Safe at Work

Whether riding a reining pattern or jumping a Grand Prix course, the arena is one of the oldest established venues where equine performance is trained and measured. Arena competitions date back to the times when horse-drawn chariots dashed wildly around the Roman Coliseum. While construction and maintenance practices have changed dramatically, equine facilities still share several common features.

Different equine athletic needs require different footing. Good footing for a hunter/jumper show wouldn't accommodate a reining show, and vice versa. The footing needs to be appropriate for the activity, and not cause injuries to the equine athletes.

Hilary Clayton, BVMS, PhD, who holds the Mary Anne McPhail Dressage Chair in Equine Sports Medicine at Michigan State University, has done extensive research into ground surfaces as they relate to equine health and performance. She states that "Everything in footing is a balance. Good footing allows the horse's foot to move a little bit upon landing, but when the horse goes to push off, you don't want footing that gives too much."

Clayton maintains that a hard, brittle surface, such as concrete or sun-baked clay, has a high impact resistance because it absorbs little or none of the impact energy. Conversely, an overly soft surface has a low impact resistance that absorbs most of the footfall energy, and while the concussion force is less, it requires an inordinate amount of energy for the horse to travel forward.

The Fundamentals of a Good Ground Surface

A poorly prepared ground surface can significantly compromise a horse's performance. For the horse restricted to a confined space, the ground on which he moves has a decided effect on his abilities. While several variables come into play, including genetics, nutrition, care, and training, the dynamics of a horse's footing are also influenced by surface depth, strength, moisture retention, and drainage. Clayton continues on to say that a well-prepared ground surface is crucial to constructing a safe arena, as it is the resiliency of the footing that absorbs the shock caused by concussive hoof force. Therefore, a supple top layer can be a determining factor in keeping the effects of trauma from transferring back to the leg or hoof.

Surface Depth

"Maintaining a uniform surface layer is a key component to safety and performance," states Tim Jones, director of special events at the Kentucky Horse Park. "What the arena is to be used for is the main consideration for determining the appropriate depth. A gaited horse will require less depth of footing than a jumper, for instance."

He also submits that "the frequency of use, the texture, and moisture retention also play major roles." He adds that climate is also a significant factor in preparing the appropriate surface. "In other words, there are 100 ways to address the issue, but the end result should always be the same--safe footing."

Soil Strength

Soil strength applies to the unyielding qualities a ground surface exhibits under pressure. This becomes an important issue as it relates to possible injuries when executing turns or upon take-offs and landings over fences. Dry sand, on one end of the spectrum, is considered low in strength, while clay is known as a high-strength substance. Unfortunately, over time, soil strength, no matter the composition, will break down, a condition often accelerated with overuse or from climate conditions.

Joe Silva, Executive Director of the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in Woodstock, Vt., states that with cold, wet, or snowy weather dominating the forecast for much of the year, they find that using a mixture of washed sand and 6% clay for the outdoor arenas helps to keep the footing from breaking down from one season to the next when compared to adding organic material, for example. "It would simply compost here," declares Silva.

Edie Tschorn, owner of Trumbull Mountain Tack & Stables in Shaftsbury, Vt., agrees. He also brings in at least one inch of new material every spring to maintain surface integrity throughout the season.


Sand and dirt exhibit a variety of conditions resulting from the amount of moisture added to the arena. As watering is a prime method for controlling dust, this becomes a significant consideration when choosing and maintaining a ground surface. With sand, for instance, the more water added, the longer the dust will be contained; however, as it becomes wet, the ground becomes so hard that it no longer will be supple. Dirt, on the other hand, is affected by the quantity of silt, clay, and organic matter present. The drier the dirt, the harder the ground. Watering will help to create a dust-free, supple surface, but can become an issue when the ground is overly wet as slippery conditions will occur.


Drainage is necessary in order to maintain an adequate moisture level for both an indoor and outdoor facility. Jones states that in order to have adequate drainage, especially for outdoor arenas, finding the right location is critical. "The right place is where water is dispersed evenly, without puddles forming or rivers running through," he says.

While an outdoor arena is subject to weather conditions, indoor arenas also face drainage problems from rupturing pipes or malfunctioning sprinkler systems.

The Problem of Dust

Dust results from insufficient moisture, which can occur for a variety of reasons, including the type of surface material, inadequate sprinkler coverage, insufficient time for moisture to penetrate the surface, footing that is water-resistant, or high moisture evaporation rate in arid regions. It's not unusual to take a break during a show at GMHA to water the arena. "We make a point to carry out maintenance duties throughout the day, even though the rings are prepared each morning," says Silva.

Indoor arenas are especially prone to dust problems. While adequate ventilation is necessary to keep dust from rising and lingering, it is also important for keeping moisture and humidity levels low as well.

The indoor arena at the Kentucky Horse Park is not subject to the harsh weather conditions that occur in Vermont. But while it is covered on top for protection, is totally enclosed on one end, and is partially enclosed on the other end, the two long sides can be opened or closed to allow for controlled air flow.

Constructing a Firm Base

The base layer is essential to preserving an arena's surface. Even the most expensive footing will be compromised if the foundation is faulty. While location and budget constraints can dictate the surfaces and methods by which you establish the base, it is essential to create a uniform, impenetrable substructure. Crushed limestone is a common foundation, and it is used at the Kentucky Horse Park. Depending on your location, other acceptable materials might include blue stone, decomposed granite, or sure-pack. Even clay can make an adequate base. The presence of weeds in an outdoor arena is a sure sign that the base was not properly packed.

Surface Materials

No one ground surface is best for every situation. With the variety of materials available on the market, it is now possible to combine a mixture of surfaces to suit your needs. While no two arenas are alike--and different disciplines have different footing requirements--there are some basics that apply to all. Silva believes that the ideal ground surface should be flexible enough to absorb the shock from impact, yet be resilient enough to give the horse buoyancy.

Sand is generally considered to be the preferred footing material, yet sand is composed of a wide range of materials that can vary greatly in mineral content and size. Depending on the category of sand used, from coarse to very fine (the finer the sand, the higher potential for dust, but the stronger it is), sand requires less maintenance to minimize injuries when compared with a hard dirt surface. Often used in high-traffic arenas because of its resilient qualities, sand tends to perform better than soils that contain a high degree of silt or clay. For example, the Kentucky Horse Park's outdoor arenas are composed of stone dust and river sand, while the indoor is a combination of topsoil, cedar sawdust, and river sand.

Turf facilities are often valued as much for their aesthetic appeal as for their user-friendliness. In an ideal climate, with light to moderate use, turf is easy to maintain and has virtually no dust; however, the use of grass can be tricky.

Silva says it is challenging to maintain the GMHA turf arena in Vermont, where harsh weather conditions predominate. "A turf arena does not hold up well with overuse; the result is soil compaction and loss of grass cover," says Silva. "Bald spots tend to pond with rainfall or irrigation, and if the soil becomes too dry, it becomes very hard. In order to avoid problems, we maintain a non-stop conservation program, except, of course, during the winter months."

In our May 2000 cover story entitled "Footing," by Les Sellnow, he cites three examples that are particularly noteworthy. Klaus Fraessdor, winner of the United States Dressage Federation Footing Award for the footing in Clarcona Horseman's Park in Orlando, Fla., in 1995, combined a three- to four-inch mixture of 30% screened limestone and 70% shredded pea-sized car tires designed to allow for a 1 1/2-inch indentation by the horse. The mixture lies on a bed of hard packed limestone and, thanks to sandy soil conditions inherent to Florida, no other drainage system is needed.

Tempel Farms, located in Illinois, which for the past decade has produced the Champion Young Rider in dressage, contracted Hermann Duckek, an internationally renowned footing expert, to create the optimum top surface conducive to the region. An equal mixture of Number 2 sand and bagged pine shavings to a depth of two inches was applied over a screened limestone base. This base was laid on the hard clay indigenous to Illinois' topography, resulting in an arena that provides superior footing.

Sellnow also discusses the use of rubber as a popular ground surface resource. The example he cites is in Indio, Calif., at the Empire Polo Club and Equestrian Center. According to Sellnow, the management wanted to create a more forgiving surface for their training rings, which resulted in using the shredded remains of 80,000 pairs of Nike athletic shoes mixed together with the existing sand.

Man-made materials are also viable options. Polymer-coated sand is considered durable and dust-free, and it needs no water. The coated grains compress under impact, simultaneously providing resiliency and strength. Another material, fibersand, is composed of silica sand and strong, rot-proof fibers; however, in both cases they are very expensive.

Arena Maintenance

Arena maintenance cannot be overemphasized. Silva points out that conditioning the soil prolongs moisture intake that in turn helps to keep dust away longer. He also stresses the need to maintain a routine grooming program, which is instrumental to controlling the differences in depth or thickness, footing compaction, and slick spots.

So how can you tell if an arena is safe and healthy for your horse? Silva says, "To put it simply, people tell us. If there's a problem, we're going to hear about it, but we try to forestall as many as possible by having GMHA members present at each site to monitor dust levels and footing conditions."

In addition, there are other subtle, yet equally important, reasons to perform periodic maintenance on your arena--materials from nails to standard cups easily can get lost in the footing, causing untold disasters. That is why it is part of the routine at the GMHA to use a metal detector to clean the rings after grooming.

Other Safety Concerns

Another area of maintenance concerns equipment--where to store it and how to have it available when needed. Whether you store it in a corner of the ring or outside the gate, the point is to keep everything out of harm's way and still have easy access to what you need. At the Kentucky Horse Park, there is a separate facility for storage so that whatever is slated for use will be transported to the site and set up in advance. At the GMHA, concrete pads have been constructed outside the arena to keep everything off the ground and close to the rings. They also paint the jumps and standards before they go into year-end storage in order to protect the wood throughout the winter.

Take-Home Message

Arena construction and maintenance can have a profound effect on the performance of your horse. A well-designed, properly cared for facility and long-term career potential of your horse are closely related. Conversely, while injuries related to footing might not be immediately evident, in many cases the consequence of repeated strides on a poorly prepared surface can result in soft tissue or bone damage.

Although there is no single prescription to building a healthy arena, foresight and planning will go a long way to ensuring that horses stay safe and sound. By understanding the dynamics of what goes into construction and maintenance, injury and soundness problems of your horses often can be prevented.

About the Author

Toby Raymond

Toby Raymond has been involved with horses throughout her life from showing hunter/jumpers, galloping racehorses, and grooming trotters to exercising polo ponies, as well as assisting veterinarians at tracks in New York and Florida. By combining her equine knowledge with her 20-year experience in the advertising industry, she has formed TLR & Associates, a creative resource for people in the horse business. When not working, she usually can be found at the barn, hangin' with her horse Bean.

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