Whether your riding arena is in your backyard, at an elite training facility, or somewhere in between, a significant investment of time, money, and energy has been put into creating the best training surface possible for you and your horse. But after doing all that hard work, a surprising number of facility owners make one critical mistake: they think they can save money by making or purchasing a low-quality horse arena drag or groomer. Unfortunately, it won’t take too long before they realize there is a big difference between a homemade arena groomer and high-quality arena grooming equipment—and it is likely their arena base that will pay the ultimate price.
The Type of Grooming Equipment Matters
The sand used in riding arenas is well graded, meaning it contains several different particle sizes. Keeping these particle sizes evenly mixed is essential if the footing is going to remain stable and shock absorbent. Imagine a jar of marbles; when there is space between the marbles, they can roll around quite a bit. But mix some BB’s in among the marbles, and the jar’s contents will all stay put, creating stability. This is what we want for our arena footing.
When horse hooves interact with footing, it can cause the particle sizes to separate. Smaller particles sift toward the base, creating a hard, compacted layer, while the larger particles float toward the top. In fact, in an arena built without a proper base, rocks constantly emerge because the arena sand falls beneath the rocks and eventually pushes them to the surface. Separated particles create footing which is unstable and slippery. The good news is that routine grooming will keep those particles evenly mixed—but only if you are using the proper equipment.
“If you are using a chain or homemade groomer, you are doing nothing to keep those particles mixed,” explains Heidi Zorn, president of Premier Equestrian. “People call me and say, ‘My arena rail is rutted and I need to fix my base’. But nine times out of ten, the arena rail is at the base level where it should be. It’s outside of the rail where the footing is a problem, because they haven’t groomed it properly, and the particles have broken down, formed clay, and built up a false base.”
By contrast, working an arena regularly with an ABI SportPro – Premier Equestrian Edition Groomer—which comes in various sizes and price points to suit the needs of all types of equestrian facility—will promote the longevity and usefulness of the footing surface and protect the health and stability of the arena base.
SportPro Groomers have S-tines to dig, lift, mix, fluff, and level footing; coil tines to blend, smooth, finish, fill grooves, and pack down footing; and two sets of rollers to stabilize and compact the surface, eliminating any risk of tines digging too deep and damaging the base. Tines can be adjusted to various depths and angles, depending on the objective, and can move back and forth as well as up and down.
“Sometimes you just need to smooth the footing out,” says Zorn. “But other times you need to really dig deep and till it.”
And this is where the difference between a homemade arena groomer and a more sophisticated grooming tool comes in. An arena drag will actually condition the footing, keeping its components (sand, additives, and moisture) evenly mixed and prevent buildup of particles on the base. An arena groomer is to your riding ring like a curry comb is to your horse; both are applied at just the right level of intensity to loosen up particles that get trapped beneath the surface. Using a plain old groomer on your riding arena is no different than trying to make your horse shine with a hard brush alone.
Unlike a chain groomer or rake, SportPro Arena Drags & Groomers can be uniquely adjusted to suit different needs. Each unit comes with a detailed instruction booklet to help users select the correct setting for their footing type and daily maintenance task.
“For a western arena, they like the footing really deep and chewed up and loose so they can slide through it,” says Zorn. “The S-tines rotate forward and will rip up the particles which have been deposited toward the base, while the straight tines can be set vertically and follow to loosen it up.”
Need to add more textile to your sand? No problem—just set your SportPro Arena Drag to the tilling/mixing setting. This setting is also useful to get clay deposits off the base when doing a deep conditioning. But what if you have the opposite issue—an arena needing more compaction?
“Let’s say you have really loose sand that’s deep and you want it to keep settling,” says Zorn. “Tilt all the tines back, set it down really shallow and just cover the horse prints. The rollers will continue to compact the surface.”
SportPro Groomers range from the powerful M5 model (which requires at least a 24-horsepower tractor) to the M1, which can be pulled behind an ATV. But what all Premier Arena Groomers have in common is a design that gives users precise control.
“We’ve all been through a washboard on a dirt road,” says Zorn. “If you don’t have a groomer that can float on the ground and ride, it can make the front of the tractor go up and the tines will dig deeper. When the front of the tractor comes down again, the tines come up. Soon, it will make washboards in your ring. That’s why we have double rollers, to ensure the tines can’t go any lower than where you set them.”
Failing to select a proper riding arena groomer tool to maintain your footing never pays off in the end. You may save money in the short run, but long term, you will almost certainly be looking at more extensive—and expensive—arena repairs down the line.
“You don’t see them at the big horse shows running around with a chain groomer,” notes Zorn. “They have the best equipment out there. They know the importance of keeping that surface continually mixed and compacted. Mix, level, and compact—that is what Premier Groomers are designed to do.”
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About the author
Christina Keim is a professional equestrian and writer based at Cold Moon Farm in Rochester, NH. Over the course of her career, she has worked as a barn manager, head groom, riding instructor, and collegiate equestrian team coach. In 2015, she founded Cold Moon Farm with the mission to promote sustainable living, conservation, and the highest standards of compassionate horsemanship.