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Riding Arenas and Training Yards: Part 2

April 2019 by Jane and Stuart Myers
Jane and Stuart Myers are the dynamic duo behind www.equiculture.net - an educational movement informing on responsible, sustainable and ethical horse-keeping. Together, they have co-authored several books and recently launched an online course bringing Horse Management into the 21st Century.
Jane and Stuart Myers image by Linda Zupanc

An all-weather surfaced area for training and exercising horses can be very useful, many would say essential, on a horse property. It all depends on what you do with your horses. In this two-part series, Jane and Stuart Myers provide some of the considerations that will help you decide, plan and build a suitable arena or training yard for your particular situation.

Part 1 of this 2-Part series focused on the planning stage and the process of deciding exactly what you would want to build. In this edition, they discuss aspects related to its construction, such as laying down a good base, deciding on the type of surface and fencing aspects.

Read Part 1 here.

Remember that this should all be seen as a guide and you will always need to seek advice from local earthworks experts.

All-weather surface and base

An all-weather surface usually consists of a base and a top surface. The base forms the foundations of your all-weather surface. Once the surface is laid out, you won’t be able to see the base, but that doesn’t mean you should not appreciate it!

The base is actually one of the most important parts of your all-weather arena or training yard - more important than the top surface because, if it is not constructed correctly, regardless how good your surface is, your arena will fail sooner or later.

The more time spent getting the base right, the better the finished all-weather surface will be. We cannot stress enough that an all-weather surface is only as good as its foundations.

Probably one of the most common mistakes made is economising on the base; something usually done due to inexperience, cutting corners, or both.

If the base fails, not only does this have to be corrected, but due to mixing of the top surface and base, the top surface will usually be spoiled as well; a very common occurrence in failed all-weather surfaces.

Economising on the base usually leads to a compromised all-weather surface that will require much more expense later to correct it.

It’s easier to remedy if, for whatever reason, the base is correct but the surface incorrect because the top surface can usually either be added to (with a material that will improve it), or if necessary, it can be removed without disturbing the base, allowing for another, new surface to be applied.

Earthworks and drainage

The first stage of all-weather surface construction is earthworks. It goes without saying that earthworks should be carried out by an experienced professional and any topsoil should be removed and separated for use elsewhere. Topsoil should never be used as part of a ‘cut and fill’ because it contains organic matter which decomposes over time and reduces in volume, leading to subsidence and an uneven surface in the future.

Removed topsoil can be used to finish off the outside perimeter of your arena or used on other parts of your property.

The secret to laying a good base is compaction and, in some areas, drainage is also a feature.

Some all-weather surfaces are designed so that water runs into the top surface but then runs off the base. In this case, the base and the top surface will have a ‘fall’. The fall is usually from one corner to a diagonally opposite corner, or from the centre line to the outside edges.

A fall of about 1% from the centre line to the outside edge should be sufficient in a normal rainfall area. For a high rainfall area it may need more (2%). If the fall goes from one side to the other, you may need 2 to 3% because the water has to travel farther.

Drains or channels at the sides of the all-weather surface can then take this water away if necessary.
For an all-weather arena built on the side of a hill, you may decide to slope the whole arena in the same direction as the hillside, meaning a little less excavation, and the water will then run off the all-weather surface and continue down the hill. A drainage ditch will still need to be constructed between the all-weather surface and the hillside.

Your earth moving contractor should have laser levellers that make sure the fall is just enough so that water moves through and off the surface, but not so much that the horses are working on a noticeable slope, or that water moves so quickly that it erodes the surface.

Some all-weather surfaces are designed so that water travels through the top surface into the base and into drainage built under it.

This type of all-weather surface may also have a slight fall but not usually as much as in the previous example.

You can think of the base as a road base. If a road base is not correct, holes will soon appear in the tarmac.
A good base starts with a coarse layer which is thoroughly compacted. Finer layers are then progressively added and also compacted. The base should extend at least 0.5m beyond where the outer perimeter of your all-weather surface will be, to prevent crumbling of the outer edges when working your horses on it.

A contractor will compact the surface over several days with very heavy machinery. If you are doing thework yourself, you could hire a vibrating roller that you (and as many volunteers as you can rope in) can push around the base for many hours or days.

If you can wait, time and rainfall will also help to compact the base. It should be compacted to a stage where heavy trucks can drive over it without leaving any impressions. The hoof of a fast-moving horse exerts far more pressure per square inch than a truck wheel! If your base won’t take a truck, it will not stand up to repeated use by horses either.

Constructing the all-weather surface over time means that any problem areas (soft spots, low spots, etc.) can be noticed and fixed before the next layer goes down.

Soft spots are a result of pooling water which, in turn, result from poor drainage or incorrect fall, so it’s very useful to have a heavy rainfall between finishing the base and putting the top surface on.

To prevent water from running into your all-weather surface from the outside, you can grow vegetation to slow it down or even divert it before it gets there. Likewise, any steep areas that are created due to the construction of the all-weather surface will need to be vegetated to prevent erosion.

Plants such as grass, bushes and trees can be grown on the lower side or end to reduce the speed of any surface water.

If your property is in a flat area, you could bring in materials that raise the base above the surrounding land. If any road works are being carried out in your area, speak to the contractors. Old road base (large chunks of rock, tarmac etc.) makes an excellent all-weather surface base, and best of all, it may be free! Since they are already in the area, the contractors may even be able to do some work for you (levelling and compacting the base).

To stop clay or sub-soil moving upwards into the base, you may need a membrane but it’s not always necessary. They are not suitable for all surfaces and can rip and start to lift if they are incorrectly applied. Maintenance work on a surface that has a membrane has to be carried out very carefully because anything that is dragged across the surface can catch on it and pull it up - be sure to get advice before using one.
In countries like the US, Canada and Europe they use geo-textiles and plastic three-dimensional grids to keep the layers separate. They add a lot of expense to the final cost, so do your research and speak to the professionals.

The top surface

This is the part people tend to think about the most because it’s the part you can see and you ride on. The materials are varied and include:

Wood products, wood chips, bark: There are many options, they decompose over time and can be slippery, therefore, these are not usually a good surface in wet climates. As they hold water, they tend to freeze in cold climates. Hardwood chips will last longer than bark.

Sand: Sand should be washed (to remove soil) and screened (to filter out large lumps of rock) before being laid. Sand can be dusty in summer and freeze in winter. Provided it doesn’t wash away in heavy rainfall, sand lasts a long time and is not usually as expensive as some of the other surfaces.

Rubber products: Long-lasting but not cheap. Rubber retains heat in hot climates (such as in certain parts of Australia and the United States) or may not be UV resistant. They are especially problematic if fire is a natural hazard in your area. One problem with rubber is that it will break down over time and, as it breaks down, it will create finer particles, causing rubber dust which can be harmful if breathed in. Rubber particles are also difficult to get rid of if you ever decide to change the surface.

Commercially produced surfaces: These can be a combination of all sorts of materials and may include wax, fibres, sand, sawdust, etc. The mix and composition of these are very important. Poorly mixed products can lead to irregularities in your all-weather surface where components have clumped.

Some products can be mixed, like rubber and sand, or applied in layers.

Grass: The initial cost of a grass arena or training yard can be considerable depending on how much earthwork needs to be done to set it up, however, once established, the area will be aesthetically pleasing and can add to the available grazing.

Depending on the current soil type in the area, you may still need to construct a base. Clay soil, for example, will not work well because it will tend to hold too much water. A well-draining sandy-loam may work depending on the percentage of clay content. Sandy soil will drain well and, if the grass is managed properly, the surface should be successful. If an area is already performing well when used for riding and training, it may just need to be improved so that it’s smoother and has the correct slope for drainage.

Well-managed grassed surfaces have a low to no-dust factor, which is an important consideration in some localities. The downside is you won’t be able to use the area as a multi-purpose, surfaced holding yard.
Grass will often work when the surface is only used for several hours a week as opposed to several hours a day. In many cases, most of the wear and tear happens in certain areas (e.g. the outside track) and it’s not always easy to remedy.

How hard or soft should the surface be?

Whatever the surface, it should not be too deep (soft), as this puts too much strain on the soft tissues of the horse’s legs (think how difficult it is to move on deep sand on the beach). Likewise, a surface that is too hard can cause concussion to horses if they are not conditioned to it. Nevertheless, it’s generally best to start off with a reasonably firm surface. It’s easier to add surface than remove it.

About 10cms of top surface is the maximum you should apply, but, often,  5cms is enough for a general purpose surface. If you are not sure, start with less and add more if necessary.

The main factors that determine the selection of the surface are your budget and the availability of materials in your area. Other factors include:

The climate - How much rain, sunlight/heat and wind the surface will have to contend with. High prevailing winds will bias surface selection toward the heavier materials, while high levels of sunlight and heat will bias selection away from rubber composite surfaces that are more prone to UV degradation.

The availability of water - Dust is often a major problem with all-weather surfaces and can, understandably, alienate otherwise compliant neighbours. Choose a surface that is as dust-free as possible. Using lots of water to dampen an all-weather surface is not sustainable, so aim to have a low dust surface to start with.
Pool salt can be used as a dust suppressant as in absorbs and holds moisture, therefore reducing the amount of dust. It has the added advantage of also being a weed suppressant, so sprinkling pool salt in areas prone to grass or weed growth, such as the corners, will kill out most weeds. It is also possible to buy commercially produced dust suppressants.

Another consideration is that, in time, you may have to remove the surface due to poor performance, change of use and because surfaces also degrade and wear out. A surface that can be spread on land after use (e.g. sand, wood products) rather than have to be taken to a tip (e.g. rubber), is easier to deal with.

Edging the top surface

Depending on how your all-weather surface is constructed, you may need edging around it to keep it from spilling out into the surrounding area. Edging can consist of railway sleepers, pine poles, etc. Turfing the surrounding area to the level of the top of the surface may be just as effective, more aesthetically pleasing and safer. Use a non-creeping variety of grass unless the all-weather surface is in heavy use, otherwise it will constantly invade the all-weather surface and will need to be removed continually.

Any topsoil that was removed during the earthworks can be spread around the outside of the all-weather surface creating a neat finish. This area can be seeded with grass. A low solid barrier is better if used in conjunction with a higher fence because falling riders can easily be injured when landing across something that is low to the ground. Remember, any edging must not trap surface water - the all-weather surface still needs to drain.

Fencing your all-weather surface

A riding arena can either be fenced, or left unfenced. Whether you choose to fence it or not depends on what you use it for but, if you are teaching beginner riders or children, the area should be fenced. You would, of course, fence the area if you are also using it as a surfaced holding yard. Training yards are usually fenced so that horses can be worked loose or ridden.

Never use any fencing material that could cause impalement! Never use steel pickets in an area where people will be riding. They can and do cause impalement (of horses and riders). Don’t use materials that could wrap around a panicking horse, such as electric fence tape (even when not electrified), rope or chain.

Fence height

The required height of the fence will depend on what the all-weather surface is used for. For ordinary riding, a fence of 1.2m to 1.4m should be fine. For jumping, the area should be left unfenced or fenced higher than the height of the jumps. Alternatively, the jumps should be placed well away from the fence.

A smaller area such as a training yard, usually has a higher fence. A good minimum height to aim for is that the top, or baulk, rail should be about waist level with a mounted rider (about 1.8m to 2m).

If you plan to also use your all-weather surface as a holding yard (see part 1 in the last issue or read it on the Horses and People website at: https://bit.ly/2WAVASG), or even just for occasional turnout for horses, the fence must be high and strong enough to keep horses in. Consider a minimum height of 1.4m for a 15hh horse.

Make sure the tops of the posts are not higher than the top rail, as projections can be dangerous. Any rails should be on the inside to prevent riders (and horses) from banging into protruding posts, or the inside should have a smooth surface like rubber or smooth ply panels fitted to the inside.

The options for fencing include post and rail, hedging or natural vegetation, steel pipe, portable steel panels, horse mesh, etc., and the main consideration should be safety of horses and riders.

When deciding think about:

  • How safe will the fence be if a horse were to run into it?
  • How safe will the fence be if a horse were to try and jump it?
  • How visible is the fence?
  • How safe will the fence be if a rider falls against it?

While they share a similar purpose, the all-weather surface fence requirements differ from those of a paddock fence in that riders and horses are coming into close contact with the fence, so it has to be safe within this context.

Gateways also need to be considered. It should be able to be opened by a mounted rider, therefore, the latch should be operable from both sides and the gate should, ideally, swing both ways. It should be flush with the fence and there should be no gaps between the post and the gate when shut. A good minimum width to allow maintenance machinery is 3m.

Once you have built your all-weather surface you will have to maintain it, keep the weeds out, regularly shovel the edges and corners back into the centre and find a good arena rake to level the surface.

Remember that all this information can only serve as a guide. You will still need to do your research, see what materials are available in the area and talk to other people who have built all-weather surfaces in your area, as well as experienced contractors.

In the Horse Owners Resource, you will find much more information and detail on fencing and gates for horse properties.

And remember to check out and join the Facebook group Equicentral Central which is a very helpful community where members are sharing their experience.