Dirty Little Secrets – Written by Michael Mahaffey Photos by Megan Parks, Published in the June 2010 Barrel Horse News
Thirty-year ground crew veteran and barrel race producer Chuck Dunn reveals the steps you take to achieve excellent footing in your personal arena.

The trick to getting perfect ground conditions at home is much simpler than you might think. With time, a little planning and the right know-how, you can turn that patch of untouched land or the ground in your practice pen into a safe and happy riding haven.

Reading The Ground
Whether you already have a practice pen at home or you’re starting from scratch, the amount of time and effort it will take to get good ground in your arena depends on the kind of ground you’re starting with.

When 30-year ground veteran and D&G Productions co-owner, Chuck Dunn, arrives at an arena the first thing he does is to walk out onto the ground, pick it up, feel its consistency and check its moisture content.

“There is no scientific method,” he says of analyzing dirt. “A lot of the time, when we go to dig and set our stakes, it gives us an idea of what we’ve got to work with.”
Dunn looks for a specific consistency to the ground when he’s preparing an area for a race. He wants the dirt to stick together when he squeezes it without forming a clod.
According to Dunn, sandy loam is the best dirt for barrel racing. It consists of a roughly 50/50 mix of sand and clay, and is what is most commonly found in arenas that regularly host barrel races, particularly in Dunn’s home state, Texas.

“Sandy loam is something that you can go out there with the right moisture, and it will squeeze up into a ball,” Dunn says, “but if you sit there and shake it a little bit, it will still fall apart.”
Plowing your practice arena in an area made of sandy loam will not only yield the best and most consistent gourd results, it will also not take as long to go from untouched ground to a finished surface.

Dunn prefers working with a 50/50 sandy loam mixture, but says good results can still be achieved with ground that is no more than 75 percent clay and 25 percent sand. However, finding sandy loam on your property may be harder than you think, if not impossible, depending on where you live.

“Ground can change from place to place,” Dunn says. “I’ve got a wheat field that has seven different kinds of dirt in it in 70 acres, and it runs anywhere from almost solid clay to almost solid sand. You find the same thing when you’re going from location to location around these arenas. Most arenas, that’s dirt that they’ve shipped in, and they try getting a good mixture and a sandy loam, where the dirt is easier to maintain.”

If the ground where you plan to set up your pen is made up of more clay or sand than loam, your work will probably be a bit tougher and more maintenance will be required to keep the ground in good shape. If you’re working with straight-up clay, like Dunn does for his wife’s practice pen, constant routine maintenance will be required, which for the most part consists of adding sand to the ground to develop the desired sandy loam.

Sand that has some clay content to it and that will hold together works best when added to heavy clay soil.

“If you come up here on the Red River (between Oklahoma and Texas) and get that sugar sand, it doesn’t matter how much water you put on it, it’s going to be shifty,” Dunn says. “It won’t hold together.”

Dunn estimates that he has put 60-70 loads of sand into his wife’s home arena over the last 30 years.

“What I’ve done in the past is when the county has cleaned out bar ditches up along the Red River that’s got a lot of sand in it, I have them bring it out to the arena and dump it, and we’ll scatter it out,” he says. “We did that 5-6 years ago, and in 5-6 months, it was gone.”
Sand has a tendency to work its way down through the clay, and after several plowings, it will finally disappear because the mixture won’t adhere. It will disappear even faster if the sand you’re using isn’t natural to your area.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you build your arena on sandier soil, the key battle to be fought will be with adding enough moisture to the ground to hold the soil together.

“The higher the sand percentage or content, the higher the moisture content you’ll need to hold that soil together,” Dunn says.

Getting A Good Rip
Once you have determined the texture of your ground, the next step is to determine if the soil has a tendency to pack, and if it does, you need to explore the possibility that you’re getting hardpan. Soil with a higher clay content tends to pack tighter, so the first step in getting the ground usable is to go in and break it up.

“After you determine if there is a hardpan there, you basically destroy that hardpan,” Dunn says. “What we try telling our guys when they first start working for us is forget what’s on top of the ground, what you can see. You can take a plow or a disc or something, and you can make your ground real pretty on top, but you have to quit worrying about what’s on top and focus on what’s underneath.

“Our theory is, you go in, and basically, you destroy whatever’s down there. You just tear the hell out of it, and then put it back together the way you want it.”

You don’t have to go out and buy an expensive piece of equipment in order to rip up hardpan. Anything from a basic box blade to a chisel plow or Dunn’s preferred tool, the Reveal 4-N-1, will do a good job of breaking hardpan up.

“When we first started working dirt at the Barrel Futurities of America Futurity 20 years ago, we used a box blade with rippers,” Dunn says. “We used that for years. A lot of people will have a chisel plow around that does just as good. And you can go all the way up to the 4-N-1 that is specifically designed for arena work.”

From his viewpoint as a barrel racing producer, Dunn believes the Reveal 4-N-1 is the most valuable tool D&G owns, as far as preparing an arena for a competition.

“I can take that one tool, and it will rip, it will level, it will pack. It will do all of those things,” he says. “It’s got ripper teeth on it that you can go in and break up any hardpan. It does a real good job of taking care of that sub-soil. We use the 4-N-1 to help us put the ground back together, and then follow up with circle harrows to lay that ground back in there and pack it and still not have a hardpan.”

Ripping up the hardpan will take more time if your arena is set up on hard-packed clay than it would if you are starting with a loam or sandy surface, but Dunn says you should be much less concerned with the depth of the initial rip than with making sure the ground is completely broken up.

To ensure this, once you have ripped your arena in one direction, Dunn says you should come back and cross rip it in order to break up the hard rows created by the initial plowing.

“We never rip a pen just one way,” Dunn says. “We try to think about what’s underneath. If you take a 4-N-1 or a chisel plow, what are you leaving underneath? You’re leaving rows or ridges underneath that ground. Well, if a horse goes in there to set and hits one of those ridges, he’s going to break over. He can’t really get into the ground. So we come back and rip the second way in order to bust those ridges underneath up, but it still leaves the horse with some footing.

“Rippers on a box blade, or on a 4-N-1 or on a chisel plow will leave that ground underneath more of a rougher surface where the horses can get in. That’s why we don’t necessarily worry about how deep we go to break that hardpan up. The first time over, I usually go as deep as I can pull it, which is probably 6 or 7 inches maximum, but keep in mind that you’re leaving a rough surface underneath there so that horse still has something to get a hold of.”

This theory also plays into why Dunn believes the big drag that occurs at most events after every 50 runs is important to ensure fairness and safety for the horses.

“What you find is with 50 horses going in,” he says, “and where they hit that barrel, they’re forming a ledge or a bank underneath the dirt, where they keep compressing and compacting. You’ll get a ledge around that barrel that needs to be ripped up, so that if you get a horse that works outside of the track a little bit, you’re not putting him at a disadvantage by having that hardpan there that’s going to trip him up or make him fall.”

He likens this ridge to the heavy rows that develop if you only rip the arena in one direction – only this ridge is underneath the surface where no one can see it.

“If you could just imagine taking your thumb and pushing it in the dirt 50 times,” Dunn says, “and then leveling over it with your hand, well, you’re going to have a smooth surface, but underneath, you’re going to have that hard ledge.

“Dragging after every five runs, you’re filling in the ruts. Every 50, you’re breaking that ground back up. We want it to where when we walk out across there, we don’t feel any holes of soft spots. The ground is consistent all the way across. And when we get it that way, we know we’re ready for competition. Then it’s just a matter of maintaining it throughout the day.”

Moisture Is Key
Whether your pen is indoor, covered or outdoors, the basic steps to building the ground back are the same. The only difference comes with how easy it is to develop and maintain the appropriate moisture levels for the type of ground you are working with.

“I think moisture is the key to everything,” Dunn says. “If you can start out with adequate moisture, you’re halfway home. With the aid of moisture on the arena, you start to put your ground back into some kind of shape where you can use it.”
There is no chart or formula that can tell you how much moisture you will need to add to the ground to get the kind of consistency you want because there are far too many variables to account for – the biggest of which is the weather. Even after decades of working arena crews across the country, Dunn says what has to be done to an arena one day, may not be the right thing to do it the next.

“Even with the indoor pens, you’ve got to take into account what’s going on outside,” he says. “If it’s 110 degrees and zero humidity, you’re probably going to add more water to that arena over the course of an event than you would if you take that very same area and it’s raining outside and having 100 percent moisture in the air. We’ve had arenas where we’ve had to water them every day, and maybe go back the next year, and only have to water maybe one time over the course of the weekend, depending on what’s going on outside.”

Being able to get the most out of your home arena will depend on a combination of things, from knowing how your ground reacts to moisture to how quickly it packs due to plowing.

“The dirt in North Texas is going to be different from the dirt in South Texas,” Dunn says, “and (the trick is) trying to figure out how the moisture is going to react with that dirt, how running the tractors over it is going to compact the dirt, whether faster or slower, to try making your ground last.”

Getting the moisture level of the dirt in your home arena up to an acceptable level and getting that moisture blended in by plowing is the trickiest part of trying to maintain show quality ground at home. Outdoor arenas are especially subject to the elements. The ground dries out faster due to direct exposure to the sun and wind, so you’re going to have to work harder to maintain a moisture level that’s suitable for making competition style runs if you want to practice them at home.

“So many of your average barrel racers are going to be at a bit of a handicap, because they’re not going to have the equipment required to keep the moisture levels up,” Dunn says. “Most of them are going to be looking at outdoor pens, and in the heat of the summer, you can’t haul enough water hardly to keep it for any length of time.”

Dunn says moisture content is not as critical for most people who have home pens, since they are mostly used for slow work and loping the barrels. Simply getting a moderate depth by plowing and cross ripping to bust up any clods that form will be enough because riders will rarely back off and make a hard, fast run.

However, if you do want the ability to practice competition style runs at home in a safe way, you’re going to have to work moisture into the ground.

At his events, Dunn, like most producers, will either use a water truck or a water wagon attached to one of the arena drags. The pump and spray booms throw the water out evenly, and the drags turn the ground over and work that moisture into the soil.

Since any type of a spray wagon is relatively expensive, it may not be feasible to purchase one for your practice arena. In that case, Dunn says you will either have to find an alternate way of getting moisture into the ground or simply pray for rain.

“You kind of have basically two options,” he says. “Mother nature or some type of water wagon.”

tbt6.9.16 dirt1
A safe ground depth in heavy clay soil is 5-7 inches. Sandy loam requires less depth because the ground naturally supports the horses better. Sandier ground requires even less depth. Photo by Megan Parks

Putting It All Together
How you put the ground back together after it has been ripped and cross ripped depends on the ground itself and your own personal preference. Whether you want a hard, fast track to simulate rodeo ground or you would rather have ground with a little more depth to it, like you find at most open races, a key thing to keep in mind is making sure your ground is safe for you and your horse.

“A lot of pro girls, the girls and their horses can pretty well handle those hard, fast tracks,” Dunn says, “where some of the novice horses or novice riders maybe can’t handle that quite as good. Our goal at a barrel race is that we don’t want deep ground, but we want moderate ground – what we consider is safe and something that all horses can have a chance running on and not hurting themselves.”

What Dunn considers to be a safe depth again depends upon the type of soil you arena is made of. If you have a high clay content in your soil, 5-7 inches total depth will be adequate. If your ground is a sandy loam or mix, you will not want to go that deep because the texture of the ground can naturally hold the horses better. Sandier pens require even less depth.

“If your ground is too hard, it gets slick,” Dunn says. “That’s when you’ll see horses slipping and broad-siding. It’s like walking on ice.

“When your ground gets deep, you have trouble with it holding the horses and with them stumbling and keeping their shoes on. And it’s not as fast. The deeper the ground, the slower the run. When it gets too deep, it’s like us walking out through a deep lowed field, and you’re a lot more apt to pull muscles and have soft tissue injuries.”

Ultimately, the ability to get the ground in your home arena up to competition quality is simply a matter of investing the time and effort it takes to get it where you want it and learning what it takes to keep it that way. While there may be a fair bit of trial and error early on, with hard work and dedication, you can build and maintain your own private showplace for training and seasoning your horses.


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