By Howard J. Cormier, LSU AgCenter Southwest Regional Equine Agent
We recently reviewed tips on building a 50-foot round pen for horse training. The next logical step to consider is how to build a riding arena. The time you spend planning will be important later for the life of the structure.
First, where will you put a large item such as an arena? Regardless of the final size, you will need to allow for the flow of traffic, both automotive, tractors and farm implements, horse trailers, and livestock around the site. Assume that you will need to haul sand to build the footing, so plan for a large dump truck to enter and exit without tearing down a fence. Also, plan to get a tractor with some type of grooming tool in and out on a regular basis — every couple of days at least. If your gate and egress area is too small, expect frustration and maybe damage to the fence. Will roping calves be unloaded and loaded? What about unbroken horses, colts, or breeding mares? Do you need a side pen to funnel them into trailers?
As you consider the size and placement, consider the drainage. Flat ground is not the best, neither is turtle-backed land. Turtle-backed, or crowned, land that is higher in the middle will end up being flat after several years of grooming. In addition, the water will drain to the sides, where most of your riding might take place. Over time, the rain will carry the soil and sand from the crown to the sides, and it will be flat, which will not allow rains to drain off and dry quickly. The ideal spot is slightly higher on one side than the other to allow water to drain. It is true that the higher side will erode, and the lower side will get deeper over time, but that is still the best of both worlds, if you happen to have land that has a slight grade.
How big you build the pen depends on how big your budget is. The bigger the pen, the more cost in fencing and sand. You will need to add sand over time because it actually wears out and blows away. Try to make the pen big enough to be able to lope and run a horse without danger of falling in the corners. I would say 100 feet by 150 feet is a modest size for most applications. Bigger is better, if you can afford it. Again, it will depend on how much room you have.
Let’s talk about materials. You will need fence posts, which could be pipe or treated lumber, spaced about every 8 feet. Do not use landscape timbers. They will rot in a few years and need replacing. Four-by-four-inch treated posts are more expensive but will last much longer. If you can afford pipe, so much the better, but consider how you will attach the rest of the fencing. Can you weld, or can you afford someone to do that task for you. You can use corral panels, or cable, or even hog wire to form a barrier. Wood is pleasing to the eye, and you might need it for the top and mid-section. But unless you plan to use treated lumber, wood has limitations, such as cost, longevity and safety. In addition, if you keep horses in the arena at times, wood invites chewing, which leads to cribbing. That is a bad vice that comes from boredom.
How many gates will you have? Gates allow you to practice sidepassing, and opening and closing them, which improves the usefulness of your horse.
What about shade? Will you ride mostly in the late afternoons, after work? Trees close by will provide shade, but they might also develop roots that will make a horse stumble. Some trees, like sycamore, drop big leaves that clog up the tines on a harrow. Ideally, tall mature trees that are some distance away will provide late afternoon shade, without the negative effects. Trees also allow you tie a horse close by while you ride another.
Consider a viewing stand of some kind so a coach can sit and teach the kids or other adults. Consider some type of raised platform with a bench or a couple of lawn chairs so you can see over the fence. Five feet high is probably a good average. Less than that might promote jumping out of the pen when the pressure from inside gets too high. Too high is unnecessary and adds to the cost. Having electricity is a big plus because you can then plug in a PA system, camcorder or a box fan. A luxury? Yes, but a very practical one.
What about wind damage to walls? It is a disagreeable chore to try to straighten big sections of fencing after a storm. The more wall you put up, the more it will catch and be damaged by wind, especially hurricane force winds for a couple of days.
Last, but certainly not least, consider the top (lighting) and bottom (footing) needs. Can you afford to put up a few big lights or many smaller ones? You’ll need tall poles to maximize the reach of the lights and a source of electricity.
Sand is necessary to improve the footing. I suggest scraping the grass off before you add any sand. It will take less sand to cover the soil properly, and will improve traction and cushioning. Unless you add a lot of sand, it will still be slippery after a rain. You want to avoid disking or tilling deeply, as the sand will move deeper into the soil profile and seem to disappear if you work it too deeply. Work as often as necessary to keep grass from getting established. Try not to gouge the sand out of one area when working it because that will make a slick spot or a deep spot where the sand is moved, and could lead to tendon injuries.
Finally, plan on how you will work the arena. A four-wheeler, UTV or garden tractor might be adequate to keep the sand loose. The most important thing is to work it often and not let grass and weeds get established.
I hope that I have given you some ideas that will help you make smart decisions.
Finally, the bad news. If you do have an arena, that knocks out your excuse for not being able to ride and improve your horse. Oh well, I’m sure we can come up with some other good ones. Happy riding!