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Arena Footing and DYI Maintenance 101 | Groundmaster

Arena Footing and DIY Maintenance 101      

In a separate post, we focused on the importance of first installing an excellent base for your riding arena.  Now it’s time to focus on the footing, and there’s a lot more to great footing than meets the eye!  There’s no “one size fits all” recipe for that stuff your horse is stepping in.  But it’s just dirt, right?  Or is it?   

horse and rider inside a riding arena
Photo credit: Pixabay

If it’s not dirt, what is it?  What’s my recipe?  How much?  How deep?  How do I keep it maintained?  Let’s see if we can provide some clarity.

The Big Picture

Ultimately, you want footing that will be safe for your equine athletes and you.  You probably also have a budget. 

While there’s not a perfect surface to fit all riders’ needs, the folks at Attwood Equestrian Surfaces say you need to consider these five “big picture” things when choosing footing:

  1. Arena footing should provide the appropriate impact absorption, stability, cushion, rebound, grip, and traction needed for the disciplines and amount of use it must accommodate.
  2. How much traffic and daily usage will your arena see?  Will only you be using your arena, and will you use it every day?  Will multiple trainers and lesson students utilize the arena daily?  How will it be used?  Jumping, barrels, reining maneuvers, or casual walk, trot, lope around?
  3. Location, location, location.  Think about your climate, the natural soil in your area, and drainage (more on that in a moment). 
  4. Maintenance. How much water, dragging, ripping, and fluffing will you need to do (based on climate, natural soil, etc.)?  And how much do you want to do?  Sprinkler systems, tractors, and arena implements aren’t cheap!
  5. Don’t estimate the cost based on size.  Get an estimate that is based on lifespan.  The best footing for your arena may or may not be the most expensive. It’s the one that will handle the weather, the amount of use, and the type of use the best over the next twenty years.  Local horsemen and arena professionals in your area can be a great resource.  (more on that coming up, too). 

Options for Footing

Whether your arena is indoors or outside, you basically have two options: all-natural or artificial. 

“Au Naturel”

Depending on your geographic location and riding style, this may be the quickest and most inexpensive way to get your arena up and ready for riding!  If you’re lucky enough to live in an area where the natural soil is a mix of sand and clay, commonly called “loam,” tilling up your arena spot, removing the grass and any stones, and breaking up the clods of dirt may be all that is required.  

After you try it out for a bit, you might decide to adjust your natural mixture by adding more clay or more sand.  But as we alluded to earlier, there are different types and sizes of sand to consider.  Who knew?

Ground expert TJ Self is a member of the Kiser Arena Specialists’ Production Crew.  He’s worked arena ground professionally for events since he was 15.  He was recently on the Kiser crew working the ground at the 2020 Farnam AQHA World Show in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

Self says, “Arena ‘dirt’ is basically a mix of sand and clay.  But sands have a particle size.  For example, Oklahoma sand particles are thicker, and that dirt contains more clay to retain water better.  Barrel racers like this type of footing for the traction and durability it has.  Then think about beach sand – like you see in sand dunes – it’s pretty fine and dry.  There’s not a lot (if any) clay mixed in, so it’s hard to pack together.  Cutters love that sand, but it requires a lot of water.” 

You could go to your local sandpit or landscape materials company for a load (or 10), or as Self says, “In every location the natural soil is different.  It’s best to work with an arena specialist to get the right mix and materials for your specific needs.  That sandpit guy knows sand, but he’s probably not too up-to-date on what horse people need in their arena footing.”

Artificial and Sand-based with Additives

Maybe you live in a location that doesn’t have that nice loamy quality of natural ground.  You may turn to artificial alternatives often preferred by professional hunter, jumper, and dressage competitors.  These artificial footing products range from wood chips and recycled rubber pieces to polymer-coated sand or uncoated sand mixed with textile-type additives.  

While wood chips and rubber pieces are not inexpensive, the sand-based footings can be quite costly.  Multiple companies are producing artificial arena footing, each with their own proprietary blends and materials, so research will be critical if this is your choice.

All these products’ benefits include more shock-absorption and rebound (why they are preferred by jumpers), less maintenance, reduced water requirement, and virtually no dust. 

The disadvantages of wood chips include breaking down over time and becoming uneven.  Rubber pieces can become slippery and uneven, which can be dangerous to both horses and riders.

Discipline Variations

If you’ve been following along, you’ve got a sense that different disciplines, or riding styles, prefer different types of footing.

TJ Self said that working at The 2020 Farnam AQHA World Show was a real eye-opener for him because there were so many different disciplines running back to back every day.  “We had to reset the ground between events, so we had to know their (each discipline’s) preferences and how to set it up,” said Self. 

He says, “For example, the rail classes like (western or hunter) pleasure and even the classes that use the middle of the arena like trail and halter, just want a nice cushion.  Not too deep and watered just enough to keep all the dust down.  Those horses and riders and spit-shined and polished – they don’t want arena dirt and dust on them!”

“The speed events, like barrels and poles, and even the cow horse classes, they need a grippy texture to the ground.  It needs enough water and depth to give it the durability to handle a hundred or more runs and just enough compaction.  They want the ground to give underneath, yet hold them up in their turns and maneuvers,” describes Self.  “Reiners prefer a bit slicker surface to enable their slides, but it can’t be so slick that they can’t control their slide.  They also need more grip around the edges to hold them up when they run their fast circles.”

“For cutting, we needed to get it deep, but not too deep because over several competitors, it will only get deeper.  Those horses aren’t very tall!  They need to be able to get down in front of the cow, but not buried,” laughs Self. 

Maintenance Tips for DIYers

TJ Self knows a thing or two about maintaining arena ground.  He’s been keeping the ground safe at home for his parents, mom – Annesa – is a barrel horse trainer and National Finals Rodeo competitor, and his dad – Tom – is a professional team roper, for as long as he can remember. 

Here are TJ’s tips for keeping your arena in tip-top shape.

Understand the Drainage Pattern of Your Arena

This has as much to do with location as it does with the composition of your arena. 

Self says, “Ideally, you want the water to run along the edge of the arena or off to one side.  Then you’ll be able to get back to riding faster, at least on part of your arena, after it rains.”

How and where the water settles and drains may indicate that you need more sand or more clay in one place or another. 

Know What You’re Working in and What It Needs for Maintenance

For example, heavier ground with more clay needs to be ripped more, while sandier soil needs to be smoothed more.  And you don’t have to rip the ground every time.  Sometimes it just needs to be smoothed or fluffed.

Self says, “Mom’s arena at home is on a little bit of a slope.  The ground by the first barrel is sandy, and at the second barrel, it’s heavier and has more clay.  I’ve tried to get her to even it out, but she just laughs and says the different ground helps her training.  She can go to the deeper ground to help her rodeo horses, and the heavier ground to help her futurity colts.”

If you don’t know what you have or what it needs, Self says to ask an expert.  “Ask questions!  I love it when people ask me what to do for this, that.  It’s a fact that over time, the weather, drainage, and use are going to change your outdoor arena, and you’re going to have to update it.  Getting expert advice early on can extend the lifespan of your ground.”

Understand Your Implement and How to Use It

Each arena tool is different in its features and capabilities, and artificial surfaces require something entirely different for maintaining them.  “There are pros and cons to each one.  All of these implements are designed for the same purpose, but it depends on your budget, tractor size, footing material, and your preference when deciding which implement is best,” says Self. 

“For speed events, I prefer the Black Widow.  It’s simple, easy to control, and doesn’t require a lot of adjustments.  The Reveal and Groundhog are highly adjustable.  You really need to understand how they work and what you’re doing with them.  ArenaWerks II is also a good option for simple arena maintenance.  I’m probably a bit biased, but overall I prefer the new Kiser drags, which can do it all no matter the discipline.”

Learn How Dirt Works

Think about the kind of riding you do in your arena and what that does to the dirt.  Are you just casually riding around?  Or are you roping every day?  Running barrels every day? 

Self explains, “When you drag your arena, you should always be trying to push dirt back to where it came from.  For example, if you’re roping, the dirt always gets pushed off to the right as steers are turned to the left.   With barrels, the dirt is always getting pushed away from each barrel.  Even if you’re just casually loping around every day, your dirt is eventually going to find its way to the wall or fence.

“So don’t always drag the same pattern.  Be sure to drag from the back of the arena to the front more often than in the other direction.  Dragging on the diagonal helps to pull the dirt back from the wall or fence.  Going in different directions helps dirt find its leveling point.”

Work in Small Increments

Unless you’re a dirt-moving expert, be careful anytime you try to change anything in your arena.  Self cautions, “Start small.  If you have a spot you think is too high, don’t try to level it all out at once (unless you have a laser guide and are great at using a skid steer).  Start by moving an inch or two.” 

Not sure how deep is deep enough?  Again, go in increments.  Self says, “If you’re not sure how deep to rip the ground, start light – maybe four inches.  Then smooth it over.  When you feel it starting to get compacted, rip it again.”

Conclusion on how to weigh your horse without a scale

There’s a lot to keeping your arena safe and comfortable for riding.  But there is experience and expertise out there for help.  It may be as close as local trainers who are often happy to give you advice. 

You can also reach out to someone like TJ Self for an arena consultation (DM him on Facebook Messenger or text him at 940-230-5868).  A larger construction project may require assistance from a company like Kiser Arena Specialists or Attwood Equestrian Surfaces

Do you have an arena on your property? Is it set up perfect for your riding discipline? After reading this, would you do anything differently next time?  Let us know in the comments!



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