Building a riding arena for your horses requires making big decisions about the footing. What type of footing should you use? What materials are available near your location? All of these considerations are important in the planning process, but one of the most important, yet often under considered factors, is the horse arena sand depth.

We know that this process can be difficult. We also know that maintaining the correct footing depth is essential for ensuring your horse’s comfort and health. Let’s talk about some of the sand depth factors, such as particle shape and size and how to choose the sand depth that best suits your arena.

How to Choose the Correct Footing

Whether you are building a small dressage arena, a mid-sized arena, or a large arena, you will need three primary levels. Each of these levels are important for keeping both horses and humans safe and free from injury:

  • The Base: This is the foundation, which is often made of clay, that your arena is built on. Without a solid base, horses will not have the support they need to avoid injury.
  • The Subsurface: This layer is usually made of or mixed with sand or some type of manufactured material. Oftentimes, the subsurface is just an extension of the top dressing.
  • The Top Dressing: This should be integrated with the subsurface to provide the best combination of grip and stability. The top dressing and subsurface combine to form what we consider the footing.

As you refurbish or build an arena, you have to decide what the composition of the subsurface and dressing (or the footing) should be. Unfortunately, there are no exact, universal formulas for determining footing composition. However, these are crucial for your arena footing.

  1. Moisture: Your footing should be adequately moist, but not muddy. If your arena surface is overly dry, the footing will be dusty and slippery, causing horse and human discomfort. If it’s overly moist, your footing will be muddy and prevent horses from moving correctly.
  2. Dust free: The amount of dust that horses kick up is influenced by both the material of the footing and the amount of moisture in the footing. The ideal is a dust free arena, which will require additive materials and consistent watering.
  3. Cushioning: Most of the cushioning stems from the subsurface and top dressing. The amount of cushioning that your arena will need varies depending on which riding disciplines are performed at your arena. Having proper cushioning is primarily to keep your horses comfortable and to prevent surface injuries.
  4. Stability: Without a firm footing and a sturdy base, your horses could easily injure themselves while making sharp turns or quick starts and stops. Having a sturdy base combined with the needed cushioning in the footing allows for an ideal footing composition.
  5. Traction: Without proper traction, your horse would slide around, but too much traction can also be detrimental. The perfect balance is necessary to allow your horses to make their movements without slipping or getting stuck.

A good arena will have each of these elements: adequate moisture, cushioning, stability, and traction, without any dust. As you develop your arena, you will also have to decide what materials you want to use in your footing. The composition in almost every arena is composed of a combination of materials.

In deciding which of these materials to use, availability will be one of your deciding factors. When the materials you want aren’t nearby, you may be able to import them from somewhere else. Here are a couple common types of footing materials you may consider.

  • Stone dust: Stone dust provides stability drains without issue. The initial cost of stone dust is quite inexpensive, but the maintenance costs (specifically for the water) make it quite expensive.
  • Sand: Sand footing is probably the most common and diverse of these materials. Most arenas are going to have some sand included in their footing composition. For sand-heavy arenas, intense maintenance and watering is required. It is also important to consider that there are different types of sand.

How to Choose the Right Type of Sand

Not all sand is created equal. There are two primary factors to consider as you examine which type of sand you want to implement in your sand arena.

Particle Size

The size of your sand particles will depend on what type of horse riding is happening at your arena and where it is. You may choose to use fine sand, where each particle is about 0.05 mm in diameter. On the other hand, you can use coarse sand where each particle can have a diameter as large as 2.0 mm.

Regardless of which size you choose, you will probably want to combine that sand with other materials of different size. Having materials of different sizes and compositions will allow your footing to become more connected and consistent.

Particle Shape

Particle shape is another important aspect of sand selection. Some sand particles, such as beach and river sand, are extremely round. On the other hand, some sand, such as quartz sand from a quarry, is more angular and sharp. Both can be useful, as angular sand provides more stability while the round sand provides more cushioning. A combination of both, along with other materials, will let your horses work well.

How to Choose the Proper Horse Arena Sand Depth

Just as you must consider the disciplines in choosing the materials, you also must consider the disciplines that will use your arena when deciding on the proper sand depth. However, these are the general guidelines to consider, as proposed by Eileen E. Fabian, PH.D. of Penn State University.

  • Start by adding two inches of sand.
  • If you think you may need more, add ½ inch first and test again.
  • Going above six inches can be harmful.
  • If you are working with an arena specifically for driving horses, you should start with 1 and 1/2 inches.  

Let’s break this down a little bit more. First, as evidenced by the last point, the depth you choose depends on the type of disciplines that you host in your arena. For instance, if you are primarily driving, you can have a shallower footing.

Again, there are no exact rules when it comes to the composition or depth of your footing. In an article from Horse Journals, Wolfgang Winkler, owner of 4W’s Consulting in Metchosin, BC says that “the depth of the cushion can vary a lot from about one to two inches for a dressage or jumper horse to six to eight inches for a cutting horse.”

Regardless of which depth you choose, make sure that it remains consistent throughout your arena. Inconsistent footing depth or composition can easily cause injuries or performance issues.

What Does Performance Footing Offer?

At Performance Footing, we understand that designing, building, and maintaining a solid arena is difficult and requires significant work. We want your arena footing to maintain its quality both in the short term and the long term, which is why we offer several beneficial additive products like FoamFooting. Whether you have an indoor arena or outdoor arena, our products can help you keep your horses happy, healthy, and free from injury.