Mirrors can help you train yourself. You can check yourself and your horse’s positions, identify mistakes and see corrections. They are particularly helpful if you often work without a ground person or a trainer who might be able to give you pointers or to simply see how your horse moves.
In an indoor arena, the walls are already built, so placing mirrors mainly involves decisions about location, size, number and type of glass. While we focus here on the construction of mirrors for outdoor arenas — reasoning that many riders don’t have the benefit of indoor facilities — most of what we say about exterior mirrors translates to interior ones, with the exception that weather is not an issue.
When building an outdoor mirror first consider geographic location, building codes and zoning requirements. Your decision about what type of materials to use and how to use them will be influenced by local temperatures and weather patterns.
Area building codes will provide useful and perhaps mandatory standards to follow as well. Also, if you live in a congested area, you might want to talk to adjacent property owners, as they might protest if a wall of mirrors goes up next door. Explain how you will landscape around it and why you need it.
Cost is a determining factor. Most dressage riders prefer mirrors all along the arena’s short side. Doing this requires building a solid exterior wall and mounting mirror panels on it, which can be extremely costly. If your budget can’t handle this type of expense, one mirror placed in the middle of the short side so you can see your half passes, zigzags, and piaffes and one or two in the middle of each of the long sides to check for straightness at the trot and canter may be just enough.
If you can afford it, building a wall of mirrors about 70 feet long and 10 feet high along the short side of the riding arena is best no matter what type of riding you do because you will be able to see yourself and your horse anywhere in the arena. Ideally, you’d want to place your mirror with its back to the sun at your usual riding times to minimize glare.
Most people use wood or concrete as the building material for the main structure.
Wood is generally much less expensive than concrete. Remember, however, that you are building an exterior wall of significant dimension. It has to be able to withstand high winds and a variety of weather conditions, so it will need to be extremely sturdy, as sturdy, in fact, as the wall of a house. Wood, unfortunately, is flexible. It tends to move and distort over time. It also mildews, rots and dries out in hot sun.
If you live in a place with severe weather patterns of high winds, humidity or temperatures, you probably don’t want wood. By the time you reinforce it and treat it enough to withstand conditions in your area, you may have spent as much as you would have building a concrete wall.
Regardless of material, begin your project by grading and leveling the area where you plan to build. It will help if the wall is a little wider than your arena so you can see yourself in full when riding down the long sides. For a wooden wall, get 6”x 6” square posts that are 12 feet long. Space them four feet apart on center. Set the posts three feet deep (or below the frost line) and secure them by filling the holes with concrete. Nail 2 x 4s 12 inches apart horizontally to the front of the posts on top starting about three feet up, although depending on the height of your horses, you may want to set you mirrors higher or lower. Treated plywood is then nailed to the 2 x 4 studs.
Call glass stores in your area to find an individual experienced in installing large mirrors in gyms or dance studios. Mirrors generally come in sheets varying from 5 to 7 feet wide and between 8 and 12 feet long.
Get the largest mirrors that you can so that you have as few mirror panels as possible. If you find that you don’t have a dimension on your short side that corresponds to an exact number of panels, cut down one panel and center the wall.
You will need glass that is 1/4” to 3/8” thick. It’s worthwhile to buy the best-quality glass you can afford, although you don’t need Thermopane glass. Thermopane is expensive to install and to replace, and regular mirror glass will hold up just fine in outdoor conditions. If you want, you can spray the glass with epoxy to help keep the silver in the mirror from graying, but even that is not necessary.
All mirrors will reflect with a certain amount of distortion, and this tendency will be magnified by the lesser the quality of the glass, the larger the scope of the mirror and the farther the distance you are from it. Therefore, when the glass installer comes to affix the mirrors experiment on horseback.
Ride around before the mirrors are set to make sure you can see yourself and your horse with the least amount of distortion. It is also important to vary at this point the height of the mirrors so that you can see yourself and your horse in full from head to toe at any point in the mirror.
Once you have the mirrors set in the desired position, the installer will affix the mirrors to the plywood. All edges should be sealed tightly with silicon. Cap the mirrors with an overhang of several inches so that no water gets between the mirrors and the plywood. Intermittently brace the mirrors along the edges for additional security and strength.
If you build a concrete wall, use the same dimensions and follow many of the same procedures as for wood. You’ll have to dig and pour a concrete foundation as specified by local building codes. On top of the foundation lay 12” concrete blocks that are linked together with ties and rods set in concrete on every fourth block. You could also turn every fourth block at a 90-degree angle to create a rib in the wall.
Once you have built a wall about three feet high, stop the ribbing and build the rest with 8” concrete blocks. This way you will have a little ridge on which to set your mirror.
Be sure that you tilt this ridge slightly forward so water runs off away from the mirrors. Once your mirrors are positioned, have the mirror installer affix them and seal them all around. As with wood, you will need to build a capstone to keep the rain from running behind the mirror.
Your mirrors will have to be cleaned periodically. If you choose to spray your mirrors with water, don’t do so during the day because you will get water deposit spots on the glass. Wash the mirror in the evening instead. Glass cleaners also work well.
The cost of a wall of mirrors will vary depending upon the materials you use and the location in which you live. Generally, the mirror panels will range from $2,500 to $3,500.
Add to that the cost of the wall: A wooden one can cost between $5,000 and $7,000; a concrete one can vary between $6,000 and $12,000. Either way, it is a stout investment.
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