Horse Footing, Arena Footing, Horse Flooring Systems
What you need to Know About Arena Footing by Michael M. Donovan
A RIDING ARENA FOOTING PRIMER
Horse people tend to be very particular in their likes and dislikes. You can ask one hundred different
horse people their opinion on one product and get almost one hundred different answers. Riding arena
footing preferences are a great example of this. Opinions and likes vary from discipline to discipline and
even from person to person within each separate discipline. Footing is the material found on the surface
of an engineered riding arena. English arena riding falls basically into two categories: dressage and
hunter/jumpers. Dressage enthusiasts typically like their footing a bit deeper than the jumpers. In the
western disciplines, footing depths are generally split into two categories: barrel racing and reining.
Here the reiners typically like their footing deeper than barrel racers. Footing depths generally vary between 2 and 5 inches, depending on material type and riding style.
The basic job of footing remains the same for all disciplines. It should cushion the horse’s hooves, and provide Discipline-appropriate traction
(which includes the ability of the reining horses to slide).
The footing should be non-toxic, odor free, and as dust free as possible. It
should also be consistent through out the arena (i.e., level, of uniform depth and firmness, etc.). When deciding which footing is right for you and your
horses – ride it before you buy it. A particular footing or additive may feel great in your hand and feel completely different under hoof. Find a facility
that has the kind of footing you are considering and ride on it – most footing manufacturers can provide you with a list of farms using their product. It is
also recommended that you talk to the people who use it regularly and those responsible for maintaining it. Pertinent questions to ask include: How
many riders use the arena per day/week? When was the footing installed? How much did it cost (both material and installation)? How often is the
arena groomed and with what tool? What they are using for dust control – and if water, how much, how often, and how applied?
Answers to these questions will help you decide on the best footing to meet your riding needs, budget, and time/maintenance threshold.
The following sections describe a variety of footing materials and additives, but are by no means
exhaustive. Every year new products arrive on the market and many may prove to be excellent. In any
event, it is important to have clear expectations regarding the performance of your footing (as well as the
manufacturer and the contractor installing the material). Footing can be very costly to install and even
more costly to replace if you are dissatisfied. So it is very important to do your homework and make your decisions wisely.
Another important rule of thumb when installing your footing – less is more. Even on the most tightly
compacted base there will be some co-mingling of base and footing (effectively increasing the volume of footing). Start with less material than you think you will need because it is much easier to add
additional material to your arena, than to remove it.
STONE DUST FOOTING
Here in the east it is common to see arenas with a product
known as stone dust (a.k.a. blue stone or #10 screenings) as the footing. Typically stone dust is used as the engineered base of the riding arena because it compacts well and does
not contain large stones. Some excavators will compact the stone dust then add additional stone dust in its loose form as
the footing on top. It is more difficult to maintain this type of arena as the tendency is for all of the material to become highly compacted. With no clear delineation between
footing and base (as opposed to the footing in the next section) and the need for more frequent and aggressive
harrowing to keep the riding surface from becoming rock-hard, it requires a skilled operator to keep the
compacted material level (it will tend to have rolling waves) with a consistent “fluffy” layer above it. Stone
dust is the lowest cost material to use as footing and may be appropriate for you if the additional
maintenance needs and the possibility of a less level surface will not adversely affect your riding.
By far the most common substance used for footing is sand.
Sand is most frequently used as a stand-alone footing, but is also the used with other lofting agents (see below). Sand placed over an engineered base composed of compacted
stone dust is fairly easy to maintain. Sand will not harden like stone dust and when dragging, one can differentiate between fluffing the sand and harrowing into the base. Sand
is the next most affordable footing material after stone dust. While there are a wide variety of sands marketed to equestrians, a washed concrete sand (ASTM C-33) is a
good place to start. To meet the American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) specifications, all C-33 sands must meet specific particle size requirements
(i.e., they are washed to remove fine, dust-causing particles and screened to remove all larger pebbles
and rocks). There are two broad categories of sand available: manufactured sand which is produced as a
product from rock crushing, and natural sand which is mined from wherever it has been deposited (e.g.,
river bed sand or bank sand). The chemical composition of the material from which the sand is made will
also affect its performance in the ring. Generally speaking, a hard (e.g., quartz), angular C-33 sand will resist breakdown and provide good traction in your arena.
People often prefer to add a lofting agent to sand to help with active recovery, retain moisture, and to add
more cushion and spring. This list is seemingly endless with new products coming on the market almost
monthly. To date there are three major categories on the market: rubber/plastic products, fiber products, and wood products.
A wide variety of rubber and plastic products are available for use as lofting agents for your
arena. Some, like crumb rubber (made from recycled tires), have been around for many years. Others,
including ground sneakers or tennis balls, shredded surgical rubber, and stripped electrical wire casings
have come to market more recently. Rubber lofting agents provide additional cushioning for your riding
surface. In addition, many (the crumb rubbers in particular) help retain moisture by some of the material
“floating” to the top of the sand and creating a “lid” to keep moisture in. the darker colored materials also
absorb heat from the sun and will stay rideable longer in cold weather than sand-only footings. When
installed correctly, these footings can provide a low maintenance, all weather quality riding surface both indoors and out.
Any of these products may be ideal for your situation and many are quite costly. It is important to be clear
on what you are buying and what to expect. Even within the crumb rubber footings, cost, quality, and
guarantees will vary greatly. Again, try it before you buy it and look for clear (i.e., written) information on
how the product will perform and how the manufacturer will stand behind their product.
Fabric and fiber based lofting agents have been used in Europe for some time and are now finding their
way into arenas on this side of the Atlantic. Synthetic felt is ground into small pieces and mixed with sand.
Alternatively, the short fibers from which the felt is made is mixed with sand to create a cushioning and
moisture retaining footing. The fabric or fibers create virtually no dust as they wear. These footings are
perhaps best suited for indoor arenas as the fibers and fabric are quite light weight and have a tendency to
be blown by the wind. As grinding the felt requires specialized machinery, there are few sources for the
material and it is fairly expensive. It generally performs at its best when installed in an indoor arena and is consistently watered with an irrigation system.
Wood products can provide cushioning and moisture retention for a sand-based footing. Chips and
shredded material can also vary in size and texture creating inconsistent footing. As they are organic, these
products will eventually decompose and lead to dusty (if dry) or compacted and/or slippery (if wet)
conditions in your arena. Engineered wood fiber products are more durable and consistent and reduce
these issues. All wood products need to be replenished every couple of years (depending on conditions,
arena traffic, etc.). Peat moss is another wood product used as an additive to arena footing. It can be
mixed with other lofting agents to help maintain moisture content, but will only perform well if monitored
and watered consistently. If not maintained properly, the peat moss dries and footings can become quite slippery.
Another type of sand based footing is the polymer or wax coated sand. The polymer and wax coated
sands are guaranteed to be dust free. In creating these materials, each individual particle of sand is coated
to prevent dust. The material is engineered to have appropriate frictional characteristics for traction (it has
the look and feel of brown sugar). Since it requires no water, it does not freeze. It does not compact so
requires only minor grooming. Manufacturers offer differing claims of the durability of their products with
the more durable being the more expensive. And expensive it can be. Footing for a 20m by 60m ring can cost between fifty and one hundred thousand dollars.
Watering is still the most widely used form of dust control. It is safe and reliable. The most efficient
method for watering an indoor arena is an overhead system. Overhead systems are very expensive, but
provide the most consistent uniform coverage. Kickwall mounted rotor systems cannot provide even,
consistent water coverage. By design, the circular spray pattern creates areas where the rotors overlap
(that will tend to be wet) and areas where there are gaps between the sprays (that will be dry). This is less
of an issue with outdoor arenas as rotors can be designed to only have overlap and the sloped base
allows excess water to flow off the ring (like when it rains). New traveling irrigation systems are quite
affordable and are very versatile in that you can use them in your indoor arena or outdoor arena. And they are quite efficient in putting down
even, consistent water over the entire arena.
Some facilities are mixing in magnesium chloride in lieu of using an irrigation system to maintain a dust free
riding environment. The main concern with magnesium chloride is the drying effect it may have on the
horse’s hooves. If using magnesium chloride for freezing prevention or dust control, it is recommended
you frequently oil/moisturize the hooves and rinse the hooves off after riding on the footing.
Another dust control procedure involves spraying a non-toxic synthetic liquid over the footing. Similar in
principle to polymer coated sand, the liquid theoretically coats each particle of footing, trapping the dust in
the sand. Regular harrowing is required to keep the materials properly mixed. With continued riding, both
the sand and the liquid will degrade requiring additional applications every 6 to 12 months depending on use.
Article by Michael M. Donovan – Arena Designer & Consultant
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