Just as you wouldn’t put down a dirt floor in your bathroom, there are certain issues you should think through when deciding what type of footing to use in your round pen. Too often we don’t give this enough thought, or tend to go with the cheapest option, only to have to redo it or pay for our choice many times over in the future. Remember, your round pen footing is the cushion layer. It will absorb shock and help protect your horse from injury.
The cheapest and easiest is natural grass or dirt. Though it has the advantage of being a natural footing, it also comes with many drawbacks. Grass can easily be damaged and end up with bare and packed spots, especially under heavy use. Dirt will compact with use and can create a hard, “concrete-like” top layer that may cause injury to your horse’s legs. Neither of these two surfaces is suitable for rainy climates or use during or after a rainfall.
Sand is a very good choice for your round pen footing. It provides a great cushion and well drained, it can be used in wet climates.
Another option is wood shavings and other wood products. Wood adds organic materials to your footing which helps maintain its springiness. The drawback to wood is that if it gets too much moisture (either through rain or improper runoff) it can become slick and break down quickly through rot. On the flip side, if the wood gets too dry it will also break down and turn to wood dust.
Recycled rubber pieces or “shredded rubber” is also a good choice. Rubber helps break down the any natural hardness, as well as provide for greater soil water absorption. Rubber does have its drawbacks, as it can float away during a heavy downpour or blow away during high winds.
The best choice is usually a combination of materials. Many times you will need a coarse layer to help with water runoff and breakdown, a finer layer for drainage and compaction (preventing your cushion layer from filtering into the ground), and a cushion layer to help provide natural footing and reduce the hardness of the ground.
A three-layer system consisting of coarse rock, fine rock and a combination of shredded rubber and sand is one such system seen often. Each layer brings its own properties, and you are assured of excellent drainage for year-round use.
Before starting on your round pen footing it is best to plan ahead. What will the round pen be used for? What is the climate in your particular area? How hard or soft is your natural ground?
Remember, the physical round pen structure is only part of the equation. Proper footing and drainage are as important as the actual round pen itself. Failure to plan for proper footing now can bring about injury to your horse, as well as costly rebuilds later.