Your footing at home, where your horse spends most of his time, is critical to his long-term soundness. Too-hard, too-deep, too-dusty and too-soft surfaces can all wreak havoc on your horse’s body.
Secondary to soundness issues are maintenance concerns. Who wants to spend most of their time dragging a harrow or keeping down dust’
Solutions exist to most footing problems, but several factors figure into formulating the right footing for you, including your locale, riding discipline, amount of arena use and the type of base underneath. And, of course, there’s the budget factor.
An arena with a stonedust base can easily cost between $1.75 to $2.50 per square foot, depending largely on the availability of materials — that’s $12,600 to $18,000 for a modest 60’ x 120’ arena. You can build an arena for less, by sticking with a clay base, but then maintenance and costs for footing additives will increase.
Footing experts agree: If you don’t put in a proper base first, you’ll waste money on footing.
An arena’s base is what lies just underneath the footing (“footing” refers to the top few inches of an arena’s surface material). The job of the base is to seal out the ground underneath, keeping dirt, rocks and plant roots from working their way up into the footing. The base should also help keep the footing at a consistent depth (not 2” deep here and 4” deep over there).
In private arenas across the country, the most common base is clay, which is usually what’s under the scraped-off topsoil and then (preferably) compacted by a heavy 20-ton roller or 10-ton vibrating roller. An increasingly popular, albeit pricey, alternative is a base made of several inches of stonedust (also called limestone screenings, bluestone or M-10) or roadbase (also called decomposed granite, or DG), compacted to the hardness of pavement.
Few Western and gaited-horse arenas boast stone-dust bases. For one thing, a rock-hard base could actually pose a problem with some disciplines, such as barrel racing or cutting, where the horse has to really dig in deeply to make sharp turns. Also, at about $1 to $1.50 per square foot, stonedust bases are expensive.
If you opt for a simple clay base, you’ll definitely save money on the front end, but you’re making a trade-off in arena maintenance long-term. Invariably, the footing (probably a sand-plus blend) will grind down on the clay and “sandpaper” it up. As the clay mixes with the footing over time, your footing will get “heavier” and will compact more quickly, which means more frequent harrowing and, eventually, total replacement. After a rainfall, a clay base in an outdoor arena will often absorb moisture and get slick and mushy. A clay base is also more likely to develop ruts and soft spots than a stonedust base, again creating maintenance hassles.
Some people put down geotextile fabrics over their clay base and then dump their footing on top. If you’re not extremely careful with your harrow, however, the tines will pull up some of the fabric. Also, a hoof will punch through occasionally and puncture it. In general, we don’t recommend using geotextile fabrics between the base and the footing.
Foundation Of Footing
Most arena surfaces start with one basic footing ingredient — sand. But not all sand is the same, and the sand you select can dramatically affect your horse’s way of going and what you’ll need to add to improve it.
“Sand” is any type of ground-up mineral or rock, such as granite, sandstone or quartz. The sand’s specific composition will directly affect its durability (or “hardness”) — i.e., how long it will last before your horse’s hooves pulverize it into dust. For comparison purposes, a diamond would have a hardness of 10; talc would be a 1. Sand from sandstone is about a 3, granite an 8.
Whenever possible, you want sand with a hardness of 7 or above, and never less than a 6. In order to sell to construction contractors, quarries must have official spec sheets on its products, so be sure to ask about the mineral composition of their sand and its hardness.
Sand can also vary in particle shape. For instance, grains of beach sand or river sand have rounded edges from tumbling over each other in moving water. While round sand drains freely, it rolls underfoot, “blowing out” to the side (a term called “shearing”). Think of how tiring a walk on a soft sandy beach can be — your horse would quickly feel fatigued, too.
Instead, look for angular or semi-angular sand. Many areas have natural angulated sand, deposited in pits eons ago when glaciers moved through and ground up rocks in the terrain. Angular sand is also manufactured by blasting or at rock-crushing plants.
Finally, sand comes in different sizes — coarse, medium or fine. The smaller the grains, the dustier your riding arena.
So when shopping for sand (in the phone book under Building Materials or Quarries), look for angulated, coarse or medium sand with a hardness of 7 or even higher.
Footing professionals disagree on how “clean” sand should be. Just about all sand taken from the ground will have some degree of clay or silt mixed in. Clay particles are much smaller than sand (like the difference between a pinhead and a basketball), so they compact down too hard when used alone. Also, when stirred up by hooves, bone-dry clay can create clouds of dust. Clean, washed sand is less dusty and drains better, but it “shears” more. So, arena owners with washed or silt-free manufactured sand usually must add some sort of rubber, plastic or fiber product to stabilize the sand from shifting underfoot (i.e., to improve traction).
Wayne Gregory of Footings Unlimited strongly believes that a mixture of 80% sand and 20% clay/silt is close to optimum footing for the majority of English and pleasure riders, with no additives needed when atop a stonedust base. It’s usually inexpensive, and the clay serves as a bonding agent to stabilize the loose sand and hold a bit of moisture, reducing dust.
A few riding disciplines may prefer a “heavier” footing with more clay, such as Western events like barrel racing or cutting. Too much sand can slow a horse and make sharp turns slippery. Such disciplines often go with a mix closer to 50% sand, 50% clay. But some sand is necessary, if only to reduce compaction and improve drainage.
The drawback of an 80/20 sand/clay mix for footing is that it requires relatively more maintenance than a clean sand/additive mix. It must be watered regularly to hold down dust, and harrowed as needed (depending on the amount of use) to keep it from compacting too hard. Also, if your footing is atop a clay base, you’ll probably need to add either shavings, rubber or fibers to help keep hooves from “punching through” and digging up the clay base.
Proponents of clean sand — and there are many, including the United States Dressage Federation’s arena handbook, as well as most rubber-additive manufacturers — say that clean sand is healthier because of the reduced-dust factor. If that’s your primary criteria in selecting footing, then clean sand may fit your bill.
But clean sand is more expensive, and you’ll also probably need some sort of additive to reduce shear. And eventually you’ll end up with dust anyway — all sand degrades and disintegrates under pounding hooves, even when “cushioned” somewhat by rubber (which, by the way, also grinds down, to a degree).
If your base is clay (instead of compacted stonedust), don’t even bother paying extra for clean, washed sand. Again, the sand grinding on the clay base will bring clay particles up into the footing — any reduced-dust benefits won’t last for long.
How Much Sand’
In general, if you’re planning on using your arena primarily for f latwork, start with a couple of inches of 80/20 sand/clay and add more as it settles or if you decide it’s too shallow (with a clay base, though, start with 3” of sand, to reduce “punch through”). For speed events or cutting, you’ll need a deeper layer, again depending on personal preference). If you’re going with clean, washed sand for a dressage or flatwork arena, start with approximately 1 1/2” of sand, mix in the manufacturer’s recommendation of additive, and fine-tune from there.
The key concept to remember is that it’s always easier — and far less expensive — to add footing materials later than it is to try to remove excess footing once it’s already down. After you put down your first layer of footing, let it settle and “season” for a month, so that you can get a true feel of what you’ve already got, before you spend the money on an additive that you may not need.
Believe it or not, you can buy sand that is guaranteed to not make dust, mud, or ever need watering. Though it occasionally needs dragging, this sand doesn’t compact, so it doesn’t get hard, nor does it pulverize into dust as quickly as regular sand does. You can put a handful in the freezer or leave it out to bake in the hot sun, and its texture never changes — it still feels like slightly moist sand. It’s sold by Footings Unlimited as Equation or Terra 2000.
Super-heated and run through an asphalt plant several times, each grain of Equation or Terra 2000 sand is coated and sealed in a high-tech polymer impervious to urine and UV light. To save on otherwise enormous shipping costs, the company contracts with an asphalt plant as near to your arena as possible to make the product. The polymer-coated sand is delivered, still molten hot, and poured onto the prepared arena base. “Cultivated” with a harrow as it cools, the sand is then customized in texture and firmness.
Installed with a one-year guarantee, Equation has a 10-year track record in the United States with no problems, Gregory says. A newer product, Terra 2000 sand has a much thicker, stronger polymer coating applied with higher temperatures. Its 25-year in-writing warranty guarantees that it will never need watering or make dust or mud.
Of course, there is a hitch — money. While most other footings cost under 30?? a square foot, Equation costs $3.50 per square foot, and Terra 2000 is $5 a square foot. Gregory claims, though, that these polymer-coated sands are actually the most cost-effective footings — long-term — on the market, since you need no additives, no sprinkler system, no watering and no replacement.
The most common footing additive today is probably wood, especially in Western and gaited disciplines. Shavings are particularly popular for mixing with sand, as are processed wood chips/fibers.
Although they decompose much quicker than other manufactured additives, shavings and wood chips can make an excellent mix with sand.
Wood chips or shavings help stabilize sand, reducing shear, and help keep hooves from punching through the sand to gouge into the base. By trapping air in the sand, wood can also provide “cush” without too much “bounce.” Shavings or wood fibers are also typically less expensive on the front end than rubber.
However, wood must be kept moist to reduce dust, and then freezing also becomes an issue in winter. When too wet, wood can be slippery and reduce traction. When too dry, shavings can blow around, and the shavings that stay put will get grinded by the sand, creating dust. In fact, you can count on needing to replenish at least some of your arena’s shavings every year; chips may last a bit longer. You may have to spend $1,000 a year to “top off” your wood arena to keep it in shape.
One last factor about wood: A new wood-chip arena improves as it “seasons.” At first, you may find that the chips move around a bit too much. As they begin to break down, however, they start to interlock and mesh better. In fact, some riders find that a year-old wood arena is much better than a brand new one. And, with additional layers of wood chips over the years, a wood arena can develop a wonderful, resilient surface.
Wood arenas are higher maintenance than others. In addition to watering, you may need to drag them more often, as wood chips tend to move around more than rubber.
Most wood-chip makers recommend putting about 2” of wood over about 1” of sand, to start with. The sand is needed to keep the wood from sliding around too much, but a higher mix of sand can grind down the wood too quickly. If you’re working over a clay base, a layer of sand on bottom is a must — slick, rained-on wood over even-slicker clay is a recipe for disaster.
You can buy wood chips from your local saw mill for less money than a name-brand processed wood-fiber footing, but a saw mill may not be able to provide quality control (we heard of one saw mill that chipped wood pallets without first removing the nails). Many name-brand makers run their products through screens to remove dirt, and some even avoid shredding the trees’ bark, to further reduce dust.
If you prefer to use shavings, don’t just toss your used bedding onto your sand. Slick and messy at first, the manure will eventually dry out and degrade into dust.
Lots of arena owners like rubber, for good reason. Most rubber additives reduce compaction and maintenance. Many add cush and reduce concussion by absorbing the some of the hooves’ impact; some even help retain moisture. Depending on your needs, you can choose from crumb rubber (shredded bits and chunks of rubber, averaging about 3/8” to 1/2” in diameter), crumb rubber with imbedded fibers, flat rubber, flat rubber with fiber, or even finely shredded rubber (like finely shredded black gourmet cheese).
The most common rubber footing product is crumb rubber made from recycled tires. Used throughout the country on playgrounds and athletic fields, tire rubber has been tested as non-hazardous and non-toxic. During the shredding process, crumb-rubber makers must go to great lengths to remove the wires in steel-belted tires. Typically, the ground rubber is passed through industrial magnets. Be sure to ask the maker for certified wire-free rubber.
Most crumb rubber makers will also offer a long, even “lifetime,” replacement warranty. After all, they say, tires are made from vulcanized rubber, sturdy enough to withstand thousands of miles of road traffic. While true, it’s basically a moot point. Depending on amount of arena use, the sand itself will need to be replaced in five to 15 years, and few people are willing to sift out their rubber particles for reuse.
Most crumb rubber additives made from recycled tires will contain small bits of imbedded fibers. And though makers tout the moisture-retention qualities of those fibers, improved drainage and aeration most likely negate the moisture retention.
Some granulated rubber products are made from rubber purchased as manufacturer defects, such as golf-grips and tennis-shoe soles. Though non-vulcanized, such rubber will still outlast the sand, and makers claim it’s “cleaner,” with fewer residual chemicals or oils than used tires.
An alternative to granular rubber, flat rubber pieces are better for riders who want to add stability to sand and reduce “punch through” without adding bounce (hunter/jumpers, gaited horses, etc.). Rather than rolling like crumb rubber and letting the hoof down deeper into the footing, the flat particles lie over each other like shingles on a roof, keeping the hoof up better. Some flat-rubber products also contain fibers for moisture retention.
How Much Rubber’
Two primary problems can be caused from adding too much rubber in an arena. First, some footing researchers believe that “bounce” basically reverses the concussive force with a rebound effect, potentially damaging the horse’s legs.
One additive distributor remarked that too much rubber can also “decondition” the horse. Since the horse doesn’t have to make as much effort to get the animation and motion you desire, he’s not truly developing muscular skill. Instead, the movement is coming from the rubber. The result is particularly noticeable — right when you don’t want it — in competition, especially when the show ring surface is significantly “harder” and less “bouncy” than your training surface back home.
When you’ve spread and mixed your rubber additive into the sand, it should look like pepper on mashed potatoes. You should still see mostly sand, not rubber. In general, with 2” to 3” of sand (about eight to 10 pounds per square foot), use no more than two pounds of rubber per square foot. That’s about as much as you can hold in your hands cupped together.
Rubber may be delivered bagged or in bulk by the truckload. If delivered loose in bulk, ask if the truck will be able to dump “on the run” so that you don’t have to try to spread out a single big mound of rubber. After spreading the rubber evenly, some people harrow it into the sand; others just ride on it, letting their horses’ hooves do the mixing.
One word of caution about using any rubber additives. Some types of rubber contain latex, which can cause life-threatening allergic reactions in latex-sensitive people.
Increasingly popular, especially in Europe, fibers — canvas, nylon, polyester, even coconut — can make an excellent addition to sand, when properly maintained. Not only does the fiber help hold the sand together (increasing traction, reducing shear), fiber also adds cush and can help hold moisture. Fiber is particularly useful as a footing stabilizer in areas where the native soil is deep sand, difficult for building a base.
By their very nature, however, fibers don’t last as long as more sturdy additives, needing replacement about every three years. They’ll also blow away if not tilled into the sand well or if allowed to get too dry (when they’ll also contribute to dust).
They’re relatively cheap to replace completely, at about 5?? a square foot. Adding fresh fiber (called “topping off” the arena) costs about $125 a year in a 15,000-square-foot arena.
Choosing the footing that’s best for you involves a number of factors, most notably your existing surface and base, your discipline and your budget. We like a sand-rubber blend footing, which offers a consistent surface with some cush and easy arena maintenance, but it’s not necessarily ideal for every discipline. Take the time to visit arenas with the different footings you are considering and watch horses work on it. Better yet, find out if you can bring your horse for a test ride.