Compare Outdoor Riding Arena Base Construction Styles

When planning a new outdoor arena build or renovation, it’s easy to get wrapped up in the top layer since that’s ultimately the most visible part.

Quality sands and geotextile footing additives are exciting and can make a big difference in your horse’s performance and well-being on a day-to-day basis. However, it’s what’s underneath the surface that’s most important for the functionality and long-term success of your arena.

Different styles of horse arena base construction produce different results.

When it comes to outdoor arenas, there are a number of ways that a base can be designed. The type of riding arena base you install will directly influence 4 key factors:

  1. How usable the arena is, during or after a heavy rain.
  2. Whether your riding surface will be completely level or on a grade.
  3. The amount of maintenance the arena will require.
  4. The price range.

Outdoor riding arena drainage.

Aside from the base needing to provide a solid foundation, one of the first considerations when building an outdoor arena is the way the ring will be engineered to drain.

Fundamentally, there are two ways that an arena can get rid of excess water:
horizontally across the surface or vertically, down into the base layers. A combination of both ways can also be used together in the same arena.

A base with slow drainage can result in you having to wait a day, or sometimes even several days, to be able to ride. If you have an indoor and can be flexible on where you ride, then waiting for a few days after rain may not be a big deal to you.

However, if you’re a busy facility where the arena is in high demand either by boarders or as a show venue, then needing to regularly postpone lessons and events can result in significant lost revenue and a lack of confidence in the venue.

Let’s look at some different base styles, how they work, and what to expect with each.


A Compacted Base, creates a sealed layer that is constructed with either a slope or a crown to the base and the footing. Once the footing becomes saturated, this style arena will shed water horizontally across its surface towards the edge of the arena.


A true Vertical Draining Base, such as a Diamond W Signature vertical draining arena is engineered to allow water to drain straight down through the footing and into a drainage layer within the base. It does not utilize any horizontal drainage at the surface or top base layer. Note that the footing layer is on a completely level grade rather than being sloped.


The Hybrid Base, utilizes a combination of both these drainage styles. As with the vertical draining base, a hybrid base allows water to first drain vertically through the footing and base. However, it will reach maximum capacity more quickly than a 100% vertical system. In heavy rain conditions where the base becomes overwhelmed, a hybrid base relies on a crown or a slope to the footing layer to shed excess water horizontally across the surface, similar to a compacted base.

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Austin can consult with you on the best style arena base to suit your needs and budget.

Why does it matter which direction the water goes, when draining from the arena?

The direction of water drainage directly affects:

  1. The amount of time it takes for the arena to drain  How long you have to wait before it’s suitable to ride on.
  2. Footing maintenance water traveling horizontally across the surface is going to take some footing material with it. This can be hardly noticeable at first, but the migration of materials adds up over time. As a result, you can end up with a deep side and a shallow side and an arena that has to be re-graded quite often to correct these imbalances.
  3.  Surface grade whether the riding surface can be flat or has to be sloped.
This Signature Arena by Diamond W is being designed to drain vertically, through the base layers, and will have a completely flat riding surface.

Which base is best for your outdoor riding arena?

There are pros and cons to consider for each system.

A Compacted Base is the most commonly constructed type of riding arena.

Pros are:

  • Very durable.
  • The most economical to build at the outset.

Cons are:

  • The riding surface has to be sloped or crowned.
  • It is the slowest of the three types to drain, particularly with larger arenas where the water has to travel a great distance to get to the edge of the ring.
  • The water traveling horizontally carries footing materials with it, which can form deeper areas towards the lower side of the arena and shallower footing on the high side.
  • Care must be taken to allow the arena enough time to drain sufficiently before riding after a heavy rain to avoid damaging the base.

The Hybrid Base system is a common “all-weather” arena option that is offered by a lot of professional horse arena builders and offers good drainage in a variety of conditions. This base style is typically in the mid-high price range.

Pros are:

  • Better drainage in moderate rain conditions.

Cons are:

  • Surface is still sloped or crowned.
  • Vertical drainage capacity is limited.
  • Excess water traveling horizontally carries footing with it.
  • Footing migration increases the risk of developing shallow areas that expose the geotextile membrane beneath. It is crucial to keep grooming equipment in the top layer of footing to avoid damage to the membrane below.

A Vertical Draining Base offers the highest capacity and most efficient drainage system of all the options but also requires a greater upfront investment.

Pros are:

  • Best possible drainage, for a true all-weather surface, in the most challenging rain conditions.
  • A completely level surface – horses will always go best on a level and consistent surface making this an ideal design for optimum performance.
  • No migration of surface materials during drainage so the footing remains in place and very uniform.

Cons are:

  • Higher price tag.
  • Requires a very skilled builder – engineering this style of arena base correctly requires a highly experienced builder and there are very few arena builders in the US, including Diamond W, who offer a true vertical draining system, so planning ahead to avoid a long waitlist is important.

Pro tip: it’s best to start planning at least 6 months to a year in advance for a new riding arena construction.


When comparing builders and quotes for a new arena construction, it is important to ask questions to understand what design is being quoted. That way, you know whether you’re comparing apples-to-apples.

We often see two “all-weather” arenas being quoted where one is a hybrid base with a sloped surface and the other is a 100% vertical drainage system with a flat surface.

Unless the customer is already very knowledgeable in arena construction, they often don’t realize the significance of the design differences until it is too late.

In addition to total budget and final cost, key performance and maintenance differences must also be seriously considered.

Remember that an arena is a significant, long-term investment. Once constructed, it is extremely costly and disruptive to try and modify later, so make sure that you’re going to be happy with how it performs daily and in the long-run.

It is crucial to invest in a trusted professional who stands behind their work and will get it right the first time.

Diamond W can consult with you on the best type of arena for your requirements and budget. Contact Austin today to get started.

Diamond W Contracting

Diamond W Contracting

Diamond W works with you to build or renovate a custom arena that meets the needs of both horse and rider.

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