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.”
In order to prevent this from happening, Barron recommended building a French drain along the long sides of the arena and a swell on the short sides to direct the water away from the building. Drainage pipes can be installed in the drains and funneled into natural streams.
“Water removal happens in three ways: draining down, evaporating and footing absorption,” said Barron. “It’s important to make a plan for drainage.”
No matter what kind of arena you choose to build, picking the right footing will be the final factor in a functional ring.
“Footing comes down to discipline,” said Barron. “Dressage riders tend to like more fluffy, forgiving footing, while jumpers want more stability and consistency.”
Regardless of your discipline, the key to good footing is keeping control of the moisture content. Ideally, you want your footing to maintain 5-8 percent moisture retention, which can be achieved without watering if you invest in the right footing.
“Pure sand has to have water in it to provide a supportive base,” said Barron. “Think of how beach sand feels down by the water.” Achieving this consistency requires a good watering system, with careful attention to ensure that the moisture is spread evenly through the footing.
“We recommend a finer, angulated sand,” said Barron. “It keeps it from compacting. You can also have a combination of angulated and rounded sand, and you should have about two inches of sand over your base to start. It’s easier to add footing than it is to remove.”
- Stone Dust
While a lot of riders use stone dust as their footing, Barron prefers to use it primarily as a base. If stone dust is your choice, lay down about 1½ inches of loose footing, then blend with sand.
“The thing to remember with stone dust is to keep it loose,” said Barron. “Blended with sand and loose will make a nice surface.
- Coated Sand
There are many different varieties of wax or polymer-coated sand on the market, and if you are looking for a relatively maintenance-free surface, this footing may be your best option.
“Coated sand no longer absorbs moisture, so you need to help get the water out of your arena,” said Barron. “If you aren’t careful or don’t plan ahead, you could have an arena that is full of water.”
The coated-sand footings are well suited for indoor arenas. The footing doesn’t produce dust, so there will never be a need to scrub down the walls or water the arena. This footing is excellent for horses with respiratory issues and also saves your structure from damage caused by faulty watering systems. This footing also performs well outdoors as long as a well-designed drainage system is in place.
- Sand Blend
A sand blend consists of sand mixed with felt or fibers.
“When you have the sand and felt holding moisture, it creates strength in the sand,” said Barron. “Similar to how dirt is stabilized by roots in turf footing. When the horses come down on top of the footing, the felt or fibers compress and release the moisture back into the sand.”
Education Is Key
Because building an arena is a big project, it’s important for riders to do their own research about the products and companies they hope to utilize.
“Be as informed as you can and know what questions to ask,” said Barron. “Ask for material safety data sheets and for references from your builders. It’s important to know what you’re getting, and the more informed you are, the better your construction will be.”