Q: I just put up a 70 foot round pen at our stable and I need to put in some good footing. Everybody says that beach sand is perfect. I live in Southern California and it is illegal to use beach sand. What would be a good, economical alternative in your opinion? Some say plaster sand, some say screened fill dirt base with shavings on top, others say to use dg base and some others say to use the muck you clean out from the stalls. Can you help?
A: Surprisingly enough, an option is rubber. I don't know if they're doing it down in the US, but in Canada people are using old tires to mix into asphalt, use as rubber mats in playground, and actually crumbling it up into a sand-like substance to use not only in playgrounds but horse arenas as well. It's got good grip, it's springy and absorbs shock, and there's not a lot of dust to go with it. The only problem is that it's expensive, but if you're willing to invest in something like that, here's a link:
When you're looking for materials, you have to make sure it's not dusty, that it cushions that horse's steps but still has a good amount of traction. My recommendation would primarily be sand. It doesn't need to be beach sand, you can shop around and find out what's available. You can purchase it in fine or coarse grain, whatever you prefer, and have it shipped in. You would probably prefer a coarser grain, not so fine that it's going to create a lot dust. If you're using sand, you have to make sure that you aren't piling it very deep. Anything deeper than about five inches is going to be pretty stressful on the horse (you know what it feels like to run in loose sand, I'm sure). You can also mix sand with different footing materials to loosen them up.
The downside of sand is that it will pack down and erode and get crushed up after a while, so it will need replacing every once in a while and re-layering because the footing will become hard. Also, you'll need to mix and wet down the arena often as sand is very dry. Sand is also probably your cheapest option and will last anywhere from 5 to 11 years, depending on what you get.
A softer footing option is sawdust. Again, you can shop around and get more information on it, but sawdust does need to be replaced every couple years. Saw dust wouldn't necessarily mean the very fine dusty stuff you see after taking a power saw to a piece of wood, but rather looks like fine wood shavings and can be mixed with sand. The arena I currently ride in has wood product footing and the Thoroughbred gelding I'm working with just loves it, and we do show jumping. It's also great on the residing barrel horses' limbs.
And all of this stuff can be mixed. It's recommended that you mix rubber with sand for good footing and just run a harrow over it to keep it mixed up. If you're willing to invest, I would most likely recommend that option.