Ask the Arena and Footing Experts: Troubleshooting Your Riding Arena

The ideal footing must be both supportive and cushioning such that the horse leaves a complete hoofprint. Photo by Katherine Hay Photography.

BY Amanda Picciotto Feitosa / Jump Media

The quality of your riding surface is important no matter what discipline. Footing that is too soft, too hard, or too uneven is a result of issues with the arena, whether that be in its construction, the quality of the footing material, or the overall maintenance of the surface. Identifying these problems and understanding the causes can help determine the best course of action to keep your arena in top condition. We asked our experts, Sharn Wordley and Craig Martin, co-founders of arena design and equestrian surfaces company Wordley Martin, how to diagnose and troubleshoot commonly seen issues. With more than a decade of arena construction experience and having ridden at an international grand prix level for more than 30 years each, Wordley and Martin have developed a specialized feel for the ideal riding surface.

Arena Missteps
Diagnosing problems in an arena means first understanding what the ideal arena conditions are. The optimal riding surface both cushions and supports the impact of the horse’s footfall. Injuries crop up as a result of the footing being too soft and unsupportive, too hard and concussive, or too uneven causing the horse to step more deeply in some areas than others. The balance between being soft as well as forgiving and having structure as well as integrity can be tricky to achieve but is pivotal in keeping horses happy and healthy in their work. Problems can be most easily identified visually by looking at the footing both while the horses are exercising on it and afterward to see how the footing has responded to the impacts.

“You want to see a nice impression of the horse’s foot and frog, ideally,” explained Wordley of what to look for in the footing. “Rather than just a simple horseshoe that hasn’t dug in, you need to see a footprint. At the same time, you have to be sure that the impression is not too deep from the horse digging into the footing too much.”

Footing that is too soft is loose and breaks away, resulting in deeper hoofprints and holes. Wordley advises that if the footing is coming up past the horse’s coronet band upon impact, then it is a good indication that the footing is too soft.

On the other end of the spectrum, footing that is hard can be just as problematic. Wordley says that in this case you can actually hear the sound of the horse’s footfall change. Additionally, you won’t see the full footprint, but more likely just an outline of the hoof.

Uneven footing might have areas that look great, while others are harder or softer, wetter or dryer. Walking around the ring on foot allows you to see the different hoof impressions and feel how supported your own footfalls are. While mounted, you might notice your horse sinking into the footing more in some parts of the ring or hear the sound of their hoofbeats change as the surface texture changes.

Arena maintenance plays a key role in preventing ring troubles. Photo by Starship Farms Media.

The Right Stuff
The footing mixture itself can be the biggest cause of common issues. Having the right blend of quality sands, fibers, and geotextiles is the basis for an optimal riding surface. Different sands are available based on where you are in the country, making fine-tuning this mixture an expert procedure.

“The sand quality is the most important part,” stated Martin. “Some sands available in certain areas of the country will need more fibers and geotextiles than others, so the mixtures can be different depending on the sand you start with. Many of the arenas that we see with textural problems just don’t have the right mixture to keep the footing together. For example, some will have too many fibers or geotextiles in them, so the mixture binds up together too much, resulting in the footing being too hard. The caliber of the footing also depends on how it is mixed. If a barrel mixer isn’t being used and the footing is just being poured on top, the final product ends up being off.”

Make it Rain
If the footing mixture has been addressed, the next element to investigate is the moisture control across the entire surface. Because water is the essential binding agent of the footing, drainage and irrigation systems play a critical role in maintaining the ideal texture throughout. Typically, arenas are watered either through an ebb-and-flow system, where the water level is raised and lowered from a reservoir underneath the footing, or an overhead irrigation system, where water is sprayed through sprinklers over the top of the arena.

“Irrigation and drainage are extremely important for having consistent water coverage and ideal moisture, so a problem in the surface can be a result of either of those not functioning properly,” shared Wordley.

Drainage issues can present as inconsistencies in the footing. If the arena doesn’t have a free-draining base, where excess water can leave evenly, you can have areas that are pulling more water than others. That causes some areas to be more dry, creating changes in the footing. Additionally, if the arena is draining too quickly and constantly needs water, that’s another sign there might be an issue with the drainage system.

Sometimes, inconsistent footing can be chalked up to something as simple as a broken sprinkler head. If the irrigation system isn’t spraying evenly due to a malfunctioning sprinkler, the footing will not have a consistent moisture level.

The quality of the arena surface is important for keeping horses healthy and happy in their work regardless of discipline. Photo by Starship Farms Media.

Move It
If footing and moisture control issues have been ruled out, improper maintenance can result in an imperfect riding surface as well. When the surface is too hard, it needs to be dug up and settled back into place with an arena drag. Professional maintenance also plays a key role in keeping the arena in the best shape.

“Over time, sand moves around the arena due to natural precipitation, dragging, plus the movement of jumps,” said Martin. “We recommend having the arenas laser graded once or twice a year to keep the surface consistent with the same amount of footing around the whole arena.”

“Through annual maintenance on our arenas we can stay in touch with the rings,” added Wordley. “That enables us to fix any gradation issues and make sure everything is working correctly.”

Like calling a veterinarian for a professional opinion on your horse’s health, sometimes your arena needs a specialist’s advice. For help answering your own arena troubleshooting questions, reach out to the experts on Instagram or Facebook @WordleyMartin, or send an email to info@WordleyMartin.com.

For information about the client and professional arena design process, stay tuned for the next part of our Ask the Arena and Footing Experts series on The Plaid Horse website. Plus, catch up with the first article in this series on arenas and footing in the December/January issue of The Plaid Horse, also found online here, as well as the second article about arena maintenance in the February/March issue of The Plaid Horse and online here.

About the Experts
Sharn Wordley has competed at numerous venues across 22 countries, giving him a strong basis for quality arena conditions. He was previously ranked among the top 50 show jumping riders in the world and has represented his home country of New Zealand at the highest level of the sport, including at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games and the 2018 FEI World Equestrian Games TM in Tryon, North Carolina. Craig Martin is one of a select list of professionals worldwide who hold the title of Fédération Équestre Internationale (FEI) Approved Footing Specialist. In addition, he operates a successful real estate business and is a competitive Ironman and ultra-marathon athlete. Together, they have leveraged their decades of athlete experience and expertise to found Wordley Martin, specializing in providing equestrian arena architecture, construction, installation, and footing products to create a personalized, ideal riding environment. With an exceptionally high standard of execution, Wordley Martin has become the top choice of athletes and owners in the three Olympic disciplines of show jumping, dressage, and eventing.

For more information about building your own Wordley Martin arena, visit
www.WordleyMartin.com/Welcome.

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