The Horse Is Really Our Client

Erin Gilmore Photography

Your daily riding surface truly impacts the safety and well-being of your horse. Improved research methods are providing more accurate data about biomechanics, shock absorption and safety. In the center of all this you will find Nick Attwood, the founder of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces. Who would have dreamed a young man from Kenilworth, England would become one of North America’s leading experts on equestrian surfaces!

Nick’s journey to the top of the footing industry started about the time he was 14. “Some events can seem innocuous at the time, but a new Chemistry teacher almost certainly led me to starting a company rooted in science,” said Attwood.  “She was incredibly motivational and made Chemistry interesting and fun. I was hooked.

My first experience with horses came about the same time. My friends and I loved spending time at the Warwick Racecourse. We would stand at the finish line cheering and screaming for our favorite to win.  Even though we were too young to bet, we really loved seeing the horses run.”

That love of science and horses came together for Attwood when he went to work for an English company as the Development Manager for a product called Equitrack. The job involved improving the formulation and overseeing the installation of numerous tracks in all over the world. While the surfaces held up in milder temperatures, Attwood became the point man for problems that evolved when used in more extreme temperature environments. He was the ultimate problem solver, a critical component that would become the cornerstone of his future company.

The work took him to the United States, to a breeding farm in Oklahoma where a certain mare would forever change the way Attwood looked at horses. “She was a lovely bay, with the kindest eye,” Attwood said, remembering. “Unfortunately, she had a terrible case of White Line Disease, it was really severe. The vet had to debride most of her hoof to see if they could save her. She had just foaled-out, we couldn’t bear the thought of losing her.

I was responsible for changing her bandages every day for weeks. When you spend that kind of time with a horse, your relationship goes to a whole other level. I could feel her pain in a way, and was so moved by the trust she gave me. I think the time spent with that mare really changed the way I looked at horses for the rest of my life,” said Attwood. “It made me very conscious of how horses feel. It inspired me to create footing that would help the horse in every way.”

So, in 1992, Attwood started his own company calling it Attwood Equestrian Surfaces. Working around the clock in the Laboratory, he created a proprietary blend that was both a dust free and non-watered riding surface for all equestrian disciplines. The product was called Equation. “We were the first company in North America to offer and install a riding surface that never had to be watered and remained dust free. As a result, we were granted the patent for it. I believe it was the first patent ever given for a footing product. While everyone else was dumping rubber pellets and carpet scraps into arenas, we were working with premium raw materials to create a truly superior product.

Formulating footing can be quite complex. We built a specialized laboratory for research and development to help us measure the footing characteristics.  There are three fundamental properties that make good footing good: firmness, grip and consistency. 

The firmness of the footing should be in the sweet spot where it’s not too hard or too deep. Virtually all riders will instantaneously notice if the firmness is satisfactory. The variable which has the largest bearing on the firmness is the specification of the sand. Generally finer, more angular sands will be firmer and coarser, while more rounded grain sands will ride deep. It is very common to blend two sands to hit the perfect mark.

Equally as important to the firmness, is the amount of grip in the footing. Too grippy, and the horse will not be free to slide a little on the surface, too loose and the horse will be slipping in the turns. The scientific test for grip is to measure the shear strength of the footing. Notoriously difficult to measure, only highly sophisticated testing equipment gives reliable data. We can adjust the grip by changing the sand as well as the properties of the textiles which we add to the sand to make excellent footing. This is why it’s so important to add uniform quality textiles and not carpet scrap.  

Photo © Erin Gilmore

Once we have the perfect formula the footing should be as consistent as possible. We always pre-blend the footing before installing it into the arena. Mixing the footing in the arena by trying to blend textiles in from the top down often leads to an inconsistent surface. 

Initially, our customers were horse owners looking for low maintenance solutions for their private riding rings. Over time, with continuous research and development, we were able to refine the product to have superior properties. Now the world has come knocking at our door.”

While Attwood Equestrian Surfaces has become the go-to choice for the conscientious rider, it has also become the footing of choice for many of the elite training and competition facilities around the United States. Hallowed grounds such as Morven Park and the Virginia Equestrian Center, among others, have installed Attwood Equestrian Surfaces to attract the top riders to their shows. In 2018, The Fair Hill Special Event Zone, a $20 million renovation and expansion project in Maryland, sought out Attwood Equestrian Surfaces to install their top-level arenas. With plans of 4-H to Five Star competitions, this project had many demands on it, including passing the Fédération Equestre Internationale (FEI) testing.

A collaboration of eight veterinarians and scientists came together to write the FEI White Paper on footing. Published in 2014, the study examined everything from biomechanics of the horse to preparation and maintenance of footing. The paper started the conversation of “what makes good footing good”.  

For example, the study illuminates that horses will travel differently as their fitness level increases, as it becomes more familiar with the work at hand, who is holding the reins, etc… a novice versus a professional rider can tremendously affect a horse’s way of going. Throw in the factor of inconsistent footing, too deep, too wet, and the results get skewed again. Ultimately, the Federation was looking for a way to come up with a set of standards that ensures the safety of the horse.

In the autumn of 2019, a team of officials led by Michael “Mick” Peterson, Ph.D. came to the Fair Hill site to inspect the newly laid footing. Dr. Peterson was one of the authors of the White Paper and serves as the Director of the University of Kentucky Ag Equine Program.  Dr. Peterson’s research links traditional understanding of engineering mechanics and materials to the biomechanics of animals.  The footing underwent several laboratory tests and was tested in situ.  The footing satisfied all the FEI tests set forth.     

We have always thought at Attwood Equestrian Surfaces that the customer really is the horse. With this in mind, we are always looking for ways to improve the experience of the horse with relation to both training and competing. A horse that is happy in the footing is going to be more confident,” said Attwood. “I think of all the feedback we get on our products. One of the most satisfying parts of my job is learning about older horses who have a new lease on life after riding on our footing. That never gets old.

Attwood went on to say, “I am very committed to this process and the products we sell. All horses deserve good footing. We are very pleased to be able to provide that experience for them.”

What’s next for Attwood Equestrian Surfaces? 

  • We are constantly working to develop new products and improving our formulas.  
  • We are expanding our market share globally and have just completed arenas in India, Abu Dhabi and Qatar with plans on the horizon for more.
  • Expanding our offerings to include state of the art matting systems, under footing watering systems, custom curved kick board and steel board fencing. 

Attwood Equestrian Surfaces is your full service arena specialist. 

Photography courtesy of Erin Gilmore Photography, Nick Attwood, Melanie Bartenstein, & Chris Daley