Ask the Arena and Footing Experts: The Arena Design Process

The size of the arena and special design features are considerations an arena expert can help determine. Credit: Katherine Hay Photography

By Amanda Picciotto Feitosa / Jump Media

Remodeling and construction projects generally require a plan of execution and an expert to ensure the design on paper becomes reality. The same is true when building a riding arena. From the initial design process to the construction and aftercare, understanding what to expect and what questions to ask an arena professional will provide confidence in the final product. We spoke with U.S. show jumping superstar Hunter Holloway along with our arena experts Sharn Wordley and Craig Martin, co-founders of arena design and equestrian surfaces company Wordley Martin, about creating the 140’ x 270’ outdoor arena at Holloway’s farm in Ocala, Florida. With more than a decade of arena construction experience, and over 450 completed design projects in their portfolio, Wordley and Martin have developed a specialized eye for the ideal riding environment.

What Should It Look Like?

If it’s time for a new arena, it’s also time to get the design ideas flowing. An arena design and construction professional can help guide the decisions. To start, they will need to know the purpose of the arena. What discipline of riding will it accommodate? How many horses will use the arena at once and per day? By understanding what the needs are, an arena expert can make recommendations on the size of the arena as well as suggest any special features that might be worthwhile considerations. 

In Holloway’s case, she had just purchased her new farm, which already had an existing outdoor arena. Though it was suitable for the previous owner’s use, Holloway wanted to upgrade the footing and increase the overall size. She called Wordley Martin to discuss her options. 

“My biggest concern was the quality of the footing and having a quality surface to jump my grand prix horses,” explained Holloway. “I wanted a surface that was going to support my horses’ soundness and hold up really well to the Florida environment.”

While it’s certainly fun to fantasize about the most beautiful arenas, it’s important to be practical too. The arena professional needs to be aware of budget constraints so they can identify what is possible to execute.

“I had a tiered list of ideas for what I wanted with the arena, and I asked the Wordley Martin team to give me different prices with a high, middle, and low option,” said Holloway. “Obviously, size is always great, but with size comes expense, so that was one of the questions I brought to Sharn and Craig.”

What Should It Feel Like?

Once the appearance of the ring has been determined, structural details need to be finalized, including decisions about the feeling and texture of the footing, as well as the design of the irrigation and drainage systems. 

Many professionals have a preference in footing texture, so it is important to communicate the goals of the client at the beginning of the design process.
Credit: Megan McDermott

Optimal footing is both supportive and forgiving to the impact of a horse’s footfalls. Within that ideal, there’s some slight variation depending on use and preference. For example, the impacts a dressage horse makes on the footing are different from the impacts a jumper makes. Additionally, some equestrian professionals prefer to train on a firmer surface, while others gravitate toward something a little softer. 

“Sharn asked me what my personal preference is for footing when I’m schooling at home – if I liked it a little harder, a little softer, or medium,” recalled Holloway. “That was an important conversation we had, because certain riders do have in their mind what might work better and have a preference in what they want to jump their horses on every day.”

“Asking a client what they think good footing is can be like asking someone what they think good food is; some people might like escargot, but some people might like a hamburger,” added Wordley. “Equitation and hunter riders are generally going slower than jumper riders so there’s not as much torque happening. That allows us to build their surfaces to be a touch more forgiving than in an arena where you’re going faster and turning tight, where the footing needs to be a touch more stable. Hunter liked the footing very much like my arena, which is a little softer and more forgiving but still firm enough to train big jumps.” 

These small differences in the footing texture are created by altering the sand, fiber, and geotextile mixture. Therefore, agreeing on the client’s goals for the surface ahead of the footing installation is extremely important to be sure everything is ultimately just right.

“If we know the client likes the footing to be tighter and firmer, we’ll give it a slightly different blend,” noted Martin. “If we know they like it a little more forgiving and softer to train on, we’ll provide them with another blend. It’s only a subtle difference, but it’s quite a big difference to the people riding on it each day.”

In order for the footing to remain at the desired texture every day for years to come, effective irrigation and drainage is also essential. Water can be added from above the footing with a sprinkler system, or from below the arena through an ebb-and-flow system, where the water level is raised and lowered from an underground reservoir similar to a giant bathtub. While the ebb-and-flow system is able to both add and remove excess water, the spray gun system requires a free-flowing drainage base to prevent potential flooding due to weather. Holloway’s arena utilizes spray guns and a free-flowing drainage base to maintain the proper moisture level throughout.

“We knew we’d have to put in an irrigation system, and we left the specifics of that in Wordley Martin’s court,” shared Holloway. 

“We can provide either type of irrigation and drainage system, and we like both,” stated Martin of the ebb-and-flow and spray systems. “The total cost of each option is fairly similar, because the construction of the ebb-and-flow system is a bit more, but the cost of dedicated wells to surface irrigate with a spray gun system evens it out. Hunter’s farm already had an existing well, so it made more sense to simply modify and utilize it for the updated spray system.”

Breaking Ground

Once the design details are sorted out, it’s time to get building. With most of the critical decisions complete, the construction phase brings the vision to life. Wordley Martin spends about three to four weeks building an average outdoor arena, though size and arena geography can impact the timeframe. In any case, logistical planning, particularly with the help of an expert, helps keep everything on track and prevents unnecessary setbacks.

For Wordley Martin, the average outdoor arena takes three to four weeks to build, though size and arena geography can impact the timeframe.
Credit: Starship Farms Media

“After you’ve done the design of the arena, the rest is really about managing the logistics,” described Wordley of getting underway with construction. “We run through things at the beginning, like organizing a workflow for the logistical aspects of installing irrigation and power, as well as things like getting equipment and materials in and out of the property. There are always unexpected things that crop up, but we’re fairly experienced in the building process now and our goal is to stay in close communication with our clients so the building phase runs smoothly.”

“I was actually at our base in Kansas when Wordley Martin was building the new arena in Ocala,” commented Holloway. “I trusted them to keep me informed and up to date. They did a really great job without me having to be involved since I wasn’t able to physically be there.”

The sand column layer, including the sand mixture, geotextiles, and fibers, takes about three months to settle into the final footing texture.
Credit: Starship Farms Media

Keeping Everything 100% 

After construction is complete, it takes about three months for the arena footing to settle in to the ideal texture. This three-month timeline can be shorter or longer depending on the riding schedule in the arena, the movement of jumps, and dragging. All of these factors contribute to how quickly the footing settles. The footing can feel a little softer and looser when it has first been installed compared to the final product.

“The whole ‘sand column layer,’ as it’s called, including the sand mixture, geotextiles, and fibers, takes a while to all knit together,” detailed Wordley. “All the fibers break down and create a kind of root structure, and the sand mixture settles over time. What you feel the first week is very different from what you have three months later when everything stabilizes, so you have to know your client and educate them on what to they can expect the footing to feel like during this time period.”

The riding surface can be made softer or firmer by slightly adjusting the footing blend before installing as well as with dragging. 
Credit: Katherine Hay Photography

Maintenance also plays a key role in keeping the specially formulated footing mixture at the desired texture. Successfully balancing the influence of the footing mixture itself and that of the maintenance schedule stems from the initial design conversations. A firmer footing blend can make an arena ready for turning and burning right away, but at the same time, that type of mixture might need to be dug up and set back down with a drag frequently in order to keep it even and consistent. 

“I had an understanding of how to properly drag from my experience with my arena in Kansas, but Craig still gave me a whole walk-through of how the new arena should be managed and maintained,” stated Holloway. “He also came in several times after everything was done to check on the arena, which was really helpful because I travel to compete so much and couldn’t always be there to see the arena myself.”

Understanding how to properly maintain the arena with irrigation and dragging will keep the surface in top condition for every ride.
Credit: Katherine Hay Photography

From start to finish and beyond, having a specialist’s advice will help guarantee your committed time and money is well worth it. Not only will they provide guidance, but they also will be able to answer any lingering questions or doubts you might have throughout the process. Understanding how your arena works and what needs to be done to properly maintain it can be the difference between enjoying a premium surface and experiencing dissatisfaction after a significant investment. While you are focused on building your single arena, an expert can draw from their experience of handling hundreds. For assistance in building your own arena, reach out to the experts on Instagram or Facebook @WordleyMartin, or send an email to

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. You can also find the most recent installment on troubleshooting common arena issues 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 GamesTM 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