Karen Leeming has worked from the ground up ‒ literally ‒ at Spruce Meadows, first as a groom for international riders in the 1990s and most recently as a footing expert upgrading a number of the rings and arenas on this hallowed show jumping grounds. Her FootingFirst company, which she co-owns with business partner Lawton Adams, is nearing the end of a major project at the Calgary venue, replacing the traditional sand blend with a more modern silica sand/fibre mix, including two indoor arenas, the new demonstration arena, the International warm-up ring and paths and the All Canada warm-up ring – a massive undertaking.

Spruce Meadows is making significant investments into the sport of show jumping, and into the venue, for its 50th anniversary and beyond. The footing is fundamental to that and an essential part of the first phases of these investments; the All Canada ring and other major improvements are also well underway, or will follow.

Leeming, who was born in the UK, first arrived on the continent when she backpacked to the United States at the age of 20. “I got home for my 21st birthday, worked a season at a show pony yard, saved up some money and came right back out to the US when I was 21 in the winter of 1991/92,” she said. She spent a few weeks travelling and eventually made her way up to Toronto in early 1992 and got a job as a housekeeper/nanny for the Gayfords. “It ended up being brilliant, great fun, because I got the best of everything,” she said, referring to being part of the family and gleaning valuable equestrian knowledge from Tom Gayford. She later groomed for Tom, Mark Hayes and Torchy Millar over the years.

A woman standing with a horse.

Karen Leeming and friend. (photo courtesy Karen Leeming)

Leeming was Canadian Equestrian Team manager at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia, and at the 2002 World Equestrian Games in Jerez de la Frontera, Spain. It was at the former that she noticed the footing was substandard and started paying special attention to it at other venues. When there seemed to be no clear expert installer of footing for equestrian sport in North America, she decided to remedy that situation and started her own company. She and Adams now possess three decades of experience in arena planning, construction, and footing installation using six purpose-made synthetic surfaces including TravelRight™ and TraveLite™.

Alberta show jumper Ben Asselin, the nephew of Spruce Meadow’s president and CEO Linda Southern, recommended FootingFirst for the project, having known Leeming for a long time. “I did work for Ben and his dad, Jonathan Asselin, quite a few years ago,” says Leeming. “We put TravelRight in their indoor arena, and then three or four years ago we put it in his outdoor arena.”

The company got the nod in February of this year for the Spruce Meadows project and “we started as soon as the weather allowed” – a tricky assignment in the unpredictable Alberta spring. “We had to be done by June 1 [prior to the Continental and the start of the summer tournaments].”

The new footing uses the SRS mix of two silica sands and EGT fiber that is water-dependent. “I have had very good success and it drains very well. TravelBrite is the dust-free footing that we put in the indoor arenas,” said Leeming.

While the new footing provides state-of-the-art cushioning properties, safety, and excellent traction encouraging proper breakover, drainage was the main focus in locations where that can be a challenge. “We were dealing with a lot of water from different areas that we had to direct and stop getting onto the arena. Obviously the arena should only to have to deal with what falls from the sky and not any water coming from outside sources!”

She explained, “Every good arena starts with the base, and that base has to be able to allow for a crazy two- or three-inch rainstorm, if not more. Your arena has to be able to cope with huge amounts of torrential rain, and as soon as that stops, allow the horse show to run again. We did have some of that at the June show and everyone was thrilled because as soon as the rain stopped, they were able to go out and keep warming up. It really improved everything.”


Construction site photos.

Construction in progress. One of the advantages of Superior Riding Surface (SRS) is that it is a water-dependent product which can be manipulated to dictate footing performance based on the moisture content applied. (FootingFirst / Jesse Berry, Bear Excavating photos)

Some of FootingFirsts’ major footing installations to date include the Royal Horse Show, Old Salem Farm, McLain Ward’s Castle Hill Farm, Daniel Bluman and others. Next up on the project docket? “I’m working on jobs from Wisconsin to Virginia,” said Leeming. “We just finished Riverlands Equestrian in Pemberton, BC; a project in Bozeman, Montana; a job in North Gower in the Ottawa area. We’ve just started on Kent School [a boarding school with an equestrian program] in Connecticut, and I’m doing a big job in North Carolina in the next couple of weeks.”

So is there still any room for improvement in footing for equestrian arenas, or has it reached the apex of material and technology? In an interview on the podcast Hitting Your Stride, Leeming commented, “We’re very close to getting there – it’s really about trying to create a footing and learning exactly what that fine line is between enough movement and too much movement. What we found is that the footing world went too firm and horses were getting injured in a different way [than when it was too soft]. Now we have to back away from that; you want the horses to be able to pat the ground on the takeoff and feel secure, but on the landing you want something that moves a little bit and allows for a bit more concussion value. I think we’re very close to getting it as perfect as we can.”