Toning Up Rings

If your indoor or outdoor arena is less than you hoped it would be, join the club. Heading up the short list of common complaints is footing--too slick, too hard, too uneven, too dusty, drains too slowly or so quickly it takes the footing with it. After that, take your pick of problems: Wrong size for your sport; drab, dark, and unappealing; fences and gates in disrepair.

It's time to right arena wrongs.

While you're prepared to devote time and money (within limit) to get the job done, you want to do it right. Here are some tips.

What Lies Beneath

"Many problems with arena floors stem from a poor sub-base and base," states Christine Skelly, PhD, associate professor of Adult Equine Extension Programs, Department of Animal Science, Michigan State University. "The excavation of top soil, the development of a good compacted sub-base, and the addition of the correct base material are the most important factors to a good arena floor. If done correctly, many problems with the surface will be eliminated. But if you try to fix a poor base with more surface material, you will ultimately throw your money away."

Says Wayne Gregory, general manager of Footings Unlimited (a footing supplier), "Putting brand new footing on a bad base creates all sorts of problems. If your budget is tight, always put the money toward the base first. You can fix or upgrade your footing later.

"The most thorough way (to check the base) is to blade all of your footing back and see what your base looks like," Gregory says. "An easier way is to take a shovel handle or broomstick, use a ruler and magic marker to mark that pole off in one-quarter-inch increments, and walk around the arena jamming it down into the footing. You'll see very quickly if you have five inches of footing in one place and only two inches in another. Once you find problem spots, pull back the footing to see what you're dealing with."

The two most common base problems are potholes or a slick, slimy base.

Potholes "If footing isn't maintained, it wears down the base," explains Gregory. "With every footfall, the hoof compresses the footing, pushing it against the base, back and forth, creating a sandpaper effect. It can slowly take a sixteenth of an inch a year off the base." Eventually, high-traffic areas end up uneven and pitted with trenches or potholes an inch or two deep, while seldom-used areas, such as the corners, have really deep footing. "Typically, the owner will drag and push the footing back into the depressions, but the footing could be four inches deep in one place and six inches deep in another. That's when people say their footing is inconsistent."

To repair low spots in the base, fill in the depressions with the same or similar material as your base (the majority are clay or compacted limestone). For clay bases, select good, nearly pure clay material, not clay with large amounts of sand, as the sand prevents good compaction, warns Gregory. "Fill the hole with your material and tamp it down with a vibratory plate tamper, which can be rented," says Gregory. "Hand tampers, beating material in with a shovel, or driving your truck back and forth over the filling won't work; it might last a month, then you're right back where you started. Plus, when the improperly tamped-in fill starts to loosen, it will mix with your surface, increasing dust and compaction."

Slickness This occurs, Gregory says, when water penetrates sand footing down to the clay base: The water and sand grind into the clay, causing the footing to slip around on the base.

Repairing a slick clay base is not easy. Because sand, water, and clay don't mix well, the ideal solution is to seal off the clay base with a sub-base of stone dust or limestone aggregate, Gregory says. This prevents footing from mixing with the base.

"To put down a long-lasting stone dust base, you need a minimum five-inch base after compaction, compacted to a level of 95% or more with a 10-ton roller," he explains. "This is probably out of the reach of most owners, so they will need to contract the job out."

Fixing Footing

A simple test can reveal the condition of your footing. "Go into the dry arena and stamp your foot down on the surface," says Gregory. "If your foot goes right through to the base and most of the sand blows out, your footing is shifting around too much. Technically this is called 'shear.' If very little happens and your foot comes to an abrupt halt, then your footing is too firm. If the footing depresses slightly, but most of it stays under your foot, then you are probably in the 'acceptable zone.'

"Overall, it is more economical to totally replace the surface when it is worn out versus adding more," continues Gregory. "When more surface is added, it tends to just get deeper without alleviating problems associated with dust."

When replacing your footing, use the type and depth of footing best suited for your sport. "In general, Western disciplines require a deeper and heavier footing than English disciplines," says Gregory. "Dressage people may love an arena that's straight sand 2-2 1/2 inches deep. Jumpers may like an arena that's 80% sand and 20% clay. Reiners like a little bit more clay. Generally, as you move from dressage toward Western disciplines, the footing gets a little deeper and heavier and you have a little higher clay concentration. In between all that, you have the whole gaited world of Saddlebreds and Tennessee Walking Horses."

If your arena is used for mixed disciplines, Gregory suggests either going by the numbers--which discipline uses it the most--or choosing a compromise surface of a 2:1 ratio of sand to clay mix, three inches deep.

"Most jumpers, dressage, and Western pleasure horses could live with this, but this wouldn't be suitable for the Western sports like barrel racing, roping, or reining," says Gregory. "If you can't afford to change out the whole thing, take half of it out and replace with fresh footing material. That's not an ideal solution, but it will help reduce the dust and compaction problems. The important thing is to do something before the footing gets to the point that it is adversely affecting the horse's health. But only go this route once and only to buy some time. Ultimately you want to remove all the problem material and start fresh."

Introducing additives (rubber, wood chips, etc.) can help compensate for worn footing, he says, but they're not cheap--from 20 cents to 50 cents a square foot.

Alternatively, you could replenish with coarse, rounded sand (sand taken from a place where water flows). Gregory suggests a ratio of half-inch of rounded sand for three inches of compacted footing. "The rounded sand acts like ball bearings and prevents the clay, stone dust, or decomposed sand from getting too compacted," explains Gregory. "That's probably the least expensive way to solve compacted or hard footing."

Too Dry, Too Wet

The best base and the greatest footing in your outdoor arena won't help if a soggy surface keeps you out of the ring or if every rainfall carries away part of your footing. For these situations, your arena needs a better grade or slope.

To obtain adequate drainage, the arena should be crowned either in the center (where water drains off on all sides), straight down the middle (water drains on two sides), or sloped all in one direction. The grade should be pitched between 1% to 2%, but there is a bit of a trade-off.

"The minimally effective slope is 1%," says Gregory. "Your arena won't drain all that well, but better than flat. At 1 1/2% you start to get good drainage, and this is generally acceptable. If you want to ride 10 minutes after it pours rain, increase the slope to 2%. It will drain and dry quicker, but it's also going to move the footing more and create little ruts. It all depends on what you want to live with."

Skelly cautions that when grading your arena, be aware of where the water is directed. "Are you going to flood another area of the farm by redirecting water away from arena?" asks Skelley. "If so, French drains or drain tiles might be necessary."

You should also have a means of collecting washed-out footing. Scott Tarter, trainer/owner/manager of Twin Lakes Farm, an English riding academy (Bronxville, N.Y.), says his outdoor arena takes only an hour to dry after a regular rain, but in heavy rains, some of the footing gets washed away. To deal with that, Tarter built a trap for the water to run into. Three sides are concrete block, the arena-facing side is wooden board with open digits. "The water runs in, the sand sinks to the bottom, the water runs over the top and keeps on going," explains Tarter. "After a heavy rain, we pull out the board, which is as wide as the bucket of our tractor, go in with the tractor bucket, scoop up the footing, and return it to the ring."

Grading an arena is not for most do-it-yourselfers, says Gregory. "You have to blade it, move around a lot of heavy earth, and be very precise with the grading."

At the opposite end of the spectrum, a dry, dusty indoor or outdoor arena can cause eye, nose, and respiratory problems for horse and rider. There are several ways to help control dust:

Watering Outdoor arenas in dry weather might have to be watered every day; indoor arenas usually need water at least every three days, Gregory says.

Manual watering is time-consuming, but doesn't involve expensive equipment. Tarter's arenas see some 1,200 lessons a month, meaning a lot of riding and a lot of dust. He reduces manual watering chores by using rotary garden sprinklers. "We put the sprinklers on the posts that we place out in the ring," says Tarter. "But they only spray a 20-meter circle, so they have to be moved every half-hour."

Alternatively, an automatic sprinkling system greatly facilitates watering chores. "Installing a well-designed automatic sprinkler system for the indoor or outdoor arena is an enormous labor-saving device and a quality investment," Tarter states.

For an outdoor arena, Tarter cautions that sprinklers should be mounted outside the ring, where they're protected from the drag and horses turned out. Sprinklers for indoor arenas must drain completely from the pipes (important during the winter to prevent freezing water from shattering the pipes), have proper support to prevent the pipes from sagging and dripping; and have sufficient water pressure.

Make sure your system's sprinkler heads are easily adjustable and replaceable.

Adding small amounts of organic material (wood chips, etc.) or water-absorbing fibers will help the arena to retain more moisture, says Gregory.

Coated sand "Wax products can be sprayed on sand to coat it, making the dust particles heavier," explains Gregory. "Polymers can be permanently bonded to the sand. Polymers last longer, but cost more; waxes are cheaper, but wear off."

Salt "Salt pulls moisture from the air and from the exhalation of horses and people," says Gregory. "The safest salt for arena use is magnesium chloride. But even the safest salts are corrosive and a potential irritant to a horse with an open cut, so use minimally, about two or three ounces per square foot of two- to three-inch-deep footing."

Polymers "Because every grain of (polymer-coated) sand is laminated, the warranty promises you will never water, and the product will not make dust for 25 years," reports Gregory. "However, it costs $5 a square foot."

Clean-up Clean the arena frequently if used for turnout; hay and manure remnants increase dust, Gregory warns.

Arena Wrongs

Although bad footing is the single most common arena complaint, there are other conditions that can render your arena inconvenient or unsafe. Is your arena guilty of any of the following?

Wrong size "Usually arenas serve many purposes," Skelly says. "So you might need to compromise on some events to have versatility. Keep in mind: The faster the intensity, the more room is needed to safely maneuver."

In many training situations, a bigger arena provides more options, although for beginning riders, lessons in small arenas are usually preferred. "It's easy for students to get lost in a huge ring," adds Tarter.

A simple way to shrink your indoor or outdoor arena is to cordon off an area. Tarter recommends using three-foot-high, lightweight, portable traffic barricades. Made of plastic, they are highly visible, easy to move, and lock together.

Unfortunately, enlarging a small arena is expensive and labor-intensive.

Inappropriate fencing Fencing that is in disrepair, too low, high-maintenance, or installed incorrectly needs attention. For fewer hassles in the future, here are some fencing tips.

  • Place fence rails on the inside of the posts to prevent the rider's knees from hitting when the horse gets too close to the posts, Skelly warns.
  • If your outdoor arena doubles as a turn-out area, make sure your fencing is high enough to contain your horses, at least four feet, Tarter says.
  • Reduce maintenance by installing PVC plank fencing. "It can break," Tarter says, "but it requires far less maintenance than wood."

Inconvenient or unsafe gates "Make sure arena gates swing out and not in," Tarter says. "Also, your gate should be wide enough to let through a tractor, drag, or other equipment that you use."

Lighting "Set up your lighting so that it's even all the way across," says Tarter. "Otherwise, you can create a lot of shadows, which can be spooky for a horse."

Mirrors Install protection such as sliding doors that can cover your mirrors when they're not in use, says Tarter. Ideally, the top of the mirrors should be angled forward about four inches off the wall so it's easier for riders to see themselves.

The Little Things

Although it's easy to focus on major inconveniences or problems of your arena, spend a little time getting picky. Before commencing with your arena makeover, try to identify shortcomings.

"Think of the horse and rider on the rail and trouble-shoot for any given incident," advises Skelly. "Are there gate latches, boards, ledges, or openings where rider can get a knee or head caught if the horse spooks? If a rider falls, can they fall into a mirror or window? Are there jumps, barrels, or trail obstacles in the arena where beginner horses or riders might get hurt? Is there easy access to a phone for emergencies?"

Modifying and repairing an arena can be an expensive job, so make sure you don't have to make over your makeover in a few short years.



About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners