Arena Footing: How to Protect Your Investment

Your arena footing represents one of the most valuable investments on your farm. Good footing provides proper drainage, absorbs concussion, and gives without too much movement or sliding, good stability and traction, and absorbs concussion. Most well-constructed arenas start out in just this way, but keeping them functioning like new can be a challenge, especially if they get a lot of hoof traffic or, as in the case of an outdoor arena, are exposed to the forces of Mother Nature.
We asked Karen Leeming, co-founder of Footing First, LLC (, to share tips on preserving our investment. Karen is more than a footing expert. She’s an accomplished rider and was the manager of the Canadian Olympic Equestrian Team in 2000 and again in 2002 for the World Equestrian Games. Karen, together with her partner, Lawton Adams (construction specialist), were the official suppliers of footing to the 2009 Syracuse International Sporthorse Tournament and the 126th National Horse Show 2005 through 2010.

Qualities of a Superior Footing
If you’ve ever ridden on a poorly constructed or poorly maintained arena surface, you know what a footing shouldn’t feel like: boggy, slippery, too deep or too compact. So, what are the qualities of a superior footing?  What is it we’re trying to achieve? “Footing should support the hoof both vertically and horizontally,” says Leeming. “It should achieve good cushion and stability without too much movement or becoming too firm. A superior footing is one that requires less maintenance than a traditional footing, but does not give out when a horse’s hoof pushes against it. In takeoff at a jump, for instance, the footing should give and allow for a slight slide forward, but not so much as to have the hoof dig in, creating a hole.”
The most important aspect of a superior footing is forgiveness, but it should not interfere with allowing for the natural movement of the horse. “Durability and consistency are important no matter what the footing,” says Leeming.

Start With a Good Foundation
There are as many construction styles as there are riders to ride on them. To discuss them all is beyond the scope of this article, but starting with a good foundation is critical to the lifespan of the arena and its surface.
“The base is the most important component,” says Leeming. “There are many options for materials and installation styles.” Your choices may depend on the local climate and even the location of your arena. Leeming considers the traditional stone dust base a good option, providing it’s installed with the right pitch and compaction.
“We also have what is known as a ‘free-draining’ base,” says Leeming. “A free-draining base uses clean stone and drains. This creates a base (especially good for an outdoor arena) that can withstand an amazing amount of rainfall and still offer good drainage. We had a hurricane here on the east coast last year, and our arenas with the free-draining bases were good to ride on the very next day after the storm.”
Leeming also recommends the “mat system,” which is thought to be one of the best when it comes to offering good drainage. The mat system also provides a safe and sure base for the horse while still offering excellent shock absorption.
“The underwater system is totally different from the mat system. “This system is almost like a swimming pool,” says Leeming. “The arena is dug down to a good sub base layer that is clean of any sharp stones or objects. A liner (made of a very strong material) is placed on top of the sub base. Perforated pipes are laid down in a pattern that allows for good water flow throughout the arena. Sand is then placed over the pipes with this irrigation surface below. In warm, dry climates, riding on this surface helps to release the moisture into the footing. This surface works well in dry climates, as it requires the least amount of water to keep it moist. However, this underwater system will not work where freezing occurs.”

Regular Maintenance is Critical
“Maintaining the arena footing is just as important as changing the oil in your car,” says Leeming. “If you don’t maintain it, you’ll have drainage issues, changes in depth, and inconsistencies throughout.”
Small fixes include: pulling in the edges of the arena to allow excess water to drain away; removing weeds and plants that grow around the edges; and staying absolutely on top of manure removal.
“You should pick up manure in any footing,” cautions Leeming, “not just the high-end footings. Manure is organic and will break down and turn to dust quicker than any sand. You’ll have dust problems if you don’t. Look at it this way: 10 years with 20 horses using the ring will generate enough manure to fill several dumpsters. You don’t want that in your footing!” Manure should be removed after every ride. Keep a rake and muck bucket handy so riders are encouraged to use them.
For the surface, Leeming recommends using a small garden trowel to check the depth of the footing randomly throughout the arena. Keep a small rake handy as well to keep footing in place on the takeoff or landing side of the jumps, around barrels, or anywhere footing is likely to be displaced. This daily maintenance prevents low spots from forming, which can wreak havoc on your base. Don’t overlook the area where instructors tend to stand. Even human traffic, if it’s an everyday thing, can compact the footing. If you use a drag or harrow in the arena, be sure to use gentle equipment and make sure the harrow operator is someone who knows how to do the job properly.
“There are many harrows (or drags) on the market, and many of them are too aggressive and can ruin an arena,” says Leeming. She recommends a freestanding harrow or one with wheels. These are more goof-proof. “If you use a harrow that does not have wheels, then you run the risk of dragging the arena too deep and hitting the base. If you do that, you’re in a lot of trouble.”
How often you harrow depends on how often you use the arena, how much traffic it gets, and what type of footing you have. “We recommend harrowing in a different direction each time,” says Leeming. “So, one day you might go lengthwise; another you’ll drive the harrow crosswise. A super tool for this is called a swivel hitch that allows the harrow to follow your tractor like a trailer. This swivel hitch allows for a much better finish.”

Solving a Dust Problem
Dust poses a serious health hazard for both horses and humans. Silica, a fine particle in sand, is All fine particles that become airborne can be damaging to eyes, lungs, and respiratory systems, as is the dust from various wood
products. Horses engaging in athletic activities like jumping, barrel racing, roping, or dressage, often require up to 30% more oxygen than a horse at rest, but those dust-borne particles make getting that clean air next to impossible. So, what can we do?
“Other than a quality, dust-free footing, there is no single answer to solving dust problems,” says Leeming. What you can do will depend very much on what materials are in the footing. “In the winter, magnesium chloride can be added for best results.”
Magnesium chloride (MgCl²), mined from ancient seabeds, acts as a humectant, drawing moisture from the air into the footing. Every ounce of magnesium chloride can hold up to four times its weight in water, so once you commit to using it, don’t water your arena lightly as needed. Heavy watering or rain will wash the magnesium chloride off the surface and into the base in outdoor arenas. An added benefit of magnesium chloride is that it prevents the moisture in your arena from freezing.
Some manufacturers offer a blend of biodegradable oils or petroleum-based products for arena dust control that can provide good results. Some of these offer long-term solutions, but be sure to get a warranty your supplier stands behind its products. Enlist the help of a reputable company before applying chemicals or oils to your footings. It’s difficult for the novice to get the ratio just right. Oils do emit an odor that some riders find offensive, but manufacturers are remedying this problem by adding scented oils to the lineup.
You can go the traditional route as well by simply watering the arena, but you’ll have to do it fairly often. Use a water-wagon or sprinkler system to cover evenly. “If you have an outdoor arena, enlist the help of a good irrigation
person who understands riding arenas,” says Leeming. “Usually, a golf course person company that does golf course irrigation will understand the amount of water needed for the outdoor arena, probably somewhere around 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of water per day for the average outdoor arena.”

Recognizing the Warning Signs of Trouble
The best thing you can do for your arena is to never ignore the warning signs of trouble. What are the signs your arena needs help?  “If you notice any sort of build-up of footing,” says Leeming, “usually in the corners or when the track gets out of control and becomes a high spot along the edge, that’s a problem. When the footing starts to compact and get hard, when you find yourself harrowing a lot more than usual and are still not getting good results, or if you’re hitting the base on a regular basis, these are signs your arena needs repair.” Act now to avoid more costly repairs down the road.
“The biggest mistake I see are people who ignore the signs,” says Leeming. “They wait until they see the base material and then panic. I also see people using the wrong or a too-aggressive drag. Some of these drags can ruin an arena in one day. But, real problems usually begin with an improperly constructed ring or a poor choice in footing. When choosing new footing, make sure to look at existing arenas that have the footing you like. Ask your builder to see arenas that are at least four or more years old and are heavily used. Remember, most footing looks good when it’s brand new. It’s the test of time that will tell the truth.”
Protecting your footing now avoids costly repairs in the future and ensures the comfort and well-being of your horses. Be sure to properly maintain your arena so that you can enjoy it for years to come.

Improving Existing Footing
How you can improve your existing footing will depend on the materials you have invested in and the problems you’re experiencing, but there are some standardized rules. Let’s take a look at what you can do to fix some common problems.  First and foremost, determine if your base is in good shape. Don’t even think of investing in more footing materials if you’ve got a damaged base. You’ll be throwing good money after bad. Enlist the help of an experienced arena builder. He or she can determine if the foundation needs a bit of repair or if you’re looking at a complete overhaul. If the base needs work, the footing will have to be removed first. You might find you’ll need to add more footing material once the work is done.
If your base needs minimal repair, maybe you’ve got just a few holes or pockmarks, you could pull the footing back and fill those areas with new base material. Rent a compactor from an equipment supply center to get it good and solid. Coat the edges of all holes with a sealant (driveway sealer works fine) so the edges won’t crack or split if it gets wet.  When the surface footing is damaged (pulverized or degraded), your builder might suggest removing half of the surface material to add new. Always talk to an arena expert before choosing to add footing because, once again, you’ll want to be sure that base is solid before making the investment.
Boggy or too-deep areas usually indicate a problem with drainage. This can be due to a poorly constructed base that was improperly graded in the first place. If it’s a small problem, simply raking in the edges can allow excess water to escape from the sides of the arena.  Areas that are too soft may need an application of moisture.
The most important thing you can do to maintain your arena is to avoid repairs build it right in the first place. Do routine checks of your arena and don’t ignore problems when they occur. The soundness and well-being of your horses depend on it.