t relate that to the strained muscles or front/hind-leg weariness at the end of your ride.