Arena Dust – More Than Just Annoying

Indoor riding arenas are a great way to work your horse when the weather or footing outside is unsuitable.  In addition to regular training, many barns use their arenas for lessons and shows.  On top of a base of rock, lime, or other materials, the footing in most arenas consists of sand and/or clay.  The additional materials mixed in with the sand try to improve the quality of the footing and attempt to reduce dust.  However, even the best arena footing has an issue that barn owners and managers have to contend with:  dust.

When the particles of sand and other organic material in footing becomes airborne, dust is created.  One impact of regular use is that footing becomes disturbed as horses are ridden, resulting in dispersion of dust.  Some evidence indicates that any footing surface, no matter the material, eventually causes air pollution with fungal spores and dust.

Not only does dust make riding in the arena less enjoyable, but exposure to dust can create health risks for the horse, the rider, and instructors.  This is especially true for those that use indoor arenas on a daily basis.

Riders and instructors may not even be aware they are inhaling dust in a well-managed arena, but in some arenas poor air quality during use is quite apparent.  Regular exposure to dust has been reported to have impacts on respiratory health.  In one study, riding instructors were more likely to develop symptoms of bronchitis if their primary working facility was an indoor arena.

Increased risk of developing respiratory diseases in agricultural workers exposed to dust is well documented. Normally, small amounts of inhaled particles are expelled from the airways and lungs by respiratory protective mechanisms.  With regular exposure, ‘overdose’ of inhaled particles can overwhelm the defense system.  This is especially true if these protective mechanisms are impaired or other risk factors are present (e.g. smoking, asthma), but even without further risk factors, inhalation of small particles on a regular basis can cause problems.

Just like their human partners, horses can face increased risk from exposure to inhaled dust.  Increased mucous accumulation was associated with poor willingness to perform in a study of high-level show jumpers and dressage horses.  Additionally, pulmonary inflammation has been shown to develop in response to inhaled particle exposure in young Thoroughbreds.  When the factors associated with dust dispersion in indoor arenas was studied, it was found that after only one rider completed a session, significantly more dust was present at the height of horses’ noses in particle concentrations and sizes known have negative impacts on respiratory health.  In a busy arena with many riders, this effect can be compounded.  Particle distribution appears to be related to seasonal influences, as well as watering of the arena surface.  Horse health and performance is always of paramount importance to owners and trainers, thus careful consideration of their daily work environment and management of possible risk factors is indicated.

Having a great time riding and ensuring the health, performance, and safety of horse and rider are the ultimate goals for equestrians.  When working in arenas for showing, lessons, training, or pleasure – special attention should be paid to dust control for a more enjoyable and a healthier experience.

Guest Author – Stephanie S. Caston, DVM, DACVS – LA
by Swamp Fox Innovations