Reposted from Round Pens Ireland.

Getting the round pen (or arena) just right is both a science and an art. Footing that is too deep can cause a horse to strain a tendon, not deep enough won’t provide enough cushion for hard work. Covered? Lights? It can get confusing really quick for a horse owner considering adding a round pen to their back yard.

There are a couple of factors to consider before you begin. The main items are:

Covered or outdoor
Lights or no lights
Dust control

Indoor covered round pen versus outdoor round pen:
Indoor round pens, even ones without bells and whistles, start around €20K and that’s just for a small empty shell of a building, no footing, no lights, etc. The prices will vary depending on who builds it, the guarantee, the size, the material, the brand, and all the finishing touches you can add.

Round pen lights or no lights:
Having round pen lights is an attractive option for most. If I you have lights, you increase your training opportunities. You can work at night after work during the winter months when it is dark by 5 PM.

Adding lights means higher costs, running electricity to the site and buying poles and out door lightning which can be costly.
Round pen size:

Please see our section titled “What size?” here.

Dust Control:
Your choice of footings can greatly affect the amount of dust you’ll get in your round pen. Rubber mulch footing, for instance, has almost no dust and little maintenance. Lets look at some of these options now.

Types of round pen footing:
There are many materials used for round pen footings. I will go through a few of the more popular materials and try to point out the pros and cons of each.

-Sand footing
Sand is the most common footing and is relatively inexpensive.
Angular sand is slightly more expensive than the river sand, but it is less slippery. This makes a big difference when the sand is wet. River sand can be very slippery when wet. Angular is grippy and doesn’t wash away as easily as it is slightly larger than the river sand.

-Sand with additives
Many people start with sand and then add agents to it to improve it for riding. Rubber may be added to improve cushioning and reduce dust. Wood and peat moss sometimes are used to improve cushion, but since they break down they eventually contribute to dust.

There are also a number of fabrics you can add to the footing to help it retain moisture and improve cushioning. More of these enter the market all the time, but one common fabric additive is felt.

You can also purchase special coated sand that can be added to regular sand to help stabilize it and reduce dust. These options vary in price depending on how much you add to the sand and the size of your arena.

-Rubber Mulch, rubber chips, shredded rubber arena footing.
Another option is rubber footing. There are many on the market. It is virtually dust free, improves drainage and requires little maintenance.

When rubber footings first were marketed there were issues with steel wire from the tires being left in the rubber. This problem has mostly gone away as most manufacturers of rubber arena footings now use magnets to remove the wire during the manufacturing process. Most rubber arena manufacturers have guarantees to be 99.9% steel-free.

The cost of the rubber footing is definitely higher than sand, but because it doesn’t break down or wash away; you don’t have to replenish it every year. So, long term it isn’t appreciably higher.

A good option is a combination of sand with rubber mulch additive. The rubber additive gives cushion and the sand mixture helps keep the cost down.

Footing depth:
The main purpose of the footing is to add cushion so you can work your horse in an area where the pounding doesn’t contribute to joint problems. At the same time, you need the footing to be firm enough to provide traction.

Footing that is too deep can cause strains in the tendons and suspensory ligaments. Not deep enough won’t protect your horse.
Start with less than you think you need. Its easier to add sand than remove it. On average, a footing depth of 2-3 inches seems to work well. That is enough to provide sufficient concussion protection without putting too much strain on ligaments.

You will find that the footing will settle over time, and more sand will be needed after about a year.

Nothing associated with horses doesn’t involve maintenance of some kind. The type of footing would dictate a lot of the maintenance requirements, so keep that in the forefront of your brain when you’re reviewing footing options.

Watering and dragging are the two main maintenance chores. Water keeps the dust down and dragging levels out the ruts and trails created by riding. If the round pen gets heavy use you may need to drag it frequently. You can tell when your pen needs dragging because you’ll have trails with no cushioning footing left in them.

Dragging will redistribute the uneven footing and make for a nice level area. The horse notices the difference right away and seems to have a little extra spring in their gait. The usual device use to drag a round pen is a tine harrow – it looks like a chain link fence with little spikes on it. Many people actually use a chain link fence and say it works fine. You can also pull a landscaper’s box on the back of your tractor to smooth out the footing.

Cost round pen and drainage:
There are a lot of variables that affect cost so your price will vary. Bigger round pens cost more. Prices on your footing and base materials will vary dramatically in different areas. Some parts of the country will require more base work than others. So this is a very rough estimate. You can do it for less or a lot more, depending on how high end you make it.

Two of the big costs associated with an arena are getting the proper base developed and the footing. You can’t skimp on the base. I know more than one person who has had to rebuild their riding area because the first one didn’t have a proper base.

A good base is critically important and can make a difference in how usable your round pen is – especially after wet weather. A good round pen base will have 4-6 inches of crushed stone that has been compacted down and leveled. This will allow for proper drainage. The footing is placed on top of the compacted base. For a sand – rubber mixture, you will want to put down 1 inch of rubber chips and 1.5 inches of sand.

Its a good idea to go out in a rain storm to view your prospective round pen site to see how the water flows around it. If your site floods during rain, you may have to do some terra-forming to contour the water drainage away from your potential round pen site. That adds a lot of extra cost to building your round pen and can tear up your pasture.

If you have any experiences with round pen (or arena) building that you’d like to share with others, please feel free to leave a comment. We look forward to hearing from you. Your ideas and suggestions are always welcome.