How to Build a Riding Arena

Just like there are laws of gravity, there are several immutable truths about building a horse riding arena. First and foremost, it is always worth taking the time to research your project and consult with a professional arena builder. Because building a successful ring is a good blend of art and science, you won't want to be guessing if the base is deep enough, if the sand is the right one, if there is too much footing or not enough. But before we get ahead ourselves, let’s start with some very basic questions.

What will your arena be used for? Will it be a private arena or used by a myriad of riders? Will it be outside or covered? Will it have an easy source of water for watering? How much time each day do you want to spend maintaining your arena.

Sounds like a lot to think about but once you have answered the basic questions, those answers will guide you in the placement of the arena, the drainage choices, the base you put in and the choice of footing you eventually will ride on.


Where to Locate Your Ring

Years ago we worked with an upper-level rider who had the most meticulously laid out farm nestled high on a hill in New England. He had decided to locate his ring at the very bottom of his exactly one-mile long driveway. His main barn and small paddocks were just steps from the house. It didn’t seem like a very sensible solution at the time but he explained. The mile-long walk to the riding arena was the perfect warm up so once he got to the ring it was time to go to work. And the mile back to the barn was the perfect cool down after a long session.

For this particular rider, this scenario worked. He was an adult amateur with a very small teaching program and only a few horses of his own in work. Time efficiency was not a high priority. He was also a very experienced rider so he was comfortable with the long hack to and from on the greenest and fittest horses. And lastly, riders who were trucking in did not enter the farm proper, making sure the owner’s horses were not exposed to anything other horses might be carrying.

So you can see he put a lot of thought into what that arena was going to do for him, and what it would not. And he built accordingly. For most busy professionals this kind of layout would be not ideal. We often advise not to put your arena miles away from your barn if you have a lot of students, or horses to ride, or green, inexperienced horses and riders in your program. You will want to be able to switch out horses quickly, get a student on, be able to oversee what is happening in your workplace without being totally removed from what is happening in the barn.

When you are deciding where to put the arena, try to find a slightly elevated place if you have one. If you place it in a place where water gathers after a good storm, you might spend the next few years watching your footing wash away. Siting the arena north to south will also be of great help to both riders and horses. They won’t be looking into the sun coming down the long side, a definite plus. And if you can build on an elevated part of the property, it will help you immensely with the drainage.


The Base

There is an old saying that if you cut corners on the base, nothing you put on top of it will ever make you happy. It’s hard for many people to understand why something you never see should be such an important part of the budget. But it's the foundation on which so much is riding. Sorry for the pun. If you skimp on your base, you are handicapping its ability to function effectively.

Having a well-compacted base is one of the key components to an effective base, and what keeps the rocks from coming up into your footing. And nothing is worse than seeing rocks and debris in your footing. No matter how many times you pick them out, more show up.  We call it rock farming in New England.

So it is crucial to work with a professional that understands not only how to make a great base but also has the tools to check the compaction, density, and moisture. Simply said, a fellow with a backhoe might seem less expensive than a footing professional, but it could cost you a lot down the road.  A footing professional can help you with determining the readiness of your base before you cover it with footing.


The Footing

Sand is sand, but good footing gives your horse wings. For most horsemen, the choice of the footing is arguably the most talked about portion of building the arena. The science that goes into making good footing good has evolved tremendously. Professional equestrian athletes and adult ammies alike have embraced these changes because they know a horse’s health, well-being and longevity are affected by its daily training surface.

There are a variety of choices on the market today from sand mixed with additives to the higher end polymer coated sands. What you are looking for is a footing that provides good traction for the horse and a consistent surface all the way around the arena. 

You want to consider the dust factor as well. If you have a dusty arena it will affect not only the horses but the riders and the trainers and anyone else spending long hours in the ring.  If your budget allows for a sand blend, make sure you have a way to water it consistently and often enough to keep the footing intact.

Once a sand blend becomes too dry, the felt and fiber will separate and rise to the top. Riding on it, as some textile additive manufacturers have suggested, does not mix the textiles back into the “footing”. It just creates a more uneven surface and more of a chance for injury.

A polymer coated sand is dust-free, needs no watering and can be customized for your arena needs. Attwood Equestrian Surfaces has been at the forefront of this type of footing technology for more than twenty-five years. Attwood created the patented formula for Pinnacle to give your horse perfect support so every step is consistent, and the horse can totally focus on the task at hand.

Pinnacle is formulated from high-quality silica sand and fibers, and coated with viscoelastic polymer resulting in a surface that practically breathes, and rebounds from the impact. Pinnacle has the optimum in shear strength, shock absorption and maximum viscoelastic rebound that makes it the ultimate riding surface for the equestrian athlete. Pinnacle allows you to train and perform consistently at your best.

Attwood’s Pinnacle requires no watering. For areas of the country that are typically dry or experiencing drought, this is a footing that will continue to be completely supportive without the addition of moisture. It saves time and money and leaves you with more hours in the saddle. It is also dust-free, so say good-bye to long afternoons teaching and practicing in dusty arenas. When you get to train or compete in an Attwood riding arena, both you and your horse will feel the difference.


So here is your To Do list for building a horse riding arena.

1. Do all your homework before you break ground. Find an arena that you love and find out who built it and all the materials involved.
2. Consult with an arena specialist as part of your homework!
3. Site your arena away from low lying areas and possible wetlands.
4. Prepare your site completely before bringing in materials.
5. Make sure your base is the best it possibly can be.
6. Make a plan and stick to it with your drainage. A quick drying ring is worth its weight in gold.
7. Build when the weather is with you, not against you.
8. Once your arena is built, have a maintenance plan, budget for it and stick to it.