Arena footing can make or break your horse’s training. Think about how you would feel starting a new training routine on loose, deep beach sand. It wouldn’t feel much better to wear a pair of everyday shoes to run on a sidewalk.
“We can all relate to how that is going to feel to work on a super hard or super soft surface,” says Heidi Zorn, a footing expert and President of Premier Equestrian based in Sandy, Utah.
Asking a horse to work on comparable surfaces can create similar discomfort. Having the right arena footing provides support and lessens concussion, but comfort isn’t the only reason having the appropriate horse arena footing is important.
Proper footing gives the horse confidence, Heidi says. Horses, by nature, are prey animals. If a horse loses its footing and falls in the wild, that could mean death. Working on unstable or slippery surfaces puts a horse in a situation where it’s thinking about self-preservation. Collecting a horse and asking it to transfer its weight into the hind end, amplifies the problem.
“60% of the horse’s weight is in his big neck and forehand. When a horse is running away from predators, he needs that weight up front to balance,” she explains. “We take that away when we ask him to sit on his hind end. When we physically challenge horses on a bad surface to do their job, it creates a huge amount of stress because he doesn’t feel confident.”
Many riders believe creating an arena is as easy as clearing an area and topping it off with sand. Building an arena that your horse is happy to work in and withstands regular use requires planning and a bit of engineering.
The right foundation
Riders tend to focus on the footing itself—the sand or a blend of sand and synthetic fibers—and 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. Typically, 4 to 6 inches of base—stone dust, decomposed granite, or similar material that compacts under machine pressure is a good place to start.
Heidi explains that base materials range from screenings to stone dust and crusher fines. Each one is classified by the particle size and how much pressure it takes to compact.
“We use a stone base in Utah and Nevada because we don’t have a lot of rain so we can get by with shedding the drainage to the edge,” she notes. “In the east and southeast, a free draining base is better because of the amount of water in those areas.”
A compacted base made of stone dust, screenings or road base that is wetted and compacted is the most economical option that is durable. A slight slope is incorporated so water can run to an edge. Another option is a free draining base. This design uses a stone product called clean rock that is covered with a permeable geotextile cloth allowing water to drain vertically and encourage better drainage.
Larger barns with busy training schedules and high use horse shows and warm-up arenas may incorporate a base mat system that creates an all-weather surface to provide additional shock absorption and cushion. An ebb and flow system is an advanced system that uses a series of pipes with tiny holes and pumps and base mats, where water flow is managed by a control panel to maintain ideal hydration levels.
Adding the footing
Once a proper base is built, sand is added. Most often, 3 to 4 inches of sand is placed atop the base. However, Heidi emphasizes that each discipline has specific footing needs. Active western sports like cow horse, roping and barrel racing may call for deeper footing. Hunter/jumper, dressage and eventing typically work on 3.5 to 4.5 inches of sand,” according to Heidi.
Buying the right type of sand is even more critical than footing depth. There are more than 10,000 types of sand in the United States. Heidi explains that sand is a size designation and not a mineral designation. A silica sand is ideal because it holds up to the pounding of horse’s hooves. Minerals that are too soft are pulverized into silt and clay. Clay becomes airborne making it a challenge to maintain dust free riding arenas. Beach sand that contain seashells and corals are also problematic because it can break down quickly and turns to a lime type material, which over time can create a concrete like surface too hard for riding.
“We’ve all seen someone who ordered sand for their arena and three years later it’s destroyed,” she says. “People think that when the rail becomes rutted, that it’s from horses riding on the rail. That’s not the case. It feels rutted because the horse’s hooves are moving the clay off the rail, while less traffic areas are building up the clay on the existing base creating an uneven false base.”
Heidi encourages riders to learn about sand from a footing expert before making a costly investment. Don’t rely on gravel pits to provide recommendations. Their expertise is in road and highway materials, which all follow engineer specifications.
DIY or hire it to be done
Professional arena builders can provide advice and do the work. Depending on the geographic location and the scope of work, contracting the work can be expensive. Heidi recalls a west coast barn owner telling her they were quoted $90,000 for a project, a price tag well out of his budget.
“We created an engineered construction plan for him and he rented all the equipment and sourced all the materials with our help and was able to build a new arena for $27,000 by following the specifications and doing his own work,” she says.
Planning for and building an arena are only the beginning. Regular maintenance is important for extending the longevity of the footing. It’s also important to remember that overtime, additional footing will likely need to be added.