A man-made riding arena with sand or dirt footing beats a bumpy grass arena hands down — except when it comes to that choking dust that can arise from the dry footing. It’s even worse when it’s in an indoor arena in the winter with the doors shut.
Watering the arena is the most popular solution.?? While it’s effective, it’s either labor-intensive — dragging a hose around the arena and doing it yourself — or requires an expensive, complicated installation of pipes and sprayers/nozzles.
Water sprayers can be frustrating when the pipes freeze in the winter or the nozzles clog, and they can cause uneven areas of bogs and dry spots.??Overhead “gravity” systems without nozzles can be used indoors but aren’t available in all areas. Limitations of the??water supply, such as a farm with well water, can be another complication to watering riding rings.??????????
Commercial dust-control products help improve arena atmosphere by reducing dust in the first place and eliminating the need for constant watering. Many companies also claim that, like water, their products make the air healthier for people and horses to breathe.
Debbie Disbrow of RAMM Fencing, which sells Terra Sorb, says that over the years people have tried all kinds of things to keep dust down, from motor oil to calcium chloride to foreign particles like wood, rubber, or leather chips. Some even mix soiled bedding into their footing. None of these really work too well, and most people end up going back to water. Motor oil is especially bad as it’s messy and environmentally unsound. Calcium chloride causes scratches. And too many foreign particles can alter the quality of the footing.
Unfortunately, even though we know these old-time methods don’t work well, arena dust control remains an under-researched phenomenon, said Dr. Robert Malmgren, a soil scientist and the author of The Arena Handbook (Alpine Publications, 1999).
Malmgren’s advice is to know your arena soil so that you have a better idea of what you’re working with when you start contacting companies to find the right product for you. Consult the National Resources Conservation Service (www.nrcs.usda.gov), which can help you figure out exactly what kind of soil you have to treat in your arena.
Get Rid Of Tiny Particles
A 2002 study at Penn State by Dr. Eileen Wheeler, a professor of agricultural engineering, and Jennifer Zajaczkowski, a senior research technologist, says that all arena-dust-control approaches focus on aggregation of footing, or making tiny particles into larger ones. Some products are designed to capture and hold more moisture on a dry site. Some organic materials hold moisture well and can be a first line of defense.
Crystals resembling cat litter can absorb relatively large quantities of water and then release that moisture into the surrounding footing material as it dries out. Water additives can slow evaporation, increase moisture penetration, or encourage microbes to grow on footing materials for their moisture and binding activity.
Oil-based products — such as palm, coconut, and soybean oil — can weigh down or glue together fine particles in a way that mimics water activity. Some organic oils, like safflower or soybean, can eventually cause an odor in the soil because of the microorganisms within.
Polyacrylimides, often used to “make water wetter” in the horticultural industry, can be effective, but can also compact too heavily under horses’ hooves. Plus, many organic ingredients can break down and add to the dust problem.
Dr. Anne Swinker, a professor of equine science at Penn State, says that one of the problems in using oils is that they have to be emulsified to be sprayed and that they need reapplication. In her opinion, you can’t beat water for dust control. It’s safe, and it works. However, not everyone has unlimited water supplies.
We expect our dust-control alternative to be easy to apply and maintain. We don’t want to keep reapplying something the way we do water. We also want our precious footing unchanged by a dust-control product. We want to avoid compacting and slick spots, and we don’t want anything that seems slippery overall. We want the product to limit dust and keep footing at its best.
Application processes vary widely, so check with the manufacturer to find out what you need to do. For many, applying these products is a job for a tractor or a pickup with spraying equipment. If you don’t have the equipment, you may need to hire someone who has this equipment, rent the equipment or hire the company to apply it.
However, if you have a small arena — or are willing to work hard on a large arena — you may be able to use a push grass seeder. Some applications also allow the use of a hose and applicator. An agitator may be necessary to help ensure thorough mixing of the diluted product and that it stays at the proper ratio. A pressurized sprayer works, as does a spray bar, the kind of thing used to spray for weeds or apply liquid fertilizer.
You may also need to do some pre-application preparation. Terra Sorb suggests getting the top dust out of the arena to get back to your dirt. You may need to bring in faceted sand, which is sand that won’t break down easily, to top your arena. Water the arena, and then spread the Terra Sorb — Disbrow says a grass seeder works well for even application. Lightly drag your arena, then water one more time. An application of Terra-Sorb usually lasts seven to nine months, possibly up to 12 months.??
Some products, like Dust Stop, can also be applied dry. You mix the soil with the product prior to application. Then the product gets evenly applied over the surface of the soil, which is followed by another thorough mixing and then wetting.
Generally, arenas can be used right after any dust-control product has been applied. As time goes on, the surface may need to be re-wetted periodically to reactivate the product. Also, dragging the arena consistently keeps the footing “fluffed,” which is better for horses’ legs and maintains a safer footing. You need to do that anyway, though.
How long the dust control lasts depends upon the product, but most claim to be long-lived. Dave Wattling, who distributes Maryn Dusting Oil, says that the usual application for an arena 60 feet by 120 feet is 1,000 liters for the first application, applied in two runs. After the first 500 liters are applied, he likes to have the arena harrowed to mix the oil in and bring the uncoated bottom sand to the top so that an even application can be achieved throughout.
Wattling advises riding for a couple of months, allowing the product to mix thoroughly with the surface. If you then see dust starting to rise, he recommends a second application.
The effectiveness of these products depends on use, humidity and cold.??Wattling says watering becomes entirely unnecessary with Maryn Dusting Oil, and Todd Burns of Aquarian Industries says that the first year that Dust Stop is applied the surface will need to be watered several times depending on the amount of use on the arena surface.??However, after repeated applications the surface needs to have less water applied.
Disbrow says that at her barn, after about three to four weeks with the Terra-Sorb, the arena was watered — they regularly used a track and ring conditioner to level and turn the footing, keeping it in good shape — so their watering time was cut in half.????
Lou Snow says that Dust Pro works best with a sandy silt base indoors or outdoors, and Disbrow adds that Terra Sorb works well with any mixture of sand, dirt, or faceted sand, but cautions against mixing synthetic footings like shredded rubber, fiber footing, or wood chips with dirt mixes.?? Over time it’s hard to stop dust when the dirt mix breaks down and turns into powder.??
We think the best product for arena-dust control is still water. And it does work, if you stick with it. Yes, it’s labor intensive, but the advantages help outweigh the work, unless there’s a weak well on the property.
If you must switch from water, do your homework. Be sure the product is designed to work with your existing soil. Most of the products work with several types of footing.
Consult several manufacturers and weigh maintenance costs and labor vs. benefits. Ask about reactions to horses. Find out if the product is hypoallergenic or safe for sensitive-skinned horses and individuals. As always, find out if you can talk to other customers and visit their facilities, if they’re nearby.
You can also consider switching to a rubber or synthetic footing (see May 2000), as they’re not as dusty as natural sand or dirt footings. Regular arena maintenance (see October 1999) will also help keep your footing in good shape, helping reduce those tiny particles from making their way to the top and into the air.