Building A Riding Arena On A Budget

So you’ve been riding for years in an arena that’s too narrow? Too old? Too small for the jumps you want to set up? Too dusty? Or just in need of a dramatic change? But the thought of building a brand new riding arena seems an impossible task right? The time, the effort, but most of all the budgeting. 

A riding arena costs money. A lot of money. But doing it on a budget, we promise is not impossible.

If you’re looking to increase the size of your arena or have budding design ideas to build a brand new one, as long as you know what you’re looking for, what to avoid, and how to go about starting, you’re on the right track to building something magical that isn’t going to break your bank.

First Steps

So you’ve decided you want to do it. You’re going to turn this dream into a reality. Well first of all, congratulations! That’s a big step and it’s great you’re going to go for it. But it needs to be perfect and it needs to be within budget.

Decide on that budget first. If you’ve got a clear idea of what sort of money you’re going to need and how much you’ll be spending on each area, each piece of equipment, and each added luxury, it’s going to help you stay organized and on top of things through the entire process.

Not only is this budget essential before even beginning the design process but try to incorporate this budget into a timeframe. When do you want the arena to be completed? At what steps are you going to be spending the most amount of money.

If you have a timeframe, you can budget accordingly. It then also seems less scary looking at the total figure. If you’re spending a little bit at a time, rather than making a one-off payment, we always think it hurts that little bit less.

Before You Start

So you’ve got your budget, you’ve got your timeframe, and you’ve got your building permit. (Remember a building permit can range from one to three months to obtain, so keep this in mind when planning).

Now you need to ensure you have a design idea. How is it going to be built? What materials are you going to be using? What is the structure going to be? Do you want it covered or wide open?

And remember these designs vary in price. If you have a lower budget, opt for a wide-open plan. But keep in mind the climate. If you live in a rainy part of the world, maybe sacrificing another area of your new arena is wiser.

Think about the base. It’s going to surface at some point, so you want a strong base underneath your footage. 

Now, you also don’t want to go into this blindly. As with anything, before taking on such a large project, it’s important you do your research. And we mean thorough research.

Visit other riding arenas in your area. Maybe you’ve ridden there before and can remember admiring their perfect structure, or their size, or how you didn’t get the dust blown in your face every five minutes.

Go back there and chat with the owner. Ask questions and get as many contacts as you can. If they recommend a building company, check them out.

Chances are if you like their arena, you’ll like their work on your own ideas. But don’t stop there. Make use of the internet, save pictures to your phone, print them out and stick them around your house till you make a definite design decision.

Remember, this design is permanent. You want to love it. You want to admire it. Most importantly, you want to ride there.

So you’ve got your recommendations. You’ve got your contacts.

The next step is to get those people on board. But remember, if you do decide to get help and go with a building company, don’t hire the first person or the first company you speak to. Make sure you’ve weighed up several quotes for the work you want to get done.

After all, this arena is going to be built on a budget, so you want the best deal. However, going for the cheapest quote isn’t always the best idea.

If the cheapest quote is the best company, go for it! But maybe spend a few more dollars with a better company if they seem more reliable, if they’re more experienced, or if they understand your design better. Hire who feels right.

We promise it will be worth it in years to come when your riding arena is still in pristine condition and it’s the talk of the local riding community.

The final first step is conjuring the location of your new riding arena.

If you’re expanding you’re arena or making adjustments and the location has worked for years, keep it. But if it’s a brand new arena, this is an important decision. Keep the location close to home. You don’t want to be driving miles and miles every day to reach your new favorite riding spot.

But equally, if there is a space that is slightly cheaper a mile or two further out, depending on how much cheaper, it might be an option worth exploring to stay within budget. Not only do you need to think about location, but you need to think about placement too.

Ensure you haven’t chosen a low-lying area. This will increase your budget significantly as if there is a natural dip, you’ll need more money for drainage or reshaping so you can create a fall to carry away the water.

You don’t want your brand new arena full of puddles and turning your footage into sloppy sludge, or worse, to completely flood.

By adding in these extra costs to your budget, that allows for a drainage system to be built if your location needs it, ensures that in the future, you’re not going to be forking out extra cash to fix your footing, to re-grade your new area, or to cover vet bills for injuries caused by the extra water spillage.

So to summarize, the long-term benefits of your new drainage system will definitely cover the cost of your initial investment.

The Structure

Now here comes the nitty-gritty stuff. We’ve compiled a list of things you need to consider when building your riding arena. If you’ve covered everything in this list, we promise you’ll be riding around in no time.

But remember, take our guide as a stepping stone. The design, the personal touches, the amount of effort that goes into the building process, that’s down to you. Don’t rush it and make sure you’re happy every step of the way. It’s worth it.

1. The Size

Before thinking of anything else, you need to measure the size of your arena. Every arena is different and every arena is used for different purposes. This will determine its size.

In the professional horse world, the minimum dimensions for an average arena should be no less than 60 feet wide and range from 16 to 18 feet high, to ensure mounted riders do not touch the ceiling.

It’s recommended that a decent-sized horse arena, that will let you hold lessons, practice, and use functionally everyday should be either 80 feet wide and 200 feet long or 60 feet wide and 120 feet long.

Take these dimensions as a guide and walk around your new space to get a feel of what measurements you might aim for.

If you’re only looking for a place to ride a small course of jumps and practice flatwork or use for the occasional lunging, opt for a smaller size and vice versa. If you want a bigger arena for larger jumps and group lessons, for example, opt for bigger measurements.

Additionally, if group lessons were on the horizon for your arena, consider taking a measurement that favors length over width. But bear in mind, group lessons will affect your budget significantly.

Not only do you need more surface area, but you will also need to consider more footing, real estate, and adequate lighting. If you were a riding school but still wanted to cut the cost of your new arena, maybe consider upping the frequency of your private lessons.

This way you’ll make more money from your clients, whilst also, within your budget, staying within regulations for the size and space needed to teach.

2. Fencing

Fencing might seem like something you consider way down the line. Or even leave out. You’ve seen arena’s with no fencing before and they seem fine. But it’s not.

A sturdy fence will last you a lifetime, so it’s important you choose the right one. You don’t want your horse wandering during dressage practice or over small jumps and out of the arena.

Equally, you don’t want them entering from off the yard, wandering over when they’re not needed and knocking down a jump, or interrupting a lesson. Or worst of all, wandering in and pooping in the sand. No one wants a giant litter box where horses can use as they please.

Therefore, a good fence is important, to protect yourself, to protect the arena, and to protect your horse.

Consider different types of fencing and what suits your needs the best. A popular type of fencing is rail fencing.

To make this rail fence last, it might be worth hiring a post hole digger and investing in a 3 bar post and some gravel boards too. This way the sub-base will be retained, along with the finished surface whatever you decided or whatever your budget allows that to be.

It’s important to note with rail fencing that it should be installed on the inside to prevent any injuries to the horse or rider when riding close to the fence. A rail fence is not only safe and durable but is aesthetically pleasing and if you’re building on a rural landscape, is probably perfect for your design.

Finally, you can always add a string of electric fencing along the top rail to stop your horse from chewing, leaning, or scratching against the post and rail and causing damage.

Another option is metal chain mesh fencing. Now if we’re working on a lower budget, this could be the one for you. It’s effective for a paddock fence, using timber posts and timber top-rail with chain mesh.

This chain mesh, however, needs to be heavily galvanized to prevent damage and rusting and a smaller mesh space can be used to prevent any hooves from becoming trapped. 

Post and wire fencing is probably the cheapest option for a low budget but can be just as effective as long as the wire remains taut.

This fencing only uses timber posts and several strands of high tensile wire, sometimes combined with mesh wire below. However, this type of fencing can be weak, and only very low-budget arenas should opt to use this. If weakened, injuries can be common and horses can escape.

Finally, electric fencing can be used if necessary and is cost-effective, but should be avoided as a long-term option, especially if your arena is going to be used for lessons.

Electric fencing can be useful as a temporary fix or as a portable means to divide large paddocks for strip-grazing, or as a boundary fence. However, they are not suitable for roadside boundaries and will not survive strong winds or bad weather conditions.

3. Footing

Every horse rider has experienced the dust blocking up their nose, making its way down to their lungs. It’s suffocating. Well, I have bad news. For horses, it’s even worse. Especially if your horse has respiratory problems or a sensitive system. This is where it gets dangerous. 

So what creates this dust? The prime culprit is poor footing. If you’ve chucked down some dirt and a random amount of sand on top, it’s not going to last. There’ll be dust and there’ll be spots. It’s inevitable.

Even if you purchase an arena dragger, if that sand is uneven or there are spots on the floor, the tires will only get stuck and then you’re back to square one.

Worst of all, horses poop don’t they? They poop all the time! And if you have uneven, spotty sand patches, the poop is only going to get stuck, and no one wants that in their brand new arena.

Here’s the secret though. You can still use sand. Yes, that’s correct. As long as it’s spread evenly. However, always ensure it’s at least four inches of limestone screenings over sand, or clay, or aggregate mix. It needs to provide sufficient traction, shock absorption, and stability.

To keep costs low however and remain within that budget, you can always use locally sourced sand. Ideally, your sand needs to be medium course, hard and washed and has been prepared with grains of varying sizes as opposed to round grains which only offer minimal traction.

By keeping this in mind, dust is kept to a minimum, making riding a much more pleasurable experience for both horse and rider. It’s also a good idea to discuss your sand with your contractor to get the best possible traction for horses and to get the best deal for locally sourced sand that fits within your budget.

Still not convinced sand will work alone? Well, luckily there are a few alternatives. The first one we consider to be suitable is fiber footing. This is made up of shredded bath mats, tennis shoe rubbers, and shredded carpet fibers and when paired with sand or rock in particular, it provides great traction and deep footing.

Now, this might seem a good idea at first, but along with fiber footing comes a cost, and we’re talking about huge costs. So although fiber footing can increase stability and reduce the shearing effect sand can have, it may not be ideal for building your arena on a budget. 

Wood footing could be another option for your arena. This type of footing includes bark, shavings, wood chips, and shredded fibers and is much more cost-effective than fiber footing alone.

However, it’s uncommon to use wood products as a primary footing and so you may find yourself adding an additive like sand anyway. 

If you’re trying to stay within that low budget, dirt footing could be the one for your arena. All that’s really needed is to dig up, grind up, and even out the existing dirt. However, it’s very common to mix dirt with sand to even out the texture.

Unfortunately, dirt footing can be problematic when it comes to drainage, meaning mud, packing, and water build-up can become common problems. With this in mind, if you’re not building on a naturally level spot, it may be one to avoid.

Rubber mulch is also increasing in popularity in the horse world due to its adaptability when used with other forms of footing. So it needs to be kept in mind that this is supplemental material.

If used correctly it can add sufficient cushioning and water retention properties to the previous footing but if you already have sand laid out, it would need replacing meaning this could add a significant amount of time onto your timeframe.

Like sand, stone dust footing can also be an option if you’re looking for flexibility and something that comes in a variety of shapes and sizes.

Many arena builders use stone dust as an arena base. It has great drainage but tends to harden and pack if not looked after properly. Stone footing can be mixed with sand, helping to balance out or thicken up uneven sand footing consistency.

Finally, you may even be able to use whoa dust. Whoa dust is an additive that you add to your existing footing. You need to remember to water it, however, and if maintained correctly, it successfully reduces dust by at least 50%, helping with breathing for both rider and horse.

Not only is this a great way of helping with dust, but it’s also affordable and cost-effective if sourced from the right place, making it perfect to fit in within your budget.

Reflect And Recap

We know that building a riding arena can seem like a mammoth task, but below are a few important steps that we may have missed, yet we think you should always keep them in mind before starting your project.

  • Learn local building laws and always get a building permit. Every location across the globe will have its own set of rules. Some towns require buildings to abide by strict agricultural codes, where others aren’t as strict. Some examples of these rules are how much land to devote per horse, which services should be involved in the construction and how far buildings should be set back from property boundaries. Not only do you need to abide by these rules but ensure you get a permit too. Although some places allow landowners to skip the permit process if the arena is only being used for personal use, we don’t recommend this practice at all. Not only is a permit necessary to possess engineer-approved plans and to obtain insurance, but a permit provides reassurance that your horses and riders will be safe.
  • Don’t rush the process. Do your research, talk to local landowners, local arena owners, local riding schools. They can tell you the positives and negatives, the dos and don’ts for the area. This helps everyone keep safe and ensures everyone is happy.
  • Make sure you’re satisfied with the location and bear in mind that if you don’t choose to build on a naturally level surface, you’re going to need a drainage system. Think of where the sun shines in the morning, where it sets, if there’s enough room for expansion, enough room for parking, think of things you’d never thought you needed to consider because the chances are you will in the future. You don’t want to end up somewhere with horrendous levels of humidity or somewhere where there’s hidden dirt or somewhere you can’t turn your trailer around. Choose your location wisely.
  • Now here’s the most important one; have fun with it!

Final Thoughts

To summarize, although the thought of building a riding arena on a budget can be more than overwhelming, we hope that with this article, you’ve realized it can be done! With research, planning, and preparation, you’ll be well on your way to success.

Consider the different options in this article and plan according to your budget. Sometimes it may be worth spending those extra dollars on whoa dust or rail fencing as the long-term benefits, more often than not, always cover the costs of your initial investment.

Don’t rush this process and take your time. Building an arena is a marathon and not a sprint. If you follow this step-by-step guide and abide by town laws and regulations, you have nothing to worry about. Now it’s time to get building!

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