Arena Care: The Fundamentals

Arena care specialists share their pro tips for arena footing, equipment and maintenance.

Horse people are particular about arena conditions. Walk around any arena and you are sure to hear someone commenting on the ground. “What’s the big deal?”

Dragging and proper care of arena footing:

  1. Helps reduce lameness and injuries in horses’ legs.
  2. Ensures a horse can perform at his optimum level.

The Tools

“(Working up an arena) is a combination of what the actual material is and the kind of equipment you use,” says Jim Kiser. “I can take really average ground, and if I have the right equipment, I can make it good ground. I can take great ground, and if I don’t have the equipment, it becomes poor ground.”

Jim Kiser, of Kiser Arena Specialists, knows dirt. The Kiser crew has been involved in the building of arenas in 42 states and 13 countries. They are affiliated with AQHA, as well as the National Reining Horse, National Reined Cow Horse and National Cutting Horse associations, and have managed the footing at the FEI World Equestrian Games four times.

Jim attaches an all-purpose tool to a John Deere tractor for his work.

“There’s just not much that I can’t do with that piece of equipment,” says Jim, whose family created the Kiser line of arena drags. “I’ve got the water system on it to keep the ground a consistent moisture content. I’ve got the scarifier teeth – the rows ripper teeth – to break up hard ground. It also has a leveling blade that I can use to keep the arena level. “

For Randy Snodgress, owner of Arena Werks Equipment, the tool he uses depends on the type of ground being worked.

  • For sandy ground, he recommends something to smooth and level.
  • For ground containing more clay, he says to use an attachment that will dig deep to break up the material, then will smooth, level and fluff it.

For people who can’t afford to buy a big tractor and equipment but still want to make their arena look good, there are other options.

“You want something that will make your ground consistent and keep it level,” Jim says. “Those are the things you are going to look for in a piece of equipment.

Jim recommends equipment that will break up, level and water the ground.

Drag Patterns

For speed events, working cow horse, reining and several other events, Jim likes to drag the arena every five rides, though it doesn’t always happen that way.

“You run a certain amount of horses, and that ground starts getting deeper and more worked up around the barrels. The deeper you are in those barrel classes, the more at a disadvantage you are, because that ground is going to get a little bit heavier.

Jim uses several techniques to balance the arena dirt.

“There are some events, like cow horse and reining, where some parts of your arena are going to take a lot more use and stress than other parts,” Jim says. “It’s not just reining, but if you stop there 20 times, you are inevitably going to move some dirt from those stops. I use different drag patterns that allow me to bring that dirt back and keep it even.

“In reining, they all go down and stop in the same spot. If you run very many horses on that ground, they start moving the ground around, so you have a deep spot and a thin spot. We drag to try to keep the playing field level.”

Tips for Perfect Ground

  • Know your event’s ground specifications, and consider the experience of the riders.
  • Use the best equipment you can find for the job: something to break up hard ground, level and water the arena.
  • Vary your drag patterns and compensate for dirt displacement.
  • Monitor the moisture content of your arena and realize that an outdoor arena requires a lot more water.
  • Don’t try to drag or ride too soon on wet ground; this can damage your base.
  • Set aside enough time to drag your arena thoroughly and frequently.

Moisture in Outdoor Arenas

Excess moisture can be an issue for outdoor, uncovered arenas. Too much rain delays riding, but dragging too soon can damage the arena. Jim advises:

  • Ground will dry faster if you leave it alone. This is because water has to percolate up. That can’t happen if you drag and mix the water back in deeper.
  • Be patient and let the water percolate and evaporate before dragging.
  • On the other hand, waiting too long to drag can cause the ground to harden.
  • If your arena doesn’t have a base – if the arena is pure sand – waiting is not as critical.
  • Be patient.

Read on for Bob Kiser’s tips for choosing footing for your outdoor arena.

Drag Time

There’s a tendency to not spend enough time dragging the arena.

“People expect to be able to drag their arena one time a week and have it be good, but it just doesn’t work that way,” Jim says. “A lot of it depends on the amount of use that the arena is getting.”

He says a professional trainer’s arena will need a lot more attention than the average amateur rider’s arena that might see one or two horses a day.

“If they want their ground right, it’s something that takes time,” Jim says, “a lot more attention to the detail of keeping it level. If they have the capability, they need to monitor the moisture content. It’s like anything: The more that you put into it, the more you’re going to get out of it.”

“The main guideline that I can give you is just work the ground consistently,” says Randy. “Don’t let it go too long between workings. It takes work and preparation to keep your arena in good shape.”

Arena Specifications by Event


Consistent base, slightly deeper ground and good moisture content. “A lot of times, it’s a fine line between what they can run circles on, what’ll hold them and what they can stop in. You just have to find the balance between them,” Jim says.

Working cow horse, roping, cutting, barrel racing

Deeper ground and more moisture than reining. “They’ve got to have something to hold them when the ropers are trying to turn a steer and stop,” Jim says.

Halter and showmanship

Dry and shallow. “We want the horses standing on top of it. People are walking and jogging across it, and you don’t want anyone to struggle with it while they’re competing,” he says.

English and western all-around events

Same moisture content as reining, but shallower ground. “You want to keep just a little bit of cushion on top, but you sure don’t want those horses to struggle,” he explains.

Courtesy of American Quarter Horse Association