Sniff. Sneeze. Cough. A dusty ring is not just unpleasant; it can be a health hazard. What are your options?
Before tackling your dust problem, it helps to understand what causes dust in the first place. Dust is created when the particles of sand (or whatever your footing) become sufficiently pulverized that air is able to lift them.
How does the sand get broken up? “Two things happen,” explains Wayne Gregory of Footings Unlimited in St. Louis, Missouri. “The first is the horse is fracturing the sand as he moves. The second is that, as the horse comes down, the sand vibrates on a microscopic level against the base. It is like sandpaper rubbing against the base. Over time, more and more of that base works its way up into your footing. It may just be a hundredth of an inch a month, but with five horses worked each day, you’ll have 1/8 to 1/4 inch of that clay up in your footing in the first year. Because clay (and silt, another popular base) is made up of very minute particles, it becomes airborne easily.
“A third culprit is organic material, such as manure or leaves,” says Gregory. “This organic material is broken down by the action of the sand and hoof pressure. It grinds down into a very fine powder that will puff up.”
The amount of dust created will vary depending on environmental factors and the type of footing your arena has. But there is always a way to control the dust.
Water, Water, Everywhere
The goal for controlling dust is to make the particles of sand heavier. How that is done varies and depends on your budget.
Undoubtedly, the most common and least expensive solution is the use of water. How effective is watering your arena? “With watering,” notes Gregory, “everything is a time/dollar tradeoff. Using a hose is probably the most effective because the person can control where the water goes and they are watching where they spray. But this takes time, and many people don’t have that kind of time nor can they afford to pay somebody to do it.
“A sprinkler system around the perimeter or even a simple garden-type sprinkler will do the job, but it won’t do it as consistently as somebody with a hose. If you are going to use this system, make sure you have a timer, as there is always something that happens to distract you.”
Water trucks are probably the least effective mode of water dispersal. The problem with trucks is that it is hard to get the water where you want it, such as into corners. You also have the added problem of bringing a vehicle into your arena, the weight of which adds to compaction.
Your ability to control dust with water will depend not so much on the means of water distribution you choose, but rather on whether you get enough water into your arena. “If you don’t spend enough time watering,” notes Gregory, “then it is a waste of time. The top may look dark but as soon as the hoof goes in, it turns up dry sand. To get the needed water penetration, you have to water for hours.
“If you do water properly, then you will find that you are watering with far less frequency. As you’re churning up the top, the moisture at the bottom is migrating up and re-wetting the top as it evaporates off. Done properly, an outdoor ring in most parts of the country, barring extreme temperatures, shouldn’t need watering more than 2 or 3 times a week.”
To test whether there is the appropriate amount of water in your ring, dig down with your fingers to a depth of 2 inches, grab some of the footing in your hand and squeeze it. You shouldn’t have any water running down your wrist. Then, open your hand. The footing should hold its form for a few seconds. If the ball falls apart when you open your hand, then there is not enough moisture in it.
Applying a coating or adding materials to a ring are popular choices in the war against dust. Like water, they all work the same way, by making the sand heavier.
A commonly used method is to add organic material such as wood chips or shavings. They do hold moisture, but eventually they break down like manure and your dust problems will get worse.
What else can you add? There are several non-organic additives that work well.
The first class of additives are those that coat the sand, such as oils or acrylics. There are many environmentally approved “white” (meaning clear) oils that can be used, including mineral, cottonseed, vegetable and baby oil.
One problem with oils is that the whiter the oil, the quicker it evaporates. Many old-timers used dark, crank case oil that would last forever (and, of course, wreck havoc with the environment). Oils are also rather expensive to apply. To effectively treat a 15,000-square-foot ring (100 feet by 150 feet) would run between $3,000 and $5,000 every 18 months.
The next class of additives are the salts. These work as water magnets because they actually pull moisture out of the air. If you live in a very dry area, salts are quite ineffective, but if you live in an area of high humidity, then salts can be very helpful.
There are many different types of salt, but like oil, the most effective is also the least environmentally friendly. “Calcium chloride,” says Gregory, “is the best but it will rust your tin roof and damage your horse’s hooves. Magnesium chloride is far less caustic and although not as efficient, still does a good job of pulling moisture out of the air. At 2 to 3 ounces per square foot, it won’t harm hooves or open cuts. The downside is if you get a lot of heavy rains, it will wash out, so you will have to keep replacing it.” The cost for that same 15,000-square-foot-arena is about $1,000 per year.
Textile and fabric additives, such as cotton or nylon, will far outlast other alternatives. Typically 1/2 to 1 pound is added per square foot. One advantage is that many of the small, broken-down particles of sand that would normally get airborne get imbedded in these textiles. The moisture they need to work must come from watering, but watering can be cut in half with these additives. Costs vary and start at around $3,000 for softer materials like cotton, which should last from 3 to 5 years, to $6,000 and up for synthetic textiles such as nylon, which last 20 to 30 years.
A relatively new type of additive is a family of synthetic, organic fluid products that are odorless, colorless, biodegradable and non-toxic. Claims Bob Vitale of Midwest Industrial Supply Inc.’s Equestrian Division in Canton, Ohio, one of the suppliers of this type of product, “Our product has a pure synthetic fluid chemistry and system that coats and impregnates particles. It will eliminate the dust, not present any health risks and also promotes the proper functioning of the footing itself. Finer particles are attached to larger particles so nothing is light enough to get up in the air and stay in the air. It will not freeze at 40 to 50 degrees below zero and there is no watering needed.
“The cost would depend somewhat on the quality of your existing footing, but typically, a three-inch-deep, 15,000-square-foot sand arena would run around $3,000 and last about a year. It will need a maintenance supplement occasionally that will run about 25 percent of the original cost,” says Vitale.
A final group of additives are the fused polymer coatings. The polymer is actually fused to the sand; it is not a coating. There is no dust or mud, it doesn’t freeze and it will last over 20 years. Of course, there is a tradeoff. This solution is expensive and is best done with new rings. The cost to do a 15,000-square-foot ring is about $60,000.
Trying to control dust can be a frustrating and time-consuming experience. There are no magic solutions, but with some effort, everyone will breathe a little easier.