Surface testing: keeping horse and rider safety in mind

No matter the occasion—be it a horse race, show jumping competition, dressage test, reining pattern, or any of the many other equine sport events that take place every year—all equestrian events have one singular requirement they need to take place: They need an appropriate and safe surface to compete upon.

Ensuring proper arena and racetrack footing creation and care is important, not only for equine injury prevention, but for the safety of horse and rider. In recent years it’s been an important research area for scientists around the world. One of those researchers, Mick Peterson, PhD, is the current director of the University of Kentucky (UK) Ag Equine Programs, a faculty member within UK’s Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering Department, and executive director of the Racing Surfaces Testing Laboratory (RSTL).

The RSTL, a company founded by Peterson and Wayne McIlwraith, BVSc, PhD, DSc, FRCVS, Dipl. ACVS, a professor at Colorado State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, has a more than 10-year history of examining equine competition surfaces at racetracks and equestrian sports venues worldwide, developing protocols and standards, and offering recommendations. In this role, Peterson is considered one of the world’s premiere experts in testing of high-level competition surfaces.

Regardless of whether the RSTL team is working on a track (dirt, turf, or synthetic) or arena, their objective of surface testing. Here, we’ll focus on racetrack surface testing, and a later article will address arenas.

“The goal (of surface testing) is to create a consistent surface and to meet the needs of the event,” Peterson said.

Ensuring racetrack surfaces meet the established criteria, Peterson said, is fairly straightforward. One parameter the surface testing team can use to determine if the surface is doing its job well is to look at the race times for that particular day. However, it is critical on those occasions when a horse is injured or safety questions arise that complete data is available to ensure that the safest possible surface is provided for racing.

The actual testing of track surfaces involves examining the surface’s composition, as well as how the footing performs during use. Once these tests are performed, investigators can make recommendations for improvement, whether it is the footing’s contents or how it’s maintained.

Researchers don’t only test the surface once; rather, it’s investigated regularly. Part of the goal in testing track and arena footing is to ensure proper long-term surface maintenance. The Maintenance Quality System (MQS), developed by Peterson and the RSTL, involves a methodical plan in which the surface is assessed and maintained prior to every event; it also assists track workers in enhancing the maintenance already in place.

The first step in the MQS is to document all necessary information about the surfaces, including the track design and footing materials, as well as maintenance equipment and protocols used. Engineers from the RSTL work closely with the track maintenance crew in order to obtain all the necessary information for documentation. This information can help the investigators and track maintenance crew make informed decisions about enhancing the track maintenance protocol going forward, which is specific to each track tested. Elements such as the local climate and the materials used to create the surface make each track unique in how it must be properly maintained.

Following that initial step, engineers inspect the track prior to the race meet or before a change in season, depending on how long the venue operates each year. The inspection is carried out with plenty of time before the event to allow the track maintenance team to make necessary adjustments to ensure the track is fully prepared for a safe competition. The main tool investigators use for this pre-meet inspection is the Orono biomechanical surface tester, or OBST, which replicates the speed, direction, and impact of a horse’s leading hoof traveling at a gallop. The OBST allows for consistent testing of track responsiveness, cushioning, firmness, and consistency. Researchers can compare this data to information from other tracks already tested using the OBST. Footing safety and consistency are the primary concerns when performing the inspection prior to a race meet.

Finally, RSTL employees can use the data collected for the MQS to develop a daily maintenance tracking routine for each track. The track maintenance team will inspect the track at the same time each day, and record the values of different measurements (such as moisture content) into the MQS database. They can access the database on handheld devices during the daily process to compare previous days’ data with the current day. This helps them keep the track as consistent as possible, as it will display clear trends in the track data, and maintenance protocol can be continued as is or adjusted, if necessary.

Since the MQS testing is continuous, track maintenance workers can keep improving track surfaces using Peterson and his lab’s knowledge, along with information the MQS provides.

Although there are many aspects of testing track surfaces and ensuring that the surface is in top condition, Peterson said one goal of surface testing and maintenance that stands out to him.

“My primary interest is in the safety of the horse and rider,” he said. “Many participants are focused on the performance aspects, but to me that is peripheral. When we talk racing, the biggest risk to the rider is a catastrophic injury to the horse. So we need to keep the horse upright and the rider up to protect the rider and horse.”

In Peterson’s opinion, the “gold standard” that defines surface testing and development’s success is the Equine Injury Database, as this data shows whether the improvements in the surfaces has made a difference in the safety and well-being of the horses and riders.

Maddie Regis, a junior majoring in marketing, is the communications and alumni relations intern for UK Ag Equine Programs.