Arena Maintenance Shouldn’t Be a Drag

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From the USDF’s footing guide, how to protect your arena-surface investment

Reprinted from the April 2017 USDF Connection magazine

Footing knowledge and technology have made great strides (so to speak) in recent years. We know a lot about how to prepare arena surfaces for optimal dressage performance. But sometimes, as we deal with the day-to-day demands of horse care and facility maintenance, tending to those surfaces becomes a low priority item—and that’s a mistake.

Even if your footing is perfect, it won’t stay that way without regular maintenance. Left untended, surfaces become uneven, compacted, dusty, or worse. This exclusive excerpt, adapted from the USDF’s guide to arena surfaces, Underfoot, is a primer on how to keep your indoor or outdoor arena-surface investment performing at its best.

Does Your Arena Need Help?
Here are common indications that an arena surface needs maintenance, listed from least severe to most severe.

  • Footing has shifted to reflect traffic patterns. Some areas are deeper than others, and there is less footing on the track. A circular pattern is forming where horses are lunged.
  • Footing is dry and dusty.
  • Arena foundation is uneven.
  • A trench is forming along the track.
  • It is difficult to see through the dust.
  • Wet or slippery spots have become chronic.
  • Stones or dirt clods are appearing.
  • Potholes or gopher holes are appearing.

An Ounce of Prevention
It’s easier to prevent problems than to treat them. To keep footing problems from developing, you’ll need to redistribute and level the material regularly, using a tractor and drag. Footing material that has migrated out to the edges of the arena will need to be pulled back in. You’ll also need to develop a system for watering your arena, to keep dust down and ensure the right amount of “spring” and particle adherence under foot.

Dragging
Drag your arena regularly, before footing shifts significantly or the surface compacts and hardens.

Here’s how to determine how often to drag: Notice when the footing begins to shift (e.g., there are circular wear areas from lungeing, or a “track” begins to form along the rail). Drag slightly more often than it takes to develop those wear patterns—which can range from daily to weekly, depending on how heavily the arena is used.

Choose harrows and drags that are a foot or two wider than your tractor so that there are no wheel tracks after dragging. Too wide and you’ll have problems steering; six to eight feet wide usually works best.

A disc harrow (sets of concave discs that can be set at variable angles) is good for breaking up the soil of a hardpacked surface, such as clay. It’s not recommended for use on an arena with a prepared base, however. Follow it up with a tine or spike-toothed harrow to aerate the surface and further break up the chunks of clay. Finish with a chainlink harrow to smooth the surface. The goal is to produce approximately two inches of soft footing.

For use on surfaces containing sand, stone dust, sawdust, or shavings, choose a short-tine, adjustable harrow on a frame, a spring-tooth harrow (usually also adjustable), or a chain-link harrow with short spikes (spiked-link). Take care that the spikes or tines do not penetrate the base material beneath the riding surface, or the base layer will sustain permanent damage.

A chain-link harrow without spikes is the tool of choice for leveling surfaces containing shredded wood and bark. Unlike sand, wood-fiber footing is best when matted down so that horses work on top of the footing, rather than in the footing. You can make a basic chain-link drag by attaching heavy chainlink fencing to a 2″ x 4″ board. Raising the edge closest to the tractor slightly off the ground will prevent the footing from balling up behind the leading edge. Use a log or steel beam, if
necessary, to smooth the footing after harrowing.

Rubber-mix arena surfaces don’t require dragging as frequently because rubber doesn’t compact. When you do work the arena, a chain-link-fencing drag works best. Most commercial drags, which are designed to aerate, are too heavy for rubber. If the footing starts to buckle up, the drag is too heavy.

Grooming textile-based footing (synthetic textiles and fibers) requires specialized equipment. Simple drags and rakes tend to clump fibers together, disturbing the surface. Groomers for textiles typically feature tines, a leveling bar, and a roller. Each component provides a specialized function and, depending on the groomer, may work together or be used individually.

The illustration below shows proper dragging technique. If possible, start by removing the corner fencing or the entire short end of the arena rails. If you can’t remove the fence, begin by making one pass around the track, next to the fence and as close as possible. When you come to a corner, elevate the harrow if possible, back into the corner, lower the harrow, and pull forward a couple of times. If you can’t remove arena fencing, you may need to hand-rake the corners.

FIGURE 18: Pattern for dragging an arena

Make one or two passes around the entire arena; then turn down the center line. At the far end, turn in the same direction and make a pass just inside, and slightly overlapping, the passes you made near the fence, as shown in the illustration. Continue making passes just to the inside of the previous pass until you have dragged the entire arena. If you do it right, the short sides of the arena will be patterned with overlapping loops, where the harrow came just short of the previous track in each successive pass. Finish up with a few more passes around the track, one inside the other, until the loops at the top and bottom end of the arena are smoothed out.

Vary the drag pattern so that you do not create low and high spots in your footing.

The Rail-Side Rut
Even the most diligent harrowing won’t keep an arena in good shape all by itself. Whenever you notice a rut forming along the track near the rail, special care should be taken to level the footing. If you let horses wear the footing off the track until a trench forms in the base itself, the arena base will be permanently damaged.

On a sand arena, before you drag, use a shovel with a flat bottom edge to pull footing material from the edges back onto the track. In an arena with average use, this will need to be done every fifth or sixth time you harrow (or about every 10 days). Edging attachments added to your groomer can also help with buildup on the edges. If with average use a rut forms sooner, your footing could likely benefit from the addition of a bonding or absorbing agent.

On a wood-mix or rubber-mix surface, use a pitchfork or a landscaping rake to pull in the footing. These surfaces will need hand-raking less often than sand, but you’ll need to determine the ideal frequency for your particular arena surface.

Follow rail-side maintenance with a thorough harrowing of the entire arena to redistribute excess footing material from the edges back to the middle of the arena.

Watering
Watering is probably the best arena-maintenance tool. It does much more than control dust. If applied in the proper amount, water firms up footing yet makes it more resilient and springy. Water lubricates and reduces the breakdown of sand particles. On a wood-fiber arena, adequately moistened fibers bend rather than break under impact from hooves. However, water will aid in the decomposition of wood fibers.

Arena watering is an art. Proper application, amount, and frequency must be monitored closely. Make adjustments based on the type of footing material; the intensity of use; and the wind, humidity, and temperature your arena is subjected to, all of which will affect the amount of water lost
through evaporation.

A general guideline is to water as often as necessary to keep the riding surface damp throughout. If the top inch or two are allowed to dry out, it will be much more time-consuming to re-saturate the footing, and some of the material will blow away. The riding surface should generally be kept to a moisture level of 8 to 12 percent. Use a moisture meter (available from most garden- or forestry-supply catalogs) to measure the level.

Using a hand-held spray nozzle, a movable sprinkler, or a built-in sprinkler system, water all areas of the arena evenly. Frost-proof overhead permanent watering systems are now available for indoor applications. For outdoor arenas, in-ground sprinklers whose range is large enough to cover the entire arena surface can be placed outside the arena.

Whatever type of watering system you use, take care not to create puddles or wet spots that could become boggy and potentially harm the base. Portable sprinklers must be moved frequently, with any leaking connections repaired before continuing to water.

NECESSARY CHORE: Removing manure isn’t a glamorous task, but it’s an essential part of arena maintenance. Photo credit: JENNIFER BYRANT

Watering at night and allowing the moisture to soak in completely can be very beneficial. Dragging the arena before riding will help to distribute the moisture, as well. Until the water soaks in, most of it is in the top inch or two of footing and is easily lost to evaporation. Particularly dry arenas might require a few drag-and-water cycles to distribute the moisture deeply enough that it does not evaporate too quickly.

Competition and Multi-Use Arenas

The needs of competition or multi-use arenas (used for both dressage and jumping, for example) are more complex than those of single-purpose surfaces. In addition to practicing the maintenance steps we’ve outlined, some arenas may benefit from being rolled after dragging. Rolling produces a firmer and more level surface that can be much appreciated by both the dressage competitor and the jumping rider. With sand or mixed footing, a heavy roller (nine to 10 tons) is usually necessary for optimum packing and leveling. Most equipment-rental services have rollers available.

Note that arenas with stone-dust footing should not be rolled, as they already have a tendency to be too hard.

Outside the Arena

To facilitate drainage, don’t forget to maintain the area around the outside of your arena. Piles of excess surface material around the outside edges of the arena will block runoff and need to be cleaned up periodically. Usually, this is material that is pushed out of the arena during the course of normal use and can just be added back to the footing. If you have swales or drainage ditches, keep them mowed and free of debris.

Footing Is Fundamental

Protect your arena investment—and horses’ soundness—by establishing the right type and frequency of footing maintenance. Consult your footing manufacturer for specific maintenance advice for your chosen material.

A good arena-maintenance program also includes a pitchfork and a muck tub. Manure not promptly removed hardens or dries and crumbles, making footing dusty and compromising the integrity of the material.

Well-kept footing is not only a pleasure to ride on; it’s also important in helping to keep horses sound. The choice of footing material, its depth, its moisture content, and other factors affect the amount that the hoof slides forward on landing, rotates when turning, and provides resistance during push-off. For dressage-specific research findings and arena-maintenance advice, see Underfoot.


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