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Building Your Own Riding Ring

By: Ann Compton

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If a winter of snow and ice has you contemplating the perks of having your own riding ring, this is the time to make plans. There are almost as many different types of rings as there are saddles. But it's essential to do it properly from the start or you'll be sorry later when you're eating enough dust to convince you that you're riding in the Sahara Desert.

Location, size, building a base, then adding a topping are the keys to a ring that will be functional, provide good footing for your horse and drain well.

  • Size. Naturally, you'd like to plan as much space for your ring as possible, but it's amazing what you can do in a small area, if that's all you have. At a minimum, you'll want the area of a small dressage arena, which offers enough space for flatwork, lungeing and one or two jumps – about 60 by 100 feet. Bigger is, of course, better, because it allows you to do more work. But you can be efficient in a small space if you plan properly.

  • Location. When choosing a site for a ring, look for a place that doesn't slope too much to avoid excessive digging and blasting to level it. Avoid a spot that will get water runoff from hills or buildings and don't situate it too close to the tree line because the compaction of the soil will kill the trees. Areas that accumulated water before you began building the ring will likely do so after the ring is constructed.

  • Base Materials. The base consists of the bottom, or sub-base (like a sub-carpet), and the base above it. Once you've chosen your site, think about base and sub-base materials. It's easy to correct – or change – the topping, but once you've laid the base and sub-base, you'll live with it forever.

    The bottom layer – or sub-base – usually consists of native soil. If the natural material is not suitable for a ring, you can use additives to improve it. This layer should be leveled and allowed to settle before the base is laid down. With an indoor arena, only a sub-base and sand are necessary because drainage isn't a consideration. If there is too much rock or debris, you'll need to add some stone, perhaps with clay, to cover it.

    The base – the next layer – should be firm because it's the foundation of the ring. If it isn't done properly a host of problems can occur - from the horse breaking through, to erosion - causing an uneven riding surface. Stone dust works well for this purpose.

    George Stone, of Stone Construction in Southbury, Connecticut, builds a variety of rings. George says that the material needed for each ring varies depending on the drainage in the location you choose. He stresses that the most important preparation for any ring is proper grading, so that water doesn't run through it or pool there, which will erode the material and prevent it from setting.

  • Footing. The type of footing, or topping, you choose should be good for your horse's legs, relatively dust-free and long lasting. This translates ultimately to the best you can afford.

  • Sand. Although sand is a popular choice for private rings, it definitely doesn't fit in the "dust-free" category. If anything, sand probably generates the most dust of any arena topping, erodes the fastest and is the deepest footing there is. There are, however, many varieties and combinations of sand types. Best is a sand-soil mix containing no more than 18 percent to 20 percent fine particles, with the percentage relating to the proportion of clay and silt in the sand (fines). If you have the ability to water your arena, it's okay to have a higher percentage of fines. If not, keep the percentage low because they cause dust.

  • Stone Dust. George Stone likes to use stone dust for ring topping, sometimes mixed with a bit of coarse sand. He notes that stone dust settles and drains well, doesn't erode and is not as dusty as sand. It also provides nice firm but forgiving footing for the horse. George also says that there is a type of heavy clay sand available in some areas that is not as dusty as typical sand, if that is your footing of choice.

  • Rubber. No discussion of footing would be complete without considering rubber. Rubber has been gaining in popularity as a footing choice. If you listen to those who market it, rubber literally will give you and your horse a magic carpet ride. It is resilient, dust-free, freeze resistant, no watering, low maintenance.

    There is polymer coated sand, recycled rubber, granulated plastic and rubber, crumb rubber particles ... one could spend weeks researching rubber footing. There is, however, one very important thing to know about rubber footing: It's expensive. The industry average, depending on the form in which it is ordered and the supplier, is $230 per ton. For the recommended two inches of topping needed in a typical 60 by 100 foot arena, the price is roughly $3,500.

    But most who take the plunge and spend the money for rubber footing are delighted with it. The general consensus is that it is low-maintenance, dust free and resilient. However, it may not necessarily be the best footing for an outdoor arena. Although manufacturers claim that rubber is every bit as durable outdoors as indoors, some experts report that sunlight breaks it down quickly and, because it is lighter than sand (with which it is normally mixed), it rises to the top and can wash away during heavy rain or bad weather.

    Indoors, however, it's terrific. It doesn't compact, break down or wear. It keeps the footing lighter, reducing concussion to the horses' legs.

  • Choose Wisely. So if your budget will bear it, and you're furnishing an indoor arena, rubber or a rubber combination is the best choice. Outdoors, however, stone dust seems to be the preferred alternative. No matter which base or topping you choose, you generally will get a better deal from a local supplier because you won't be paying the price of long-distance delivery.

    The best advice if a new ring is in your plans is: Visit as many facilities as you can. Look at the footing and see how it rides. Then talk to a variety of suppliers before making a decision, because it's one that you'll have to live with it for a long time.

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