Check back every Wednesday through Feb. 24 for our continuing series on Farm Design, sponsored by ViginiaCountryProperties.com.
The beauty of designing an arena is that almost any barn owner can create a safe, functional space. Even if you don’t have the funds to build a state-of-the-art indoor arena, you can still construct a riding ring designed to handle the elements and provide supportive and consistent footing.
“It’s all about the site selection,” said Edwin Barron of Attwood Equestrian Surfaces in Middleburg, Va. “When you’re building an arena, especially an outdoor, you want to find the area on your property that requires the least excavation. If you can cut down the amount of dirt that needs to be moved, you can reduce your costs.”
Size Does Matter
When choosing how big to build your arena, remember that size does matter, especially when it comes to resale value. While you may not plan to sell your property in the near future, all property goes on the market eventually.
“You cannot build an arena too big, but you can build it too small,” said Debra Corr of Exclusively Equine Properties, LLC, Goshen, N.Y. “If you build a dressage-sized arena, you’re marketing it to dressage people only. If you make it bigger, you open it up to other disciplines. You want to think about the versatility of your facility.”
The best size for an arena largely depends on your discipline. Riders who jump will generally need more space than riders who concentrate only on dressage. A standard, multi-purpose ring measures at about 70’ x 130’, or the size of a small dressage ring, but most riders will want to build a slightly wider area.
Small Dressage Arena - 70’ x 130’
Large Dressage Arena - 70’ x 200’
Washington International Horse Show Ring - 85’ x 255’
Dixon Oval at Devon Horse Show - 150' x 325'
International Arena at the Winter Equestrian Festival - 252’ x 344’
It’s All About The Base
An outdoor ring isn’t just throwing sand down on the ground and calling it an arena. In order to construct a properly functioning arena, the first step is to establish a proper base. Just as Lachlan Oldaker of GH2 Gralla Equestrian Architects mentioned in the first article of this series, Barron recommended having a professional analyze the soil on which you’ll build. Different soils affect how the base should be constructed.
“After you choose your site, you want the length of the arena to run north to south,” said Barron. “That way, you have maximum sun from east to west, allowing you more time to ride and more drying time.”
After digging out the pad, but before starting to fill the base, a containing wall of pressure-treated wood should be installed in order to keep the base from washing away.
“We always set our boards on top of the soil and build upward from the base material. It makes for a better arena, a better base,” said Barron. “That’s one of the most common mistakes or misconceptions. It’s best to contain the base like a sandbox, so it’s fully compacted and consistent throughout the arena. Your footing will come and go, but your base will be solid. If you don’t contain it, the elements will start to take the base with it.”
Once you’ve installed the containing wall, limestone or bluestone screenings should be added and compacted down. Any size rock will work, but ideally rock particles should be no bigger than 3/8th of an inch. Larger rocks will break down over time and jeopardize the stability of your base. After the screenings are compacted, a layer of stone dust will provide a cushion and a barrier between the screenings and your footing. Finish off with the footing on top.
Most builders highly encourage crowning an arena at a 1½ percent grade. This crown will help aid drainage of water toward the long sides and keep your arena dry. In some areas, drains can be installed along the edges of the rings that pull water away from the construction.
Indoor Or Outdoor?
Choosing whether to build an indoor or outdoor arena depends on your seasonal plans and where you live. You might not need an indoor facility in climates that don’t become too cold, but you may want to consider at least covering it in order to provide shade. If you don’t want to fully enclose an indoor, you can purchase fabric mesh hangings that roll up and down on the sides to act as wind barriers.
“I encourage at least planning for the potential of covering the arena at some point,” said Lorri Hayward of Hayward Designs. “If you do it correctly, building the pad for an outdoor arena is the same as an indoor. You should put your arena where you could cover it in the future.”
The actual design of your arena is similar to how you would design your barn. You want to create a building that attracts good, natural light and ventilation.
“We’ve found a happy medium with fully enclosing facilities by creating big, open doors with windows,” said Oldaker. “We’ve used the Cover-Alls and fabrics. They have a lot of light, but they are not as inexpensive as everyone thinks they are. It adds up—you might as well build a more permanent structure.
Another thing to remember if you're considering a Cover-All style arena is that you'll still need to put significant thought into the construction.
“The Cover-Alls don’t have gutters, so water tends to roll down and puddle around the perimeter of the building,” said Barron. “As soon as it hits the stone dust or limestone, the base acts like a sponge.”