Running Out of Room

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When you first bought your place, no doubt the ring seemed fine for a basic lesson program, and over the years its base and footing has held up pretty well. But there’s one catch—now it’s just too small for the heavy use it’s getting. You can’t run two lessons at the same time, there’s no way to lay out a decent jumper course and you can’t hold a good schooling show if there are more than five entries per class!

So what’s to do? Bulldoze the whole thing and start from scratch? Not likely! Think of all that footing, all that sand and the fencing. There’s life left in all of it. Instead, consider an expansion project, building on your ring’s strong points and correcting the weak ones.

Expansion can happen in three ways, depending on your site and your existing ring. First, you can build onto one end, assuming that you have space to do so and your arena’s width is sufficient for current or future uses. Alternatively, you can add on to the edge of a skinny ring or even expand the entire perimeter (not for the faint of heart). Regardless, there are key factors at work here that go beyond the simple concern of whether there’s enough room.

Before you begin such a project, you have to have a good sense of what’s underfoot, down under those layers of sand, chips or processed footing. Is this ring worth saving? Or should it be replaced completely? What other options are there, based on your terrain and acreage? If the ring’s only useful in dry weather, or only when it’s been thoroughly soaked, perhaps starting over and saving this one for less intense use is a better investment. Adding to a questionable ring will just give you a larger area of mediocrity, when perhaps what’s really needed is improvement over the whole area. (See “Laying the Foundation” in the article, "Treading Lightly.")

The key is to work with experienced folks, or put plenty of time into the planning phase and go over it carefully in your head and on paper. “I think 10 hours spent planning will save a hundred hours of expensive equipment time,” says Tom Angle, co-owner of Goose Downs Farm in Galisteo, N.M. “You just can’t go out there and start moving dirt without knowing exactly what you’re in for,” he notes, whether that’s in adding to the base of the ring or reworking the drainage plan.

Assuming you’ve got a pretty respectable ring in place, maybe just a bit short, for example, then you have four main factors to consider before you begin bulldozing:

Preserve the Existing Drainage Slope

Drainage usually becomes more complicated when you expand. Just think, an inch of rain on an acre of land (about 43,000 square feet) equals between 30,000 and 40,000 gallons of water, and it’s got to go somewhere.

At the same time, however, the new ring should not include all sorts of competing drainage angles for horses to negotiate, or you would end up with interesting drainage glitches. Instead, it’s best to keep it simple and follow existing drainage grades. For example, if your ring is graded to slope in one direction, an expansion down at the lower end will be easiest, preserving existing water-flow patterns. This isn’t the time to get creative and set a second drain angle in place because the crease between the two angled areas will be the weak spot of your ring.

Modify Exterior Drainage Elements

If your ring features clever drainage designs, by all means preserve them or repeat them as needed. In sloped areas, you may have curtain drains or swales to catch water flowing down toward your arena. You need to either replace them with new ones or extend the existing ones along the side to accommodate the new arena footprint.

Recalculate your water flow as well, since as noted above, we’re talking thousands of gallons of water falling on a good-sized arena, If you’ve placed French drains, merely extending them around the new footprint might not be sufficient. A severe rainstorm or snow runoff could overwhelm the lengthened drain, flooding your ring’s base and sub-base. You might need to expand the entire drainage capacity, end to end, to handle the new burden. You’ll want to be sure and complete this extension early in the process if the swale or drain leads rainwater into your new construction area.

Adjust Access and Fencing Elements

You’ll be reconsidering your gate placement with the new ring arrangement, perhaps using the upheaval to go ahead and add a pedestrian gate, shift the entry to the new end or widen the tractor gate. If your old gate swings in, consider reversing it to swing out instead, so that oncoming horses on the track are not in danger of hitting that gate’s corner should it ever swing loose. You can even add mirrors to the fencing at one or both ends of the arena, so riders can assess positions as they work. Now’s the time to take on these updates, while riders are aware of the new arena work and their horses can then adjust to the changed scenery when it’s ready to be unveiled.

Rework the Spectator Provisions

Does your old ring have a good area for spectators? Shaded bleachers, a grassy berm or just a few chairs on the midline of one side? If your ring already has arrangements for people to watch, the new ring size may shift them suddenly off-center or into the new construction zone. Here’s where you’ll want to extend a seating berm, bleachers, etc. either to center it or cover the full length of the new footprint. Remember, a spectator today could be a client tomorrow, so it’s to your advantage to make their experience a pleasant one.

Once you’ve worked out the previous issues, you’re then ready to consider three actual design priorities, as defined by Brian Fahey of Equestrian Designs:

1) Matching the new sub-base to the existing sub-base is easier to do when the expansion is down-slope rather than side-slope or up-slope. If those lowest layers aren’t compacted to the same values and at the same slope angle, you’ll find the seam every time you ride over it. The trick here is to have a bulldozer operator who understands that you’re seeking to remove the topsoil to find the most consistent “floor” you can get for your soil type, and he has to leave enough there so it can then be professionally packed by a large roller to the same height and angle as the existing base. If the initial blade work takes it too low, it will be difficult to bring the level back up to match the original without lots of extra roller work to compress the disturbed layers.

2) Matching the new base to the existing base is easier to do than you might think, if you use a cementatious seal between the old and new vertical edges. Again, this is where your materials need to match up pretty darned closely or the difference in give, absorption and runoff between old and new will eventually pull the arena sections apart. You’ll find a crack or a weak spot that gets worse every time it rains or freezes as the moisture works its way into the joint. Moisture in a crack is enough to split a mountain, given a few freeze/thaw cycles, so just think what it can do to your apparently solid arena base.

3) Matching the footing is easiest of all. Here you’ve got it made, you want to blend the old top stuff with enough new material to cover the new base. In adding on the sub-base and base, you probably pulled back some of your existing footing, so now you can blend in the new material and set it back in place. Carefully draw the footing to an even layer across the entire ring, preferably 2 or 3 inches deep all over, and then start the watering process to ensure a dust-free, evenly resilient top surface. (See "Treading Lightly" for a round-up of footing options.)

So, if you thought you could just run the tractor blade around one end of the ring, toss down some wood chips and rock on from there, clearly you’ve changed your mind by now. You’re in for a full re-engineering if you’re on anything other than a sandy river bottom or a loamy forest floor.

On the other hand, if you’re in one of those lucky areas where a ring is just the most open of your sandy areas, perhaps with a perimeter fence, you’re in for an easy job—you just move a few fence posts and blend the sand of the two areas to avoid a visual line between old and new sand. And thank your lucky stars that you’re on such great ground.