In recent years, dressage arena footing has become something of a science. Riders want to ride their horses on a surface that will keep them sound, both in training and at competitions.
In this article, we take a closer look at how to create the ideal arena surface footing for dressage, including steps that you can take to improve your existing surface.
Creating the ideal riding surface
To create the ideal riding surface for dressage, you need to consider what effect the surface will have on your horse’s joints over time.
The ideal surface should be sufficiently soft and well-cushioned to prevent concussion and repetitive strain from damaging the interior structure of the joints of the horse’s limbs.
Old-fashioned surfaces, such as plain sand and woodchip tend to degrade over time, becoming compacted and hard. That increases the effect of concussion on the horse’s joints, which potentially leads to soundness problems.
Hard footing means that the horse’s toes are unable to penetrate the surface. Consequently, the horse’s body becomes out of balance over his leg as it hits the ground, causing the angles of the joints to change. That places strain on the joints and ligaments.
However, if the footing is too soft, it offers little or no resistance, and the horse’s foot cannot push off from the surface. Soft footing makes the horse work much harder, meaning that his muscles quickly become fatigued, leading to injury.
So, ideally, the footing of a dressage arena should be somewhere between too hard and too soft.
Evaluating the footing of an existing arena
The best way to evaluate your existing arena footing is to look and listen.
As the horse passes by, look at the surface. If you can see the imprint of the hoof, you’ll know that the surface isn’t too hard. Also, the horse’s footfalls should sound soft, not loud.
However, the horse should not appear to be struggling to move across the surface. His steps should be light and expressive, and he shouldn’t look as though he is stuck in quicksand!
Remember to look at the surface in different places of the arena. If the footing is uneven, you will notice deep, low spots, as well as higher, harder areas. When moving across an uneven surface, the horse will lose his confidence. He may stop working freely forward, and the rhythm and tempo of the paces will also be variable.
Giving your current arena surface a makeover
So, if you think that your surface needs a makeover, what do you do now?
Your first job is to re-establish its softness and cushioning. You can do that by harrowing the surface, using a harrow that has spring-loaded, adjustable teeth. The harrow must also have a float bar so that you can level the surface and iron out any lumps and bumps.
If you have a surface that’s too soft, you’ll need to add water to the footing to help the sand to bond. When watering your surface, you must ensure that your sprinkler system is working evenly. If the sprinklers are uneven, there will be variance in the surface texture, and the footing will harrow unevenly.
Ideally, you should look to maintain a moisture level in the surface of six to nine percent. Overwatering can make the arena deep and unusable.
Another footing first-aid option is to use additives. An additive can alter the footing by lowering or increasing the strength of the surface without making it too hard or too soft.
A crumb-rubber mix is an easy-to-add material that remains suspended in the sand, preventing it from compacting, and also absorbing some of the concussion.
A more expensive option is a polymer-coated, all-weather synthetic footing. Synthetic footing is cotton-like, never needing water, can’t be over-packed, and provides you with an almost elastic feel underfoot.
Ideally, you’ll need around six inches of polymer-coated surface to create an ideal arena surface. The main drawback of this kind of surface is that it can blow away if your arena is sited on a very exposed, windy spot.
The arena base
If the base of your arena is damaged, you must repair any holes in it by pulling the surface footing back to reveal the problem area.
Fill up the damaged area with the original material that was used to form the arena base, or find a closely matched alternative.
Patch up the hole as if you were repairing a pothole. Fill the hole with your chosen material and use a small compactor to drive the stuff into the hole until it’s firmly compacted.
Finally, use a strong exterior glue or sealant to seal the seam around the patched area. That will prevent water from getting into the repair and degrading it.
Giving your arena a total facelift!
If your arena surface is past redemption and requires extensive repairs, you’ll need to remove at least half of the existing footing.
A complete renovation means that you’ll need to remove all the footing and install a new base. The base should be as close to 100 percent compacted as you can get it. For best results, use a material that can be packed absolutely solid, such as decomposed granite or stone dust.
When choosing the footing for your arena, use a form of sub-angular sand, such as masonry sand, rather than concrete sand. Then add fiber or felt to the sand. You should put 2.5 to 3 inches of sand over the whole arena. Add your felt or fiber by dragging it through the sand, add another 1.5 inches of sand, and then drag the surface again.
If you decide to use crumb rubber, use a ratio of 1:2 rubber to sand. It’s recommended by experts in the industry that you use smaller 50 pound bags of rubber and spread them around the arena. That method works better than using one 2,000 pound bag and starting from the middle of the arena, which could leave you with an uneven surface.
Building a new arena
If you’ve moved to a new acreage and you don’t have an arena, you’ll want to build one.
Here are some points to consider.
There are three main considerations for arena access:
- Proximity to a water supply
- Good access to the water supply
- Easy access to the site for plant and machinery
You will need to build an arena with a stable, secure footing. To do that, you will need access to sufficient water, and ideally a sprinkler system too. You will also need to be able to harrow and level your arena regularly and have the necessary equipment to do that.
Your arena must have good drainage. If the drainage is poor, the footing will be inconsistent, allowing a stray hoof to penetrate the base layer, which is an expensive fix.
An outdoor arena should be crowned with a 1 to 3 percent grade, ideally working in conjunction with the natural ground slope of the site. If you’re building an indoor arena, make sure that run-off outside after heavy rainfall will not find its way into the building.
It’s worth having your soil analyzed before you decide on your drainage system. If the soil contains a high percentage of clay, water will be retained, and your arena could become too wet. Larger quantities of sand and silts are a better option, as this mix will encourage water to drain away more effectively.
Outdoor arenas should have a layer of good-grade, geotextile membrane placed on top of the base of the arena. That will prevent fine material from getting into drainage system and blocking it.
Ideally, you should use a natural sand with sub-angular grains to create the subsurface. Round sand grains do not bind together, and crushed quartz sand create dust is so fine that it can block the arena drainage system. Avoid using washed sand, as when it dries out, it can displace, providing no traction for the horse’s feet and making a deep, unstable surface.
To create the subsurface, you should ideally use 5 to 8 millimeters of sand that has a 10 to 12 percent silt/clay content.
When choosing a suitable surface material for your arena, sand makes a good base.
However, ideally, you should add something else to the sand, such as rubber crumb or textiles. Textile additives are usually formed from a blend of rubber that creates cushioning and a better energy return for your horse, and fiber that adds stability and traction.
A well-constructed arena will last you a lifetime if it’s properly maintained. So, even if you decide to go the DIY route and build your own arena, it’s recommended that you take advice from a professional in the business before you start.
Maintaining your arena
Whatever kind of footing you have in your arena; you must make the effort to maintain it. Your ultimate goal is to reduce injuries to your horse by keeping your riding arena footing in good condition.
Be sure to inspect your arena at least once every year to make sure that no restorative work is necessary. If any repairs are required, get the work done right away; it’s more cost-effective to carry out regular inspections and repairs than it is to replace the arena completely.
In arenas that are in heavy use, you could lose up to 50 tons of sand every year. That equates to around two truckloads. So, make it a routine task to add two truckloads of sand to the surface every year.
Invest in the best quality arena grooming equipment you can afford. Ideally, you want a system that offers a three-point hitch so that you can raise or lower your groomer. Also, you need to be able to control the depth of the teeth.
Here are some maintenance tasks that would need to be regularly carried out.
- Make sure that you remove any droppings as soon as you’ve finished riding, and try not to ride through any.
- Water the surface regularly, especially during dry spells.
- Water your arena early in the morning or in the evening so that the water doesn’t evaporate too quickly in the heat of the day.
- Groom the surface with a harrow and leveler once a week to keep it smooth and even. Be sure to gently harrow the top of the surface so that you don’t rip up the subsurface or damage the membrane or base.
- Check the footing depth regularly to see if any additional surface top-up is required. You can buy a probe for your tractor that will tell you if the arena surface is becoming shallow. Ideally, the footing should be around 2 to 2.25 inches deep.
- Never harrow your arena when it’s very dry, as that can damage the surface.
- If your budget will stretch to it, it’s recommended that you install a sprinkler system. Hoses are prone to leakage, and it’s much easier to get an even water distribution with a sprinkler system.
Generally, if your arena is always dusty and the base is well-compacted and in good condition, the problem lies with the surface.
Dust forms when the sand footing material on the arena surface breaks down into tiny, light particles that become airborne.
You can slow that breakdown of footing materials by adding a buffering material. Such additives reduce the friction between sand grains, add cushioning, and make the dust particles heavier so that they don’t fly up into the air.
Commonly used additives include the following:
Salt is a commonly-used dust suppressant. Salts are humectants, that is chemicals that draw moisture from the environment, and they are very effective at combating dust. Salt is relatively cheap, and it can be applied as a liquid or scattered in solid form.
Two primary forms of salt are used on riding arenas:
Calcium chloride can be used as an additive, although it does have several downsides:
- Can corrode metal inside the arena
- Very drying on tack and hooves
- Can produce fumes when drying out
Magnesium chloride is more widely used. This salt is much less caustic, although it still has a drying effect on your horse’s feet. Always hose your horse’s legs and feet after riding, and brush off your boots if you’re using an arena that has any form of salt in the footing.
Another benefit of using salt is that it lowers the freezing point of your footing, so you can safely water the arena at lower temperatures.
But do remember that salt eventually washes away, so you will need to top-up your arena footing regularly.
Wood and fiber
Wood, shavings, and chips are effective additives that prevent dust particles from becoming airborne because they retain moisture.
Wood can prevent sand from breaking down, and it also boosts the moisture-retention capacity of the footing.
However, wood also breaks down over time, creating its own batch of dust and adding to your problem.
Fiber additives, such as Sandties, Fibresand, and Eurofelt, don’t break down, helping to cushion the surface, and preventing dust from becoming airborne.
There is a range of dust-control products available that are made using petroleum derivatives, including mineral oil and Vaseline.
These products are derived from highly refined crude oil. They’re clean, good for hooves, and highly effective at suppressing dust. However, petroleum products do tend to break down quickly, and they are expensive in comparison with other options.
Waxes can also be used to damp down dust.
Wax is sprayed onto the arena to create a bond with the sand particles. Waxes can be effective and can last up to ten years in a covered arena. However, the wax is subject to UV breakdown, melting, and evaporation, so always make sure that the product you choose comes with a warranty.
Note: Avoid using black wax products. Although cheaper, black wax is not as pure as other waxes. Because of that, it can produce a foul-smelling vapor and may blacken your footing too.
A relatively cheap dust suppressant that you can use on your arena surface is vegetable oil products, including cotton oil, soybean oil, and canola oil.
Vegetable oils are biodegradable; however, they do evaporate fast and may only last a few months before reapplication is necessary.
Popular vegetable oil-based dust suppressants include Dustkill, Equestrian Soyl, and ArenaPro.
Water-absorbing polymer products such as Terra-Sorb and ArenaMoist are made from crystals that absorb and release water. These products are also sold for use in gardens and landscaping.
The issue with using water-absorbing polymers in your arena is that you need to flood your arena to activate the product, and most people don’t want to do that. There are a few disadvantages of using this type of additive to be aware of, too, including:
- Sensitivity to UV sunlight
- Can become slippery if the material clumps together when wet
- Expensive compared to other options
Coating and binding products
Emulsion-based products, including Durasoil, Arena Rx, and Dustshield, fight dust by sticking the particles together.
These products are very effective, don’t evaporate or degrade, and are relatively cheap to buy and maintain.
Investing in a brand new arena is a serious financial investment. Even topping up and repairing an existing surface is an expensive venture.
So, do lots of research before you start your arena resurfacing project. If you get it right the first time and invest in keeping the surface well-maintained, you will have an arena that rides well and should last you a lifetime.
Have you built a new arena, or resurfaced your current arena, recently? Share your experiences with us and any tips you may have in the comments box below!
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