Horse Arena Footing Considerations When You Build a Riding Ring
By Christine Churchill, Five Star Ranch Staff Writer
Getting the horse arena footing just right is both a science and an art. Too deep can cause a horse to strain a tendon, not deep enough won't provide enough cushion for hard work. Different riding disciplines require different depths. It can get confusing really quick for a horse owner considering adding a riding arena in their back yard.
After years of hauling my horse to a local indoor arena that allowed day riding for a fee, I decided to bite the bullet and put in a nice arena in my pasture. I didn't want to go into it blind, so I took some time to do some homework upfront. This article captures some of what I learned.
The area I live in has very hard clay for soil that develops large cracks during the dry season and turns into tar pits during the wet. After a particularly bad summer when my horse actually caught his foot in a crack and fell down, I decided it was time to build an arena with improved footing so I could ride more safely.
There are probably other considerations, but starting out, these were some of the first big decisions I came up with.
Indoor covered arena versus outdoor riding ring
My first choice would be to have an indoor arena or a covered arena. In the Southern states simply having a covered arena is actually preferable to an enclosed arena which block air flow and holds in heat. This is especially true in the Southwest where if you can get out of direct sunlight, it is almost tolerable.
Due to the cost and my limited budget, I decided for now to opt for a nice outdoor riding arena. Indoor arenas, even ones without bells and whistles, start around $60K and that's just for a small empty shell of a building, no footing, no lights, etc. When I asked around, a finished arena was frequently over $100K for a pretty basic model. High end professional quality indoor arenas can easily pass $200K. The prices will vary depending on who builds it, the guarantee, the size, the material, the brand, and all the finishing touches you can add.
Arena Lights or no lights
Having arena lights was an attractive option for me. I rationalized that if I had lights, it would increase my riding opportunities. I could ride at night after work during the winter months when it was dark by 5 PM. I envisioned myself riding on summer nights when daylight hours made riding miserable.
I knew adding lights would mean higher costs since I would have to run electricity to the site and buy poles and out door lightning which is pricey. However, when I weighed the cost to the benefits, I opted to include lights. My rational there was since I was giving up the covered arena and saving costs there, so I could splurge a little by putting in the lights to make my outdoor arena more usable. You can find a good reason for almost anything if you want it bad enough.
Riding arena size dimensions
My next consideration was size. I already had a 60 foot round pen with sand. I found it was fine for ground work or light work, but riding in a small circle got old really fast. I wanted something rectangular that would allow me more flexibility.
I don't have a lot of acreage and any land I use for the arena is that much less pasture so this was an important decision. Something else to keep in mind is that the bigger the arena the bigger the costs. After weighing different things and testing out riding in different sized arenas, I decided to go with an arena that was at least 60 meters long by 40 meters wide - the dimensions of a small dressage arena. I like the fact I could make large circles and serpentines across the arena as well as jump or run barrels with that size. For more discussion on riding arena size, see our article on indoor riding arena considerations.
Dust Control in Horse Riding Arena
Something you need to consider is how you intend on dealing with dust in your arena. It is a serious matter that can make the difference between having a fabulous arena and one that is dangerous for you and your horse to use. A dusty arena may cause silicosis, a lung condition caused by breathing in silica dust. Silicosis is a serious lung disease that has been linked to lung cancer and lung damage. It is preventable with proper arena dust control.
The most common method used for dust control is watering. Area spinklers can be set up to water the arena. If you use water as your main dust control method and your water bill is getting excessive, you might want to look into some of the conditioners you can add to footing that draw in water and hold it so you don't have to water as frequently.
Your choice of arena footings can greatly affect the amount of dust you'll get in your arena. Rubber mulch footing, for instance, has almost no dust. Organic footings can have considerable. Lets look at some of these options now.
Types of Horse Riding Arena Footing
There are many materials used for arena footings. We'll walk through a few of the more popular materials and try to point out the pros and cons of each.
Sand arena footing
My first thought was sand. It is the most common footing and is relatively inexpensive. Many arena owners get sand and then till it into the ground to mix it with the top soil. It works pretty well and is what I use in my round pen.
Sand with additives
Many people start with sand and then add agents to it to improve it for riding. Rubber may be added to improve cushioning and reduce dust. Wood and peat moss sometimes are used to improve cushion, but since they break down they eventually contribute to dust.
There are also a number of fabrics you can add to the footing to help it retain moisture and improve cushioning. More of these enter the market all the time, but one common fabric additive is felt. You can also purchase special coated sand that can be added to regular sand to help stabilize it and reduce dust. These options vary in price depending on how much you add to the sand and the size of your arena.
Rubber Mulch, rubber chips, shredded rubber arena footing
Another option I have been hearing about is rubber footing. There are many on the market. When I ran track years ago I remembered how rubber tracks used to give me an extra spring and I always got my best running times on a rubber track.
I was attracted by the rubber footing option because my daughter's main riding horse is 20 this year; I thought the rubber might help extend her riding years. I also liked that it was virtually dust free, improved drainage and required little maintenance. (I'd rather spend my time riding than maintaining my ring.)
The idea that I'm recycling old tires and giving them a new purpose also made rubber footing attractive to me. Since I live in a dry climate, the fact that I didn't have to water the rubber arena as often as a plain sand arena was a plus.
One person I talked to about rubber footing told me the black rubber could be hot on your horse's feet on a hot summer day. This person had a outdoor ring and said they preferred to ride in the morning or after dark in the summer because the footing got hot. Well, I don't like riding in the middle of the day in the worst part of summer period, so that didn't seem like much of a show stopper for me. Also if you are using the rubber as an additive to sand (not just rubber by itself) you can greatly reduce the heat buildup. Additionally since they now make rubber products in different colors, opting for a color other than black may be preferable and reduce the heat buildup.
When rubber footings first were marketed there were issues with steel wire from the tires being left in the rubber. This problem has mostly gone away as most manufacturers of rubber arena footings now use magnets to remove the wire during the manufacturing process. Most rubber arena manufacturers have guarantees to be 99.9% steel-free.
The cost of the rubber footing is definitely higher than sand, but because it doesn't break down or wash away; you don't have to replenish it every year. So, long term it isn't appreciably higher. For an arena about 60 to 100 it would cost about $1500 for a 1 inch covering and about $3000 for a 2 inch covering.
My original plan was to go with a combination of sand with rubber mulch additive. The rubber additive would give me the cushion I wanted and the sand mixture helped keep the cost down. I figured if I factored in the cost of joint supplements I may have to buy years earlier if I used a harder surface, the rubber arena mixed footing might be the cheapest footing of all.
Before I bought the rubber footing, I discovered that the EPA treats old tire mulch as a type of hazardous waste. This meant I could use it in my arena fine, but if I ever decided to convert the arena into a pasture or something else, I would have to remove the rubber. That sounded like too much work, so I opted to go with sand.
We purchased angular sand which was slightly more expensive than the river sand, but it is less slippery. This made a big difference with the sand was wet. I had river sand in my round pen and when it is wet it is VERY slippery - almost to the point of being dangerous. The angular sand we put in the large arena was grippy and didn't wash away as easily as it was slightly larger than the river sand.
Arena Footing Depth
The optimum depth of your footing depends on the type of riding discipline you do. If you're into reining, you might want deeper footings than a dressage rider.
The main purpose of the footing is to add cushion so you can work your horse in an area where the pounding doesn't contribute to joint problems. At the same time, you need the footing to be firm enough to provide traction. Footing that is too deep can cause strains in the tendons and suspensory ligaments. Not deep enough won't protect your horse.
So, what depth is right? My advice to you after having to move sand out of my round pen is to start with less than you think you need. Its easier to add sand than remove it. On average, a footing depth of 2-3 inches seems to work well. That is enough to provide sufficient concussion protection without putting too much strain on ligaments.
In my arena, we put down about 2 1/2 inches of angular sand and then a year later I added about an inch of the river sand to provide a little more cushion and to replace some of the sand that had settled. I added the river sand because my local supplier was out of the angular sand, but I found I really liked the mixture of the angluar sand with a little bit of river sand. The river sand tends to be more cushiony than the angular sand, but the angular provided grippiness so it was the best of both worlds.
I could probably write an entire article on fencing for a riding arena but here are a few quick thoughts. First, I wanted to avoid anything that might catch a riders foot if the horse was traveling close to the side. I saw a little girl just a few months ago who had broke her leg from that very thing. Horse back riding is dangerous enough as is. I decided a fence that couldn't easily catch a foot was a requirement.
Since I was straining my budget building an arena, I decided to start with home made fence of pvc pipes and concrete blocks. Eventually I'd like a higher fence for the arena but since I have the round pen for turnout, I didn't really have a need for a high fence initially. The high fence fell into the nice to have category and could wait.
Eventually I found some used light weight panel fencing on Craigslist and erected that around the arena. I used a few T posts along the straight sides to add support to the panels. The fence was great as now I could keep my other horses out of the arena while I was working.
Horse Arena Maintenance
Nothing associated with horses doesn't involve maintenance of some kind. Maintenance is just part of the deal. That said I knew that I didn't want an arena that required an hour of maintenance for every hour of riding. The type of footing would dictate a lot of the maintenance requirements, so keep that in the forefront of your brain when you're reviewing footing options.
Watering and dragging are the two main arena maintenance chores. Water keeps the dust down and dragging levels out the ruts and trails created by riding. If the ring gets heavy use you may need to drag it frequently. You can tell when your ring needs dragging because you'll have trails with no cushioning footing left in them.
Dragging will redistribute the uneven footing and make for a nice level riding area. I love being the first one to ride a newly dragged ring. The horse notices the difference right away and seems to have a little extra spring in their gait. The usual device use to drag an arena is a tine harrow - it looks like a chain link fence with little spikes on it. Many people actually use a chain link fence and say it works fine. You can also pull a landscaper's box on the back of your tractor to smooth out the footing.
Cost of an arena and drainage
If you want a high quality year round riding arena it isn't cheap. There are a lot of variables that affect the arena price so your price will vary, but don't be suprised if the arena budget ends up north of $12,000. Bigger arenas cost more. Prices on your footing and base materials will vary dramatically in different areas. Some parts of the country will require more base work than others. So this is a very rough estimate. You can do it for less or a lot more, depending on how high end you make it. Many professional arenas cost over $40,000.
Two of the big costs associated with an arena are the getting the proper base developed and the footing. You can't skimp on the base. I know more than one person who has had to rebuild their arena because the first one didn't have a proper base.
A good base is critically important and can make a difference in how usable your arena is - especially after wet weather. A good arena base will have 4-6 inches of crushed stone that has been compacted down and leveled. This will allow for proper drainage. The footing is placed on top of the compacted base. For my sand - rubber mixture I plan to put down 1 inch of rubber chips and 1.5 inches of sand.
I actually went out in a rain storm to view my prospective arena site to see how the water flowed around it. If your site floods during rain, you may have to do some terra-forming to contour the water drainage away from your arena site. That adds a lot of extra cost to building an arena and tears up your pasture.
My arena building will start shortly. I will post pictures of its progress as things get going. I'll also try to pass on lessons learned. If you have experiences with arena building that you'd like to share with others, please write to Feedback. We look forward to hearing from you. Your ideas and suggestions are always welcome.