Common Footing Problems and How They Affect Your Horse


In some sort of ideal world, the footing we ride our horses on would be absolutely suited for their jobs and their bodies. Reality tells us that this is not so, there are lots of common footing issues that we need to work with and around. But first…


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What happens to your horse when he takes a step?


  • As a horse moves his legs, the limb is moving both forward and down before it strikes the ground. The impact is buffered by the hoof, acting as a shock absorber, and then the rest of the impact is absorbed by the rest of the limb, and all of the joints.


  • The impact is dispersed by both bone and cartilage, which typically hangs out within a joint. And strangely enough, despite bone’s hard structure, it’s pretty good at taking impacts, to a certain degree. Your horse’s cartilage is more suited to absorbing shocks, but it’s thin and sparse in a horse’s legs. Overall, the cartilage in your horse’s legs doesn’t lessen the impact of your horse’s step that much. It still has a critical role to play, but in terms of your horse taking a ton of impact, it’s mostly the bone that’s doing that.


  • Footing is designed to help your horse take the shock of impact as his hooves land. And, it provides a safe spot for your horse to push off from as he continues on. This is why the surface you ride on is so important!


arena footing with golf cart circle

Know what you are riding on, and if it’s good for your horse!


The basics of footing and some ways to describe it.


  • The term high impact resistance is used to describe footing and surfaces that are hard. Think concrete, packed earth, rock, and asphalt. When a horse’s hoof lands on one of these surfaces, the impact is largely collected by the horse’s hoof and leg. Essentially, the limb is quickly decelerated when it hits this hard surface, and the resulting high-impact forces combine with concussion in the leg.


  • When a horse’s hoof takes off from a high impact resistance surface, there’s not much room for the toe to “give” into the surface. This puts more pressure on the back of the hoof. For horses with navicular issues, this is more painful.


  • Low impact resistance surfaces work a bit differently. Sand is the perfect example. A lot of the impact is taken up by the surface, which easily gives under the horse’s hoof. However, in order to take off again, there’s considerable strain on your horse’s muscles and heart to get his legs moving. This also varies with the depth of the surface, which has its own set of problems.


dressage horse legs in bell boots and sport boots

Your horse’s discipline can help you figure out what the best conditions are for riding.


Some extra riding surface things to know:


  • The shapes of the ingredients are also important. On a microscopic level, footing has a number of angles and sizes. For footing that is a mix of larger and smaller particles, the smaller ones can become wedged between the larger ones. This creates compaction in the footing.


  • Angular footing ingredients are more likely to compact than more rounded ingredients. Subangular ingredients are the Goldilocks of footing, not too angled to cause problems, and still have enough angles to work against compaction.


  • “Perfect” footing situations usually contain consistent sizes of particles, in that “perfect” area of angular, but not too much.


Common riding surface issues


Hard footing.


  • Hard and compacted riding surfaces are a result of wear and tear of unevenly sized ingredients. There’s a lot of concussion on your horse’s body while being ridden.


  • The key might be to add some other cushioning substances, such as rubber, wood, ground-up sneakers, or fabrics. You might also need to step up the watering and dragging routine of your arena maintenance.


  • Some stone-based footings, such as decomposed granite (DG) and bluestone are quite dusty. They often make great sub-surfaces for arenas and can be the primary footing if they are maintained with water, dragging, and even adding a cushion. Otherwise, the dust and varied particle sizes of these stone ingredients will compact.


  • In some cases, the base and the surface are just totally jacked up and you may need to strip things and start again.


horse legs galloping with dirt flying


Soft footing.


  • This type of footing can strain your horse’s muscles and soft tissues as it’s hard for the push-off phase of movement.


  • You might also find that your horse is likely to pull a shoe. When the front legs get bogged down in soft footing, they are slower to lift and there’s a chance your horse’s hind foot will catch the heel and remove a shoe.


  • I worked for years at a barn that had waxed footing, and it would heat up and soften in the afternoon sun. After lots of yanked shoes, it was time to start watering the arena as the temps rose. Not ideal, but a solution.

Deep footing and shallow footing.


  • Deep footing can lead to tendon and ligament damage, as well as being similar to soft footing in that your horse has to work harder. How deep is too deep? Depending on the discipline that you ride, anywhere from 2 to 6 inches should be ok. Dressage horses do well on 2-4 inches, jumpers and reiners do better with a bit more. The type of footing also matters, and may influence the ideal depth of the surface.


  • Shallow surfaces for riding can create those high impact resistance situations, leading to repeated concussion on your horse’s legs and joints. The long term problem with this is degenerative joint disease (DJD), also known as arthritis. While many horses can tolerate arthritis, it’s not ideal and often there is pain and performance issues involved. The largest problem with arthritis is the “no turning back” factor. It won’t get better over time. It gets worse over time. Shallow footing also allows the base of the riding area to be repeatedly hit, causing mixing of the base and surface in addition to creating an uneven surface.


The take home message about footing’s problems:


  • Most of the time, the issues surrounding bad footing are long term. Arthritis doesn’t happen overnight. Tendon or ligament tears are ususally the result of wear and tear on the soft tissues that, one day, can’t take the forces anymore. There are instances when a horse has immediate damage, so looking in the present and towards the future helps your horse stay healthy!



horse legs riding in dusty footing

Don’t overlook DUST! Keep the arena picked as manure is the number one cause of dust.


A few other notes on different riding surfaces.


  • Manufactured sand is highly angular, which makes it more like to compress over time. Natural sand, like the sand found on a beach, is quite rounded. All types of sand start to breakdown with use, creating dust in the process. This isn’t good for horse lungs or horse legs. Also, beach sand belongs at the beach!


  • Your arena surface will need regular dragging and sometimes watering. The surface you have will determine what type of dragon system to use. It’s a good idea to regularly measure depths in various locations around the arena, and to ride off the rail. Frequently move jumps and obstacles around the arena!


  • I once asked my Vet the most frequent type of injury that she treated. Not shockingly, she said it was lamenesses due to wear and tear. She would love to see more horses have a more varied exercise routine AND be worked on different types of footing. Cross train your horse, and be cognizant of the surfaces you are riding on.


  • For a massively thorough read about riding surfaces, the FEI put out a comprehensive white paper about this very topic. SCIENCE! It’s a good read and you can easily search it for the info that you are most interested in. Read it here!



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