Arena Footing: Materials, Installation, & Maintenance
By Melanie Huggett
Arena footing has a significant impact on a horse’s performance and health. Good footing provides traction and cushions the impact of the horse’s feet, while poor footing can hurt a horse and impede performance. In fact, a study done by the Animal Health Trust Centre of Equine Studies in Suffolk, UK, and the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Glasgow, Scotland in November 2010 found that footing in a dressage arena is one of the major risk factors for horses developing a lameness.
“An arena that has the wrong type of ground will hurt your horse and will cause damage to their ligaments, joints, or muscles,” says Wolfgang Winkler, owner of 4W’s Consulting in Metchosin, BC. “At a normal gallop, a 1200 pound horse has an impact of 1400 pounds per square inch on each hoof, so cushion, shock absorption, and traction are vital.”
Choosing and installing the right footing can be an expensive and time-consuming process, but one that is well worth it in the long-term. “Remember that the cost of a good arena base and good footing is far less than the costs associated with injuries due to poor footing or footing related poor performance,” says Brad Prather of Bradon Construction in Calgary, Alberta.
“Don’t cheap out, because you’ll pay for it in the long run,” says Darcy Finlay, Senior Manager, Grounds, Mechanics, Events at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, Alberta. “You need to be able to invest the money to construct it properly in the first place and maintain it properly throughout the time frame that you’re going to use it.”
The base is an often overlooked but very important part of arena footing. Depending on the composition of the subbase, landscaping material or plastic grids may be placed between layers to help with rock control and drainage. Photo courtesy of Footing Solutions
Consulting a professional who is experienced with building arenas is important. “Try to find the right kind of ground together with a professional, not someone that builds nice roads but does not know about horses,” says Winkler. “Use the expertise of a footing expert that will guide you to use the proper combination of footing material for your preferred discipline,” says Ellen Koch of Alex Milne Associates Ltd. in Etobicoke, Ontario. “It will save you money in the long-term.”
Arena footing consists of much more than the visible top layer. Underneath are the very important base and subbase. These give a solid, consistent foundation for the footing to sit on, and also help with drainage. “The base is as important as the actual footing material,” says Prather. “The base is important to make sure that whatever footing that you’re riding on top… is consistent,” says Finlay. “If you’re doing a new construction, you want to make sure first that you’ve dealt with the base and then build up from there.”
“Subsurface preparation is often overlooked,” says Tara Kathol of Conterra Industries in Rockyford, Alberta.
“A good subsurface should supply a level, stable base which the horse can brace against and generate power from. It is actually what the horse is running, turning, and stopping on.” The subbase is typically the local soil under the arena area, often clay-based, that has been built up and compacted. In an indoor arena, the subbase and base will be flat. In an outdoor arena, the subbase and base should be crowned with a one to two percent slope so rainwater and snow melt drain away from the arena.
Footing depth and composition needs vary greatly among disciplines. Work with a professional to make sure you get the right footing for the type of work your ring will be used for. Photo: FEI
On top of the subbase goes the base, which is typically some sort of compacted crushed rock, often road base or limestone. Sometimes, a landscaping fabric material, such as a geotextile, will be put in between the subbase and the base for rock control. “The natural ground condition where the customer wants to build an arena determines how much and what type of base is going to be used,” says Winkler. “Depending on the type of clay the arena is to be built on and any water table problems, compact a minimum of eight inches of road crush on the compacted clay (subbase),” advises Prather. “Compact the laser graded road crush to 98 percent proctor (density).” Once the subbase and base have been installed, the footing is then knit into the base so it does not slide along the top as horses work.
The horse needs a footing that provides some resistance for traction, while also cushioning and supporting his joints and tendons. Cushion, compaction, and traction are related to material characteristics, particularly particle size and shape. Particles of different sizes will lock together with the smaller particles fitting between the larger ones; conversely, particles of the same size will be less able to compact. Round particles will roll and be very unstable, whereas angular pieces will fit tightly together like a jigsaw puzzle. In general, a material that contains particles of roughly the same size and has subangular pieces is best for footing.
Also consider how abrasive a material is. Sharply angular materials wear the hoof wall. If a footing is too abrasive, it can cause foot soreness due to too much of the hoof wall being worn away. There are an infinite number of “recipes” for arena footing, but most use one or two of the same basic materials: sand, dirt, wood products, rubber, textiles, or turf. The type of footing you choose will depend largely on what you plan to use the arena for. An arena to be used for reining will need vastly different footing than one used for jumping due to the different compaction and traction needs.
Wood products can be used as a primary footing or as an additive to sand. An organic material, wood will decompose over time and need to be replaced. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Even if two arenas both use sand and dirt, for example, the proportions of materials and the depth of the footing will vary depending on the traction and cushioning needed. “The depth of the top dressing cushions the impact, supplies traction, and stabilizes the hoof and lower joints during transitions,” says Kathol. “Footing depth is very specific to each equine discipline, but it should always be consistent.” “The depth of the cushion can vary a lot from about one to two inches for a dressage or jumper horse to six to eight inches for a cutting horse,” says Winkler. “What is important is that every horse gets the cushion, traction, and support it needs for the manoeuvers that it has to perform without damage to its joints, tendons, and ligaments.”
“Too heavy or too soft footing can be as detrimental to the horse as not enough,” says Julie Cole of PRM Enterprises LLC in Jefferson, Ohio. “Make sure you are getting the proper amount of footing for your arena and what you use it for.” Sand is probably the most common footing material, used both alone and in combination with other materials. It’s important to choose the right sand, as sand with the wrong qualities can have little to no cushion and be very hard on a horse’s joints.
“For maximum footing performance, make sure that your sand is a washed and sized, high purity, hard sand with subangular or angular grains,” says Eric Porter of Fairmount Minerals Lakeshore Sand Division in Hamilton, Ontario. “It’s all about the stability of the sand,” says Hilo Nick of Footing Solutions USA in Santa Barbara, California. “I see a lot of arena sand that is too coarse, hence is too loose and shifting, which makes the horse’s job harder and puts more strain on their tendons and suspensories.”
Often, other products are added to sand to improve its qualities. A combination of sand and dirt is a common base for many disciplines. Arena “dirt” is not the same as the topsoil in your backyard, but a specific type of uniform material chosen for its individual characteristics. For example, “the modern reining ground is self-compacting sand with a relatively high content of silt clay,” says Winkler. Various types of wood products can also be added to sand footing. This is usually done to add some cushioning and increase the moisture-holding capability of the footing. Koch advises against adding wood shavings to footing as “the wood fibre will break down more quickly and cause more dust issues.”
Turf is a living plant with special maintenance needs including reseeding, mowing, and fertilizing. Photo: Robin Duncan Photography
Wood can also be used on its own. “Hog fuel,” or shredded wood fibre, is commonly used in arenas as the primary footing. The long, irregular pieces knit together for traction and provide cushion. However, in Winkler’s opinion, “hog fuel is never even on the surface and the texture is way too springy and therefore bad for the soft parts in a horse’s legs like tendons and ligaments.” As an organic material, wood will decompose over time and eventually compact. Hardwood products will last longer than softwood.
Rubber pieces and textile fibres are also often added to sand and have become quite popular. “Synthetic surfaces like rubber chips mixed into sand or polymer coated sand are a nice product and almost completely dust free,” says Winkler.
Rubber, in crumb or shredded form, increases cushioning, makes sand less abrasive, decreases dust, and increases drainage. Another benefit of rubber is that it is a “green” material when it is made from recycled tires or old shoe soles. With recycled rubber footing, make sure to get a guarantee that it is free from any metal, foreign materials, or toxic chemicals.
Textiles can stabilize the sand, add resilience, add cushion, decrease compaction, increase the life of the arena surface, reduce dust, and improve water-holding capabilities. Textiles can be made to have properties to suit specific disciplines, such as dressage, jumping, and Western events. When choosing a textile, Cynthia Brewster Keating of Polysols Inc. in Spartanburg, South Carolina, manufacturers of German geotextile footing, suggests getting a safety data sheet from the manufacturer. “Many textiles look the same and are imitating safe products when in fact they have fibreglass or hazardous material in them,” she says.
A final type of arena surface is turf (grass). Often seen in jumping competitions, turf arenas are much more than a simple grass field. The key to good turf footing, says Finlay, who manages Spruce Meadows’ seven turf competition rings, is what is underneath the leafy green tops. “Underneath is the footing — it’s what you can’t see,” says Finlay. “Everybody’s got a lawn at home and they all think it’s just growing grass and I can grow grass at home, but invite all these horses to come jump on your front lawn and see how it stands up.” The right species of grass, ample sand, drainage, and a strong root system to hold everything together make a stable, durable turf footing with the right qualities for riding on.
Aim to keep your footing evenly moist throughout. Photo: Clix Photography
It takes a lot of money, time, and care to construct an arena. But without proper maintenance, an arena can become dangerous and unusable in a short time. “Maintenance is extremely important to making an arena last and also to make it work the way it was intended to work,” says Winkler.
“Maintenance is certainly the key to any ring,” says Finlay. “If you don’t have a proper maintenance program, no matter how much time or money or effort you put into the construction side of it, if you’re not ready to maintain it, then it will fall apart on you eventually.”
Water is an important component of arena footing and will need to be added back as the footing dries out. Not only does water reduce dust, but it makes up about one quarter of the cushion. “An ideal moisture content is about six to eight percent,” says Winkler. Water an arena as if it was a garden, giving it a good watering in frequent, short periods. How often you need to water your arena will depend on temperature, wind, humidity, and sun exposure.
Watering can be done with a permanently installed sprinkler system, tractor mounted sprayers, an agricultural sprinkler system, or a simple hose and garden sprinkler. No matter what you use, your aim is to keep your footing evenly moist all the way through — top to bottom and side to side. “Even moisture is a key element to good quality footing,” says Nick.
Dragging is another key component of footing maintenance. Over time, the action of horses will cause some areas to become thinner and more compacted than others, such as along the arena rail, around barrels, and before and after jumps. Without dragging, the footing will continue to be worn away and horses may even contact the base, which will cause permanent ruts that are expensive to repair. Frequent dragging will keep the footing and cushion even and intact. Winkler suggests dragging at least once a day, more if the footing is exposed to high traffic.
Drag your arena frequently to keep your footing consistent. Photo courtesy of Conterra Industries
Finally, footing will not last forever. Over time, particles will be worn down by the action of the horse’s hooves and any organic materials will decompose. Typically, new footing will need to be added every five to ten years depending on the material used and the traffic it sees. “For most professional arenas that have 15 or 20 horses on them every day, one probably has to add or exchange the footing every three to five years. For a private ring in most cases not sooner than every seven to ten years,” says Winkler. Depending on the state of the footing, it may need to be completely replaced or just need a few additional loads of material added to it.
Turf footing has its own special maintenance needs. “You’re working with a live plant,” says Finlay. “If you’re going to stampede horses across it, you are going to beat up that plant and it’s going to need work to recover.” In addition to watering, divots made by horses’ hooves need to be filled in with a mixture of seed and sand, fertilizer needs to be applied, and the grass needs to be mowed frequently.
The purpose of any maintenance program is to keep your footing consistent. Footing that is uneven in depth, becomes hard, or has wet or dry spots will feel different to the horse and will cause the horse to lose confidence in the footing; tripping, slipping, injuries, and performance difficulties can result.
It will take time and money to properly build and maintain an arena, but the result is the perfect footing that will help your horse perform at his best and keep him healthy and sound.
Main article photo: Christina Handley Photography
This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue of Canadian Horse Journal.