Building A Dressage Arena

Katie Navarra

Dressage arena Brentina Arena overview at Rebecca Farm

Deciding on the horse arena size in many disciplines can be an agonizing decision—more space is always preferred but sometimes constrained by budget. The choice is simpler for dressage riders because dressage arenas are one of two sizes.

A standard dressage arena is 20 meters x 40 meters. The small dressage arena is used for lower-level dressage and eventing competitions. A full-size arena measures 20 meters x 60 meters and is used in upper-level events.

Building an arena is a dream come true for many riders. It’s easy to get excited about the finished product. Patience and planning are important for avoiding costly mistakes. If you’re getting ready to install a dressage arena at your barn, consider these points before moving any dirt.


Before you dig

There’s much more to building a horse riding arena than clearing land and adding sand or synthetic footing. Taking the time to research and plan ensures the space is one your horse is happy to work in while staying sound and holds up to regular use. 

Before the excavator moves its first bucketful of dirt consider these factors:

  • How many people ride in the arena each day?
  • Do you have the equipment, time, and resources to build it yourself, or is it necessary to hire a contractor?
  • How accessible is the water supply?

Location, location, location

Evaluate the property. Equipment makes it possible to build an arena anywhere on the property. However, choosing a spot that is already cleared or relatively level helps save on excavation costs. Riders tend to focus on “the dirt” or the footing that will end up in the arena rather than the land’s topography.

Standing water or puddling suggests the area may naturally be wet. Conversely, you’ll want access to a water source to keep the surface in peak condition.

“If you are in a heavy rainfall area, pick a spot that will have good drainage,” she said. “If you are in a dry climate, it should be placed close to where a sprinkling system can be installed.”

4 Common Mistakes

Building an arena may seem as simple as measuring and leveling off a section of land moving dirt, and hauling in some sand. However, there is an art and science to a well-built arena. 

1. Inadequate base and drainage

Riders often get excited about choosing between sand, or a blend product that is a blend of synthetic fibers. When that happens they overlook what’s underneath. When a base is improperly installed, or omitted altogether, it fails. That allows big rocks to work up from the ground into the arena over time. 

The foundation of any project establishes the baseline for quality. A dressage arena may be flat but like a building, what is found beneath the dirt has a Signiant impact on the longevity and quality of the space. Stone dust, decomposed granite, or similar materials that packs under machine pressure is typically recommended. The average base depth is four to six inches.

“Either hire an arena builder or get proper plans that a local contractor can read and install,” said Heidi Zorn, president of Premier Equestrian based in Sandy, Utah.

2. The wrong sand

Sand may just be the top surface but it is the most important part of a great arena. There are more than 10,000 different sands in the United States, according to Zorn. Not all sand is created equal and not every state has the right kind of sand for a dressage arena. Locations like Florida have great sand that is inexpensive. In other locations, the sand needs to be brought in and transport costs can get expensive.

“You cannot fix an arena with the wrong sand,” she said. “This is where we see the most costly mistakes so it is important to consult with a footing specialist before making that purchase,” she said.

3. Too little water

Think about your last trip to the beach. Would you try running in the loose, dry sand at the top of the beach or go down to the waterline? It's easier to run on the water-packed sand than dry, loose particles. Arena footing is like the beach scenario, it needs moisture. Waterless footing additives are available but are expensive. Locating the arena in an area that is easily accessible to water and/or offers natural water-holding capabilities is important to consider.

4. A lack of knowledge of biomechanics

Dressage requires the horse to carry weight on his haunches. Deep loose footing ruins a horse's confidence and can cause undue stress.

Arena footing is like a pair of athletic shoes. Both must provide support, cushion, and shock absorption. The surface in the arena provides the same function as sneakers—stability and shock absorption to reduce stress on joints during work.

“A hard surface will sting his joints and cause him to hold back,” she said.

Maintain it

Once completed a small dressage arena requires ongoing maintenance to prolong its use. That takes time and the right tools.

  • Use the correct equipment to work the surface. Older model drags, chains, or equipment with straight teeth do not properly mix the sand particles and can damage the surface faster.
  • Stick to an arena grooming schedule.
    • Daily grooming takes care of any ruts, hoofprints, or unlevel areas (especially on the rail) to maintain consistency.
    • Weekly grooming is like a deep-conditioning for your arena. It’s especially important if it has had a lot of use during the week or the weather has dictated it.
    • Yearly grooming is a chance to evaluate how the sand and footing additives are holding up. Also called, “flipping,” this annual maintenance is beneficial if your arena has settled over a long time, or if regular maintenance has not been performed.
  • Add more footing over time as wind, rain, and use degrade the original material.

It’s the adage, “you get out of it what you put into.” If you’re going to spend the money to install an arena, dedicate the time and finances to keep it up for years of use.

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