University of Vermont AAHS

The Safe Arena PART I: Construction or...If we had only thought...

Jan Dawson
President, AAHS

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.


THE SAFE ARENA - PART II. The people hazard


Again we always seem to find negative rules. Don't do this, go there, or do that. Let this be the positive approach to arena population management.

A separate area should be provided for lunging. If this is not possible, then provide times when the arena is for lunging only.

It is best to provide areas for tying horses. If they must be tied to the arena fence, they should be tied outside.

All drink containers should be left outside the arena.

Coats, sweatshirts should be placed outside when removed, not on the arena fence, jumps, roping box, barrels or poles.

Courtesy toward other riders equals safer riding. Experienced people should look out for novices, and adults should look out for children. But all riders should also look out for themselves. Care should be taken by those practicing or warming up for faster events such as reining, native costume, or barrels and poles. Sometimes, there will be other riders or juniors present who may not know your agenda. This is particularly important at local shows or playdays where novices may compete without the benefit of a trainer, instructor or other experienced person. It is also a consideration that must be officially addressed at a multi-discipline training facility.

In practice, this means that a reiner needs to choose the spot to slide and rein back so as not to crash into the unsuspecting rider behind. All riders, generally, in a crowded arena should look behind them before stopping. All riders should keep several horse-lengths behind the rider in front, just in case that rider stops suddenly. If both ride defensively, both will be safer still. If a rider is walking and visiting, she/he should yield the rail to those who are schooling - or better yet leave the crowded arena or warm-up area to socialize. The riders who remain in the crowded area must pay attention or should be offered a less congested area in which to ride or asked politely to do their socializing outside of the crowed arena.

What about jumping? One hopes that the jumping area is separate from the main flat area. If not, jumping riders need to look out for the other riders, especially the less experienced and call his line or "heads up". Calling "heads up" is preferred to "Look out you @#$%@&#%!!!" The accident should be avoided by the person who can most easily do so. That usually means the more experienced rider or, in the case of a bad situation, it may mean the stable or show manager, trainer, or livestock exposition board. It may require a decision from the person who controls conduct in this otherwise perfect arena. It is always better to ask about policy and, if necessary establish some, rather than have several people feel slighted or that they are being deprived of their legitimate enjoyment of the arena. This situation seems to happen more often in private arenas "open" at certain times to friends and neighbors and at large fairgrounds where the public is permitted to ride when the arena is not otherwise occupied.

If asked, most riders will have some horror story to share about an accident or near-accident that occurred because someone didn't see, or wouldn't yield, or didn't' care in a crowded arena, or in the warm-up area at a show or playday. "Wow!! That kid wouldn't get out of the way..." or "...He rode right into the line I was jumping..." "I just hate to have to warn-up when reiners are schooling; they will stop and run backwards right over the top of you." "There I was working on a canter pirouette (or spin), when she came blasting across the arena in an extended trot (or run-down). She should have called her diagonal. I nearly didn't see her."

At least in some English riding stables there is some idea that there is something called arena courtesy, although the specifics are debated in this country. But basically it goes something like this: Horses heading toward each other pass left shoulder to left shoulder, where possible. Slow riders yield to faster riders - the faster rider gets the rail. The right track yields to the left. Riders notify the rider ahead that they are overtaking and plan to pass by calling out, "inside" meaning between the horse ahead and the center of the ring, or "outside" meaning between the horse ahead and the rail, or by saying: "rail, please." Any change through the diagonal or burst of speed should be announced and only done where space permits, The same is true for changes of direction and stops. One should not leave it up to others to simply make way. No deliberate action in an arena should force another rider to take evasive action.

Stable and show managers must take into consideration the disparate abilities and interests of all riders and make appropriate arrangements and rules which are fair and known to all.

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