In My Most Humble Opinion: ARENA FOOTING

by Farmgirl

I have been asked, more than I ever expected, questions about my choice of arena footing.

As any horseperson is well aware, in the horse world, everyone has their own opinion about everything and their opinion is the only right one.

With that and one more caveat, I am taking a deep breath and going out on a limb to share with you my opinion on footings.  The caveat is: this is the footing that works best for me.  Your situation may be far different depending upon material availability, weather conditions, riding discipline and personal experience.

In the Pacific Northwest we have a plethora of trees.  When I ride over the Willamette River on the Canby Ferry (blessed to have it just two miles from my house), there is nothing but Douglas firs and assorted varieties of maple and other deciduous trees as far as I can see all the way down to the bank of the river.  From this vantage point, I can most easily imagine what it was like for Lewis and Clark as they arrived here after passing through so much high desert and open plains.  The lusciousness must have felt like arriving in the Garden of Eden, yet the density of the growth must have made their passage untenable except when able to traverse by waterway.

So it is natural that one of the top footing choices here is a wood product.  I use what is called hog’s fuel or hog fuel.  So named I have been told, because the machine that grinds huge tree stumps is called a hog and the raw material is its fuel.  Factually, I find the name a little disconcerting because it seems to my literary mind that the end product should not be called “fuel”, since that is the same name as the raw material, but since they never asked my opinion regarding it’s name, so be it.

The resulting hog’s fuel is semi fine ground up tree stumps where the material ranges from fine (like garden mulch) to coarse (like the smallest pieces of wood you might try to start a fire with when rubbing two sticks together).  When trying to describe it, I have gone so far as to gather some up in a Ziploc bag and mailed it to people who live too far away to visit my farm in person.  Hog’s fuel should not be confused with the stringy cedar material sometimes called pole peelings or affectionately referred to as gorilla hair.  I do not like this material as it is hard to spread and harrow, feels trippy and slippery when I have ridden on it, apparently can turn into a dusty peat moss concoction as it breaks down, and some horses (I have one) are allergic to cedar.

Hog’s fuel has so many good things to say about it.  It is “relatively” inexpensive wherever there are trees.   Mine is made from tree stumps left over from logging so I don’t worry much about foreign materials.  It is made by a company aware of it being used in a horse application so they are cautious about the trees they grind – knowing that black walnut and yew are so harmful to horses.   I know there is no guarantee that an unwanted variety could be used accidentally – but in the 20 years I have relied on this material for not only my arenas, but also pathways and gateways, I have never had a problem.  It works well to mitigate mud in the winter around gates and high traffic areas if you install it on top of heavy road fabric and/or gravel depending upon your circumstances.

It holds moisture so needs less watering to keep down the dust; it is in large enough particles that any dust that is stirred is usually pretty heavy so it stays low to the ground.  It requires very little harrowing and maintenance.  I usually mainly need to pull it off the walls along the track.  If it requires frequent harrowing or I see or feel any slipping by the horses,  it simply means that it is time to add a couple more inches to the top.  I started with 8 inches and as it breaks down, I add a couple of inches to maintain it at 7-8 inches in the indoor and 5-6 inches in the outdoor.   In the 12 years I have had it in the indoor, I have never had to remove any of it and really don’t ever expect to – I just add more as needed.   The outdoor I add some maybe every couple of years and in the 8 years have not had to strip any off – though I cannot be sure I won‘t have to someday.  The outdoor is an all weather surface and gets hit hard with a lot of rain in the winter, and a lot of direct sun in the summer.  I have never had to water the outdoor but I do water the indoor depending on traffic and weather conditions.

I feel fine using the indoor for lunging and turnout.  I don’t like using the outdoor for lunging because the fabric that makes the outdoor all weather is just 5-6 inches under the surface and I don’t want an errant horse to dig down to it and risk slipping or ripping it.  However, the outdoor is in my winter turnout pasture and handles the horses rolling on it and galloping across it just fine.  I am meticulous about cleaning up manure in both arenas – it helps with maintaining the longevity of the footing and no one, horse nor rider, needs to be breathing in broken down manure dust.

The best part is the fact that my horses stay sound on it, the maintenance is so easy, and the material is mostly readily available when I need it.  I use the same material in both the indoor arena and all weather outdoor arena, so the horses have no adjustment going from one arena to the other.  For FEI dressage riders, sand or sand mixed with other products is the ultimate choice due to competition regulations.  But sand by itself and sand mixtures have a host of issues I am not willing to deal with  – maintenance, cost, dust (I wear contact lenses) and more.  Hog’s fuel may not work well without adding something to it for hunter/jumpers and I wouldn’t expect it to work at all for reiners.  But for pleasure riders and dressage riders, you could do far worse.

Best of all, I love watching horses being ridden on it as I can see the cushion it provides them on the landing and the support it provides them on the take off.  You can feel the spring it gives the horses as you ride them, too.  And, living where Lewis and Clark once strode, I really like the natural look of the wood against the backdrop of the trees and pasture… well almost natural, except for the exclamation of the white dressage arena rail and letters that would let, even Lewis and Clark know, that a dressage lover rides here.

29 responses on “In My Most Humble Opinion: ARENA FOOTING

  1. John Clark says:

    Thanks for such article. Really helpful and came to know how to keep horse sound and safe.

  2. Debbi Craven says:

    Hi Matt! Thank you for your article. I live in Banks, OR. Any idea where I can buy equestrian grade hogs fuel for my 50′ outdoor round pen? I have a base layer of sand and gravel and it sounds like this might be what I need so my horses are comfortable working in the winter. Thanks for any help you can give me!

  3. Maya Walker says:

    Hi there, I was wondering if you thought I could get away with not putting down fabric under the hog fuel for an all weather outdoor 60′ round pen? If I did put fabric down, could I get away with only 4″ of it? I’m trying save $$ and transportation of that much hog fuel is expensive. We didn’t grade the site but it’s rather flat with a slight slope in it. There are a couple of low areas where water may collect so we were thinking of digging a couple of drains through the center of the low areas. My biggest concern with this product is slippage when it is wet but it sounds like you don’t have a problem with that until it breaks down? Also we live in Yoncalla, OR so if you have any ideas of where to get it cheap that would be great! Lane Forrest Products offers delivery but it costs us $270 to deliver 11 yards.. :-/

    Thanks again for your great post!

  4. Anna Scott says:

    What is the name of the fabric used? Do you also have a rock or sand base layer or just build in graded soil/clay?

    • Matt Johnson says:

      Hello Anna. We recommend a 6-8 oz. non-woven geotextile fabric. This is used to separate the layers of material; allow the permeation of water; and support, reinforce, and distribute the weight of the materials and horse impact. On the question of rock layer, yes we typically include one but it does add additional cost up and beyond the basic installation over the prepared earthen subgrade.

  5. Sophia says:

    Hello! I am about to foot my round pen and outdoor ring, both with gravel as a base. Local suppliers are either charging the same per unit as sand or are completely sold out. I can get spaghetti hog for a great price but have heard mixed things about spaghetti hog as arena footing. Do you have experience with it?

  6. Melissa says:

    Can you post a picture of your hog fuel? Since here in BC we have spaghetti mostly.

  7. Angela Galesic says:

    HI do you have a photo of your areN…did you just put the wood chip down or soil or how? thanks

  8. Amy Greenbaum says:

    Hi Matt, my arena base is just about done in my outdoor we are doing compacted 5/8th minus, I will put down as you suggest a 6-8 oz. non-woven geotextile fabric. I was thinking about sand but I hate the dust. i was thinking about other additives like rubber crumbs too, but I so prefer natural materials. I have ridden on hogs fuel and loved it. You are right there is a lovely bounce and silence to the surface. I live in Port Townsend actually along admiralty inlet.. Do I have this right for my half court dressage arena 5 to 6 inches of hogs fuel and I should ask local suppliers up here that it be made from tree stumps left over from logging (and specify its for horse a horse arena – no black walnut etc..) – any other tips? thank you for this post – cheers amy

  9. Pat says:

    I have just added more hog fuel to my ring; however, due to stringy parts I am finding harrowing to level out is causing more problems than helping. My harrow has 6″ steel tines. I have tried adding weight but it still bunches up any suggestions?

    • Matt Johnson says:

      Thank you for contacting us about your footing challenges. Did you also read my post about arena groomers – Most of the time we have found that having the right harrow/drag setup and tractor driving speed make a world of difference. That being said, there is a wide range of hog fuel products available and not sure what you exactly have. Some are cedar, fir, stringy, chucky, etc. which makes maintenance challenging.

  10. Lynne Smith says:

    Hi. My husband and I are opening up a horse boarding facility in Salem Or and we have a 60×120 indoor arena and would like to know more about the product that you are using. we are not doing any shows or anything like that we are just a boarding facility for people to enjoy their animals and have fun. At the moment there is very fine and dusty dirt down which has to go, I was wondering if it would be possible to come and see your arenas, if not that’s fine and we would be more than happy to pay for a sample of the material if you would be so kind and send some to us. Many thanks, Lynne Smith.

  11. Lavonne says:

    Hi…. What a super article. What type of harrow would you use to maintain it?

  12. Jessica says:

    This is a very helpful site. I built a small 20×40 outdoor arena last spring and I found it very slippery. We found the first load of hog fuel was really large pieces so we had another load delivered that was fine to try to mix in and provide more traction. This helped but now I’m finding the whole surface slides off the soil base. I am considering pulling the hog fuel back this spring and putting something down between the soil and hog fuel for traction. Have been looking at gravel and compacting it, but I would love some feedback before investing in this big process. We are located on Vancouver Island, BC, where its typically pretty wet. Thanks so much, Jessica.

    • Matt Johnson says:

      Thanks for reading our blog. Yes, you can use a layer of rock and/or geotextile fabric. Please see my full response to a similar question above in the comment string.

  13. Robert says:

    I was enjoying your article on Hog’s fuel and I wanted to know where you are getting it. I live just over in Canby.

  14. Connie Irving says:

    I have access to free recycled asphalt. Could that be used as a base? There are large chunks that presumably would need to be removed.

    • Matt Johnson says:

      Hello, this is a rather unusual base for an arena. Although it may be cheaper than other aggregate stone layers, the concern with recycled asphalt would be that it is “soft” and will break down, crumble, and will settle as it gets warm. It also may be difficult to compact, which if done could create a concern for drainage.

  15. cheryl says:

    Great blog. When you are ordering Hogs fuel for arena use, what type of specifics do you ask for from your supplier? Do you mix the shredded with non shredded, or ask for smaller chunks of wood? I know some facilities that ended up having hogs fuel delivered with some very large chunks of wood and it was a lot of labor to pick out the unusable wood. Just wondering if there is a ” formula ” for hogs fuel for arena footing. Thanks!

    • Matt Johnson says:

      Hello, we would recommend always inspecting the material before ordering as producers have different hogs and raw material. Depending on the first statement, sometimes you need to specify a double grind but do not want material too broken down/small size. Inevitably there are always big chucks which need to be pulled out before use

  16. Just as you must consider the disciplines in choosing the materials, you also must consider the disciplines that will use your arena when deciding on the proper sand depth.

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