Improving the going

  • With increasingly dry summers and heightened awareness of what hard going does to our horses’ legs and feet, ground preparation has become the norm, rather than the exception.

    In the quest to improve going, event courses and showgrounds are being maintained as sports grounds, rather than agricultural land, and ideas have filtered down from racecourses, which have led the way in ground preparation for years. Aerovators, agrivators and irrigation systems are replacing rollers and chain harrows, with the emphasis on year-round maintenance rather than the “quick fix”.

    “In agriculture, you’re trying to grow grass to feed animals, whereas we grow it to produce a sporting surface,” explains Phillip Herbert, British Eventing’s (BE) ground adviser and clerk of the course at Burghley, which has a state-of-the-art irrigation system. “We’re not really interested in the plant. The sponginess of the roots is what creates the give, and when you cut the turf [with an Equivator, aerovator, etc] you cut the roots, which encourages the structures to regenerate and become stronger.”

    BE, in recognition of the pressure on smaller events, has invested more than £70,000 in six Equivators which are hired out at a subsidised price — £150 per time. The Equivator is an American machine, formerly known as the Agrivator, brought to the UK last winter by Capt Mark Phillips, who saw it in use at Lexington.

    BE has also made available a “development fund” of £40,000 for “the promotion, expansion and development of eventing” — which includes improving ground. The first round of grants (there will be two sets per year) will shortly be awarded to events.

    “Expectations have been raised,” says a BE spokesman, “so we very much regard this as a starting point. We hope to increase funds in the years ahead and we’re seeing how demand goes for the Equivators.”

    So what exactly is an Equivator and how does it differ from an Aeravator?


    Imported by BLEC, this is the little brother of the Equivator, intended for use on sports grounds. It has a shaft on which sit 3in spikes that shake when inserted in the ground as the tractor pulls it along. The shaft is not powered, but rotates according to the speed the tractor. Good for all types of soil, the aeravator, like the Equivator, will not make hard ground soft but will make it “less hard”.

    Equivator (formerly known as Agrivator)

    The Equivator is the agricultural version of the Aeravator. Made in the US as the “Agrivator”, sole importer BLEC makes various adaptions, including adding a small roller and equipping each machine with its own trailer. The Equivator’s spikes, about 10in long, make more difference to ground than the Aeravator. Fairly aggressive, it works in the same way as its smaller brother by loosening the surface, which allows air to get to grass roots to relieve compacted ground. Use at any time of the year but particularly in the autumn and spring. The Equivator also allows rainwater to drain from surfaces should a sudden downpour occur just before an event

    Water bowser

    Watering using a tanker behind a tractor. Good for show jumping arenas but not practical for a cross-country course.

    Chain harrow

    This agricultural machine is good for courses in open fields and where livestock graze because it spreads molehills and cattle droppings. This is generally done in the spring.


    Rolling should be avoided if at all possible, although badly poached ground needs rolling to repair it when the ground is soft enough. Rolling can actually damage the ground — it compacts and seals the surface so that when it rains, the water sits on the top. Therefore, timing is crucial.


    Cutting the grass keeps it thick and healthy and encourages growth from the bottom. Agricultural toppers are commonly used to mow courses, but are not good over undulations, missing out dips and cutting too short on hills. Burghley has an articulated mower with seven independent mowers that hug the contours.

    Slitter/turf aerator

    A fairly aggressive agricultural machine, the slitter or turf aerator is best used in the autumn and again in spring when the ground is not too soft or hard. It relieves compaction and lets in air, so encourages grass root growth and sponginess. Best used with a tractor with wide or dual tires to minimise compaction.

    Ground Breaker

    Very expensive to hire or buy, the Ground Breaker (made by BLEC) is used to improve ground in the long-term. The shaft-mounted knives are slowly powered round and cut through even quite hard ground to a good depth. Minimal ground disturbance is caused because the weight of the machine presses down on the earth. The Ground Breaker can be used on any soil at any time of the year, although it’s particularly useful in the spring.


    Irrigation is expensive and, for most events, impractical and too costly. Burghley is the only UK event with an irrigation system. Irrigation is more common on racecourses and is being used increasingly on show jumping and showing arenas and polo grounds.


    Putting sand on landings is a good idea if there is no other means of reducing the hardness of the ground. The average horse lands 2m from a fence, so the sand will need to be approx 3m sq, 7cm in depth and no nearer than 1m to the fence. Sand
    is better than woodchips because these kill the grass.

  • This news feature was first published in Horse & Hound (5 August)

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