Standing On Solid Ground In Your Horse Arena

Unless you’re on the rodeo road, the majority of the runs you make are probably in your own horse arena. No doubt, you put hours of time into planning the layout, box dimensions, return alley and chute placement. But how much thought and effort did you put into the footing of your horse arena? We all know that footing in your horse arena is probably one of the most important elements to keeping horses sound, but you might be surprised just how deep it goes.

But there’s one man, Bob Kiser, who does. To say he has his head in the sand is an understatement. He primarily builds the arenas for most of the major western horse shows such as the AQHA World Show, the NRHA Futurity, the NRCHA Snaffle Bit Futurity and has helped such equestrian experts as Bob Avila and Carol Rose. This business has opened doors to hundreds of requests from horse trainers from every discipline.

“Since it would be impossible for me to go and build every arena, I have established several different consulting packages so that I can help as many people as possible,” said Kiser. “This consulting consists of everything from phone consultation to soil analysis, material selection, arena design and entire site development.”

Now he’s beginning to move into the rodeo arena as more and more ropers realize the importance of his expertise. Wrangler NFR tie-down roper Stran Smith is even one of his clients.

“Footing in general is critical to the overall safety and performance of any horse.” Kiser explained. “Eighty percent of all soundness-related issues come from poorly constructed and maintained arenas. So the footing on which you train and perform is essential to the horse, cattle and even the roper. Stran talked to me once about the amount of strain and compaction he felt on his own knees and body. Imagine what it’s like for a horse at 1,200 pounds on poor arena footing.”

So then what are the elements specifically pertinent to team ropers and calf ropers?

“For ropers it’s important that the footing material be approximately three to four inches deep and made from a combination of sands, clay and silts,” Kiser said. “Both the horses and the calves need a footing that is stable and won’t allow their legs to give out underneath them. This is why pure sand won’t work-it’s too loose and is dangerous for the horse. Often you will see people compensate and make the sand eight to 10 inches deep trying to create stability, but this creates another issue; sore muscles from having to work twice as hard as they need to for both speed and maneuverability. If your ground is too deep, wet and sticky your horses and calves will get their feet caught up in it and it puts strain on their muscles and tendons. If the ground is too shallow, hard and compacted, the concussion on the joints creates incredible soreness and long-term injuries.

“With the right combinations of sand, clay and silt, a good roping arena will have both stability and cushion. Of course, this top material has to be on a good solid base. I don’t recommend a crushed stone base because it is too hard, brittle and easy to damage. Rather, I like a base made out of the same materials as the top layer but with more clay and less sand so that it will compact but still have some give to it. It’s much easier to maintain and better on the horses.”

That’s just the tip of the iceberg from Kiser. His evaluation and building process is insightful, based on years of experience and even intuition.

“The first thing I do when evaluating an arena is to walk on it and see if I find it consistent and comfortable with good cushion,” Kiser said. “If I don’t like it, think how the horse feels. Consistency is a key factor. If the base has holes all through it and the top material is deeper in some areas than others then I know the horses aren’t safe and won’t perform well.

“The next thing I look for is the grade and the drainage of the arena. If someone tells me that when they get an inch of rain it takes three days before they can ride again, then there’s a problem in the percolation of the footing. Proper drainage is another key factor. To ride on a saturated arena is only asking for injuries to the horse. The basic rule of thumb is that if you get an inch of rain you should be able to ride within 24 hours.”

But for many ropers, that inch of rain is uncommon. Dry, dusty arenas are more common in much of the Western United States.

“Moisture is a key element to good quality footing. I recommend between five and eight percent moisture content in your arena. It’s really hard to figure out what that is so here is a simple test: Take a handful of your footing and squeeze it together. Slowly release your fingers and if the material stays together than you’re on the right track. You see, moisture is part of that stability issue that I talked about earlier. When your footing gets dry it gets slick and your horse’s legs can easily go out from underneath him. It also adds the much-needed cushion. There is no magic to getting around water. You have to have it.”

Kiser recommends a water wagon for getting the moisture evenly across your arena. Trucks often damage the arena and have lots of maintenance, and sprinkling systems overlap and create puddles. He’s even invented a product that waters your arena while dragging it.

There are more maintenance practices arena owners should be aware of in order to create the best arena possible.

“The biggest problem among arena owners is that they don’t drag often enough and they don’t have the proper equipment to adequately prepare good footing,” said Kiser.

Smoothing over hoof prints just isn’t enough. Kiser states that horses find their comfort two to four inches deep. He recommends working the arena in different directions, making circles and figure eights instead of simply driving up and down the length of the arena.

“My final tip is this,” said Kiser. “If your arena is in bad shape, do something about it. Clinton Anderson and I were talking last spring and he said, ‘So many people spend tens of thousands of dollars on trucks and trailers and yet neglect their arenas and the safety and performance of their horses.’ Don’t let your horses suffer with soundness problems. Do what it takes to make your footing right.”

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