A well prepared arena and athletic performance are closely tied. The resiliency of the footing absorbs the shock caused by concussive hoof force, and can make the difference between a safe landing and a dangerous one.
A good ground surface will accommodate these dynamics by enabling the foot to decelerate gradually, and thereby provide protection from harmful impact. Each discipline has its own needs, but surfaces are all about the balance between absorption and support: the surface needs to give, but not too much.
Getting this balance right is very important. Bob Kiser of Kiser Arena Specialists claims that more than 80 percent of soundness-related injuries are a result of poorly constructed arenas. “The types and amounts of materials are key to safety and performance,” he says.
Consider an arena’s location, discipline and specific needs in determining the type of footing needed. “Advance planning will save you from making costly mistakes in the long run,” he adds. “That and proper management will help keep your arena in good condition for years.”
CONSTRUCT A STURDY BASE
A good base is essential to preserve surface integrity. Depending on your location, your choices for the base layer will vary. Crushed limestone, for example, for which Kentucky is known, makes for an impenetrable substructure. But other materials—blue stone, decomposed granite or sure-pack—also work well. Even clay, if it is available, makes for a sturdy base. These materials must be compacted well; if weeds sprout in the middle of the ring,the foundation is not adequately packed down.
No one ground surface is appropriate to every situation, but there are a few factors that cross all boundaries. The variety of materials available makes it is easy to create a mixture to suit your needs.
First, though, consider these three elements:
Soil strength. Does the surface yield under pressure? A hard brittle surface, such as concrete or sun-baked clay, has high-impact resistance (high strength) but absorbs little if any impact energy. An overly soft surface, such as dry sand, has low-impact resistance (low strength) and absorbs most of the footfall energy. It takes a good deal of force for the horse to recover and travel forward.
Moisture. The right amount of moisture will help create a dust-free environment and pliant footing. Too much moisture will make a mostly sandy surface too hard; or turn a dirt, surface slippery, depending on the amount of silt, clay and organic matter present. Too little moisture creates a dust bowl or a rock-solid surface.
Gina Greenlee, soil lab specialist, with Midwest Industrial, the makers of Arena Rx Synthetic Organic Dust Control, talks about the health risks and costs inherent in airborne dust. “It is an acknowledged fact that horses require 300 percent more oxygen while training and competing than when they are at rest, an oxygen level they are unable to reach where riding arena dust control is poor.” Adding that airborne dust contributes to a number of problems such as compromised equine and human respiratory health, reduced visibility, complaints about dust from nearby communities, and deterioration of arena bases.
Drainage. Adequate drainage is essential for indoor and outdoor arenas. Location matters; water needs to be channeled and dispersed evenly. In an outdoor arena, weather conditions can cause puddles or rivers; indoor arenas can develop drainage problems such as leaks or malfunctioning sprinkler systems.
All the above apply to both natural and manmade surfaces. Cost and geography frequently limit the options for surface types.
Sand generally prevails as the footing of choice. It includes a wide range of materials that vary greatly in mineral content and size. The finer the sand the higher potential for dust, but the stronger it is. Sand requires less maintenance than a hard dirt surface, and can easily be combined with other materials. In the Northeast, for example, a mixture of washed sand and clay helps outdoor arenas resist the elements from one year to the next. Adding at least one inch of new material every spring helps maintain surface integrity, particularly before the busy season.
Turf is another high-quality natural choice. In a climate with a good mix of sun and rain, without frost or extreme heat, turf is supple and resilient, as well as easy to maintain. However, it does not hold up well to heavy use, which leads to soil compaction and loss of grass cover. If the soil dries out, turf tends to become very hard.
Combining natural and man-made products expands your options while also making the most of local resources. If you are in a sandy area, such as Florida, a screened limestone and shredded rubber mixture on top of a limestone base would meet your needs for soil strength and drainage. In the Midwest, washed sand and bagged pine shavings on a screened limestone base, which is laid on hard clay, can provide superior footing.
If money is no object, man-made materials such as polymer-coated sand or fibersand (composed of silica and strong, rot-proof fibers) are long-lived, resilient and dust-free.
For example, the Pinnacle surface from Attwood Equestrian Surfaces consists of sand coated with viscoelastic polymer, with the addition of microfibers. Created to provide a surface that encourages safe impact and resulting motion, it increases shear strength without becoming compacted. Adapted to endure extreme high and low temperatures without melting or becoming brittle, the footing remains soft and pliable, as well as dust free without watering. In outdoor applications, the polymer ensures fast drainage; it won’t “absorb” water, which allows the arena to be used even after heavy rainfall. When compared to traditional arenas, maintenance involves only light harrowing and manure removal, and it lasts for years without requiring additional material.
Sand blends, such as Attwoods’ custom-manufactured GGT footing, can be a more thrifty alternative. GGT combines geo-textile felt and fiber with very specific sand. While all sand and sand-blend arenas require watering, Lynn Norley, project manager/sales and marketing, maintains that these footings retain moisture longer than just sand and release moisture for even distribution.
Whatever the surface materials, it’s important to maintain the proper amounts of air and water in them. “Controlling air and water will determine the rate of compaction, or how far the hoof sinks before forward momentum occurs,” says John Dienhart of West Coast Footings. Air provides the cushion, he notes, and water the bonding agent that unites one element with another, “to take the ‘roll out of the ring’ for example.” Dragging the arena renews the air content, and a float bar helps keep the surface level.
While all surfaces are designed to create the integrity upon which the foot relies, practical differences arise, Dienhart says, in how often maintenance is required, and the duration of time before additional material should be added.
Additives, ranging from shredded tires to felt, are one answer to reducing maintenance time and costs, as they are slower to break down, Dienhart says. But other variables, such as the discipline, location, temperature, and the number of horses that utilize the arena will determine maintenance schedules.
Dienhart recommends maintaining a consistent surface depth, which should be measured and attended to once a year.
But remember, no surface will last forever. Wear and tear from use and climate can be slowed down, but not eliminated.