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    5 Arena Footing Mistakes to Avoid

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    Many riders dream of building their own ring. Patience and planning are the best ways to avoid costly mistakes when choosing horse arena footing is to be patient and plan. Before moving dirt, consider these points to avoid the top five common arena footing mistakes that can quickly eat up a budget.

    1: Horse arena location

    Choosing the right location on your property is essential to making the most of any footing for a horse arena. Look for a space that is well drained and relatively level. 

    Arenas can be built anywhere on the property with the right equipment. However, you can save on excavation costs by choosing a space that is already cleared or relatively level. 

    Those are not the only factors to consider in choosing a spot for your ring.

    • Look for puddling or standing water. This suggests that the area is naturally wet, which will require drainage or be unusable for periods of time.
    • Think through how construction and maintenance equipment can access the area for needed work.
    • Consider future maintenance needs such as regular dragging or more extensive renovations and how easily accessible the arena will be.  

    “Often, people build arenas out in the middle of the field. If the weather cooperates, that is no problem, but if it’s rainy, it can get messy really fast trying to get 60 -80-ton dump trucks out to work on it,” said Mike Isles, of Equine Site Solutions, which specializes in arena design and installation based in Greenfield, New York.

    2: Sand selection

    Not all sand is suitable footing for a horse arena.  

    “Sand that is too coarse without enough fines will be deep or shifty beneath the horse’s hooves,” Isles explained. “Sand with too many fines will get hard and dusty when dry and sloppy when wet. Have a professional help you select the right sand for your arena and your discipline.”

    Over time sand breaks down under use and weather conditions. That’s especially important to remember when you’ve found an arena footing at a facility that you would like to mimic. It may be obvious that sand from Florida has a different composition than sand in New York. But sand can dramatically vary within the same geographic region.

    “Even if you order sand from the same quarry, the sand will not be the same,” he said. “What you don’t see is that the sand has broken down over time.”

    3: Moisture requirements

    Almost all traditional sand or sand/fiber footing mix require a specific moisture level to perform as intended. If that’s unavailable, the footing fluctuates in “how it rides.” Depending on Mother Nature to supply enough rain isn’t always reliable for outdoor arenas—especially as droughts become increasingly common. 

    Installing a sprinkler or irrigation system is one option for both indoor and outdoor arenas. An electronic controller can be used manually or set on an automatic schedule, depending on your needs. Another choice is a water trailer that can be towed behind your tractor or SUV to provide needed moisture. A third option is an arena drag that includes a water tank.

    “It may not always be possible to install sprinklers because of the additional cost, but moisture management is key to footing consistency,” he added.

    4: Build it, use it, forget about it

    All arenas—large and small, elaborate or simple—require maintenance. Dragging is just a part of the routine care that will extend the usability of your investment in arena footing. 

    “On traditional sand type footing, you can generally get by with a drag that will dig a little bit deeper, which is preferred in western disciplines such as, reining, and barrel racing,” Isles explained. “The sand and fiber footing mix for dressage, hunters, and show jumpers needs to be less deep and compacted.”

    In addition to regular and proper dragging, arena footings need periodic maintenance. For example, riding on the rail or consistently riding a 20-meter circle pushes materials to the outside edge creating a berm. That ridge is all footing that has been shifted and pushed there from use through the years. Sloped arenas can also tend to collect footing in low spots. 

    “In one arena we worked on, it had not had maintenance in 20 years. We pulled about 18” of material out of one corner because it had migrated that way,” Isles said. “Ideally, you can have somebody come in to collect and redistribute the sand across the arena for a uniform surface. An arena is a huge investment, so you need to keep like your barn, tractor, or anything else.”

    5: Underestimating costs

    Taking a DIY approach to building an arena can save on labor and contractor costs. Simply leveling the area an working up the ground doesn’t require additional inputs. However, if the native soil may not supply the rideability you’re looking for.

    Doing your own excavation work can also reduce expenses but footing alone can quickly add up. Isles uses a recent project as an example. The total material cost for a 100’ x 200’ outdoor arena was $30,000 to $35,000. That included the stone for the base, stone dust, and sand.

    Could it have been done cheaper? 

    It could have been possible to cut the base, but on this job, the sand alone was still $8,500. A sand and fiber footing for horse arenas is likely to add between $20,000 to $30,000 to a project, Isles estimates. 

    This is where knowing your riding goals, the frequency of use and expectations of riders using it (yourself, boarders and/or training clients) is critical to designing an arena that fits your needs and your budget.

    “The costs of building an arena are something a lot of people don’t realize ahead of time,” he said. “Even in an economic situation where you don’t get crazy in the base, it is still a big investment, especially right now—the diesel fuel for moving material is an expensive proposition.”

    More reading

    Did you know that not all fences are appropriate for horses? Follow our guide & learn how to select the best fence to serve your needs as a horse owner.
    Mud can cause a lot of issues for your horse. Read more for ideas on keeping this mess away from your paddocks.