Defining Bad Ground
The most dangerous characteristic of unsuitable barrel racing ground is a hard pan. Dunn says an arena with a hard pan could look nice on the surface, but a hard, slick underlayer a few inches below the surface prevents the horses from digging in around turns. This can cause dangerous accidents when the horse can’t get a grip on the ground.
“We see more examples of horses broadsiding [from a hard pan] at rodeo arenas,” Dunn said. “This happens when they don’t work the ground on any type of a frequency—maybe once or twice a year. They pull in a plow, usually a disc. Knock the weeds down, make it look pretty on top and they think everything is going to be fine. But that disc actually helps set that hard pan.”
The ground also needs to have a balance between being too soft and being too hard. Jim Brown, a co-founder of an arena footing educational organization, Safe Arena Footing Committee (SAF), says ground that isn’t firm enough can contribute to soft tissue injuries, and ground that is too hard can lead to bone injuries.
“When the horse goes around that barrel, he has to be able to make an angle with his hoof that allows him to push off that dirt,” Brown said. “It’s about a four degree angle. But you don’t want it to slide out or blow out from under him. If there is too much sand, he’s liable to slip and slide into the wall. If it’s too hard, then he could break a bone because you have an impact problem.”
Steve Thornton, co-founder of SAF, has 30 years’ experience producing barrel races. He says good competitive ground has what he refers to as shear strength, meaning it holds up to the horse’s lateral push around the barrel.
“You get shear strength two ways,” Thornton said. “You either get it by adding more water to the ground and that makes it a little stiffer, or you put more clay in it. Then you have to be real careful about mixing enough coarse sand in there so that the clay doesn’t bind back together and it becomes hard and slick.”
You also have to watch the moisture content on arenas with too much sand versus clay, because these mixtures can contain too much silt.
“Silt are particles in size between sand and clay,” Thornton said. “If you have a cushion with too much silt or a high silt/clay ratio and then if you put water with that, the silt can act as a lubricant within the soil. If you get too much water on those types of arenas, you have the potential of creating a sliding board.”