Good Ground Requires Proper Equipment
It’s impossible to achieve ideal footing conditions without the right equipment. From the Kiser DragMaster to the Reveal 4-N-1, there are several options available for an arena crew to perfect the ground.
Dunn prefers the Reveal for preparation leading up to an event, but uses a circle harrow for efficiency during the competition.
Neil Merrill produces the Black Widow, an arena-grooming machine used by many event producers and rodeo committees. Its design allows the “Widow” to run independent from the tractor, which allows it to self-adjust to make the arena floor flat and level.
Many drags require a four-wheel drive tractor. Merrill says adequate horsepower is ideal, but the biggest tractor isn’t always better. Whatever tractor you use, you should stick to the same one throughout a competition for consistency in the surface for all riders.
“Oversize tractors pack the ground faster,” Merrill said. “Depending on the particular ground you’re on, it can help or hinder your outcome.”
Your drag must be the right size to fit the tractor, meaning wide enough to cover tire tracks even with a tight turn. Some drags like the Widow come in several sizes to match your tractor.
Moisture is Important
Among other methods, Dunn and Merrill both employ a simple test to determine if the ground has enough moisture.
“Grab a handful of dirt and make a fist,” Merrill said. “This should make a clod without making your hand wet. Then bounce it in the palm of your hand and it should break apart fairly easily. If you can’t make a clod, it may be too dry. If it doesn’t come apart easy, it may be too wet.”
Dunn said moisture is just as important to an arena as the type of footing itself
“If you have good ground without the proper moisture, you haven’t got much,” Dunn said. “After years of doing it, you feel your dirt, see how it’s reacting and then we put water down accordingly.”
Dunn typically adds moisture give or take every 500 riders in a competition, depending on factors such as humidity, whether the arena is indoor or outdoor and overhead fans.
Correct Technique is Key
In addition to ground composition, moisture and equipment, technique cannot be neglected.
“No tool or dirt can make up for the knowledge and experience of a good ground person,” Merrill said.
Arena care starts with an awareness of the ground composition, depth and its moisture needs. Prior to an event, Merrill recommends deep-ripping the entire arena to a depth of six to eight inches, which will remove hard-packed areas and even out the underlying base. He recommends floating the entire arena to a depth of one to four inches to push the air out and firm up the ground.
Throughout the event, most ground crews will drag around the barrels every five riders. Every 50 riders, Dunn also performs a “big drag” using the Reveal 4-N-1 to rip around the barrels. He then finishes the area with a circle harrow implement.
Merrill says to watch for any horses slipping, which could indicate that the ground is too loose or too shallow over a hard-pack underneath.
“If the tractor bounces as you drive over an area, such as behind the first barrel, make another pass until the tractor moves evenly over the ground,” Merrill said. “This will produce even compaction.”
Keep an eye on the depth and the moisture throughout the event to make sure the conditions are still ideal. You might need to make a deeper pass or add moisture more often than you realize.
Merrill recommends moving in a forward motion instead of small circles for best results with the Widow. He also suggests varying your drag pattern enough to keep the arena flat, such as moving around the pen in a reverse direction every other drag.
Thornton suggests making turns at the ends of the arena instead of following where the horses run.
“If you go straighter longer, and then make your turns in the ends of the arena, then you are going to keep your arena a lot flatter,” Thornton said. “You’ve got to work your hydraulics on your lift so you’re not carrying your dirt. You can’t just go to sleep up there in the tractor. If you don’t pay attention, you’ll have dips and valleys.”
The role of the equipment operator cannot be overstated. McDermott says the training is more important than even the implements themselves. Consistency of maintenance throughout the event ensures all horses have access to the same quality of ground.
McDermott likens creating a good arena surface to baking a cake.
“You have to have all the ingredients right, but then you also have to know how to bake it and prepare it,” McDermott said. “You can have very good ingredients for a cake and the right proportions for everything, but if you bake your cake at 200 degrees and think it’s going to come out good, you’re wrong. So the equipment as well as the proper method and the proper procedures ensure that the ground you’re working with is right. The surface that the horse runs on has to be prepared well. You can ruin a good surface with a bad operator, and you can make a poor surface work better with an excellent operator. But if you work everything together the right way, you can have a very safe environment.”