WRANGLING ON THE RANGE #169
ARENA SURFACE KEEPING
Do your horse a favor-learn the basics of what makes a good arena
surface, then commit to its regular care with tips from pros.
by Jim and Bob Kiser, owners of Kiser Arena Secialists.
To determine slope for an outdoor arena, professionals like the
Kisers consider the footing materials used and the local weather.
If you contend with heavy, rapid rain showers, for instance, less
slope is desirable, so that materials don't wash away. If your
arena has good drainage and milder, drizzly rains characterize
your area, more slope might be advised.
Whatever the case, the base layer needs to be graded and
compacted. To do this, the contractor is likely to scrape off the
top materials so that he can regrade and compact the base
underneath. Once this is done, the top layer is brought back in
or replaced with new materials to create a loose top layer.
Once the work is completed, your goal becomes to keep the top
layer loose and evenly distributed over the entire arena surface.
And here's the big take-home message: The more deliberate and
frequent you are in conditioning the top layer, the longer your
base layer will stay in good shape.
We say "tip-top" because, if done properly, it's the top layer of
your arena surface that you must mainly be concerned with from
week to week, even year to year. Ideally, say the Kisers, your
top layer should always be worked up enough so that a horse in
training isn't going to penetrate that layer and damage the base.
Both men agree, the most common problem they see is that people
don't drag their arenas often enough. According to Bob, if you're
among those who work their arenas every few weeks or so, or even
once a week, you aren't doing it nearly enough.
In fact, he recommends that an arena be worked every day, before
anyone rides on it, as a matter of course. He says this level of
regularity is just as important for the amateur who rides one or
two horses a day as it is for a boarding or training
establishment where many horses use the surface daily.
Why? The main reason is moisture. Ideally, an arena should have a
moisture level of four to six percent. If you work the arena once
a week, or once a month, and are irregular about watering it as
well, it'll dry out. That'll give you that dreaded
riding-in-a-cloud-of-dust problem-not to mention what'll happen
the next time you drive over the surface with machinery, in the
attempt to smooth it out.
Chances are, you can't measure the moisture level of your arena.
So, here's an easy way to judge moisture factor. Pick up a
handful of the top material. If it won't bind together, it's
probably too dry; if dust billows out of your hand, it's
definitely too dry. And if it forms a muddy ball in your hand,
it's too wet. Ideally, the materials should ball up in your hand
but still be dry enough to crumble.
If you lack a pull-behind watering system and have to settle for
watering your arena with a garden hose, you may be pleased to
learn that several arena-watering systems designed for home-arena
use are available. Portable models typically follow a hose line
down the center of the arena, providing even watering of the
entire surface. Another possibility is a dedicated watering
system, similar to a lawn-sprinkling system, that can be
installed along the arena fences. Just be sure the patterns are
worked out so that watered areas don't overlap too heavily or
that areas are left unwatered.
While it's safe to say that we each have our own limit on what we
can afford to spend for arena-conditioning equipment, it's also
safe to say that what's available for equipment is much improved
over what was common 20, even 10 years ago.
Formerly, horsemen simply used a simple harrow rake or a section
of chain fence attached to a tractor. If this is what you're
using today, you know the problem: These pieces of equipment can
help smooth out a surface, but they can't replace footing that's
been pushed and banked to the outer edges by horses' hooves, nor
can they soften the increasingly compounded ground left behind in
the horses' regular working track.
To envision this, imagine a cake. The cake layer represents your
arena's base, and the icing is the top layer of your footing. If
you use a knife and go around and around in a circle, you'll push
the icing to the edges. If too much icing is moved; your knife
can dig into the cake-destroying the level base.
So, what you need to do is move that icing back to the areas that
are heavily used, creating a finish of uniform thickness.
Today's most elaborate arena conditioners are actually several
tools integrated into a single unit. These tools redistribute the
top layer more evenly, rake it to give it the proper texture, and
at the same time compact the base layer and repair damage. Bob
built a proquality arena conditioner called the Kiser Dragmaster
to work the ground at the 1987 NRHA Futurity, and it's become the
gold standard in the business. A lower-priced version, the Kiser
Edge, is used at many smaller facilities.
Additionally, implement makers have created a wide variety of
all-in-one arena tools to make arena maintenance simpler. Some
fit on tractors, while a handful of the implements even work on
fourwheel ATVs or motorized utility vehicles. One of the more
popular is the TR3 rake, distributed by ABI Equine. John Deere
offers a quality product, the Riata Rake, through its Frontier
line of tractor implements. Smaller companies, such as Roto
Harrow, specialize in making arena equipment for home-based
The purchase of equipment to upkeep your riding surface may seem
like a big expense. But when you weigh that cost against the vet
bills and downtime from a surface-caused lameness, not to mention
risks to your own health from a bad fall as you're in the saddle,
you may start to see it as an investment.
Besides regular dragging and applying moisture to keep the top
layer in proper balance, you can help keep your arena in top
shape with these three final tips from the Kisers.
Vary your riding routine. Repetitive practice, especially running
barrel patterns or endless circling alongside the arena walls,
causes your top materials to migrate, forming thin spots and
areas of buildup. Prevent this by reversing the set-up of your
barrels, by working down the center of the arena and diagonally
instead of always on the rail, by moving your trail obstacles to
new locations, and so forth-anything to break out of the pattern.
Keep your riding in mind when conditioning. If you have thin
spots from repetitive riding patterns, you'll want to drag those
areas more thoroughly than the less-used areas and establish a
dragging pattern that helps redistribute the top materials more
Prioritize good ground. "If there's one thing I'd tell people,"
says Bob, "it's that you have to do what it takes to keep the top
layer consistent. If it means hiring someone to pull the dirt
away from the fence, then do it. And do the arena conditioning
work each day, before you ride."
From HORSE AND RIDER - OCTOBER 2011