Good Footing is Important for Horse ArenasBy Kentucky Equine Research Staff · August 29, 2011
If you’ve ever ridden in an arena that was too dusty, too wet, too hard, too deep, or too slippery, you know how important it is to install and maintain just the right footing for riding and training. Getting professional advice will help horse owners avoid mistakes that might lead to an unusable surface, costly fixes, and unhappy or lame horses.
Good footing begins with the soil that makes up the arena subbase. Clay-based soil is ideal if it is leveled and compacted. Clay may need to be brought in to provide a good subbase if the regional soil is too sandy or silty. Putting a slight crown on the subbase (raising the center an inch or two and sloping toward the sides) will help water drain away from the arena.
Next, a base of six to 10 inches of crushed limestone should be installed, leveled, and tightly compacted. Simply dumping a few truckloads of crushed rock and having it bladed into place is not sufficient. Rolling the crushed rock until it is thoroughly compacted will eliminate most future problems with shifting, holes, and drainage.
The top layer of footing in a riding arena can be a mixture of sand, soil, rubber, textiles, shredded wood, or synthetic materials. There are so many choices that it’s easy to make a wrong decision, even after doing some research. For example, sand is easily obtained and relatively inexpensive, but not all sand is the same. Sand with rounded particles will not provide solid footing, while sand with angular grains will tend to lock together for a surface that’s firmer and less slippery. It’s hard to tell the difference just by picking up a handful and looking at it, but the type of sand has a big influence on how well a horse can run, turn, and stop. Likewise, soil to be used in a footing is not simply dirt scraped off a building lot. Topsoil contains a lot of organic material, while arena soil is more likely to be inorganic clay that will not mold or form hardened chunks.
The discipline for which the arena is to be used is the most important factor in deciding what type and depth of footing to install as a top layer. For example, arenas used for reining or cutting generally need a deeper layer than those designed for jumpers and dressage horses. At the least, talk to owners of arenas in your areas and arrange to ride in their arenas if possible, asking about good and bad points of the surfaces they have installed. A better plan is to locate several companies that are familiar with the discipline in which you are interested. A reputable company will probably be able to supply a list of satisfied customers in your area, and their experiences can help you avoid bad choices and find the type of footing that will work best for your horses.
Regardless of the choice of footing, the surface will need some type of ongoing maintenance. Watering and dragging will minimize dust and keep holes and ruts from becoming a problem. Maintenance should be scheduled regularly, depending mostly on how often the arena is used and what type of use it gets.
Installing and maintaining the correct type of arena footing can be costly and time-consuming. However, getting and keeping the right material is essential for keeping your horse sound. Working in footing that is too hard, deep, or slippery is almost a guarantee that your horse will tire more quickly while working, and will possibly become lame.
It’s worth the effort and expense to do it right the first time.