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The Right Footing

By Katie Navarra

Oct 26, 2011

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Selecting a riding surface for renovating or building a new arena takes careful planning and research. Footing is a long-term investment for any facility, and should fit the stable’s needs and budget. So take your time, do your research, and make a smart choice.

“Know your planned budget and what you are trying to achieve, or the problems you are trying to combat,” says Chris Calhoun, general manager of Fairmount Minerals. John Dienhart, owner of West Coast Footings, adds, “The biggest mistake people make is that they get in a hurry and don’t take the time to test the sand they have, or to build the base correctly. Then, a year later, they have to take it apart and start over.”

To get it right, pay attention to the details. English disciplines are best performed on arena surfaces tailored to specific needs and demands. “Jumpers prefer finer sand. They stabilize the sand through textile products,” says Wayne Gregory, general manager of Footings Unlimited. “They want a firm surface for speed and stability.”

Like jumpers, dressage riders prefer a surface with stability, but “they also want resiliency to reduce concussion,” Gregory notes. For that, he says, it’s best “to use fine sand and do a mixture of textiles (felts) and a little rubber for extra cushion.”

Western pleasure and equitation events ride on footing similar to that found in the English disciplines. “Reining, cutting, barrels and roping prefer a deeper footing with much more clay. These horses need more structure because of the far greater load and the need to be able to dig in,” says Gregory.

Ideally, mixed-use facilities maintain separate arenas for each discipline. However, many facilities have to compromise on a footing that is useable for any discipline, though not ideal for any one in particular. “Places like state fairgrounds achieve the desired footing through maintenance and grooming,” Gregory says.

TYPES OF FOOTING

Sand is the core ingredient to any riding surface. The type of sand selected can have a significant impact on how the surface performs. “The type of sand will determine 90 percent or more of the performance characteristics of the surface,” says Gregory. “You adjust the feel and maintenance on a 10-percent level.”

Coarse sands, commonly called concrete sand, are the least expensive, but can cause shearing. “Coarser sands feel like walking at the back of the beach, away from the water line,” Gregory says.

Mason sand is finer and holds together better than concrete sand. Riding on finer sands is “like walking down by the water line. The sand has more moisture and is firmer,” Gregory notes. And mason sand is readily available everywhere in the U.S.

Silica sand, a premium sand, is popular with jumpers. “Silica sands are harder in composition, so they don’t break down, and pure silica sand is free of silt and clay, so it is dust-free,” Calhoun says. It offers excellent stability, but a harder ride. Because silica sands are not mined everywhere, it tends to be two to three times more expensive than other sands.

Speaking of price, concrete and mason sands run $10 to $25 per ton delivered. Silica sands typically cost $30 to $60 or more per ton delivered.

FOOTING ADDITIVES

Additives, including stone dust, woodchips, rubber mulch, textile fibers, polymer coated sands and hybrid products, can provide a number of benefits: dust control, cushioning, and an increase in the footing's longevity. However, it is imperative to determine if one is necessary or if it is the correct choice for your facility. “Additives have their place, but it is not everyplace. And additives should be used at very minimum levels, if at all,” Gregory cautions.

Before buying, do your research. “Most additives are priced per square foot. The amount needed for each arena is based on an application rate,” Gregory says. “You have to compare apples to apples. Some companies will say you need 1/4 lb. per square foot, while others will say 1/2 lb. per square foot.” The real question, he says: “Is it enough, or too much, for your arena?”

If you use additives, do everything possible to conserve them. For example, build a border around the arena, especially an outdoor arena, to prevent the additives from washing out during routine watering or rains.

Ask the seller about any warranties. “They should be able to give you at least a five-year warranty that is straightforward and with few exceptions. It is also important to have an environmental guarantee and that the product is non-toxic,” Gregory adds. “You want to be reasonably assured your investment will last awhile, and if not, you have some sort of recourse.”

STONE DUST/DECOMPOSED GRANITE

Stone dust mixed with concrete sand or clay tightens the footing. When mixed at a one-to-one ratio, the surface performs like finer sand. Even though stone dust is relatively inexpensive, it is dusty (heck, dust is part of its name) and not readily available in all parts of the country. “It is common in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states, but is not available west of the Mississippi,” Gregory says. “Decomposed granite is similar for Midwestern and West Coast states.”

Price is roughly $15 to $30 per ton delivered.

RUBBER MULCH

Rubber mulch additives can come from a variety of sources. Ground-up tires were the first variant introduced to the market. Today, crumb rubber comes from running shoes, as well as ground tires. Using a rubber additive provides cushion for working horses and also breaks up compaction. “Rubber mulch can be helpful in low levels in old sand,” Gregory says. “It must be used carefully, especially with new sand, or it can cause instability and shearing.”

The source of the rubber is critical. Contamination was a major problem when rubber was first used in arenas. While that is not as much of a concern today, you have to know the seller and ask for a guarantee that it is metal-free and non-toxic.

“I like tire rubber in cold parts of the country because it holds heat and freezes less,” Dienhart says. “That is a negative in the summer in the desert, because it is too hot and absorbs water.” Dienhart has also found using 100-percent rubber footing works well in exercisers to eliminate dust.

Rubber additives typically cost $0.15 to $0.50 per square foot delivered. Brand Names include Equi-Tread, Flex1 Equestrian Footing, Flex-MD, Pay Dirt, Pro Stride Premier, Rubbermate, RX, RX Prime, Shock Stop, and Tread All.

TEXTILES

Textiles and felts are one- to two-inch-long synthetic fibers mixed into sand to stabilize the footing and reduce concussion. The fibers retain moisture and combat dust. The brand names for textiles vary by distributor, but the actual fiber materials are nearly identical. “Textiles fit into a budget well, and I am not afraid to tell customers they will last 10 years,” Dienhart says. In colder climates, though, textiles can freeze, because the fibers retain moisture.

Prices run about $0.40 per square foot. Brands include DuraFelt, EuroFelt, GGT (German Geo Textile), and Pos A Trac.

POLYMER COATED SANDS

Coatings applied to sand can provide a consistent surface that is freeze-resistant and dust-free. “Polymer coated sands are a completely different price structure because of the cost to manufacture, but they never require water,” Dienhart notes. Prices range from $5 to $7 per square foot, and brands to look for include EuroWax, FlexSand Action, and Terra 2000.

Each of the additives described here offers specific benefits. In some instances, hybrid additives that combine the benefits of several types of additives can achieve an enhanced texture to the footing. Products such as AirFoot, LightFoot, Sandmate, Travatex and others incorporate a mixture of nylon, rubber and foam.

In the end, the surface for your arena should improve the texture and feel of the footing, but not create a drastic change that distracts a working horse. “Talk to other owners of riding facilities,” Dienhart urges. “Ask what they don’t like about the footings they put in. Ask them what they would change.”

Last but not least: “If you are going to buy an additive, look for manufacturers that have longevity and environmental guarantees,” Gregory emphasizes.


For More Information

• Comfortstall, www.comfortstall.com

• Fairmount Minerals, www.fairmountminerals.com

• Footings Unlimited, www.footingsunlimited.com

• GGT Footing, www.ggt-footing.com

• Innovative Equine Systems, www.equinesystems.com

• Midwest Equestrian www.midwestind.com/industries/horse-arena-dust-control

• Stabilizer Solutions, www.stabilizersolutions.com

• West Coast Footings, www.westcoastfootings.com

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  • Good luck, Darcy. Let us know if this works!

    Kimberly S. Brown | The Right Footing

  • This is exciting news as I have a 12 yr old Thoroughbred ex Chuckwagaon Racer with a Fetlock issue...

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  • Thanks for the comment Renee!

    Kimberly S. Brown | The Right Footing

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    Renee | The Right Footing

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