At the beginning of this or any other article relating to safety in a facility, it is necessary to say that there are few hard and fast, specific rules that will apply in all situations. This is compounded by the fact that most of us begin to think about safety as a goal after the arena is already built or purchased. We find we need to work around our mistakes.

Most of the rules relating to building physical structures are negative rules, what not to do, where not to do it. They are usually stated in negatives because in context these rules really mean, "It shouldn’t have been done that way or I wish I hadn’t done that." Here, we give you some factors to consider in a positive sense before building that new arena.

1. Where to put the arena – Several main considerations influence placement: (a) proximity to the stable and (b) location away from distractions, such as a highway, a galloping trace or feed rooms. Riders, especially novices and children should be able to lead their horses easily from the tacking-up area to the arena without crossing areas where vehicles are permitted or other hazards need to be negotiated. Hike and bike trails, any pavement, narrow gates, fishing ponds, archery or shooting ranges, and roller coasters. (We’re not kidding!) (c) drainage and slope – Unless the chosen spot is fairly flat and has perfect drainage, you probably need a pad or raised area on which to build. If the cost of a pad is prohibitive, you will have to deal with an occasionally wet or submerged arena. A friend with heavy equipment might be able to help put in French drains like those on golf courses. Most of us, however, live with the consequences of rain or try to locate the arena where it will drain quickly. The only rules needed to understand arena placement are: Water runs downhill. Clay is bad. Rocks are worse.

2. What will you put on it? Or, the surface. The choices range from fine sand to tree bark. It all depends on the local climate and the existing soil. Sand is popular but if it is of a type that shifts, it is better damp. Man-made sand, popular in some areas, contains sharp particles that can enter a horse’s foot, although it seems that this rarely happens. This surface doesn’t shift or need much work to maintain. A combination of shavings and sand holds moisture but if the shavings content gets too high the footing can become treacherous. Repeatedly adding shavings to soil in any riding arena can cause boggy places that invite trouble. Another consideration is that the surface must match the activity. For instance a team roper, a reiner, a jumper, and a dressage rider will all have different ideas of what is the perfect surface. But a safe surface will always be one that has adequate traction and shock absorption qualities. This may be natural or enhanced with man-made particles or even a commercially prepared surface.

3. Fencing. The arena must be fenced. If you are building a dressage ring, you will need a safe ring with a higher fence for students. The fence should be 3 and 1/2 feet high but 4 feet is better depending upon the activities. For some, 5 or 6 feet may be required. Arena fences are for keeping animals in, not out. The fence should be solid enough to withstand a serious collision. Neither the fence or gate should be able to catch a rider’s knee or toe. The interior surfaces must be smooth and regular. The choice of material is personal and, often, geographic. Post and board, post and "elroy" or "no-climb" wire fencing, pipe, pipe and cable, pipe and elroy wire fencing, and the plastic, pre-formed sections are all fine depending on the purpose of the arena and the money available. It must be constructed in such a way as to leave the interior surface smooth and free of anything that can catch a knee or toe or cause injury if some one hits the fence. Absolutely no electric wire, barbed wire or wire strands should be used. T-posts are not for riding areas and should be avoided. The arena fence that is safe for people will have no protrusions anywhere that can catch on any part of the rider’s body or equipment. This also applies to all gates, which must close securely with nothing protruding to catch the rider. Some pipe arenas have a railroad tie around the bottom at ground level to keep the rider still farther away from the fence itself.

4. Gates – They should open out and be able to be completely and securely closed when anyone is riding.

A properly located, smoothly-fenced arena with well hung gates that swing out of the arena and a springy surface with good traction and no dust, that’s about it isn’t it? Oh, I forgot the biggest hazard of all: The people who will use this perfect arena.

Contributed By: Jan Dawson (President, AAHS)

Reprinted with permission of the copyright holder and the American Association for Horsemanship Safety.  P.O. Box 39, Fentress, TX 78622.