Famous Footing Guy — Karsten Koch

provided courtesy of Galway Downs Equestrian

Olympic riders and horses are not the only equestrian celebrities to frequent Galway Downs.

Galway Downs’ arenas have improved dramatically thanks to the influence of one of the world’s preeminent footing management experts – Karsten Koch of Germany.

Karsten is a protégé of late Hermann Duckek. When “the footing pope” passed away shortly after doing the footing for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Karsten and fellow footing guru Oliver Homberg stepped into managing the arenas for many of the international competitions and championships that Duckek had handled.

Karsten’s footing career launched with the influence of another famous German equestrian — former FEI president Count Dieter von Landsberg-Velen. Karsten’s mother cooked and cared for the Count, who lived on a castle and was chief of the local riding club.

Hosting competitions on the property eventually included the German Championships. “He had a grass arena and we always had a lot of rain at the time of the Championships – June or July,” Karsten recalls. “At a certain point, some of the riders said, ‘If you don’t get a sand arena, we’re not coming anymore.’”

The arena and schooling rings were switched to sand, but somebody was needed to maintain them. Having grown up working on the castle grounds, Karsten, at 23, was assigned that task. As the stakes for those Championships rose, Duckek was brought in. He liked Karsten’s work and recruited the young man to help him at big events where he managed the arenas.

For the first several years, Karsten juggled an increasingly busy itinerary of footing assignments with his “regular” job with Meredith and Markus Beerbaum. Karsten was stable manager for the German show jumpers.

By the time Karsten and Oliver were assigned riding surface responsibilities for the 2008 Olympics held in Hong Kong (as part of the Beijing Games), demand for his services prompted a move to footing work full time.

Rising Tide in Footing Quality

Since then, it’s been a challenge to keep up with growing demand. Footing that provides cushion and stability – specific to the needs of each discipline – is critical to performance and injury prevention for all horses.

The International Equestrian Federation implemented Riding Surface Standards in 2019 for its sanctioned championships. Increasingly, major competition series around the world are embracing the standards, too.

Use of the Orono Biomechanical Surface Tester, aka “the robot hoof,” enables measurement of footing’s characteristics. In layman’s terms, these parameters define how the footing feels to the horse when they land, push-off and turn.

The emphasis on good footing at the highest level of equestrian sport has carried over to commercial and private riding arenas everywhere.

Nilforushan Equisport Events’ Ali Nilforushan brought Karsten to California to help upgrade the footing for his hunter/jumper shows in 2021.

Karsten had met Ali, an Olympic jumper for Iran, in Germany when Ali was horse shopping at the Beerbaums. They struck up a friendship and stayed in touch as Karsten emerged as an expert in an increasingly valued field. Meanwhile, Ali had retired from his jumping career and he and his wife Francie helped upgrade the Galway Downs venue as they plotted multi-week hunter/jumper circuits that have broken the mold for the quality of overall show experience.

Water, Water, and More Water!

Although water is often thought the enemy when falling from the skies onto a California arena, Karsten uses water and lots of it when prepping the Galway Downs stages for hunter/jumper events. When an eventing competition is bookended by the Nilforushan shows, the arenas get the benefit of Karsten’s water work, too.

“I let the sand perform, and you can only do that with water,” Karsten explains. “Usually here with my water crew, I see they are panicking – saying it’s too much water.” The amount of water needed depends on weather conditions. Dry, windy days require more water added, and rainy days and cool weather require less.

At Galway Downs shows, Karsten and his crew work on the water mostly at night. “Sometimes we are flooding it to where the water is almost standing on top of the surface, but it has the whole night to settle down.”

Water does much more than control dust, Karsten emphasizes. “The sand here has a certain amount of limestone and a little bit of clay from the base. It can get rock hard when it dries out. So, it has to have the moisture to be a bit spongy and elastic so it’s nice and comfortable for the horse. That is my main job when I’m working here.”

Water lubricates the grains of sand. This slows the breakdown that happens when horses, tractors and trucks work on the surface. Karsten uses footing additives – fibers and geotextiles – with the sand. Provided by Footing Solutions at Galway Downs, these particles help the sand retain more water and provide elasticity in the surface. A fine balance of these components achieves traction and safety.

Influential Base

An arena’s base heavily influences how much water the riding surface needs. His preference is an Ebb and Flow system with built-in drainage. Arenas with these under-the-surface bases can meet FEI championships standards of draining adequately even when an inch of rain falls in one hour.

Ebb and Flow systems distribute water from the base up. This reduces evaporation loss of water sprayed from sprinklers or a truck. And it avoids the issue of water trucks that can compact the top layers of footing.

Even without that system, Galway Downs’ main arenas have handled a huge amount of rain these past few years- at least by California standards. Footing that enables the show to go on safely – despite downpours – has allowed Galway Downs to set new regional standards for safe, rideable arenas.

As Galway Downs supports the paths of horses and riders competing at the highest levels, it’s fitting to have help from a footing expert who works primarily in that realm.

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