How the Oregon State Fair took steps to improve footing conditions of its historic horse arenas.

Horse Arenas at the Oregon State Fair

Draft Horses march around the Historic Horse Arenas at the Oregon State Fair.

“I am very pleased with the footing now. Very good. High quality.” Those are the words of Gaye McCabe of Salem, president of the Oregon Dressage Society, regarding the improvements to the footing for horses competing in the Oregon State Fair’s Historic Horse Stadium, as well as in the adjoining outdoor warm-up arena. The work was completed in July 2015.

The Historic Horse Stadium was built in 1919 and has been the host site of countless equine competitions over the decades, during the State Fair and on a year-round basis. The condition of the competitive surface has always been a topic of keen interest to the horse community. Oregon horse experts like Gaye McCabe know full well the importance of maintaining a proper and safe riding surface in arenas like ours.

Competitive horses require that arena footing be as flat as possible, meaning completely free of waves or undulations that can be difficult for horses to see when going full speed. That surface must also be free of rocks and large clumps of dirt.

As McCabe further describes the creation of optimal footing conditions, horse arenas must have a solid base surface, not unlike asphalt. Then you apply from two to fives inches of footing material that must initially be worked into position with a special piece of equipment.

This accurately describes the work completed by the Oregon State Fair did just prior to the 2015 Marion County Fair, which uses these facilities. The Oregon State Fair Council approved the work, which was funded in part by a significant donation provided by the Oregon State Fair Foundation. More specifically, funds donated to the Foundation by historical author Steve Heine were repurposed for the horse arena project with Mr. Heine’s generous permission.

The work was performed by crews Mid Valley Excavation, who laser-graded and then initially prepared the surface with a harrow-toothed roller. The footing material was delivered by dump truck by Knife River at a sizeable discount. The work was executed under the watchful supervision of Mia Ramos, a dedicated horse arena enthusiast from Monroe, Oregon. Ramos was contracted by the Oregon State Fair to make sure things were done right. Ramos further groomed and prepared the arenas with her Kubota tractor and custom-built arena drag. Ramos’ decade of experience doing this unique kind of footing work was instrumental to getting the arenas ready for the Marion County Fair, and she is providing the same services during the 2015 Oregon State Fair.

“The goal of our work during horse events is to keep things level and sufficiently compacted,” said Ramos. “Plus, we tailor the footing to the event or classes competing. So it’s important to fully understand the requirements of each class.”

Before that work could begin, yet another member of the Oregon horse community, Francy Haupt, did considerable research. Her goal was to confirm that right combination of footing materials. Haupt contacted other horse and arena experts around the region, including Idaho and Washington, to gather the insights and wisdom of others.

Mia Ramos and the Mid Valley Excavation crew—led by Barry Nelson—worked with a strong sense of purpose to do things properly. This meant the removal of existing footing materials from both arenas, taking the surface down to the base layer. That substrate layer was then leveled and compacted in order to achieve the requisite hardness. Next came the new footing material, which was about 80% washed sandy loam and 20% manufactured, washed 10-minus. Then crews groomed, leveled and compacted the soft top layer. It should be noted that different horse activities tend to call for different depths of this soft top footing material. The Oregon State Fair decided to strike a balance between these various uses of the arenas by putting down a thickness that is considered multiuse.

“Competitors love these facilities,” said McCabe. “The Oregon State Fair offers the three things that make a good horse facility: Close access to the freeway, the support of local restaurants and hotels, and strong local support from the horse community.”

Stakeholder reaction to the newly reconditioned footing has been overwhelmingly positive. One local event organizer, Lori Sage of the German Shepard Dog Club of Oregon, called the new surface fantastic, noting the absence of rocks or big clumps of dirt.

Another member of the Oregon horse community, Mary Lott, offered this positive comment: “…it is indeed a fabulous surface and folks should have a great go.”

“We are really pleased with the custom composition of the footing material,” said Mia Ramos. “We blended the footing material with special equipment to ensure an absolutely even blend, which produces the best possible footing for horses.”

“The footing is the best we’ve seen in over ten years,” said 4-H judge Candi Bothum.