Dressage Arena

 Are Inorganic Surfaces Sustainable 

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tend otherwise” Lady Balfour


 Please note: The Information here provided is only applicable for smaller private owner built dressage arenas. It addresses surface material and planting around an arena.

The question arose because while I would like to have an area of land devoted soley for the purpose of training, we simply don’t have the land area. I was unwilling to have that percentage of land taken up for only one function. Below is a photo of the area I have available to me for training. Our land is sandy therefore I can safely call it an all weather arena. It would not be suitable for more than 2-3 training sessions a day.



This is far from ideal with explantions why further down. Suffice to say that the area avilable for landscaping is very small not allowing for a filter shelter behind a lower more compact hedge near the leylandii. The hedge in the foreground is still very immature but will bulk up to become solid. It is Corokia Bronze King.


Let’s Start with some Design Questions


“Sustainability is “When you do something in one area, you get a benefit in another”

  1. Is an inorganic arena truly sustainable especially on a smaller block of land where grazing is short?
  2. Are they places of beauty?  A place that is regarded as beautiful can be proven by a consensus of opinion and  has followed scientific rules.To create a beautiful space we need to understand that aesthetics it is a science first and an art second.
  3. Has any thought been given to planting around an arena and is it suitable for a predatory animal?
  4. Any thought given to light, shade foliage movement and sound?
  5. Have we created a comfortable space? Sheltered and in scale with its surroundings?
  6. Are we working with nature? Understanding nature and working with nature is the preferred method, proven to be the most successful environmentally and financially.
  7. Have we understood fully that sustainability is an integral part of the design process?

 What surface do we require?  

To train a dressage horse we need a surface that will perform uniformly regardless of the weather or ground conditions. The material underfoot needs to have traction, some ‘bounce’ and not that heavy so that tendons are ‘pulled’ if too soft and deep. It needs to provide horse and rider the confidence that it is safe with no unexpected undulations, potholes, traps to trip or area of slippery surface. Currently the main method of construction uses manmade and inorganic susbstances like sand, river grit, recycled rubber pellets etc spread over geotextiles and subsurface drains.

While inorganic surfaces like sand and substances like recycled rubber pellets are the accepted norm are they sustainable? Has there been any systematic investigation on the use of biological surfaces?

Why Inorganic Surfaces are not Sustainable:  

  • These systems are costly requiring design input from qualified civil engineers who understand materials, (including geo-textiles) levels, compaction, materials saturation, migration of particles according to particle diameter etc.
  • Substrate levels, camber etc need to be accurate using professionally designed drainage systems.
  • They need regular maintenance eg herbicide application for random weed infestation, grooming and damping down when excessively dry.
  • Incorrect particle size can lead to compaction and migration of larger particles to the surface and therefore create concussive damage to horse’s tendons.
  • They can only be used for training and riding on. In other words this is not a truly sustainable system of land use because there is no additional benefit gained from this area of land.
  • Actual surface material can be a mixture of recycled rubber from tyres ( to some extent this is sustainable however when and if the land is to change hands and be retired this material needs to be removed. Soils below this will be sour, infertile with little or no microbiology to kick start the production of topsoil and humus.
  • As a landscape consultant for lifestyle block design I am often faced with clients who have ‘inherited’ an arena they have no use for and want to retire the area to more productive uses

Benefits of the Inorganic Surface  

  • Provides a secure footing.
  • Correctly constructed especially those with rubber, provide cushioning allowing for advance movements without damaging tendons.
  • Provides the horse with a clearly defined area that they know means work.


Lets look at Organic Surfacing  

What is meant by organic? 

This refers to an ecosystem that is ‘living’. In the case of our arena it will consist of the rhizophere which essentially is life below the surface.

This consists of:

  • Plant roots reaching a variety of depths each with different morphology ie grass species will have shallower fibrous roots where as broad leafed (dicots)will have a taproot and extensive lateral feeders.
  • These plant roots will have symbiotic hyphae which will ‘digest’ minerals and nutrients making them available to the plant roots.
  • Microbiology consisting of generally beneficial fungi, bacteria, ciliates earthworms etc. Essentially a seething mass of life below the surface continually replacing itself and keeping the soil healthy.


How does an Organic Surface Perform?  

  • It is self perpetuating continually producing new humus or cushioning .
  • Decomposition of roots and surface material will provide additional humus and a litter layer.
  • Plant material with the correct ratios of fibrous and taproots will act as water dispersal ‘pumps’ preventing waterlogged land.
  • An organic surface allows for a more generous margin of error with substrate levels.
  • Vegetation above ground will provide a living organic mantle.
  • Plant material needs to be robust enough to withstand being trampled, torn and compaction.


What Could be Used for an Organic Surface?  

We are looking into biological surfaces as an alternative to sand, geotextiles, rubber pellets etc


  • The most obvious one that comes to mind is grass. This is where further thougth needs to be given to geographic conditions ie kikuyu grass forms a thick interwoven mass of rhizomes, thickened stolons and tough grass with short internodes. A suitable choice for frost free regions. This can be grown on sandy free draining soils.
  • Another tough hard wearing grass is Bermuda grass. Again only suitable for northern frost free regions.
  • Mowing these grasses and leaving the mulched clippings on the surface will provide a mantle that will break down into humus.
  • In order to get traction river grit could be sprinkled into the ‘thatch’. Saw dust, while a good surface, will initially deplete nitrogen levels.
  • Some research could be done on some of our New Zealand ground covers though they need to satisfy ease of establishment and maintenance, durability, correct and uniform stem and leaf cover, traction and safety. (more on this later)
  • Germany has experimented with re- application of ‘treated’ and dried horse manure. To create a workable surface for training.
  • Instead of using geotextiles we could consider coir mats or wool fibre and estable grass sward on that.


Disadvantages of  an Organic/ Grass Surface  

  • Grass blades can be slippery if damp.
  • Requires watering during dry spells to keep plant matter growing.
  • To get a spongy soft surface, mowing regularly over summer with a mulch mower is required.
  • Kikuyu and Bermuda grass die back with the first frosts.
  • These two grasses are not ideal grazing fodder though oxalates are less if kept closely mown.
  • Period of establishment means that the arena cannot be used for at least 9 months.


Landscaping Around your Arena  

Remember you are training an animal that reacts by fleeing  to what may (real or imagined) be a predator. So there are some basic things you need to keep in mind when designing not just the actual arena area but also the wider area.

An arena lends itself perfectly to symmetry and adopting the principles of the Golden Rectangle


Some suggestions: 

  • Make sure that your arena is sheltered from the prevailing winds (Horses don’t work well in the wind.)
  • Shelter should consist of two systems. (a)A filter shelter belt at least 15m back from the arena itself. (b) A solid lower hedge approximately 5m back from the arena markers. This will provide a narrow race to ride around as you would at competition as well as additional room for planting.
  • (a)The filter system ideally will consist of deciduous species though eucalypts will do too. The eucalypts could be alternated with, say, alders to be used as rotational coppicing trees. These trees should not be planted directly next to the arena as wind will funnel under the canopies and the leaves will make a rattling sound in the wind. Rule of thumb for a filter shelter is that there will be a wind reduction 10x the height on the leeward side.
  • (b) Solid hedge only suitable as an internal barrier with the filter shelter established on the windward side otherwise there will be turbulence on the leeward side. Ideally this hedge should be higher than the horse’s eye level otherwise views to the filter shelter will be distracting and with any low sun position can create a strobe effect. This can affect horses with light sensitivity issues. Species for this must have recessive colours ie no reds purple or yellow foliage. Foliage should be fine textured and have a dull surface.
  • Consider your overall space and ensure there is some enclosure to bring this area into scale. This will make it feel almost like a room with walls and a ceiling. Walls are created using hedges and a ceiling using tree canopies.
  • Create a threshold or gateway for the entry point at A . This can be achieved using larger specimen trees on either side of the entrance. Ensure that this is symmetrical.
  • Create punctuation or statement plants at marker points ie standardised bay trees etc.
  • Choice of colours in your arena is vital to creating the correct perception of distance, perspective and space. Do not fore-shorten or create the impression of less length by using yellows or reds. Blues and soft grey foliages will create distance.

The photo while not an arena illustrates threshold planting bewteen two distinct areas. Two canopy trees along with tall pencil thujas that provide vertical elements and a gateway.









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