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How Arena Surfaces Affect Horse Biomechanics

How do arena surfaces affect your horse?

Learn how soft and hard surfaces can negatively impact the health and performance of your equine athlete.

Read about arena surfaces and biomechanics below:

The Horse’s Footfall Phases

Breaking down the 3 phases of the footfall will help you to understand the interaction between the horse and the arena footing surface.

1. The Landing Phase

During the landing phase, the hoof touches the ground and comes to a stop. As the hoof stops, sliding forward and downward into the surface, bones in the leg collide. Concussion can cause shock waves and vibrations to be distributed throughout the ground and leg.

How arena surfaces affect horse biomechanics - Landing Phase
The horse's footfall phases - Landing Phase

2. The Loading Phase

During the loading phase, the whole hoof is in contact with the ground, carrying the full weight of the horse and rider. The fetlock, flexor tendons, and suspensory create a shock absorbing effect. Pressure under the frog stimulates blood circulation through the hoof. The loaded weight increases depending on movements, such as collection, landing from a jump, and galloping.

The horse's footfall phases - Loading Phase
The horse's footfall phases - Loading Phase

3. Rollover/Push-Off Phase

During the rollover-push off phase, the heel rotates off the ground, rolling over the toe for push off into the next stride.

The horse's footfall phases - Rollover/Push-Off Phase
The horse's footfall phases - Rollover/Push-Off Phase

Surface Characteristics

An ideal arena surface allows horses to move efficiently through the three phases. The surface should minimize concussion, absorb shock, provide support, and return energy back to the horse. To accomplish this the surface should have a combination of firmness, cushioning, cupping, rebound, and grip.


The firmness, or hardness, of the surface affects the amount of support and how shockwave forces are distributed during the landing phase.

•   While a hard, compact surface offers a high amount of support, it does not aid in absorbing impact shock. Bones and joints in the hoof and leg are forced to absorb this shock, causing horses to modify their stride or jumping form to avoid the sting. Examples of a hard surface include concrete or packed clay.

•   A soft or loose surface, like dry rolling sand, absorbs shock well but lacks support. Over-extending the heel or toe damages supporting tendons and ligaments. Muscles and respiration are also fatigued.

•   A surface with ideal firmness offers support with minimal concussion to the bones and joints and is soft enough to aid in absorbing shock.

Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Firmness

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Cushioning refers to how the arena layers dampen shock during the loading phase.

•   A compacted surface lacks cushion. The arena layers don’t aid in relieving stress and shock when the hoof is loaded with the horse’s weight.

•   A soft, deep surface has too much cushion for proper equine biomechanics. The surface will shift under the foot, causing the horse’s body to work harder for support and energy. Soft tissues become overloaded, creating inflammation and tears.

•   An ideal amount of cushion should distribute shock through the arena layers, and provide enough resistance under the hoof for the horse to balance and move into the rollover-push off phase. The footing should support the sole, allowing the coffin bone to descend to the corium, generating blood flow.

Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Cushioning

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During the loading phase, the hoof capsule expands. Pressure under the frog and digital cushion aid in supplying blood to the structures in the hoof capsule. As the weight is released the hoof contracts, pumping blood up the leg and through the body. This process is called hoof mechanism. The surface under the foot influences hoof mechanism.

•   On a hard, compacted surface the frog has minimal contact, hindering hoof mechanism even further. The amount of weight over the hoof capsule forces blood through only the large veins. The lack of blood flow through the small veins is damaging to the hoof capsule and can lead to problems like navicular disease and laminitis.

•   A soft surface will cup under the foot, but may not provide enough resistance and pressure to maximize hoof mechanism.

•   To benefit from hoof mechanism, the surface should cup into the sole and collateral grooves of the frog. Resistance in the surface supports the weight and force placed under the foot, while the pressure under the frog and digital cushion encourage blood flow through the hoof capsule.

Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Cupping

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Closely related to cushioning is responsiveness and rebound. This refers to the resiliency of the surface to return to its original form, returning energy after the weight of the horse is applied.

  • A stiff and compacted surface rebounds energy back to the surface too quickly, causing additional shock and vibrations to be absorbed by the horse.
  • A deep, dead surface rebounds energy too slowly. The horse must use its own energy in tendons, ligaments, and muscles to push out of the surface. This is also a strain on the respiratory system.
  • An active and springy surface with ideal rebound returns energy to the horse at the same rate it was applied. This reduces the horse’s need to use its own additional energy for momentum. Rebound time is dependent on how the surface is used, for example, dressage vs. jumping.
Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Rebound

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The tightness of the surface affects grip. Grip aids in absorbing shock during the landing phase, and provides support and traction during push off and on turns.

•   Too much grip stops the foot too quickly. The full use of the horse’s stride is restricted and risk of injury to bones and joints is increased. The extreme tightness also prevents the toe from rotating into the surface for push off, straining the leg and navicular region.

•   A slippery surface allows for too much hoof slide. The lack of grip causes the hoof to push through the surface, decreasing propulsion. All of this lowers confidence and performance in horse biomechanics, and safety is at risk.

•   The hoof must be allowed to slide during landing and stopping enough for the ground to absorb impact forces. The tightness of the surface must provide stability for the horse during push-off and on turns without causing concussion or sliding. The amount of grip is dependent on how the surface will be used.

Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Grip on Landing
Arena surface characteristics and biomechanics - Grip on Push Off

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