Monday, February 16, 2009

Arena Footing

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.


  1. Great article! Especially the part about not getting the footing too deep. I've seen several great horses pull tendons or break sesamoid bones because of deep footing. Also, watch for shear between the base and the footing material. We have lovely sandy loam in our outdoor arena, but I've seen some nasty falls in arenas that use a fluffy footing over wet clay or manure bases.

  2. My area is red clay. Is there something I could mix with it say in a 50/50 mixture that would be good?

  3. Ugh, kestrel, my old barn had some pretty slippy corners.

    Great Post!

  4. Ah...Again I am impressed Mel. Really Great Job.:)

  5. Hey Mel,

    I'm with you on the deep footing thing. The barn I kept Spunky at for years had a real big arena that was so fun to ride in, except the footing wasn't put in properly, You can't just haul in tons of sand and dump it. There is grading and such to consider. When conditions were just right, it was great, but that didn't happen often enough, which I hated. It was such a great place to have big courses set.

    One key to any footing, it needs to be groomed and cared for on a regular basis, not just right before a show.

  6. I always wondered what the term "sheer" meant, in regards to arena footing. Now I know. Thanks Kestrel and Mel!

  7. A very nice blog, Mel! My sister has one of those new Nike indoors, they are recycled running shoes, I think..

  8. Mel:

    You can be the Dear Abby of horse info. Tell it like it is but with a positive twist.

  9. Hey, horspoor, the arena at RA is the rubber stuff. Why is it so awful? What did they do wrong with it? I forget.

  10. Thanks, CCC.

    As for mixing with red clay, what's the biggest problem you're finding with it? If you're finding it too coarse or harsh, as in it's been packed down or the grain is too big, you can mix it with sand and that will loosen it up but still keep firm footing... but again, it needs to be harrowed regularly so that it gets mixed and the sand doesn't just settle in the bottom.

    If it's a question of bad traction or if it's being hard on the horse's limbs, rubber would be a pretty good mix. It gives more spring and cushion.

    But still, if you're mixing material you're going to have to keep it harrowed and rotated so that the material stays mixed and you aren't getting uneven footing.

    On the note of making sure the footing being cared for... absolutely right. If you ride in the arena often, you should make a point to run a harrow over it every few days. I ride in our arena four days out of a week in the winter, and every Saturday either me or the stable hand makes a round. They just have a quad (four-wheeler for the Americans haha) that they park in a shed and we use that to drag harrows around. Fine harrows are also great for bringing up rocks. If we're both there, I go quickly over the flooring with a rake. It only takes about fifteen minutes to do and you'd be surprised how many rocks and missed pieces of manure that somehow sneak in there.

    I found the barn owner's spare ring of keys with the rake once haha.

    You're also going to find that the stuff piles up around the edges of the arena. This isn't a bad thing, per se, as long as it's not piling up too bad and taking away a lot of the footing. In fact, it's helpful as a sort of bumper. If, say, the horse had a freakout and backed into the wall, it's less likely that it's going to bash its leg on the wall.

    However, I'm sure you all know of the issue of getting the worn-down ring along the outside. That needs to be regularly fixed.


    Ohh, I knew they made stuff out of recycled tires, but recycled shoes, too? That's great.
    I'm loving the world more and more lately.

    The only problem I have with rubber is how very very cushy it is. You have to be super careful about its depth.

  11. Blogger ate my response :(
    Mel: I know that recycled tires have been used in a mixture since at least the mid 80's here in the US. My girls ran NBHA regionals on it around 86 and it must have been kinda new as I remember everyone was scrambling around trying to find the best shoe for that footing.
    I have not started my arena yet, it very well maybe a ongoing dream rather than reality.
    The area I have picked out is slightly elevated so and rain should run off. The soil is the red clay and am hoping to find something that can be added to reduce some costs.

  12. Well if it's cost you're worried about, sand is (as I blogged) probably your cheapest option. Just keep it mixed and make sure it's not too deep.

    I don't know when Canada started using tires as asphalt. It happened in my lifetime, so it hasn't been for very long. Do they do it there, too? From what I noticed, at least in the Southern states, concrete seems to be the pavement of choice for roads. I never paid attention when I went the last time I was in the USA.

  13. Mel, what about the dust factor? Is there anything harmful that can happen to the horse because of excess dust?

    How can that be fixed?

    I've ridden in some REALLY dusty arenas, I know it's hard on me, what about the horse?

  14. Hey Mel,
    Nice place 'ya got here. :) Feels homey. Keep up the great work!

    When our trainer first put up her indoor the footing was SO bad. My horses were swimming it was so damn deep and shifty. She has since fixed it, but I never did ask what she mixed with the sand or what was recommended to make it safer. I'll have to see if she has the info and I can share too.

    GL, I can't imagine that dust would be good for their respiratory systems, under any circumstances. Our first pony had a bad case of heaves when we first got him and I'm sure it was because he came from a H/J barn where he was stalled too much with dusty hay and poor ventilation. After a couple of years of good outdoor living he never even coughs anymore and his 'heave line' is completely gone. I can even stall him now at night and he does just fine. :)

  15. Thanks SWA!


    It's bad for their respiratory system which can cause heaving, choking, coughing, gagging, etc, etc... it limits their ability to breathe and can clog in their nostrils to be later cleaned out. It's also no good for the eyes and if it settles in around the cinch and whatnot, you could potentially be looking at sores.

    It's also not good for the people, for the same reasons.

    Also, if you're doing a lot of heavy work (ie, working with barrels where you're doing a lot of running, fast turns, a lot of kicking up the footing) it's going to limit visibility which is no good... especially if you're sharing the arena!

    Not only that, but it makes a MESS. Coats all the walls and any lights or heaters you may have... all of your equipment, you and the horse and your tack and bleh. Just not something you want to deal with. Like going up into your old attic!

    To limit dust, dampening down the footing works. Also, using a bigger grain if you're using something like sand. Rotating it and letting it settle, and then taking the lightest, dustiest stuff off of the top lowers the dust factor (broom, shovel, and a barrow... not fun work at all). Replacing it as it wears down of course...

    Mainly just making sure it doesn't get terribly dry and float up everywhere. It's not hard, either. We dump sacks of snow over the floor in the indoor in the winter and harrow over it a couple of times, good stuff.

    Which reminds me, you need to harrow over outdoor arenas after it rains before you ride. Eugh. I've ridden in everything from hard-packed dirt (that was NOT a fun run...) to halfway up the knees in soup (also not fun) but by FAR the worst conditions I have ever ridden in have been dry and good footing on top, wet and slick underneath. Gross. At least when it's soup you can SEE how slippery it is and know to keep it slow.

    Unless you're the moron teenager who caused her horse's leg to break last summer...

  16. I have never seen a rubber footing other than stall mats.
    Could someone please share a picture maybe?
    And is the Nike footing the same concept?
    Very curious. And somewhat excited about the idea of not havineg to constantly haul in new class 5 and sand.

  17. Okay reading for comprehension is a skill. Just saw the link.


    Great Work...

  18. lol Dena there's a bunch of different types of rubber footing, but I've heard some good stuff about that brand, that's why I posted the link

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  20. That's one nice thing about using a fabric building as your riding arena. Those buildings can be set up on a variety of different foundations and don't need a solid concrete slab. You can use any footing option you like.