It’s the dream of any horse lover to create their own riding arena. And while for many of us it may remain nothing more than a dream, sometimes the opportunity to build an equestrian facility comes along. And once you’ve decided on a budget and location, the exciting part begins.
But building a riding arena is a difficult task. There are many factors to consider, to ensure the basic safety of both the rider and the horse. Considerations of space, the budget for equipment, and how to use the space – it can all become overwhelming.
With this guide, we hope to make things a little easier. We’ve covered everything from the basics of the arena to the finishing touches, and each step along the way. Whether you’re making your dream a reality, or simply speculating for the future, this guide can help you to understand everything that goes into creating a horse riding arena.
Riding Arena Basics
Getting to spend time with your horse can be frustratingly difficult. Even fitting in time for a hack can be tricky in a busy schedule.
To counter this, many riders decide to set up their own riding arenas. These arenas, sometimes known as schools, offer a place to go in all weather conditions and at all times. You get to spend time with your horses, whenever you want.
While this is an obvious solution, setting up a riding arena is not an easy task. Safety has to be the main priority, and future maintenance is a necessary consideration. Rush to finish a riding arena, and you’ll find yourself dealing with disasters down the line.
What Size Should A Riding Arena Be?
One of the very first decisions to be made is the size of the arena. In this case, bigger is always better. However, we understand that it’s rarely possible to build an arena as large as you want. With no upper limit, the focus should be on what’s the minimum size for a riding arena.
The standard size of a dressage arena is 66 feet x 198 feet, and a smaller dressage arena is around 66 feet x 132 feet. This should be considered as roughly the minimum size for a decent riding arena.
If you want to jump comfortably, a larger width is best. Consider around 100 feet as a great starting width. With the larger width, the length can be reduced – but avoid going too small.
With that said, an indoor riding arena can’t always be as wide as you may want. As width is added, supports are needed. Big supports just aren’t compatible with riding, so it might be better to sacrifice space.
To get an idea of size, try walking around where you currently ride to get a feel for the space.
A flat area with good draining is the best place for a riding arena. This will lower the potential building costs, and help with future maintenance. It’s possible to build an arena on almost any ground, but the harder it is to build, the more the costs add up.
If the best location you can find is sloping, then there’s no need to worry. Building on a slight slope may raise costs, but it shouldn’t be an excessive problem.
Consider the weather in the area as well. Being sheltered from winds is great, but too many nearby trees can cause other problems. Check out what times of day the space gets sunlight.
Try to keep the arena close to existing facilities. This will save you time, money, and can appease the authorities that need to be contacted for planning permission.
Before you start, make sure to consider any additions to the riding arena, and what facilities you wish to include. Adding something later in the process will end up being costly, and might not always be possible.
With all that said, one of the most important factors of location will be if you can get planning permission.
How To Choose A Design For A Riding Arena
Much of the design of the arena is likely to be decided by two factors: what planning permission allows, and what is safe. Planning permission requirements may limit the potential design options you have available. Safety must always be the primary concern when designing a riding facility.
The first focus of the design should be ensuring safety across the arena. That means everything from the materials to the build to the finish is a high quality. Although there are areas where costs can be cut, anything that might affect the safety can’t be constrained by budget.
Base And Build
Choosing a good base ensures the longevity of the riding arena. Done correctly, the school should need little in terms of updating and fixing as the years pass by. The right base ensures there are no soft spots or pools.
At this point, drainage will also become a consideration. Plenty of drainage is necessary to ensure the arena is functional for years, and will cut down maintenance costs.
If you’re thinking of building your own arena, then be honest about your skill level. Read up on everything that you need to do, and consider the time and effort that it’s going to take. No one’s saying you can’t do it – just be sure you understand the task you’re undertaking.
Should you choose to outsource the work, it’s again important to do research. Look for companies who have done good work in the area. If you can, try and visit a previous build, and speak to people who have hired them before.
Don’t forget to add areas for storage when creating a design. Outside the arena is the best place for storage, as it avoids overhang. However, with careful planning, it’s possible to incorporate storage stealthily into the arena itself.
As well as larger storage, there needs to be areas to keep smaller items that are useful to have on hand. And don’t forget a place to keep shovels and cleaning supplies.
Fencing And Kickboards
An absolute must for the arena is retainer boards. These stop the surface from spilling out, and are relatively inexpensive to install.
Not all riding arenas use fencing, but it’s definitely recommended. However, don’t just install cheap fencing and hope for the best. Low and flimsy fencing can actually be a safety hazard.
At minimum, a fence should be 4-feet high – although, if you’re practicing jumping, this can be easily cleared. Higher fences are better. Concrete around the poles, to keep them from bowing out. Pole and rail fencing is the best option, and can be inexpensive. Start with a simple top rail, and add more when the budget allows.
Kickboards are another design feature that aren’t necessary, but certainly worth getting. A sloping kickboard will keep the fence at a distance. Use stone under the kickboards to prevent them from rotting.
The gate should be wide enough to let vehicles through, and easy to open from horseback. Choose a gate that’s the same height as the fencing. The best position for the gate is either offset or on a side wall, to prevent naughty horses from getting out.
If you plan on holding competitions, the riding arena will need a judge’s box and some seating.
A seating area can be large and expensive. If you only plan on hosting small competitions, a few benches might be all you need.
The judge’s gallery is an essential for competitions, and useful for training. Anyone planning to compete dressage should consider adding even a makeshift judge’s box, to help the horse get used to the set-up.
Similarly, consider the gate position. Rather than having it offset, place the gate in the center.
It’s easy to forget the importance of lighting when designing a riding school, particularly if it’s outdoors. However, lighting is necessary if you want to use the arena at various times of day. Even if you only plan on going when the sun shines, it’s still worth having lights as a contingency.
It’s especially important to consider lights early on, as they may require planning permission – particularly if you’re using floodlights. Lower level floodlights and strategic positioning can help navigate harsh restrictions.
Indoors, focus on getting natural lighting as much as possible. Skylights and windows let in the sun, and keep down electricity costs.
What Surface Is Right For A Riding Arena?
The right surface is an important consideration, but even the best surface is only as good as its base. If you’re looking to save money, a tighter budget on surfacing is much better than cutting corners on the base.
Deciding on the surface is a combination of budget and usage. A good way to decide is to try out as many surfaces as you can. Get a real feel for how the horse reacts to them, and how they feel to ride on. Personal preference shouldn’t be forgotten.
As important as the surface type is, maintenance plays a big role as well. If you aren’t willing to maintain a surface, even the highest quality of materials won’t be any good.
Wood Chips And Wood Fiber
Wood surfaces are an environmental choice, and a good low-budget option. They can be used for all disciplines, and are a versatile material. However, they decompose quickly, and have a lifespan of less than ten years.
The primary concern when choosing wood chips is the size of the chip itself. Wood chips aren’t always made for equestrian use, which means sizing can vary. Too big can get stuck in the hoof, but too small risks blowing away. Avoid recycled wood chips as well, because these can contain foreign objects. It’s better to pay for fiber chips that have been made specifically for equestrian use.
Rubber is a good choice as a surface material because it doesn’t need much maintenance. Due to the consistency, it’s less likely to become waterlogged, and it needs less watering as well.
For an outdoor arena, rubber chips can be a fantastic choice. Rubber doesn’t freeze, which means you can get all the early winter morning rides you want. It’s also soft to fall onto, and is unlikely to get blown away on windy days.
Indoors, rubber isn’t a good choice. When it gets hot, rubber gives off a foul odor.
Rubber lasts a long time, but this is also one of its disadvantages. Rubber is not environmentally friendly, and can be difficult to get rid of.
Rubber can’t be used on its own, and is typically a top layer on a sand surface.
Sand Or Sand Mixes
Sand surfaces used to be the most popular, but they’re being replaced by sand mixes. For a riding arena on a budget, silica sand is still a solid choice. This natural product is durable, and requires less maintenance than other varieties.
Sand mixes tend to incorporate other fibers, such as carpet, to improve toughness. These surfaces are firmer than fine sand, and less easy to sink into.
The main advantage of sand is that it’s a budget friendly option. However, it does need more maintenance. It can freeze in winter, and will need to be watered in the summer. Still, if you want a surface on a budget, sand is fantastic.
Waxed Or Coated Surfaces
Wax surfaces may cost more upfront, but the lower level of maintenance needed can save time (and money) in the long run.
Waxed surfaces are typically sand and fiber mixes, coated with wax to improve the binding. These surfaces move less, provide good bounce, and rarely need watering.
Cleverly developed wax coated surfaces are a significant step up from uncoated sand.
This is really just the start of surfacing available for a riding arena. Choosing the right surface might be a matter of balancing the budget. Avoid anything too cheap, or not designed for equestrian use (such as builders sand). It might be inexpensive, but the safety sacrifice isn’t worth it.
Which Is Better, An Indoor Or Outdoor Arena?
Money and space permitting, both indoor and outdoor space is best all round. This gives you the opportunity to ride in various conditions, and discover the benefits of both.
Of course, this isn’t always possible. Even without size and budget constraints, this would still require a significant amount of maintenance.
Indoor or outdoor is not an easy decision to make. Be sure to consider all the possibilities, and think it through thoroughly. This is probably the very first consideration, and it can’t be rushed.
If you’ve been riding for a while, you probably already have an idea of which you’d prefer.
An indoor arena will be many people’s dream arena, because of the protection it offers from the weather. Rain, snow, and heavy winds won’t prevent you from riding.
The major downside of an indoor arena is the building cost. As well as needing to pay for more equipment and materials, higher taxes can also apply. It can be tricky to get planning permission for an indoor arena as well.
Even if budget isn’t a problem, the complex design can be off-putting. An indoor arena needs a high ceiling and plenty of size, which is difficult to accommodate. There needs to be enough airspace to allow a large horse to jump, but supportive beams can’t get in the way. Placing floodlights, adding windows, and even installing a gate can all inhibit the design phase.
Indoor arenas also need maintenance, or they become dusty. Proper ventilation and even sprinklers should all be considered in the design.
When making a decision, it’s important to weigh up how much these negatives outweigh the major benefit of weather protection. If you live somewhere that gets dark early, or frequently experiences heavy winds, then the cost of an indoor arena might be worth it, as you’ll be able to ride frequently.
Outdoor arenas are cheaper and easier to build, and are more common than indoor arenas. An outdoor arena will experience adverse weather, but that can be beneficial in helping the horse to adapt to different conditions. Being outdoors also provides the horse with plenty of distractions, which they can be taught to ignore.
The downside to an outdoor arena is the exposure to the elements. Heavy winds can end up blowing the surface away, cold conditions can freeze the ground, and flooding can be costly to prevent.
Also, maintenance can get expensive. Dust is still an issue outdoors, and in heavy winds leaves and debris can become a problem.
Other issues to consider include lighting and proper fencing.
Overall, the outdoor arena is often the better choice simply because of the lower budget.
What Equipment Is Needed For A Riding Arena?
Once you have the design and build of the arena decided, then you should start thinking about how to kit it out. Exactly what equipment you want for your arena will depend on how it’s going to be used.
It’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the arena itself, and forget the basic essentials. But you’ll quickly notice if you’ve forgotten to purchase a pooper scooper. Buckets and rakes should all be on hand, and anything else needed for the day to day maintenance. A simple mounting block is also an essential.
Whether you plan on teaching dressage or not, there are some pieces of dressage equipment that are just worth having.
Dressage letters are used for testing, but they can also help when giving instructions during a ride. These letters can be bought for cheap, but it’s also possible to make them yourself. Simply get some sheets of aluminum or wood, and paint the numbers clearly.
A smaller arena needs the letters: A, F, B, M, C, H, E, K. A larger arena needs these, plus P, R, S, and V.
If you plan on practicing dressage, then you need to get some white dressage boards – otherwise, they’ll probably spook your horse at the first competition. These can be expensive to buy, but they’re also easy to build. What matters is your horse gets a chance to get used to the size and shape.
Dressage boards aren’t really needed if you don’t plan on competing dressage. However, they can be a good way to mark out an area in an unusually shaped school. If this is all you need them for, then you might want to try some DIY.
A simple set of poles is almost a necessity for a riding arena. They can be used for schooling, and also help to just mark out areas.
However, if you intend to jump, then you might want something a little more complex.
Poles are useful pieces of equipment to have around, so it’s worth investing in a few. Several poles of the same length can be used to construct jumps, but they can also be positioned on the floor and used for schooling.
You can make your own jumps, but buying them tends to be better. Otherwise, it’s difficult to get the length right, and the wrong material can cause numerous problems. Simple poles made of wood are best for a homemade attempt.
Wings, cups, and blocks are the basic essentials if you want to build show jumps. The wings should be sturdy and strong, and able to hold the cups. The cups attach to the wings via pins, and hold the pole in place.
Blocks are plastic stands that are used for low-level jumps. Experienced jumpers may not need these, but they’re worth having on hand anyway.
There is a huge variety of show jumps for sale, with wings being made in some truly spectacular designs. As a starting point, you probably want something basic. However, colorful wings can help teach a horse to deal with distractions.
Wings, cups, and blocks are the essentials, and then you can build up from here. Fillers and gates are useful if you intend to compete, as the horse will need to get used to them. A water tray is useful as well, but not an essential purchase.
The hunter class tends to use simpler jumps, often wooden and plain. They look like the kind of gate you might stumble across in a field. If you plan on competing as a working or show hunter, then a set of hunter gates are good for practice.
Cross-Country Or Arena Eventing Fences
We’ll cover cross-country fences in more detail later on, but arena eventing fences are quite similar. These can be fun to practice on, and worth considering for your arena.
Other Useful Equipment
Next time you’re at a competition, have a look around at all the colorful objects on display (or have a look online at past events). Any colored cones, bright flowers, and billowing flags might spook a horse who isn’t used to it. Add some splashes of color to your home arena, and prepare your horses for competition days.
The purpose of the mirror is for checking your form – not taking photos – and they can be found in many arenas. Position them on the center line, in a frame angled away from the fence. You want to be sure to avoid glare, so check how the sun hits the mirror at the time of day you intend to ride.
When outfitting a riding arena, consider what might be necessary for competing your favorite discipline. Whether this is barrels or poles, jumps or cones, the riding arena should accommodate your needs.
Also, think of things that will be fun and interesting for riding – particularly if there will be children learning.
What Do You Need To Maintain A Riding Arena?
Almost as important as the initial build is the maintenance of the riding arena. While using good materials and a clever design can lower the maintenance needs, every riding arena needs to be carefully cared for.
Anyone who owns a riding arena is likely to agree that the first rule of general care is cleaning up the droppings. Otherwise, they get trod into the surface, and make a much larger mess to clean up later.
To make maintenance easier, it helps to assign certain areas of the arena for certain types of practice, and to set some ground rules. By establishing rules about where lunging can happen, or where to go for turning out, you can save trouble further down the line.
Maintaining The Surface
The surface will need to be levelled, and it’s important to do this properly. A poorly levelled surface will wear out quickly, and it can lead to injury.
A proper arena leveler is a necessary purchase for large arenas. It prevents the surface from becoming compressed, and can remove the dips that have formed.
For a smaller arena, it’s possible to get away with a rake and harrow. They should be used regularly, and used thoroughly. A harrow allows you to cover more of the surface at once, for an even finish.
For the day to day, keep a rake at hand to level any dips from jumping.
Inevitably, your surface will need replacing. How often depends on the material used, and how well it was maintained.
Why Indoor Arenas Need Sprinklers
The surface of a riding arena is made up of chips or sand. As the horse and rider moves over the surface, these chips rub together, creating dust. It’s a problem for both indoor and outdoor arenas, but it’s more noticeable in indoor schools.
To counteract this, sprinklers are needed. These may be overhead sprinklers, which are particularly useful indoors. Outdoors, side sprinklers work just as well.
Do You Need Other Schooling Areas?
Once you have made the decisions for the basic riding arena, you might want to start thinking about adding something extra. A grass schooling arena or a round pen (or both) might not be necessary, but they’re definitely desirable.
Creating A Grass Schooling Arena
If a surfaced arena isn’t possible, then a grass schooling arena is the best option. They’re also useful if you intend to compete on grass, and need a space to practice in.
Creating a basic grass schooling area isn’t difficult, but you need a lot of land. As the horse moves across the ground, the surface will become disturbed. With continuous usage, it will eventually become unusable. Being able to change where you ride keeps one single area from becoming too marked.
Before you start, you need to thoroughly examine the area, looking for hazards. This might mean removing rocks, filling in holes, or identifying areas that don’t drain well.
For most, the riding arena will only be usable for part of the year. During winter, it’s likely that the ground will become waterlogged, or freeze.
An Advanced Grass Schooling Arena
A more advanced grass schooling arena will use an under layer and extra drainage to ensure the grass is usable for longer. As desirable as this may be, it can be costly. However, if you’re unable to build a riding arena for whatever reason, this is the best alternative.
A round pen is a safe environment for training a horse, and a fantastic addition to a riding school. These can be bought ready-made, constructed, or even handmade.
The round pen is a training tool, not an exercise arena, but a larger size is still better. Over 66 feet diameter is ideal, but smaller can work for limited training. Use a surfaced floor as well, because grass will quickly become churned up.
The fences of a round pen tend to be higher than a normal arena fencing, but if you’re using it for rehabilitation, a smaller fence is fine.
Round pens are typically outdoors, but it is possible to get a covered pen. Of course, this will cost more.
Does Your Riding Arena Need Equine Fitness Equipment?
If you have a big enough budget, then you might be considering equine fitness equipment. This is a growing market, with equipment advances happening all the time. If you’ve never bought equine fitness equipment before, it can all be a bit intimidating. Here are some recommendations for your arena:
Equipment To Consider Buying
- A horse walker is basically a large circular track that uses moving gates to keep a horse walking at a steady pace. These can range from the small to the massive, and have been a popular choice of exercise equipment for a long time. The horse walker is great for relaxing a tense horse, or for turnout in a smaller arena. Some time spent in the walker can be useful for keeping your horse active when you have other jobs to do, or if you have multiple horses. Covered horse walkers are also available, and these are particularly useful in bad weather, when riding isn’t possible. A horse walker will never be cheap, but there are less expensive options. Don’t forget to surface the ground as well. Grass can get destroyed quickly beneath a horse walker.
- The horse treadmill might sound funny, but it’s actually very useful. It’s basically exactly what it sounds like – a treadmill that a horse uses. They’re heavy and durable, and advanced options can even adjust the pace to canter. A horse treadmill is expensive, and it’s likely to need maintenance at some point. It also might take some time before it’s regularly used – horses need to be introduced to the treadmill slowly. However, once you’ve got the horse comfortable, it’s a space-saving way to add fitness equipment. One disadvantage of the treadmill is that only one horse can use it at a time.
If you still have room left in the budget, there are many other types of horse fitness equipment to consider:
- Solariums are growing in popularity, and have numerous uses. With a solarium, the horse stands under a row of bulbs. These then heat up, warming the horse. This warming sensation loosens the muscles, which can prevent injury. Horses may also find them relaxing. If you’re low on time, the solarium can warm up the horse before a ride. And once you’ve washed the horse, the solarium can be used for drying. They’re also just nice to sit under.
- Weighing platforms are expensive and often unnecessary, but a vibrating platform is worth considering. They stimulate the muscles, and can help to prevent injury. They’re fairly new to the market, so you may want to hold back a few years before investing, to see if the claims hold up.
- Massage rugs are relatively cheap (for equine fitness equipment) and might do a range of good. Again, these are designed to loosen up the muscles. They’re incredibly easy to use, and a hands-off way to care for your horse while you get on with other jobs.
- A big budget is needed if you want to add a hydrotherapy pool, but they’re an effective way of rehabilitating an injured horse. Adding one to your own riding arena is probably a bit excessive, but it’s worth looking to see if there are any you can visit in the area.
Is Equine Fitness Equipment Worth The Cost?
Even if you pack your riding arena with fitness equipment, it still won’t replace the work you should be doing with the horse. Spending time with your horse, training and riding, is more important than any equipment.
That said, it can definitely be useful. A horse walker or treadmill is a fantastic way to get your horse (or horses) some extra time out and about. They’re particularly useful during a patch of bad weather, or when maintenance is being done.
Other Things To Consider
If you’re constructing a dream riding arena, these expansions are what makes a school top quality. In reality, it’s going to be difficult to find the space and money to accommodate a cross-country course or gallops. However, you may want to research the possibility of hiring some extras from time to time.
Creating A Cross-Country Course
If you want to compete cross-country, having a practice course is a wonderful addition to a riding arena. They’re also fun even if you don’t want to compete, and it’s possible to put together a basic XC course on a limited budget.
Cross-country tends to take place, as the name implies, across the country. Basically, set across several fields. To do this requires space that not everyone has. A simpler option is just to use a larger field as a practice space. Try building the course using fences of a similar style in different heights. The more jumps you have, the better the variety of courses you can build.
Mini cross-country is for younger children and horses, or beginners. These smaller jumps can be easily fitted alongside full-size jumps, or kept in a space to themselves. A fun starter place, many riding arenas will benefit from having a mini XC course.
Mobile XC jumps are a little lighter, and sometimes a bit cheaper. They might be constructed in several parts, to make moving them around easier.
There are many reasons to consider investing in some mobile fences. For a start, being easy to move allows you to vary the course when necessary, but they’re solid enough to stay up permanently. And when bad weather hits, they can be moved to an indoor arena.
Jump Cross is basically show jumping and cross-country combined. Show jumps are set out in the manner of a cross-country course. As show jumps are lighter, it’s easier to vary the course, and they’re also safer.
What Kinds Of Fences Do You Encounter In Cross-Country?
There are enough types of jumps on a cross-country course that it would be very difficult to incorporate them all into your arena. You can give it a go, but expect to need a lot of space (and money).
Tyre jumps, logs, sloping jumps, and table style jumps are some of the most common options in cross-country. Some of them can be handmade, but they’re safer from a supplier. Ditches and water jumps are also common in cross-country events.
Other Things To Consider
Building a starting box can be surprisingly useful if you plan to compete cross-country. Horses can get spooked by these enclosures – particularly if the first time they encounter it is competition day. It’s really easy to put a basic construction together out of white fences, and it can be very beneficial when it’s time to compete.
What About Gallops?
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to have gallops at your riding arena? Unfortunately, for many of us, it’s simply not possible. But if you’re considering all the options for your riding arena, there’s no harm in thinking about gallops.
Gallops are fantastic for training and just all around great to ride on, which is why they come up in many “dream arenas”. Gallops can be straight or looped, flat or sloped, and narrow or wide. If the budget allows for it, fencing is ideal. But an experienced horse shouldn’t find fencing necessary.
Surface Or Grass Gallops
As with the riding arena, surfaced gallops are the easier to maintain option, while grass is typically cheaper. A grass gallop will be out of commission for several months of the year, while a cared for surfaced gallop can potentially be used year round.
What surface you might be competing on should also be a factor.
Mobile cross-country hurdles are a fantastic addition to a grass gallop. This way, the gallop can be used as both a flat surface and for jumping.
Arena Canter Tracks
Although proper gallops may be out of the budget for many of us, an arena canter track is a little more attainable.
Are Gallops Worth It?
Gallops are wonderful, but the cost of installing them – not to mention the space they take up – means that for most of us they aren’t feasible.
Hacking makes for a happy horse and a happy rider. The perfect location for a riding arena is determined by many factors, but access to easy hacking trails is definitely a consideration.
Public And Private Hacking Trails
Before you choose your location, have a look at the entire area to see the sort of hacking trails around. Away from roads is best, and look for access to open spaces with public rights of way. Walking around the area helps, but looking online can speed the process up.
If you’re buying enough land, then you can create your own hacking trails. They don’t need to be that lengthy, as long as they provide a different space for the horse to experience.
There is a lot to consider before you start your riding arena – but it’s definitely fun to think about. Remember that safety comes before everything else, and try to think of the bigger picture. A good, solid build with a quality surface can support a lot. Consider your own needs, and any potential uses for the arena, and you’ll be ready to go.