Wednesday, Jul. 24, 2024

What Happens When You Mix Sand, Felt and Elastic?

Something wasn't quite right: Chris Kappler could feel it as he and Royal Kaliber cleared the big brown oxer in the jump-off at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Maybe the big stallion just overreached, Kappler thought, as the pair galloped on toward the double of verticals.

With the silver medal on the line, Royal Kaliber surged toward the combination, pushing off in his trademark swing-and-twist jumping style.

They would be the last two fences of Royal Kaliber's life.

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Something wasn’t quite right: Chris Kappler could feel it as he and Royal Kaliber cleared the big brown oxer in the jump-off at the 2004 Athens Olympics.

Maybe the big stallion just overreached, Kappler thought, as the pair galloped on toward the double of verticals.

With the silver medal on the line, Royal Kaliber surged toward the combination, pushing off in his trademark swing-and-twist jumping style.

They would be the last two fences of Royal Kaliber’s life.

Almost as soon as the stallion landed and took his first uneven step, the lithe, 6’3″ Kappler was out of the saddle, standing beside his teammate of four years. The equine ambulance hurried across the turf, preparing to carry off yet another injured horse from the Athens arena.

The Dutch Warmblood’s bowed tendon wasn’t life threatening, but it would lead to other complications. Unfit for immediate travel, Royal Kaliber stayed in Greece while his equine teammates returned home, as his lifestyle changed dramatically from peak activity to stall rest, a switch that prompted him to colic and led to his premature death just a few weeks later.

Nobody will blame the footing in Athens for Royal Kaliber’s death–not entirely, anyway. But many competitors, trainers, owners and show managers speculate that the newly laid (and “unproven”) turf at the Olympic stadium was responsible for the unusually high number of horses, including Royal Kaliber, who suffered the same type of front-leg, superficial digital flexor tendon injury.

Photographs have shown that the turf beneath where Royal Kaliber’s front feet landed off his last jumps had started to peel away, much like the way carpet wrinkles on a hardwood floor.

After the Olympic Games, officials from the Federation Equestre Internationale sanctioned a footing task force to investigate the issue. The committee’s findings, and the renewed attention on the quality of footing at all international competitions, has experts in America and abroad weighing in on what can be done to improve one of the most important aspects of a horse show.

From the United States to Germany, new synthetic compounds are being tested and natural surfaces being reworked with a common goal: to enhance or maintain the footing upon which equines are expected to safely perform at the peak of their athletic abilities.

“Horses Feel Better”

Reaching a consensus on good footing would be infinitely easier if horses could simply articulate their needs. Instead, you get a wide-range of opinions from everyone involved. Kappler likes softer footing; show jumper McLain Ward prefers firm surfaces.

Robert Jolicoeur, renowned course designer and landscape architect, said that good turf, hands-down, is the best surface for jumpers.

“Horses feel better on grass,” said the Canadian footing expert. “Grass provides just a little bit of slip on the landing, as opposed to a surface that makes horses stop too abruptly,” he said from Florida, where he was watering the grass jumping field at the Winter Equestrian Festival. “That’s when you risk their pasterns touching the ground, like in a puissance.”

Olympic eventer Darren Chiacchia, who rode Windfall to an individual 12th-placed finish in Athens, agreed that grass surfaces are great, but only when they’re great consistently.

“You get a hard spell when there isn’t enough rain, or you get too much moisture and it turns to mud,” he said, noting that what every competitor hopes for is footing that remains consistent from the first horse to the 100th horse. It’s the only way to ensure a level playing field, literally.

“The dressage footing in Athens was quite good; it was an artificial surface that worked,” Chiacchia added. “But the turf was very compacted, even on the cross-country course. We got away with it on our show jumping because our jumps are about a foot lower. But with the increased speed and higher jumps, it was devastating for the show jumpers.”

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A big part of the problem, many say, is that nobody knew how the footing would perform in Athens until the best horses in the world pounded across it. In arid Greece, the newly laid grass couldn’t establish a strong enough root structure to withstand dozens of penetrating shoes and caulks, said Kathleen Kamine, who co-owned Royal Kaliber with Kappler.

“For international competitions, you should utilize stadiums where the footing has been in place for years,” she said. “You don’t put down new footing for an event of that magnitude.”

The FEI’s task force, which included Jolicoeur, spent months trying to determine why so many horses suffered tendon injuries during the show jumping in Athens. Ultimately, the committee reported it couldn’t determine one specific cause for the injuries, but that the inconsistent footing did play a role. In short, the members said the surface was acceptable, but not up to the standard needed for an Olympic competition.

“There were other factors involved with the injuries,” said Jolicoeur. “There were an increased number of jumps, the style of jumping has changed, and the types of caulks used played a role.”

The committee’s report also cited the use of heavy and tall boots on the hind legs, the construction and placement of some of the jumps, and the increased stress of wider and higher obstacles, in competition as well as in training preparation, as reasons for so many horses breaking down.

Voting With Their Feet

Shelley Lambert, an experienced eventing manager and the director of events at the Florida Agriculture & Horse Park Authority, thinks that Athens was the show that “broke the camel’s back.”

“Even the people sitting at home saw what happened to Chris Kappler’s horse,” she said, “and in the industry, we’re seeing competitors refusing to show at places without good footing. It forces competition managers to come up with better solutions.”

This winter, Lambert oversaw the installation of new footing in the Florida Horse Park’s main 250′ by 350′ arena. The feedback surprised her; during the first Ocala Dressage Show in January, dressage trainer Gunnar Ostergaard told Lambert the footing was the best he’d ridden on in the world.

The synthetic surface–called Cushion-Track Premier, a mixture of waxed silica, synthetic fibers (including polypropylene, felt, polyester and granulated rubber bits), and bits of the same elastic that keeps your underwear up where it belongs–has met with rave reviews. The material is heated and coated with wax at a specific temperature, to keep the dust under control without watering.

But it’s also kind of like icing on a cake: Beneath the footing are carefully planned layers of drainage pipes, washed granite stone and permeable rubber membranes.

A similar version of the material made a debut at the Syracuse Invitational Sporthorse Tournament (N.Y.) in November.

“I wanted A-plus footing,” said show manager John Madden, “and after two years of doing it ourselves, we didn’t think there was something better until we researched this new footing by Travel Right Services. So we had them install their silica sand that’s mixed with geotextile fiber and wax.”

Then, Madden and course designer Richard Jeffrey watched in awe as the jumpers put in blisteringly fast rounds, an apparent result of the surface’s ability to provide extra thrust on the take-off and extra stickiness for quick turns upon landing.

“I didn’t think people could agree on a footing,” said Madden.

He said he doesn’t believe most people know what really good footing is, “but they seem to all agree on this.”

Madden stopped short of calling these artificial surfaces a panacea to the riding surface debate. He said it’s great that the horses don’t slip on the sand/wax mixture, and it’s a superb material to host a short-term competition, but over time, he wants his horses to work on a variety of surfaces.

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“It’s like chocolate ice cream,” he said.

“I love it, but I’m not going to eat it all the time.”

Part of the divergence of opinion may stem from the fact that footing technology is a science nobody completely understands. The waxed-sand mixture seems to feel good to the riders, but for extended use, said Madden, it’s unclear what long-term effects such exotic materials will have on the horses.

On the short-term side, there’s also the fact that variations of similar synthetic surfaces will perform better in some regions than others. Climate, moisture, how the material is heated and mixed, installation procedures, and maintenance all affect its success.

“Even with this new waxed sand, if the base isn’t right, it won’t work,” said David Frey of Field Specialties, who helped install the CushionTrack surface at the Florida Horse Park.

CushionTrack Premier is produced by a British company called Equestrian Surfaces. “There are also various forms of this same material out there, and none of them come with a blueprint about how they’re going to perform,” Frey said.

Aachen–The Next Big Test
Across the ocean, where Germany is preparing to host the 2006 World Equestrian Games in Aachen, the pressure is on to ensure good footing after the post-Olympic public outcry.

The facility in Germany’s westernmost city (which is touched by Belgium and the Netherlands) has historically been known for its stable and consistent footing. But the installation of a new grandstand has reportedly changed the circulation of the air and produced weak spots in the jumping stadium’s grass surface. Addressing that problem, in addition to quelling concerns about a repeat of the less-than-ideal footing at the Olympics, has prompted show organizers to replace the entire surface, said show director Frank Kemperman.

In an interview, Kemperman said they have also improved the present footing in the track for the cross-country by building more drainage sites and mixing the existing footing with sand. The dressage arena will be a sand mixture.

“The welfare of the horses is very important to us,” said Kemperman, adding that the WEG committee is also consulting footing expert Ton Agterberf from the Netherlands.

So will Aachen’s new footing be better than the surfaces it had before? That’s the likely outcome, but with new technology and new options for footing, it’s an inevitable question for show managers reworking existing surfaces or trying out different compositions. The catch-22 is that as competition horses grow increasingly more expensive, and competitors grow increasingly more insistent upon good footing, show managers who aren’t changing with the times and attending to “surface details” risk business failure.

Just ask eventer Darren Chiacchia, who has a handful of blacklisted shows and events with poor footing that he won’t attend.

“If you’re running a show, and you aren’t with the latest in footing technologies, you simply are not going to get the entries,” he said. Nothing’s more expensive than a good horse breaking down, he added.

Kathleen Kamine, Royal Kaliber’s co-owner, knows there’s no definitive proof that the new turf in Athens caused the end of her superstar’s career. But the continuing attention to the footing issue gives her hope that something good came out of Royal Kaliber’s death.

“We have memories, but for the horse industry in general, it’s really good that people are doing something about raising the standards for footing,” Kamine said. “It’s just a shame that it took such high-profile injuries to create that.”

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