The Tokyo Olympic equestrian arena surface: learn more about the fascinating science of the 2020 Games footing

  • There are a huge number of factors that help contribute to a successful Olympic Games, and Tokyo 2020 is no different to those that have gone before it. From the horses to the riders, their support team and volunteers and officials – all play their role. But one of the key components to equestrian sport at these Olympics is the arena surface. Here, we find out a little more about the Olympic equestrian arena surface at the Tokyo Games…

    Olympic equestrian arena surface: what you need to know

    Creating the perfect under-hoof going (known as “footing” in some countries) for the arena-based equestrian sports has become an exact science over the years, with a complex layering system that ensures the best surfaces for the horses to perform on. And it’s crucial for any horse, let alone for those competing in the pure dressage and showjumping, the para dressage or in the eventing dressage and showjumping phases at an international championship.

    The Olympic footing at the Baji Koen Equestrian Park in Tokyo – with exactly the same composition on the main field of play and all the training arenas – is top quality sand mixed with roughly 1.5% of polyester textile fibres. The sand provides impact firmness and grip, and the fibres provide cushioning, elasticity and responsiveness, as the FEI has explained.

    “Sand is the most important ingredient in footing, and then the textiles and fibres are like the spices in your soup,” Oliver Hoberg, the man in charge of the arena surfaces at the Tokyo Games, says.

    Keeping that mix right, and maintaining the going is all part of his daily routine, which involves raking and watering, but the balance needs to be expertly monitored so that the surface allows horses to produce optimal performances.

    Oliver works in extremely close cooperation with the FEI’s footing expert, Professor Lars Roepstorff, the scientific brain in the partnership who conducts daily checks on all the equestrian park arenas with a “mechanical hoof”, originally created for testing racetrack surfaces. The hoof, which has now been adapted for the different equestrian sports disciplines, mimics the load placed on the horse’s leg and hoof when performing a dressage test or landing over a fence, whether that’s on sand or on grass.

    “Special sensors measure both horizontal and vertical forces as the mechanical hoof hits the ground and those sensors measure the response from the ground so we can actually measure what the horse feels when it jumps on the surface,” Professor Roepstorff explains. “The footing is absolutely crucial, both to performance and to the health of the horse, and the different functional properties of the footing will affect how the horse performs.”

    Those different functional properties allow for “tuning” of the surface, depending on the sport. But the only way to produce perfect going is through perfect maintenance to ensure uniformity on all parts of the arenas.

    “The footing is only as good as the level of maintenance,” Oliver says. “In fact, maintenance is just as important as the type of surface used in the arena.”

    With the correct level of maintenance, modern all-weather footing lasts up to 20 years, so there’s a great post-Games legacy plan, as all the arenas will remain in-situ when the venue is handed back post-Paralympics to its owners, the Japan Racing Association, so that they can continue to be used for equestrian sport for many years to come.

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