Picking Karl Cook's Brain on Arena Footing, Rider Balance, and Keeping Horses Sound

Picking Karl Cook's Brain on Arena Footing, Rider Balance, and Keeping Horses Sound

Your horse’s health and soundness is one of the most valuable assets you’ll have as a team. Most of us are familiar with the various pre- and post-ride measures we can take to promote soundness, from ice boots to magnetic pulse therapy, but how do a rider’s actions in the saddle directly influence the horse’s body and, ultimately, the horse’s soundness? How can we promote soundness in the saddle, and what should we avoid?

Equestrian Masterclass Instructor and Grand Prix show jumper, Karl Cook, shares how to gain a deeper understanding of distances, balance, and footing in the context of promoting your horse’s soundness.

NoelleFloyd.com: How do different types of distances affect the horse’s body? For example, how does a horse's body have to adjust to or leave a step out, or take off long? 

Karl Cook: I think the easiest way to think about it is to draw the flight path on a line of the center of gravity of the horse. For a long distance, the take-off angle from flat is more shallow. It’s more acute or obtuse depending on which of the two angles you’re looking at. It’s a shallower takeoff, there’s less of a change of direction when you have a long distance. 

NF: How about when the horse has to adjust to accommodate a deeper distance, or a chip?

KC: The closer you get, it’s the opposite: the faster your change of direction has to be to avoid the fence. We’re assuming you avoid the fence and even if you have a rail, the horse is still trying. The speed of change of direction understandably applies a much more immediate load through the horse and that immediate load causes more stress. You’ve got to change, depending on the size of your horse and the size of the rider, between around 1300 and 1600 pounds of moving mass very quickly. And what’s doing that are tendons and ligaments and muscles and cartilage. The faster you change direction, the more load you’re putting on the whole biomechanical structure. And, you know, the more load you put on it, the easier it is to create an injury. 

NF: What could it mean for the horse’s long-term soundness to be consistently chipping or consistently taking off long? 

KC: I don’t want to instill fear in people that they’re injuring their horse when they have a bad distance. I think you would have to be one epic chipper to really have an injury where you would say yes, this injury is caused by my propensity to chip every single distance.  

NF: What mistakes do you see riders making in the saddle that could impact their horse’s biomechanics and ultimately their soundness?

KC: What I would say is that most riders—and I mean, 90% percent of riders—require their horse to balance them. You can see it if you tell someone to drop the reins and to relax their legs. Do they stay in the saddle? Do they look comfortable? If the answer is yes, then they’re not requiring the horse to balance them. They are perfectly fine balancing on their own. 

But over 90% of the riders like to feel weight in their hands—the reason being it makes them feel more stable. Their body has to do less of the work because the weight the horse is taking is keeping them secure. 

But that’s requiring the horse to do work it’s not designed to do, and that puts more load through the horse’s topline. I feel it makes 10 minutes of canter more strenuous on the horse than if the horse was light and using its own body and was not needing to balance you, the rider.

NF: How can riders become more aware of their own balance, or lack thereof?

KC: I think the biggest thing is, do they have weight in their hands? We can all feel when we have weight in our hands. If our arms are getting tired, if when we jump we need the horse to carry us over the fence, I think that’s the easiest way to feel it. 

Obviously a horse helps balance you in more than just your hands, but your hands are the shocking majority of the way people like to balance. It’s way easier to ride a horse when all you have to do is pull more, or pull less. You don’t have to move your seat, you don’t have to use your legs. There’s fewer buttons to press. But that simplification has its effects.  

NF: You’re very passionate about the science involved in equestrian sport, from the physics of jumping to the ins and outs of footing. Can you describe exactly what makes footing bad or good? 

KC: The first and most common way for footing to be unsafe is that it is highly variable. Now, of course, this depends on what you’re doing in it. If you’re just walking and trotting, more variable footing is not that harmful. But it’s a problem if you’re jumping and the footing is variable, meaning you’re going from hard to soft and hard to soft again, or you have humpbacks in your footing. 

A horse doesn’t anticipate that sort of variability. If you are running to the beach, you’re running on asphalt, and then before your foot lands in the sand, you’ve already adjusted your run to compensate for the change in footing. A horse doesn’t do that. So they will get surprised in a change of footing and that causes hyperflexion-induced injuries and others, but mainly hyperflexion. 

The second and third ways footing can be unsafe is if it’s way too deep (think dry beach sand) or way too hard. It’s very rare that you see someone’s regular riding surface is super deep, loose sand. I think it’s more common for people to hit way too hard nowadays than way too deep. Especially in California, coupled with the dry climate, bone bruises, foot bruises, stone bruises, stress fractures if it goes too far, straight-up fractures if it goes really, really far. 

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So those three would be the unsafe parameters. The rest are basically all performance-related or, even beyond performance, academia-related. They really don’t matter, even for me, if I’m jumping below 1.45, I don’t even look at the other stuff because it just doesn’t matter. 

NF: Out of curiosity, what are those additional parameters?

KC: First there’s uniformity. Then there’s cushioning, or the lower layers of the footing matter the harder you hit the footing, and the harder you hit the footing, and the way you hit the footing is a bit like an explosion. Think of a shock wave of an explosion. The bigger the explosion, the bigger and farther your shock wave goes. So after the impact there’s a load. 

If I’m jumping 1.60 versus 1.30, it’s an exponential increase in how hard I hit the footing because the acceleration of gravity is exponential force, so it goes up with the square of the distance, so twice as high is four times as much power. And that doesn’t include friction forces, which are negligible. 

Then there’s grip, which is pretty self-explanatory. Then responsiveness is your pushback, or how much the footing holds you once the load is applied. Because a horse doesn’t just hit the footing and come off, they hit and they load it. Responsiveness is how the footing deals with that second phase of the load phase. So after the impact there’s a load.  

Impact firmness is next. Just as cushioning is the deep layers, impact firmness is the top, say, one inch. From personal experience as a human, what you feel is the impact firmness. You cannot feel cushioning. The sound that you hear, people say I can hear if a footing is hard or soft, you can’t. In an objective way. I’ve had footings that sound like asphalt, yet the cushioning was awesome. I’ve had footings that were super quiet, yet the cushioning was crazy hard. It’s a good idea, but it’s just not as linear as people would like to think. And then all your own foot tests, hitting it with your own foot, it’s only the first inch. I’ve done it a bunch of times and I’ve been wrong. It really taught me that I can’t feel what the footing is. 

NF: Where did your interest in science as it pertains to horse sport come from, and how did it get to be such a big part of your program? 

KC: To me it makes perfect sense and it’s simple. I want my horses to last as long as they can, jump as high as they can, with as little wear as possible. And so the more I can understand the variables, the more I can manipulate the variables, and the more I can deal with the strain of variables I can’t manipulate, the healthier, better, faster, higher my horses will be. 

[Listen] A Real Life Horse Nerd - Karl Cook