Building A Riding Arena
Updated: Aug 30, 2019
Let’s take a journey into the exhilarating world of arenas. Stay with me—there is a lot more to the perfect arena than meets the eye. You may plan on buying a property with an existing arena or you may plan to build your own. Either way, arenas require a lot of attention and care. Here is a breakdown of arena basics.
Footing. This is a lot to unpack, but here goes. We’ve all ridden in arenas that are either too shallow or too deep. You might as well be riding on concrete or through quicksand. Some horses hold up remarkably well in these circumstances, but even horses that are not in intense training will eventually begin to show the signs of wear and tear from working in poor footing. The wrong footing is detrimental to a horse’s health and longevity, but the right footing depends on so many factors. In a world where you have seemingly infinite options, how do you make the right choice?
Sand is generally the best bet for footing. When it is well maintained it drains well, doesn’t produce a lot of dust, and provides cushion without being too deep. There are other options, like bluestone, wood chips, and rubber, but they come with some drawbacks. Bluestone can get very hard and dusty, wood chips don’t drain well, and rubber can be toxic (though there are companies remedying this if you really prefer rubber footing). You will want to look for natural sub-angular sand, meaning that the individual grains will have some edges so that the footing can lock together and prevent slipping, but don’t go so far as to buy manufactured (crushed) sand that will continue to break apart. Some percentage of silt and clay is ideal to hold footing together. The footing itself, which only consists of the top layer shouldn’t be more than about 4 inches deep. Footing type and discipline will give you a better idea of what you need. Dressage horses may only need 2 ½ – 3 inches of footing, while jumpers may require a bit more distance to the subsurface and base (more on those later).
Additives. I have seen how much of a difference additives can make. Fibers or non-toxic rubber can act as wonderful shock absorbers and provide grip. If you are struggling with an arena that dries out faster than you can water it, then you will want to consider an additive that holds moisture, like fibers. Artificial additives can be more expensive than fines or soil, but are ultimately more effective and last longer. However, don’t go overboard! Too much additive will have an adverse effect.
Base and Subsurface. It is rare that you can throw sand over whatever surface you already have and call it an arena. The base and subsurface are often more important than your footing. They determine how well your arena drains, how stable the surface will be, and ultimately, your horse’s soundness. The base is generally comprised of either clay or cleaned, angular stone and should be about four inches deep. It may be the most expensive part of your arena, so get it right the first time. You want a level, compact base. It is not uncommon for base and subsurface to be thought of as interchangeable terms, but this isn’t quite true. Putting footing directly on top of the base is not the greatest idea, especially if your arena tends to dry out. The sand will shift and your horse will essentially be working on the hard base. Ouch! The subsurface can be thought of as a transition layer. It is often some combination of crushed stone and footing. It provides extra cushion and stability.
Indoor vs. Outdoor. Outdoors are usually much harder to maintain as they are exposed to the elements 24/7, but don’t be fooled into thinking that designing you indoor won’t require the same amount of consideration. Obviously you need good footing, but the base and subsurface are still crucial. Drainage will be important because you need to be able to water your footing. There are companies that provide footing that doesn’t require watering, but this type of footing is expensive and has the same lifespan as most other options. Try to avoid building your arena at the bottom of a hill and always extend the base a ways beyond the actual arena so that flooding in the surrounding areas doesn’t seep in.
Maintenance. I cant tell you how many times I’ve seen people spend thousands on an arena just to let it fall apart. Regular watering and dragging are crucial. With certain types of footing, such as deep sand that drains well, I have found that watering is more important than dragging and aerating because it needs no help drying out. If it becomes apparent that regular maintenance is no longer working, you should consider buying additives or having someone level the base. Unfortunately, footing doesn’t last forever. If you have more than one horse working regularly in an arena, its lifespan is unlikely to be more than about 10 years. Sad—I know. As equestrians, I think we’re used to getting this kind of news.
Ultimately, you are better off working on grass than on a poorly designed and maintained arena. What works for you will depend on discipline, the climate, and the cost and availability of materials in your area. Reach out to a professional to get a better idea where to begin and if you are buying a property with an existing arena, treat it like you would a dated kitchen. Ask questions and bring in a professional to do an inspection if necessary because it could end up costing you a lot of money down the road.