Horses and Hard Ground – How to Reduce the Impact of Hard Ground on Horses

The chances are that everyone who is eventing at the moment will probably be worrying about the same thing – hard ground – it is the bain of our lives in the equestrian world. It happens every year and probably always will so let’s take a look at what event organisers and riders can do to lessen the impact on horses.

Event organisers can think about:

  • Using pasture slitters or agrivators

    Basically all a pasture slitter does (you might have heard them called spiker or aerators) is to literally put slits or holes in the ground. The agrivator (sometimes called an equivator) not only spikes the ground but vibrates as well – this is exceptionally good at de-compacting the ground. On the whole, an agrivator is preferable to a pasture slitter but it is surprising how much difference either method makes. Furthermore, if it does rain even a tiny bit, the holes allow the water to get into the ground rather than just sit on the surface and run off.

  • Watering the ground – Another technique is literally to water the ground (think of a giant watering can on a tractor). The problem here is that it takes a huge amount of water to make a difference – imagine how much water comes down when it rains.
  • Changing the consistency of the soil – On a larger scale and with more time it is also possible to change the soil consistency. This was done fairly successfully at Badminton after it was decided that the problems with the ground in previous years really needed to be tackled. In short – soils with high clay content will actually crack in dry weather and go incredibly hard, as will flinty soils. Sandy soils with usually crumble which is not as bad. Adding sand to the course and arenas increases the ‘crumble’ of the soil and also promotes grass growth (gardeners add sand to lawns). By having better grass cover, more water is trapped in the soil making the ground less hard and the grass also provides extra cushioning. Regular ‘topping’ and ‘muck spreading’ will also promote grass growth – all good stuff for the horse.
  • Focusing on landing and take-off areas – Landings and take off areas should also be sanded – this helps hugely because the impact on horses legs landing after a jump is far more than when just cantering.

What can we do as riders to help?

Short of hanging a watering can on your horses nose to soften his path, other (silly) suggestions include springs for horses feet – let’s stop there while the going is good!

Remember to warm up well so that all the tendons and ligaments in the horses legs are prepared to soak up the shock as well as they can. Think about the studs you are using, as studs that are too large will jar the horses legs because they won’t go into the ground completely. (On the other hand, because a horse weighs around 550kg, you shouldn’t use studs that are too small – imagine how much force is behind those two studs on a galloping horses feet.)

Be kind to your horse – once you are out there remember to ride better lines to achieve the time you have targeted yourself for, as opposed to galloping flat out.

After the event you can carry out ‘hard ground treatment’. Your best bet is to cool your horses legs by cold hosing them down, as hot tendons are far more likely to be injured than cooler ones. Top Tip – aim for the top of the inside of the hind legs as there you will cool the major arteries. In this way you kill two birds with one stone – the water will run down the legs to cool them and will also cool the arterial blood running back into the body.

Once the horse is cooled off, had a drink and recovered there is more you can do. A traditional technique is to ‘clay’ the legs and bandage – the idea being that the clay contracts and helps to reduce any swelling. However, some people have begun to move away from clay in favour of ice packs – we all know the miraculous effect of ice on reducing swelling. You can now get ‘rechargeable’ ice packs that stay cold for a surprisingly long time.

Another alternative is to apply chilled animal lintex. This has a cooling effect and is very easy to apply as well as containing various substances to reduce swelling and treat any small cuts. This technique is actually gaining popularity as it can be used over abrasions whereas clay should not be applied to cuts.

A more preventative alternative is to ask your Farrier to fix pads in a horses front shoes; some horses love them and some hate them. Vets and Farriers tend to have very strong opinions on their use – some good, some bad, so do your own research on this – talk to a trusted Vet and/or Farrier.

Recently I have come across a new idea – shoes made from plastic that are moulded to the horses feet – they even have stud holes! The advantage of these is that plastic shoes are lighter and more shock absorbent. There are new advances happening all the time, so read high quality equestrian magazines and use to stay in touch with what new products are being developed.

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