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Building Your Perfect Riding Arena

Building a riding arena is a huge task to undertake. Alex Goldsack, Head of Sales here at Equestrian Surfaces Ltd, the world leader in equestrian surfaces, provides a guide on how to choose the right supplier to build and surface an arena that will provide a safe, secure footing for training your horse.


Our advice for planning and building your perfect riding arena

A synthetic surface arena is a serious investment that should give use for a minimum of 10 years, but now is the time that the budget-conscious are tempted to cut corners, despite this being a competitive market with no industry-agreed code of conduct to protect the consumer. Equestrian Surfaces and other reputable suppliers receive a worrying number of call-outs to rectify other suppliers’ bargain-basement installations, sometimes costing the customer more than they’d saved initially, but if you follow these common-sense steps, you should minimise construction woes and gain the arena of your dreams.


Find a company you can trust

When it comes to building a riding arena, firstly, it’s important to do your homework, and it’s always a good idea to start by asking for referrals and visiting other customers who have used your contractor. Try to understand your local geology, for that effects the sub-base. The base influences the overall surface performance, and yet it is the component most readily ‘skimped’ on. Be aware that clay can ‘heave’ and more sophisticated drainage than a soakaway is essential.

Next, set your budget. Ensure your contractor knows which discipline the surface will mostly be used for. For example, jumping, dressage and polo all have different surface possibilities and size requirements. You should also consider how many horses will be using the arena and if winter use is important, as floodlighting may therefore be an additional requirement.


Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Demand detail from your contractor’s quote – one A4 sheet is not sufficient to breakdown the quality and quantity of materials that constitutes a detailed specification, one which provides information on the base construction and type and method of installing the fencing. If the contractor does not supply technical detail, then go elsewhere. Siting is critical.

The reputable supplier will repeatedly remind the customer that the sub-base is key. The more level the site, the less expensive ground preparation will be. Anything cut into the ground will become a swimming pool. Construction will be torturous if there is limited access for delivery lorries, particularly if you have a winter build, when wet weather holds up most things.

In addition, the site should be clear of overhead power lines, gas or other services. If land drains are present, make sure that the contractor sees the plans. Ideally avoid tree belts, although if this is not possible you must ensure leaves are collected when they fall in the autumn. The arena should have a clean access track to reduce debris from horses’ hooves or maintenance machinery migrating to the surface. Contamination control is critical to the surface’s long-term performance.

A convenient water supply will assist regular watering if you opt for a ‘dry’ surface. However, if you don’t have access to a decent water source, then you may have to think again!


Plan, plan, plan!

First of all, to install a new school or extend an existing one requires planning consent from your local authority. Local rules and preferences will vary. However, in general terms, the planning cycle is about 4-8 weeks and the fee around £550. Some authorities prefer sandy coloured surfaces over darker rubber options and most will ask to see samples of the intended surface.


Know your stuff

The arena should be built on a level base which is suitable and efficient for the sub-soil type. A geotextile separating membrane is laid between the earth and a clean drainage stone which should have no fine stones or dust content and hold a frost penetration certificate. Softer stone may break down, rendering the base impervious. The stone layer should extend beyond the retaining boards to maximise stability. The separating layer between the stone base and surface is very important. The optimum, but expensive option, as used on racecourses and competition centres, is a porous macadam layer which helps keep clean stone in position and the surface can easily be lifted to turn or replace when necessary. More widely adopted on domestic use arenas is a thicker needle punched, geo-textile membrane, that is heat-flame welded and secured to the retaining boards to prevent shrinkage and surface migration. Again, diligent maintenance is required to keep the surface level and therefore prevent penetration when grooming the surface.

The fencing, finishes and shape of arenas are varied and depend upon choice and budget.

The arena should be sturdily fenced, ideally with posts concreted in, for user safety and unwanted damage caused by loose horses. The ultimate test is how the surface rides.Durability and performance are key, but easy maintenance and consistency are important too. Well kept turf is a blueprint and this is most replicated by wax-coated surfaces. Wax-coated products allow the horse to work to the best of its ability with minimal stress or strain.


Select the right surface for you

Independent research by the Animal Health Trust has shown that waxed surface may minimise injury compared with woodchip, sand or sand and PVC granule mixes. Waxed surfaces require a greater initial investment, but are durable, dust-free and easy to maintain.

Many users report that they have not required ‘topping up’ in 10 years or more. Wood chip offers good ‘spring’ but degrades quickly and can be slippery when first laid. Straight sand is subject to freezing in the winter and can ride deep in summer, it is best laid with a stabilising fibre that can assist with binding and allow the horses to work on top of the surface, this surface requires irrigation. However, any surface that is not waxed is susceptible to cold weather.

The principle use and management should determine the surface choice. Dressage horses want a secure footing neither too deep nor too firm to foster good paces and athleticism. Jumpers need a stable surface from which they can turn quickly and jump without slipping, allowing the correct amount of joint rotation. Arena polo requires a fast surface without jarring and maximum grip for quick turns and bursts of acceleration.

Ask several manufacturers for discipline-specific advice to improve your own understanding and learn how the setting of the maintenance machine can produce a variety of riding conditions.


Surface upkeep & what to expect

Regular surface maintenance is vital and appropriate machinery will ensure continued performance and extended lifespan. Synthetic surfaces generally become more compacted in cold weather, whereas in summer they’ll ease, so ensure you obtain maintenance guidelines.

The riding surface should be an average of 125mm deep throughout, checked every 3 months using a depth checker at the quarter, centre and third quarter, dressage markers and corners as a bare minimum to check the surface remains in level.

Move jumps regularly to avoid dips forming at take-off and landing areas. Use a hand rake to level any hollows and rake in the sides before using the maintenance machine. If you lunge on the surface we suggest walk lunging to prevent creating a ‘doughnut’ track appearing on the surface. Lunging and loose schooling are likely to result in additional surface maintenance.


Building a riding arena is not cheap, so do your homework and ensure your provider has an after-sales service to support you. Look after it and it will look after your horse.

For further advice, get in touch with our team today.


This article is featured in Equitrader Online Issue August 2019.

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