Keeping arena dust down

Dusty footing can be bad for you and your horse, but some control options are better than others. Learn how to choose the right product for your arena.

We’ve all seen it (and more likely experienced it) – clouds of arena dust raised by several sets of horses’ hooves as they trot around. Horses and riders leave coated with a fine layer of dust, looking a bit like powdered donuts.

Arena dust is more than just a nuisance. It can be hazardous to the respiratory systems of both horses and people. “When working in the arena the dust level reaches 60.6mg/M3…for both the horse and rider,” writes Dr. Alan Weldon ( “The increased respiratory rate and volume allows for an even deeper penetration of particulate matter. This dust contains iron, copper, magnesium and silica. Once in the distal airways this material functions as a foreign body causing marked inflammation. When these horses have their airways sampled using a BAL (Bronchial Alveolar Lavage) there is a massive increase in WBCs (white blood cells). This inflammation is the principal cause of the clinical signs and can lead to chronic fibrosis if left untreated.”

Where it begins

Arena dust is often the result of poor footing, but it can begin to show up even if you started off with awesome footing. Depending on usage, footing can break down by 1/8” annually. The sand or other materials break down into smaller particles, causing dust. It is these suspended particles that are cause for concern, once they are small enough to irritate the respiratory tract.

Getting to the bottom of things

Before you begin to look at arena dust control, you need to consider where the dust is coming from. If the dust is a symptom of a larger issue, adding a control product will simply be a band-aid. If your base is in poor shape, or the actual type of footing you are dealing with is inappropriate, then it is best to resolve those issues first. However, redoing an arena can be a costly endeavor, so for some, just controlling the dust until the budget allows more extensive renovations is the best option.

Evaluating dust control options

The most common ways of dealing with arena dust is to mix in some type of oil or salt. But are these substances ultimately good for your horse?

  • The two salts commonly used for arena dust are magnesium chloride and calcium chloride. While calcium chloride and magnesium chloride are cheap, easy to find and easy to apply, they can have negative effects. They both work by drawing moisture out of their surroundings. Calcium chloride in particular can be drying to your horse’s feet, your tack, can corrode metal surfaces in your arena, and potentially be harmful to you too. Magnesium chloride is not as harsh, but is still drying to your horse’s feet.
  • Oils fall into two different sub-categories – vegetable oils and petroleum based oils. While more expensive, these are quite effective, and easier on your horse, providing you use clean refined products, rather than used oils. Vegetable based products have the added benefit of being biodegradable, and are slightly cheaper than petroleum based products. They do, however, evaporate fairly quickly so require regular applications.
  • Another easy, inexpensive and common solution is plain old water. This is completely safe for your horse, yourself and your arena. You do need to be careful not to over saturate the footing, as it can turn it into a slick mess. On the other hand, watering too little can be useless – if you just spray a bit of water over the top layer, you will bring the majority of dry footing to the surface as soon as you start to ride. And this option is not viable in colder regions, because it causes the footing to freeze during several months of the year.
  • Adding some type of fiber to the footing is becoming a more common solution. These products help by weighing down the footing, thereby helping to prevent smaller particles from becoming airborne. Cost and longevity will depend on the type of product you use. Wood fibers or chips have been quite common. They help your footing retain moisture, but they break down quite quickly considering the lifetime of the arena, thereby adding to the problem. Companies are now coming up with both natural and synthetic fibers that don’t break down as quickly but offer the same benefits of retaining moisture, trapping dust, and providing a better surface with no bad effects for yourself or your horse. These options can be expensive, but last longer and work better.
  • Rubber, in granular or chip form, is another more expensive yet long lasting footing solution. Depending on what type of footing you begin with, you may not be able to go this route. You also need to be careful of the source, and make sure you are using a reputable company, as some recycled rubbers can contain harmful materials and compounds. But it is low maintenance and provides your horse with some extra shock absorption.
  • A recent development is moisture absorbing polymer products for arena footing. Similar products are used in everything from baby diapers to gardening to candle centerpieces. These crystals can absorb and hold many times their size in moisture. They are typically non-toxic. They work by holding moisture in the footing when you water the arena, and releasing it over time. The product will freeze if the footing freezes, but on the plus side it will take longer to freeze. It can also be slippery if too much accumulates in one area, so it does take some management. It’s somewhat expensive.

In the end, your footing solution will depend on what you are starting with, your goals, and your budget. While some options may be attractive due to a lower cost, they aren’t always the best for you and your horse. There are other cost effective horse-friendly options, but you do need to be prepared to do some regular maintenance. For those who can swing it, some of the newer footing development additives can be fantastic. They can add value to your facility, not to mention longevity to your horse.