A Place to Ride

When it comes to arenas, what size and footing are best?

If you own or manage a facility where people ride their horses, chances are you have an arena of some kind. It may be big, small, round, square, indoors or outdoors, but many riders want or need a confined area. People shopping for a boarding facility consider size and types of riding areas important amenities.

What spaces you provide may depend on the disciplines you host or the number of boarders you have. Also, if you decide to host horse shows and clinics, you may be able to use what you have, or you may have to make changes. It all depends on the riding focus.

Reining and Working Cow Horse

These exciting, growing Western sports do not require a specific size for training or competition, but bigger is generally better. Gabe Davide, a successful, professional reining trainer and competitor based in Gilroy, California, believes that the horses feel more comfortable in an arena that is at least 200 feet long by 100 feet wide. Less than that and the required large galloping circles get too small. Most competitions are held in large indoor arenas that are about 300 feet by 150 feet. Ideally, Davide likes to train in a space 400 feet by 200 feet because the horses don’t even think about hesitating. They have plenty of room to move and lots of length to accelerate.

While reining competitors don’t have a preference between round or square corners, those in working cow horse do. They like to use square corners to box the cow. With rounded corners, often the cow has the advantage.

In regard to footing, Davide is definite in one area: “No rubber at all.” Both reining and working cow horse riders prefer a firm base topped with 2 1/2 to 3 1/2 inches (for reining) or 3 to 5 inches (for working cow) of sand that has some “fluff” to it. It shouldn’t be too abrasive, but a firm base is most important, so the horses feel confident in stopping.


Hunter/Jumper competitions also do not have specific requirements for ring size, but according to Laurie Grayson, the dimensions of the ring will have a definite impact on horse show profitability. Grayson has run her Just A Little Farm out of Table Mountain Ranch in Golden, Colorado for nearly 30 years. “The ring size really depends on the level of show you are hosting,” she says. A ring that is 100 feet by 150 feet can adequately hold a schooling show, but not a rated one. The rated shows typically have ring sizes of 150 feet by 200 feet for hunters and 200 feet by 300 feet for jumpers. For teaching and training, Grayson prefers 100 feet by 200 feet, which is big enough to set up courses. Smaller than that can work, but instead of an entire course, you may have to focus more on gymnastic lines.

Beyond arena size, Grayson feels that footing is crucial. “Unless you put in decent footing, you’re not going to have boarders or shows,” she says. The preferred footing is a sand and rubber mix that is about two inches in depth, depending on the base. “Too deep and you get soft tissue injuries,” she cautions.


It’s not surprising that in the precise discipline of dressage, there is a specific requirement for ring size. For competitions, the “standard arena” is 20 meters wide by 60 meters long, and the “small arena” is 20 meters by 40 meters. According to USEF rules, intro, training and first level test 1 can be held in a small arena, but all other tests must be held in the standard size arena. Additionally, the rulebook states, “The enclosure itself should consist of a low fence about 0.3 meters high. The fence should be such to prevent the horse’s hooves from becoming entangled, and arena stakes, if used, must be covered with a ball or similar object so as to prevent injury. Rope, concrete or unbreakable chain fencing is not allowed. The part of the fence at A should be easy to remove to let the competitors in and out of the arena in a suitable way.”

Obviously, in order to practice a test in a standard size arena, it is important to have one, or the ability to create one inside a larger arena. Mary Flood, a USDF certified trainer through fourth level and USDF bronze, silver and gold medalist, owns and operates Wildfire Farm in Lovettsville, Virginia. At her facility, she has a standard size outdoor ring and a small size indoor arena. She prefers to teach and train in the smaller size because there are “more chances to bend and supple the horse.” A ring the size that other disciplines prefer, 100 feet by 200 feet, is simply too large to practice dressage. Riders and horses get lost, and figure sizes are not as accurate. Like Davide and Grayson, Flood feels that footing is the most important aspect of an arena. She prefers a sand and rubber mix over a compacted bluestone base, particularly for indoor arenas. For an outdoor ring she suggests sand footing, because rubber can get too hot and has the potential to float away with heavy rains.

The dressage portion of combined driving also has specific arena sizes. According to the USEF rulebook, the dressage arena must be 100 meters by 40 meters or 80 meters by 40 meters, depending on the type of class.

Bottom Line

Whether or not you host shows may dictate what size arena you should provide. But beyond that, all the experts agree that appropriate, consistent footing is paramount. Without that, it doesn’t matter what size or kind of arena you have.






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