How to Choose the Right Footing for Your Riding Arena

Last Updated on March 2, 2022 by Allison Price

Riding arenas are a dream come true for riders. It all boils down to the foundation, just as with the horse’s training program.

Arena footing construction involves complex engineering. There are many factors to consider when building an arena. These factors can either improve your horse’s performance or expose him to injury such as ligament/muscle injuries or lameness. You can also directly impact the health of your horse and yourself by paying attention to dust control in indoor arenas. This is true for both riders and instructors as well as other people who use the arena.

Dave Heaton, Conterra Industries, Strathmore, Alberta, stated that horse health should always be the main concern, regardless of arena purpose. “North Americans who don’t live in the USA south must know that we are in one of most difficult environments to keep our feet on the ground, indoors or outdoors. A 10-20 year investment is recommended for anyone who plans to build an arena.

A hogfuel/woodchip arena, or one with a sandy floor may seem like the ideal place to begin training. Woodchips can cause slipping and certain sands may lead to tripping. For the perfect arena, you should look to what lies below.

Alex von Hauff, Strathcona Ventures Sherwood Park (Alberta), stated that “your base is the most important.” You can spend a million on the base and $5,000 on sand, and still be satisfied. You’ll never be happy if you spend $5,000 on the base, and a million dollars on sand. Spend the majority of your money on drainage and base.

Dust in the arena can impact horse and rider health, as well as everyone who uses it.

Three main considerations when placing an arena are the location of the arena relative to ground water, the access to that water to water the arena regularly, and the access to the site to store trucks and other equipment. Your arena should provide stable and secure footing for horses to move in and out, depending on the riding discipline. Access to adequate water is essential. If budget permits, you can install a sprinkler system that will water the arena before it gets too dry. This will allow for dust control as well as regular light harrowing or grooming to level it. You must also have the equipment to maintain the arena for its expected lifespan.

Christi Capozzi is the sales and marketing coordinator for ReitenRight Equestrian Inc. She stated that drainage is vital to the health and safety of your horses. Do your research and choose a location that encourages drainage. Install a drainage system.

Heaton stated that the arena’s three major components are the base, the surface, and the top dressing.

He said that bases are mainly made of clay. The amount of base depends on the arena placement, soil conditions and local environment. What works in one part of the country may not work in the other. Subsurface is often referred to as an independent entity. A good subsurface, according to me, is an extension or part of the footing, or top dressing. But, many people would like to layer two types of material on top of each other, which I think creates unstable ground. The top dressing is what transfers power to the subsurface when a horse is on good feet. Combining these two entities gives horses the stability and support they need to confidently execute a movement.

The changing climate could make environmental conditions more difficult. In regions where drought conditions are worsening, access to water could become more important. Von Hauff estimates that a 100×200 foot outdoor arena will require between 2,500 and 4,000 gallons (9.500 to 15,000 Liters) per day, while during drought conditions, it could need up to 6,000 gallons (nearly 233,000 Liters) per day. The challenge is whether you’ll have the water you need. Is it possible to afford and sustain the amount of water that you will need? Or will this put pressure on your water supply, whether it comes from your well or a ground source or a city’s aquifer. What restrictions might you have in times of drought? As von Hauff said, “If you can’t water the arena surface, it won’t bind.” The arena can’t be used if it doesn’t bind.

“The climate can pose a challenge, especially if the summers are hot and dry and the winters are cold and rainy,” Dr. Sarah Jane Hobbs (Reader in Equine and Human Biomechanics at the University of Central Lancashire) and lead author of FEI Equine Surfaces White Paper. It is essential to learn the best maintenance methods throughout the year and keep the surface from becoming uneven. These changes should also be noticed by riders. Horses will need to work harder to jump fences if the surface becomes extremely dry or deep. Too much movement can lead to slipping, which can result in overstrain of the tendons and/or ligaments. Horses can experience greater forces through their legs if the surface is too hard. This can lead to damage to bone and cartilage.

However, she said that horses can adapt to different surfaces because of the adaptations in their soft and hard tissues. Riders need to consider the horse’s current health and fitness, as well as the amount of exercise they plan to do each day. The adaptations will help them to be stronger and more fit than increase injury risk.

She said that the material composition of the surface is crucial as it will affect how it functions. “However, different materials can function in similar ways. Many arena surfaces are sensitive and can be affected by temperature and/or humidity. These factors can have an impact on the way the surface functions more than the material itself. The surface’s use and maintenance can also influence the property of the surface.

Footing for Your Riding

Hobbs stated in the White Paper, that surface complexity can lead to multiple needs to adapt to different loadings and conditions. The Paper gives one example: the canter pirouette demands that frictional characteristics and material shear strength be sufficiently low to prevent excessive loading from fixed feet and rotating limbs.

She wrote that “in contrast,” the same arena might need to have sufficient shear strength for stable turns or jumps. It is possible to conclude that an incongruous or uncertain surface can be dangerous and more likely to cause injury.

Horses can adapt to many surfaces, but there are limitations. High performance horses may be more susceptible to injury if they are trained or compete on drastically different surfaces.

Arena dryness increases dustiness and poses a risk to horses and humans. Penn State University College of Agricultural Sciences released a press release on December 5, 2013. It stated that dusty indoor environments can lead to pulmonary disease in humans.

Everything starts with the base when building an arena.

Von Hauff advised, “To build the base, level and pack rocks, put a layer geotextile between, then four inches road crush.” Pack it well and then cover with limestone dust. You don’t need to worry about the base shaking because water cannot rise from beneath.

You may need to install a French drain or weeping tile system depending on the ground water condition.

Outdoor arenas should have a slope or be crowned with a grade of one to three percent. This should work well with the natural slope of terrain. The most important consideration in drainage and indoor arenas is that rainwater runoff from outside should not be allowed into indoor facilities. Heaton stated that drainage is influenced by the clay, silt and sand content. Higher clay content retains more water, so silts and sand are better choices to promote efficient water drainage.

Once the base has been installed, you can pay attention to the top surface.

Eric Porter, Fairmount Santrol–Lakeshore Sand Co. director of technical services, stated that natural sand should have grains that are sub-angular. He also said that round grains will not be able to lock together, and that manufactured or crushed quartz sand is not a good choice. These grains are sharp and show stress cracks due to the crushing process. These sand grains can continue to fracture, creating dust and preventing water flow through the footing.

“We like to process natural sand from open-pit mines or sand dunes. We want a wide variety of grain sizes, so that the sand has a consistent packed density.” Screening removes the coarse particles. However, one should be concerned about long-term supply of consistent sand. There will be some maintenance.

To keep your arena looking good, groom it regularly. You will need to groom your arena more frequently if it is regularly used. Conterra Industries. Photo by Conterra Industries

Von Hauff warned against washing sand. Von Hauff stated that washed sand can be displaceable and provide no traction as soon as it dries.

He said that sand requires binding material and small amounts of clay. You want sand that is irregularly shaped so that the particles can link together. You don’t need river sand, or sand that is round. You get no locking effect if it is tumbling. Sand with many angles, irregular edges, and shapes is best so they can bind together by friction.

Heaton recommends a subsurface of five to eight millimetres sand with a medium to heavy silt/clay ratio and a 10-12 percent to 12 percent clay content. As an extension of the subsurface’s surface, the top dressing should contain three to eight meters of medium-to-heavy screened sand with five or seven percent silt/clay. Heaton said, along with von Hauff, that washed sand lacks the texture and body required for stable footing.

Heaton noted that the horse’s hoof must be in transition to exert more force on the footing material. Therefore, it is important to pay attention to which discipline will be most often used in the arena.

Heaton stated that horses may only use the top inch of their footing at a gentle lope. “However, horses may need to travel deeper into the ground to find stable footing if they have to stop or turn extremely hard.”

It is essential to be familiar with the physics and role of sand in our lives.

Christian Bauer, a footing specialist and owner at IQ Footing Malaga, Spain, stated that people need someone who is able to understand sands and how they react in different climates. “The footing layer gives shock absorption and traction.”

Bauer builds arenas on private farms and other venues for international high-level competitions.

It is now a science that studies the biomechanical effects of horses riding on different surfaces.

Hobbs wrote in the Equine Surfaces white paper that “it is true to say the majority of riders evaluate their horse’s performance almost every time they ride. To some extent, their perception provides an indication of the demands on their horse.” This information was gathered via questionnaires in order to improve our understanding of rider preferences regarding surfaces. However, because it is subjective, it can differ greatly between horse and rider. It is important to assess the horse’s performance on different surfaces in order to obtain objective data. This area of research is expanding. Instrumented horseshoes are used to measure the forces at ground, accelerometers to measure frequency and amplitude of impact shock, how vibration decays, 2-D, 3-D kinematic methods to measure differences in locomotion characteristics, and bespoke equipment to evaluate the difference in forelimb loads.

She also said that there are many innovative products available today, especially those that manage moisture.

Hobbs stated that it is important to consider the types of horses and activities when buying a surface. It is important to compare the benefits and limitations of different surfaces when costs are a concern. A uniform base should be used for all arenas. This base is often made of clean washed stones. If the arena is outside, drainage is also required. An indoor arena may need to be drained depending on its location. If cost is not an issue, the base may include a moisture management device. A membrane should be applied to most surfaces. It is usually a high-quality geotextile membrane that allows for drainage but doesn’t allow the top surface to get wet.

People are now looking at composites made of different materials that meet the primary requirements for safety, traction and moisture retention. It is important to have cushioning, shock absorption and traction because a horse weighing 1,200 pounds can impact the ground at 1,400 lbs per square inch during a gallop. Horses who have a surface that is below par are at risk for injury to their ligaments, joints or muscles.

Von Hauff said that hog fuel was for a long time the best thing since sliced bread, but geotextile footings are now available. There are products that can reduce the water required for arenas. We are currently researching the matter and will have a product ready for April 2016.

Non-toxic rubber can be used to add textiles to arena surfaces. This creates cushioning and energy returns, and fibre can increase traction and stability. Capozzi stated that when recommending a product to be added to an arena, they consider many factors.

She said, “We consider the arena’s size, footing system, footing depth, discipline, riders and any goals or problems (people) have for their arenas.”

Cynthia Brewster Keating, equestrian division, Polysols, Inc., (GGT Footing), reported that

Spartanburg, South Carolina: The golden rules of arena maintenance are regular manure removal with a pitchfork or wheelbarrow, daily grooming to keep it smooth and level, and grading to ensure that water runs away from the centre. A periodic check of footing depth is necessary to determine if additional footing is required.

Safe riding is possible with the arena in place. You will need to groom your horse regularly.

Von Hauff stated, “Never groom an area when it’s wet.” You can cause damage to the base. It should only be brushed when it is damp or wet. Never ride on your footing if it’s bone dry.

As it will conserve water, he recommends installing a sprinkler system. Leakage can cause hoses to waste a lot water. To conserve water and to prevent heat evaporation, always moisten the arena in evenings or early mornings.

An arena that is well-constructed and designed for your chosen discipline will be a great addition to your property. Before you start, make sure to get as many quotes as possible, visit other arenas, and ask for recommendations. Do your research on the top surface, geotextiles and additives. Also, keep an eye out for current trends in surface composites that retain moisture. You should research grooming equipment that has a depth control system. The tractor will have a 3-point hitch that will raise or lower the mower. However, you need to make sure it is level and you can control the depth of your teeth. You should only groom the top layer and not the subsurface or base.

Investing in a specific arena is a significant financial commitment. Make sure you do it once, and it will be a successful investment. It’s not just about the footing, it’s also about what lies below.

Allison Price
Allison Price

I’m Allison, born and raised in San Diego California, the earliest memory I have with horses was at my grandfather’s farm. I used to sit at the stable as a kid and hang out with my Papa while he was training the horses. When I was invited to watch a horse riding competition, I got so fascinated with riding!