I'm pretty particular about a facility's footing when showing my young hunter Hannah.

Photo: Courtesy Alexandra Beckstett

I'm sure anyone who's not a hunter rider themselves will attest that most hunter classes are pretty boring. If you're not watching a derby that asks horses to jump big scary fences, negotiate tight insides turns, and exhibit bold gallops, chances are you don't see much excitement on course.

That's why I jumped at the opportunity to show my hunter, Hannah, in a fun three-phase class at a schooling show last week. The class consisted of a "handy" round and an under saddle in the arena, followed by a course over natural, cross-country-type fences on grass. You even had to jump out of the ring at one point! Pretty exciting stuff for a hunter.

With Hannah's under saddle prowess and bravery over fences of all kinds, I had grand visions of taking home the top prize in this event. But after I hopped on and walked her out onto the facility's grass field after two straight days of rain, I promptly handed in my scratch sheet to the horse show office.

Call me chicken, but at this point I could only envision my promising young horse slipping on the slick grass or pulling a suspensory. I experienced a similar incident as a teenager: My horse Sterling won a big class on turf but paid for it with a tendon injury from which he never fully recovered. And he was wearing studs in his shoes--removable, screw-in "cleats"--for traction; Hannah wasn't.

So how does a rider really know whether footing is safe to ride or compete on, and when should you just throw in the towel?

Wet or muddy grass can cause horses to slip or stumble.

Photo: The Horse staff

I know what I consider sketchy footing (wet, slick grass and soupy, rocky, icy, or extremely hard arena surfaces), but I dropped Carolyne Tranquille, BSc, a graduate research assistant with the Animal Health Trust (AHT) in Newmarket, United Kingdom, a line to get an expert opinion. Much of Carolyne's research there focuses on the effects of arena surfaces on horse's orthopedic health (you can read about some of it in this article about my 2012 visit to the AHT).

She said sure signs of questionable, or even unsafe, footing to ride or compete on include significant puddling or an arena surface that looks very uneven or deep, especially in the corners. Wet or slick grass is risky as well, she said, because it makes horses more likely to slip or stumble. Glad to know my instincts were good!

Riding frequently on a hard surface could increase a horse's risk of injuring his leg bones, while frequent riding on a soft and deep surface could increase a horse's risk of injuring his soft tissues, Carolyne added.

If possible, avoid riding on surfaces with significant puddling.

Photo: iStock

So what steps can a rider take to prevent injury due to arena or turf footing?

"It is important to train on a variety of different surfaces, including those used at competition, to promote musculoskeletal health," Carolyne said. "And riders should avoid working their horses really hard or fast on a surface that they are not used to."

Also, as recommended in a footing science article we ran last year, practice common sense when it comes to judging a riding surface:

Know your horse's typical reaction to footing--is he tender-footed on harder ground? Does he stumble through deep footing? Being aware of how your horse behaves and rides in different conditions will help you recognize his comfort level on a particular surface. Also, try the footing out for yourself. If it's slick or uncomfortable under your feet, just think of what your horse feels.

When all else fails, find another facility or footing. Horses tend to adapt to the surfaces they travel over, but they might sustain injuries along the way. And no boot, wrap, or traction device is going to fix a bad footing issue.

What riding conditions give you pause, and how do you protect your horse from footing-related injuries?