EQUINE ARENA FOOTING: SCIENCE, ART, KNOWLEDGE & EXPERIENCE

One of the most frequent phone calls we receive at Kiser Arenas are owners calling us to get the secret recipe for the perfect footing for their arena. They usually expect a quick answer such as “mix 3 parts sand with 1 part silt” and spread all over the arena. Unfortunately, it is not that simple. There is no secret formula and no general guidelines that apply across the board. Equine footing is science combined with art, knowledge, and experience. Many factors must be considered when deciding upon the materials needed.

GROUND REALLY MATTERS

First and foremost, the footing needs to provide a safe environment for both the horse and the rider. Second, the footing should provide optimum conditions for an enjoyable riding experience or perhaps better performance for your horse, whether riding for enjoyment or preparing for the show.

THE BEST MATERIAL FOR YOUR ARENA

There are many factors that must be taken into consideration when developing the right mix of materials for your arena. These include the slope and drainage of the arena, the current base condition, ongoing weather conditions and especially, the particular discipline of riding (or combination of different disciplines). Obviously, an arena that has been neglected or improperly maintained will need remedial work done as the foundation must be solid before adding new materials.

The footing materials need to demonstrate a number of qualities (which vary by discipline) including compaction and moisture retention.

FINDING AND TESTING MATERIALS

Ideally all the factors noted above are considered, and then local quarries are visited to obtain samples of materials that meet a specific set of criteria upon initial inspection. Each area of the country has distinct types of materials, and each quarry has different materials. The materials offered at each quarry can potentially vary from week to week.

After the equine footing expert has selected a number of materials, they will then be sent to the testing center for a more rigorous analysis. This will provide a realistic assessment of how the materials will hold up in real life conditions in an arena. The testing process measures the responses to various compaction and moisture retention scenarios. Several samples may be mixed together to achieve the ideal set of material properties for a particular arena. Only after all the samples are thoroughly tested can materials be selected for the job.

It is important to note that the testing measures the properties of a specific material at a particular time. Even if the quarry is visited several months later to obtain material it is likely a different product with different properties, notwithstanding assurances from the quarry that it is exactly the same. The quarries do not test materials for equine footing suitability and there are great variances.

To offer an example of extreme variances in material samples, we will review a recent consultation for a client. After meeting with the client on-site and observing the conditions, noting the particular challenges and understanding the client’s goals, we searched for the ideal material for the job. After days of visiting numerous quarries in a 30-mile radius of the area, 6 samples of limestone screenings were obtained, all of which appeared to have potential to meet the criteria established for the arena. Each was recorded by source, carefully packaged, and shipped to the testing center for further analysis.

WHAT DID THE TESTING REVEAL?

To most people without equine footing expertise, the material samples looked and felt very similar. Once subjected to the vigorous testing and an analysis of material properties, it became evident that there were substantial variances in the lookalike samples. Two would not compact, three compacted but turned to soup when wet and thankfully the sixth one was really good. This sample proved to be an ideal candidate for the arena footing for the client. The material was selected and used for the job resulting in a happy client – and happy horses.

In this case there was no 2nd place sample. If any of them had been used in the arena, the results would have been very unsatisfactory or even disastrous. And yet there was no way to know this without thoroughly testing each sample.

Sadly, we often receive calls from horse owners who did not have their materials selected and tested for the specific needs and challenges of their arena. Unfortunately, this usually requires expensive remediation to remove incorrect materials and restore the arena to safe rider and horse friendly conditions.

How can you be sure your materials are right to meet your needs? An equine footing expert must be on-site to visually inspect the conditions on the ground and establish the criteria for the materials sourcing. Materials must be sourced and selected as close to the arena as possible as trucking costs for materials are often quite expensive. The materials must be thoroughly tested and installed by a knowledgeable contractor following the detailed instructions from the equine footing expert. A contractor who takes liberties and modifies the process will almost definitely result in an unfavorable outcome for the arena.

CONTRACTOR SELECTION

Many contractors claim to have arena expertise when they don’t. It is crucial to find a contractor who actually understands horse arenas. A contractor who builds roads for cars is not an equine expert. You would not have a barn builder construct your home. You can tell a lot through your initial conversations with the contractor. If they don’t know the difference between a cutting horse and a reining horse, it is unlikely they are an arena expert. Visit a previous client of your contractor (ideally with an owner riding the same discipline as you) and talk with them to see if the arena is meeting their needs.

Finally, in addition to expertise in selecting, installing, and testing materials, it is crucial to have someone who has hands-on experience with horses and riding. A horseman. A horse is a living breathing athlete and understanding how a horse’s physiology works in the footing is the final piece of the puzzle. The importance of this cannot be overstated. An in-depth understanding of the horse is necessary to achieve optimum conditions for the horse and the rider.

JIM KISER HAS OVER 35 YEARS EXPERIENCE WITH EQUINE ARENA FOOTING. KISER ARENAS, THE FOOTING CONSULTANT FOR NRHA, NCHA, NRCHA, AQHA & TAPH, HAS CONSULTED AND/OR CONSTRUCTED ARENAS IN 45 STATES AND 11 COUNTRIES. OVER $250 MILLION IN PRIZE MONEY HAS BEEN AWARDED ON FOOTING SELECTED/INSTALLED & MAINTAINED BY KISER ARENAS. WWW.KISERARENAS.COM