The Construction of the Riding Arena: Preliminary Research

I decided this is the year I will finish my riding arena. I do not enjoy having to ride on bare dirt and grass when I want to school my horses. Plus, rocks come out of the soil like weeds. How they emerge from the packed dirt, with no noticeable holes left, is a mystery to me. Perhaps they are being flown in and dropped like tiny bombs by the buzzards that like to hang out here.

When I first moved here, I searched the internet for advice on building my own riding arena. I found some, was confused by a lot, and slightly frustrated by a lack of personal accounts. People might have said they did it, but they described how they did it in a single paragraph, which left so many questions. I want to give a full story of what it takes to build an arena, all DIY.

The Backstory

When I first looked into this, the main thing I got from my research was that I needed a bobcat, and I needed to move a lot of dirt. I didn’t know how to operate a skid steer, but I went ahead and rented one anyway. I spent approximately 18 hours digging, and about 24 hours stuck in mud because I slid down a hill. Once I figured out how to (very easily) unstick it, my time with the skid steer was over. After that, I did about 50 hours of moving dirt with my little tractor. Using a skid steer is much more effective.

I got really sick of moving dirt, so eventually I declared the arena finished. We seeded the ground, and hoped for the best. I think this strategy was about 50% effective. I do have a flattish place to ride, but the ground is hard with it’s dry, or muddy when it’s wet, which drastically cuts back on my riding time. There is no fence around it, so I cut off one long side of the arena significantly, because my horses have no fear of trotting off into the oblivion. They think it’s amazingly fun to jump up and down the slope there.

So for all these reasons, it’s time to build a super serious arena.

Materials and Financials

The main reason for DIYing this, is definitely the cost. Last month I had a contractor come out and give me an estimate to finish the arena. He estimated 25k, and that did not include a fence around it. As much as I wanted to announce he’s hired and sign a check, there’s no way I can afford that. But when you break down the costs, it’s not an unreasonable cost for what he’s providing. The money I save will only be from the labor of doing it myself. Here is my breakdown of what I will need.

Stone Dust for the base: 180 tons at $37.99 a ton: $6,838.20

Skid Steer One Month Rental: $1370 + delivery cost +fuel

Railroad ties to keep in footing: Price seems to depend on if I can find free ones.

Geotextile Fabric: 3 rolls at $378.50: $1,135.50

Minimum total for materials: $9,343.70

The Negative Nancy

I think the benefits are obvious – a usable arena and a lower cost. But there’s always a downside. I will have to do the majority of the labor all by myself. Which, with a skid steer, isn’t that bad, but it’s still a consideration. I would only have the skid steer for one month, which puts me on a tight deadline. The majority of these materials must be ordered in advance, which means I have to trust that I can move all the dirt in a certain number of weeks, and be ready to accept the shipment of stone dust on a certain date. If the arena is not ready for stone dust, I’ll end up with a huge pile of stone dust in my yard, which will be time intensive to move. The geotextile fabric will have to be laid out before the stone dust gets here too, and I don’t even know how long it will take me to roll that out. AND I am positive the arena will be of lower quality than something a professional did, simply because I have limited experience with this.

It’s tempting just to tell the contractor to do it.


I want to do this in June. I will be checking into the logistics of making this a possibility and then I will update on when it’s going to happen.

Has anyone else built their own arena? Or perhaps tackled an extensive construction project?

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  1. I have zero experience with this. But I have watched the barn owner fix up all of our outdoor rings. He seems to make a big deal about drainage and slope of the land. I could be totally off base but there may be a drainage layer under our rings footing. Good luck!

    1. Thank you!! Yup, that is definitely a big deal! He knows what he’s talking about. Everything will have to be sloped, and there will be a ditch dug out around it. The blue stone is the base, and next year when it is compacted, sadly, I’ll have to spend more money on this and buy more footing to put on top of the stone dust.

  2. Oh lordy that looks intense. I have absolutely zero knowledge of arena-building, but let me know if you need an extra pair of hands! I volunteer manfriend’s hands since he’s much better at lifting heavy things than me. But for realz, lemme know if we can help in any way 🙂

      1. Haha he’s an excellent helper, I have no doubt he won’t mind me volunteering his skills. If he does mind, I’ll appease him with beer and pizza. He’s pretty easy to please.

  3. I have not tried to build an arena, but we are working on improving the surface of a round pen we put up in what was once just a small inclining field.
    First, I applaud your bravery in just jumping into learning how to operate a rented skid steer. I have not done that, but would sure like to have. That is a machine that we could make good use of. I have a tractor with a front loader and worked to flatten the area where we wanted the round pen. We added gravel, and then later, lime screenings. Cyndie wants sand on top, but we now need to wait until soil is firm enough to support a dump truck load.
    I totally relate to your situation and fighting the battle of cost and difficulty of DIY. The fencing always ends up being way more expensive than one would think, too. Have you considered the possibility of a loan to pay for the work, and you can pay back the lender over time? If you do it all yourself, though, what a feeling of accomplishment and pride of ownership! Your horses will know you put in that effort for their place to work/play, too.
    Good luck with everything. It will certainly give you plenty to report on in the days ahead. I look forward to your stories.

    1. Thanks! The skid steer isn’t too bad. It did take a while to figure it out initially though. I was sitting in the cab for some time, trying to figure out if the thing was broken. But it couldn’t be broken, because they had brought it there! The whole time I had it was a learning experience, and an exercise is coordination. I’ve never used a machine that requires hand and foot controls before. But at the end of my week, I felt like I was an expert with it.
      Right now, I have a little tractor with a front end loader too, and that thing is so useful. It does work for moving dirt, it just takes much longer than a skid steer because the bucket isn’t as big. And the skid steer could bust through rocks, and my tractor gets stuck on them. It sounds like you made a great surface for your round pen, and I hope you can put your sand on soon!
      I had considered getting a loan, but I feel like it’s such a vanity purchase that the bank wouldn’t approve it. I don’t know what type of loan it would be except a home equity loan, and I feel like it wouldn’t add value the same way a new kitchen or other home improvement would. But what actually stops me from really doing it, is that the contractor can’t do it until the fall, and I don’t want to wait that long. I’m a bit impatient.
      Thank you, and I’m hoping it will all go well!

  4. Not sure where you live, but in the Northwest drainage is a huge issue. I paid to have a contractor grade my outdoor arena, making sure there was a slight slope so water would drain off quickly. I then used a roller (attached to a riding lawn mower) to compact the footing – that was hours of fun!
    Over the years I tried sand and barkdust as footings. Any footing will degrade over time. It’s not optimum but for a low-use private arena it was fine.
    As for fencing, I used hotwire … just remembering to unplug it every time I rode. It’s cheap, keeps the horses out when you’re not riding in it, and in when you are riding.

  5. I have a similar conundrum. My father paid someone to level a place for an outdoor a few years back, but a) it isn’t wide enough, and b) it has no footing/fence. I intend to build the fence myself and put down footing…one day. We’re putting footing in the indoor this year, so that will drain the budget plenty on it’s own.

    1. oh dear. It stinks when you spend all that money and it’s still not what you hoped. And footing/fencing is so crazy expensive! Hopefully both our arena issues will be solved!

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