Equipment needed for keeping horse pastures and horse arenas trimmed depends on the size of the horse arena and horse pasture, and how many horses and riders use them. Keep tractor size and capabilities in mind when you purchase a new mower, rake or drag for the horse arena and horse pasture. Don’t buy implements that are too big for your tractor. You don’t want to burn up a small tractor by using it to pull large, heavy implements through tall grass or deep sand.
A 25-45 horsepower tractor works well for smaller operations and can handle most implements up to 5 feet wide. Try to get one with a three-point hitch (for raising and lowering implements) and a live power take-off (PTO), which operates implements with moving parts (mowers, post hole diggers, broadcast spreaders, etc.).
Mow Those Pastures
Most folks probably buy the tractor first, or already have one, and it might have come with a brush mower already attached to it. Most rotary cutting mowers, such as Bush Hog (Bush Hog is a registered trademark name), are single-blade mowers that can flail their way through tough, tall brush. They generally cost around $1,400-$1,600 new, but you can sometimes find a used one.
A brush mower works great in overgrown fields and where rocks or sapling trees are a problem, as the blade is designed to “give” when it hits something instead of breaking. It’ll mow nice, flat pastures, too. But it doesn’t do a very pretty job.
If you have relatively smooth pastures and want to keep them trimmed and looking nice, you’ll get better results with a finishing mower. Finishing mowers have three blades instead of one, so you get a smoother, more uniform cut, and four wheels, so you can adjust the cutting height. They come in various widths and work on a tractor with a three-point hitch and a PTO. They cost more than a Bush Hog-style mower. (A 5-foot finishing mower runs around $2,000.) Choose one with a rear discharge instead of a side discharge and you’ll really like the way your pastures look when you’re done.
You can’t just hit the pastures with a mower once or twice a summer. Depending on the rainfall, you’ll want to run over the field with a mower once every two or three weeks. This will keep weeds down and allow new, tender grass (the horses’ favorite) to come up. Keeping the pasture mowed encourages horses to graze throughout the field and not just in a few favorite spots, while the rest grows tall and unsightly.
Homemade Chain Drag
You can make a simple drag with a piece of chain-link fence. Wire a length of pipe to one end, drill holes in the pipe at each end to attach chains, and use a pin to attach it to the tow bar of the tractor, or even the back of your garden tractor or ATV, if they’re strong enough.
Other than a Bush Hog or a finishing mower, you’ll need a rake of some sort to dethatch the build-up of dead grass and to break up manure piles. A landscape rake is a relatively inexpensive implement (around $500-$600 new) that can do the job without tearing up the ground as much as a heavy harrow might. Plus it can do double duty grooming your arena.
Landscape rakes are designed for the fine grass that landscapers work with, but if you remove every other tooth they will work much better for pastures and arenas. The teeth are designed to be easily removed for replacement when they’re worn or broken. Plus you’ll have lots of spare teeth when you need them.
The one other implement you might want to consider for pasture maintenance is a spinner spreader that attaches to the back of your tractor-for spreading lime or fertilizer and for occasional overseeding. They run $300-$400 new.
Riding arenas need a lot more time and attention to keep up than pastures. Round and round, up and down, riding and sliding-arenas take a beating. When the quality of your riding surface deteriorates, your horses’ legs can take a beating, too.
The health and success of our performance horses depends upon good, safe footing. A rough spot here, a ridge there-anything that catches a hoof or causes slipping can cut into a horse’s confidence. Pulling a piece of chain-link fence over the surface might make an arena look nice, like a pretty face, but the beauty in secure footing is more than skin deep.
Well-constructed riding arenas are like a three-layer cake. There is the bottom layer, which is what is left after the topsoil has been removed; the middle layer of compacted material, known as the “base”; and the top layer, which in most cases is sand.
The underlying soil is what it is. As long as it is not soggy and is slightly graded to allow water to run off, it will go unnoticed. The base is very important. It should be compacted and stable-the solid foundation that makes the horse feel secure. The top layer needs to be a cushion-a softly resilient surface that buffers the horse’s strides and helps protect his joints from concussion.
But how do you keep it all together?
While most riding arenas are fine when they’re first installed, the constant pounding eventually pushes that top layer around, forming ridges and troughs. Being worried about hitting uneven spots can make a horse a reluctant traveler and hesitant.
For general riding, the top layer is usually no more than 2-4 inches deep. How often the surface layer needs to be worked will depend on weather conditions, whether it is under cover, and how much use it gets. A home arena might need to be worked once a week, while a boarding stable or show arena might need to be worked several times a day.
Churning up that surface layer requires a tool that will reach down to the bottom of the top layer without disturbing the base. Most owners of small horse farms can make do with a few pieces of farm equipment that can serve double duty. A spring-tooth harrow, or drag harrow, can do a good job raking the thatch out of fields, but its long, curved metal fingers can also do a pretty fair job of raking and redistributing sand in a riding arena. If you have modified a landscaper’s rake to use on your pastures, that can also rake your arena, too.
Even with regular raking, the constant pounding of hooves will eventually carve a groove around the edge of most riding rings. Moving large amounts of sand back into those grooves is easy to do with a box blade. These wide, square metal boxes with teeth on the front will pick up significant amounts of sand or dirt and drag it to another location. The three-point hitch on the tractor allows you to lift the implement and deposit the sand where it’s needed. It’s a quick fix for filling in low spots and leveling out an arena.
A new box blade can run $550-$650, depending on the size. Used ones can sometimes be bought for around $300-$400. Your box blade can also be put to good use keeping your dirt driveway and back lanes smooth and level.
For simply smoothing the surface of a riding ring, many people make a homemade drag from a piece of chain-link fence, a pipe and a length of chain. These simple devices are easy enough for almost anyone to handle, and one can be kept at ringside and brought out in a hurry to smooth out hoofprints.
In the case of an outside ring, this is a particularly good practice to get in the habit of doing before a rainstorm, so the indentations from hooves don’t hold water. If you live where it freezes, this is even more important.
Many innovative devices out there today are designed strictly for working and grooming riding arenas. One, the Arena Rascal, is small enough to be pulled by a 4-wheeler or garden tractor if you don’t have (or need) a full-size tractor on your place. Another, the TR3 Rake, goes on a tractor with a three-point hitch. It’s more expensive, but is designed for larger arenas and can be used for other jobs, like driveway and pasture maintenance. You can even mount an optional water tank on top and water down the arena as you drag it. Both are available from Absolute Innovations (www.absoluteinnovations.net).
Whatadrag Co., Riata Ranch, and Parma Co. make long, trailing grooming drags that have multiple rows of teeth, followed by a clod buster, followed by a leveler or roller ( www.parmaco.com, www.riataranch.com). There are also circular drags that turn and churn the arena surface layer, either with one, huge circular rake or three small ones. (Check www.countrymfg.com, www.snodgressequipment.com.) Special, single-use equipment can be an expensive investment, but can be worth it if you work your ring several times a day.
If you are on a tight budget and have a small arena at home or even just a round pen, there is even a hand-held arena rake that can do a reasonable job of leveling the surface. The Arena Rake is a 36-inch-wide rake that operates on one human power. It sells for around $60, and while it can’t do the job a heavy implement will, it can be very useful for touching up arenas between riders or between jumps.