Indoor Arena Dust: Damaging to Horse and Rider

I am not sure when it became popular, the adding of an indoor directly onto a barn but I am sure it had everything to do with weather and convenience. There were very few indoor arenas in northern Ohio in the late 70’s. So the ramifications of stalls combined with an indoor was far from my mind till I started boarding again some years ago at a farm where the indoor was directly attached to the barn.


After a few days at the new farm, there was a layer of silt on the carefully folded blankets on the door. My horse’s nostrils were no longer cheerfully pink. Even a freshly filled water bucket had a layer of silt floating on it within an hour of filling. My horse’s stall was three down from the arena, which was separated by a long ramp down and doors that shut.


I rode a fair amount in the indoor which was moderately dusty on a good day. The ring was used a good eight to ten hours a day with group lessons and training rides so the footing was taking a beating. Although it was watered on a fairly regular basis and harrowed weekly, it was dusty.


It didn't take long before my mare started each ride with a coughing session that would last a few minutes. Hmmm. I wondered about the quality of the air she was breathing, not only in her stall but in the arena itself. Dusty footing had to be having an impact on her lungs. What about the resident instructor who was teaching maybe 40 hours a week? What impact did breathing in all that dust have on her?


While we work hard to keep our equine athletes in a relatively dust free environment, it's a tough job. We soak the hay, we water the sawdust, all in an effort to keep the dust down. But a barn is a naturally dusty environment…then you add the layer of dust from an arena. Dust exposure is a real issue.


With a little research, it was easy to find that dust exposure has been associated with a variety of respiratory issues among riding instructors. Asthma, organic dust toxic syndrome, chronic obstructive lung disease, pneumonia, and chronic bronchitis are at the top of the list.


According to  studies, “Both non-smoking and smoking equestrian instructors are more likely to develop bronchitis-like symptoms if they primarily work in an indoor horse riding arena rather than an outdoor.” So if this was happening in humans, what was happening to the horses? Further research suggested heaves and diminished lung capacity. Both are a serious game changer for a competition horse.


I was lucky enough to be able to move my mare out of that environment pretty quickly with no long adverse health issues. But moving is not a choice for everyone. The first thing everyone thinks of is watering the footing more often.

If you do not already have a watering system in place in your indoor such as overhead sprinklers, you might be looking at a hose and a lawn sprinkler to get the job done. An inelegant solution at best, it can leave you with slick spots and puddles, the very last thing you want in the winter months. And increased watering can tap into your time and budget with increased costs and less time the arena is available for use.


The second most popular solution is adding magnesium chloride (salt) to the mix. Once again, this is a fairly cheap alternative in keeping the dust under control. However, getting the right amount mixed evenly can be problematic. Too much and the magnesium chloride can dry out your horses’ hooves and stain your boots and tack. Too little and you are right back where you started. It makes you wish you had a manual titled “How To Build A Horse Riding Arena On A Budget 2.0”!


One of the most universal ingredients in your footing is sand. Sand, over time, will be pulverized by constant use. It cannot be helped. The constant concussion of the horse’s hooves will break the grains of sand into smaller upon smaller particles, eventually becoming dust. When your footing gets to this point, the best solution is to replace the footing altogether.


Attwood Equestrian Surfaces was the first equine footing company to bring a dust-free footing to the market over twenty years ago. From the beginning, Attwood has been recognized for being the industry leader in innovation and practical solutions for horse and rider. This state-of-the-art footing contained a polymer-coated sand that allowed the footing to be completely dust free and needs no watering. It would be the beginning of a revolution in equine arena footing.


In summation, indoor arena dust is a problem that can seriously affect both horses and humans and needs to be addressed. If you can write your horse’s name on the mounting block a day after you wiped it down… you have a problem. If you or your horse has a chronic cough… you have a problem. The best solution means investing in a low-dust or dust-free footing that will not break down quickly under constant use.