Footing—Don’t Lose Your Financial Grip

Good footing that won’t run away with your budget is just a stone’s throw away.
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Good footing that won’t run away with your budget is just a stone’s throw away.
Good arena footing starts with the base.

Good arena footing starts with the base.

We’ve talked about commercial footings several times over the years, but these arenas are pricey at best. This time we decided to find out how to work with local natural resources. In upcoming issues, we’ll discuss ways to control dust and commercial footings, both natural and artificial.

Look Locally
Morgan horse trainer Dottie Brittingham, of Independence Stable in Belchertown, Mass., said research and references were her farm budget’s best friends when it came to choosing a footing. 
Having trained on various surfaces since the 1970s, when she wanted to erect her own 74' x 140' indoor arena, Brittingham researched her options in advance and talked to other farms for their feedback. “If you can identify exactly what you want and be specific, you can use a general contractor or excavator. They needn’t be horse experts.”

Knowing what she needed included taking stock of her competitive schedule and its venues: “I knew that I couldn’t go with an artificial footing, like rubber or felt, because my horses have to compete on dirt and grass.” She also needed a firm but giving, non-slip surface for driving horses put to wooden-wheeled carriages. Her footing had to have enough tiny stones to not compact too hard, yet not be so fine that airborne particles would make dust maintenance a chore.

Prior experience working with a barn in the Midwest that used rubber footing revealed to her the problematic nature of artificial surfaces: “When the owners wanted to remove it, they had a toxic waste product to deal with, so I prefer to stick with natural footing.”

Not all natural footings are created equal. Bark mulch proved too hard to level and broke down erratically, while many sandy mixes were too dusty, hard on hooves or, if granules were not sized right, difficult to drive on.

The solution was a natural dirt footing, described as a “silty mix,” from a local excavator whose expertise wasn’t horse footings, but septic systems. “Put the word ‘horse’ in front of a service and it seems the price goes up,” said Brittingham. Her excavator, Paul Lussier, worked closely with her to give her precisely the footing she wanted, personally delivering buckets of various samples for review. Once her choice was made, Lussier laid the footing down in increments, initially spreading a three-inch footing, and gradually building to a currently comfortable depth of six inches.

 Lussier calls his silty mix “not overly percolating” (i.e., water runs or “percolates” easily through soil when it has a high gravel/stone content). The higher the “perc” is, the dustier the footing is likely to be as water will pass through and only weigh down the lower, heaviest particles. Lussier installed the silty mix five months ago, and Brittingham says she has yet to experience a dust problem, nor has the footing required watering to control dust.

At an estimated $17 to $18 per yard, Lussier and Independence Stable also worked to extract the maximum value out of each load. Before laying the footing, larger gravel was screened from the mix and used along the exterior borders of the house, stable, and arena, to minimize mud and moisture buildup against the buildings.

Start At The Bottom
“I try to stay with sand footing, which has proven easier to drag and maintain than artificial footings like felt,” says dressage World Cup finalist Kathy Von Ertfelda, from her Peak Rock Farm in South Dartmouth, Mass. Von Ertfelda also stays natural, preferring wood chips (like those at playgrounds) mixed with sand for her 60' x 120' indoor, and cement sand for her outdoor rings.

A smart approach also starts with not scrimping on the quality of your base. A firmly packed base is a critical investment that will influence how the rest of your footing performs and how long it will last. Von Erfelda uses well-packed stone dust, topped with two inches of cement sand, and wood chips or chips/ rubber combination.

Where people make a costly mistake is in putting down too much footing too soon. It’s expensive to remove the footing if it isn’t working out right. She hired a local excavator, who added footing incrementally until the right consistency and depth were achieved. “We started with two inches of sand and built gradually up from there.”

Cement sand delivers a dressage surface that neither gets too deep or thick and can be easily dragged and watered. But in outdoor arenas, where drainage can be an issue, Von Ertfelda avoids wood chips, which have a tendency to float. 

Treat Sand Like Gold
At Mount Holyoke (Mass.) College Equestrian Center footing must withstand the rigors of teams in training, community riding programs, horse shows, and upholding the center’s reputation as one of the top collegiate equestrian facilities in the country.

 “When this facility was first built (in 1987), the outdoor arenas were sand over what was thought to be a firm base,” said assistant director of external programs Joy Collins. “However, sinkholes started appearing, and those were issues that had to be corrected for safety reasons. So a local, heavy machine contractor was consulted and hired to strip back all the footing, roll the base, insert crushed stone, roll again, lay down fabric, and then place the sand footing back on top.

That project was 10 years ago and thankfully, we have been trouble-free ever since.” After finding problems with mold in their sand/sawdust mix used indoors, and sand-only led to shifty, uneven footing, the college added a felt product to its sand to add cushion and stability.

The wear and tear of human traffic, farm equipment, horse and cattle hooves and sundry organic matter, and drill team and lessons programs, are all part of the job for footing at the Raucher family-owned and operated Heritage Farm in Easthampton, Mass., whose 188' x 80' indoor was among the first installed in New England more than 30 years ago.

“We have tried just about every type of generic footing, with advice from local dirt guys, and our latest edition is Number Two road sand,” said manager Diane Raucher-Miller. “It’s coarse and gravelly, but not chunky. We abuse our ring with everything from lessons to cows, auctions, hay-delivery trucks and winter-storm equipment, so we don’t get as technical in our requirements as places that focus on any one discipline.”

This particular all-purpose footing has been serving the farm for four years, and the Rauchers find it “relatively affordable.” The base is clay, with a fabric layer covered by stone supplied by a local excavator.

Artificial Footing Challenges

Dragging or picking manure from artificial footing has been a challenge at hunter/jumper stables Berkshire Equestrian Center in Massachusetts and The Stables at Candlelight Farm in Connecticut. Manager Billie Best said, “On a day-to-day basis, the fiber particles seems a relatively minute amount, but over time it accumulates in your manure pile, and when you want to spread it, you still have these particles that will then go into your pasture, etc.” In hindsight, she advises taking a “bigger picture approach” to choosing footing: “If you can get safe, non-toxic, local footing, I’m all for that as a smart approach.” Removing artificial footing can be a challenge, too, as you may need to check with your code office about toxic-waste regulations.

Bottom Line
Excavator and septic-system specialist Tom Whiteley’s clients have had good luck with road sand, at $13.50/yard, or sand/gravel mixes in the Northeast. His best cost-cutting tip is to start with a level, dry arena site ready to go.

“It will cut down on your costs if we don’t have to do the leveling first,” Whiteley said. Second, “Get references. We’ve done lots of arenas that have been re-do’s, where our job is fixing mistakes made the first time. Get someone recommended by other horse people.”

Saving money on footing starts with being on solid ground with your choices and how those options match your specific needs. Ask stable owners what they use and why. One trainer in central New York uses only red-brick sand, which is readily available at a local quarry. Whether you turn to an expert, a reliable reference, or your own good horse sense, the right footing is within reach.