Get your arena right!

Riding your horse in a great arena is one of the most enjoyable experiences for a horse person

Good Footing Is no Accident™

One of the primary purposes of having a private arena is to enjoy great footing year-round, footing that will be safe and comfortable for you and those who use your facility. Contrary to what those outside the industry might believe, dirt is never just dirt! Footing material, moisture content, and maintenance equipment all play significant roles in making sure your arena facility delivers a great footing and riding experience.

One of the most important things is recognizing a great arena design comes down to three basic design materials issues: 1) Cushion 2) Shear and 3) the resulting Resilience. Everything else doesn't really matter (aside from proper base construction and drainage)," says Mike Powell, Chairman and founder of Riata® as well as the designer of the Riata Arena Drag. The cushion is what breaks the concussion of the foot fall. It makes an arena "feel" soft and the right amount is easy on your horse. Shear is the connectedness of interparticle's that holds the footing together while lateral and downward forces work as your horse moves off the footing. Shear can be felt and seen in how well the horse is able to move off the footing in any direction without having the footing material slide from under their feet making them tenuous, or cause too much impact and causing injury.

"Shear is the connectedness that holds the footing together while lateral and downward forces work "

The amount of shear preferred will vary depending on the type of event. "For example: says Mike, in the reining and cutting world there is a significant need for shear in an arena for several reasons, but not so much shear that you can't do a slide stop. The type of footing materials used and the moisture content can significantly impact the level of footing shear. Sand in an arena is made up of a combination of round or angular particles: if there are mostly round particles, the material will be low-shear and loose, it will tend to slide out from under the horses' action like so many small ball bearings.

"...the material will be low-shear and loose, it will tend to slide out from under the horses' hoof action like so many small ball bearings" 

"Even if it's a highly angular footing material, there's still a variable amount of shear depending on the amount of moisture. There is what I call the 'sweet spot' in every arena. What makes it a great arena is when that sweet spot is wide enough to be resilient, where you have just enough shear, but not so much that it gets clumpy or clods regardless of the moisture content. Some arenas, with expansive minerals in the footing mix are really hard to maintain because the sweet spot is very narrow and requires near perfect moisture content; one of the most common problems in an arena is the wrong mix ratio of clay and sand content in the footing, too much clay and it becomes highly volatile to minor differences in moisture (swells and shrinks), this type of arena does not have resilience and requires constant moisture monitoring and high maintenance attention. As a potential remedy, non angular sand and/or agricultural gypsum (Calcium Sulfate – CaSo4) can he added to your arena to dramatically improve the soil by loosening the footing and widening the sweet spot. 
Pelleted Gypsum - Fastest acting, Low dust, free flowing Broadcast with any fertilizer spreader

Soil Texture Test
Before you go to the expense of amending your soil, make sure you are correct.  You can perform a simple soil hydrometer test on your arena footing using a Mason Jar.   You will quickly see the basic makeup of your arena footing material - The percentage of Clay, Silt and Sand.  You can also contact your local soils engineer and get a more detailed test report which is usually very affordable and fast.

"(arenas with high clay) are hard to maintain because the sweet spot is very narrow and requires near perfect moisture content"

Mike says that many footing complaints he hears are because the arena has either too much clay or too much round sand content. "You can get a lot better shear by putting some angular material in with your round sand, and that could be in the form of angular sand or decomposed granite. Then, even with varying moisture content, you’ll have a really good footing mix that's easy to maintain, it has a wider sweet spot, so it will matter less if it's a little dry or a little moist -Again, that's what we mean by a resilient arena: it will be more forgiving and enjoyable to ride in and require less maintenance. Because of the wider sweet spot, it feels great more of the time, and that means more satisfied riders, horses and safer conditions in the arena."

"...a really good footing mix that's easy to maintain, it has a wider sweet spot so it will matter less if it's a little dry or a little moist -Again, that's what we mean by a resilient arena" 

When the right materials and moisture content are in place, the equipment used to maintain the arena becomes paramount. The first thing is you've got to have a tool that has all the phases necessary to maintain an arena without being complex to operate. Many tools on the market are modified seed-bed preparation tools and are not suitable for arena use; they may even damage the arena base. Using a tool designed to condition the footing above the base but never undermine the base itself will result in less maintenance, cost, lower risk, and more consistently great footing.

Arena Drag Footing Maintenance
Riata Arena Drag Design Features
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₁ Special Thanks to Parker Slavin for use of the Arena Image!