Rodeo competitors head for the arena expecting to get dirty. But what kind of dirt, how much and how it is managed will determine whether those athletes compete at the top of their game, or whether they and their equine partners limp out of the arena looking for a veterinarian or a doctor.

The first rodeos took place on the prairie sod – sagebrush, cactus, rocks or mud made up their arenas. Today’s competitors are particular – concern for the safety of horses and riders is top of mind – and everyone knows the ground is key to that.

Rodeo committees and producers plan for months in advance, but their heaviest task may be preparing arena surface, then maintaining it throughout an event. Clara Wilson, a member of the Girls Rodeo Association (GRA) and Womens Professional Rodeo Association (WPRA) joked, “They’ve been workin’ it just about enough to kill the weeds…forever! They have way better equipment to do it with now.”

Laura Lambert with Safe Arena Footing, said in a WPRA newsletter, “There are three major factors in the mix of materials: sand particle size, sand distribution – uniformity coefficient, and clay content. All of these factors will affect your ground’s performance and consistency cannot be reached without the knowledge of these factors,” Laura continues. “When the required testing is complete, the main focus should be the indication of the soil’s shear strength. The impact of shear strength focuses on usage and reduction of injuries to livestock. Shear strength is a term used in soil mechanics to describe the magnitude of the shear stress that a soil can sustain. The shear resistance of soil is a result of friction and interlocking of particles, and possibly cementation or bonding at particle contacts.”

Water also plays a huge role. Laura says, “The amounts of the different elements (dissolved solids) need to be examined to determine the effects on soil chemistry. Levels of calcium, carbonates, bi-carbonates, sodium, salts, pH, and several other elements directly affect how the cushion material on the arena react and perform. Essentially what this boils down to is the true requirement of a test of irrigation quality. Sodium, calcium, carbonates, and bi-carbonates affect your ground in many different ways. As soil becomes compacted, carbonates can actually lock particles together to form crusts and hardpans. Salts can cause clays to disperse and act more like a lubricant, or behave like silt. Acid or Alkaline is indicated by pH and can quickly infer whether a soil is silica based (good) or calcareous based (not as good.”

Laura further explains, “After testing, there are many ways to amend your water. For example, sulfuric urea, aqua-fix, aluminum sulfate, ammonium sulfate, and various dilute inorganic or organic acidifiers can be used. Most often we are dealing with carbonates/bi-carbonates and depending on the levels of carbonates in parts per million, recommendations can be made for how much of any of the amendments to use.”

Clara Wilson added that the GRA talked for many, many years to rodeo committees about how important improving arena surfaces would be to equine and human safety in the speed and sharp turns of barrel racing, eliciting very little response. “When the steer ropers and team ropers started complaining, committees kind of started listening.” She says this happened circa 1995.

Wilson, who has barrel raced professionally and also trained and bred barrel horses, says, “The WPRA prepared a video on ground condition and ways to improve it, and sent it to all the rodeo committees. Then we started giving a “Best Ground” award in each Circuit. Those things helped some.” Justin Boots continues to sponsor those “Best Ground” awards.

Staci and Zane Thar of Thar Ranch Productions at Gillette, Wyoming will produce the 36th Annual Fizz Bomb Classic, this September. They expect the four-day event to attract some 350 horses and 500 spectators/contestants from across the US, putting more than 1,000 runs on the CamPlex ground. Thars produce barrel races at other venues, including a summer series in Rapid City, South Dakota.

“When we have a race in Rapid City we need to be there the week before and analyze the ground. Sometimes we’ll pack it, and re-pack it. Other times it’s the opposite. My husband Zane is really good at managing the ground,” Staci says.

Zane said, “Jason Gearhart with CamPlex is the best…the real expert here. It’s a challenge. Every day, every race we do is different, and it has a lot to do with what is going on the week before. Is it wetter, or drier than the last time we worked with the ground? It changes all the time.”

Seeking improved ground conditions, barrel horse trainer/competitor Barbara Merrill and husband Neal of Utah developed a soil-improving machine they call Black Widow. The website says they drew wisdom from clinics, competitors, old cowboys and a lifetime of observation. Zane says, “The Black Widow is definitely my favorite machine for prepping ground. Even in indoor arenas there’s fluctuation in humidity…sometimes it’s 75 indoors with a 30 mph wind outside, so things are constantly changing.

The site says the design allows the Black Widow Groomer to level the ground without interference from the tractor bouncing over rough terrain. And with enough weight, the machine can rip up hard-packed ground and repack it to your desired footing needs.

“Every day, every race we do is different. We need to know what’s going on in that arena the week before, and what conditions were. Wetter and drier weather changes ground all the time…you may need to take moisture out or put it in,” Zane explains. “Another machine we use at CamPlex is a Kiser. We often need to add water as we are working the ground. You make it as good as you can, and still it’s a crap shoot,” he concludes. “During an event our main purpose is to know the exact ground condition when the first run is made, and keep it exactly the same for every other run in that competition.”

Melody Luark, Mountain States Circuit director for the WPRA, says, “WPRA formed an alliance with Safe Arena Footing, where rodeo committees can send soil samples to be analyzed, with recommendations for improvement returned. In our region Evanston has taken advantage of this, and Castle Rock is another rodeo where Safe Arena Footing has really helped them get their existing ground to hold. WPRA has also implemented a grant, giving each director in each Circuit funds to share with a couple of rodeos each year toward soil improvement.”

“I’ve been a director for almost 8 years and have seen improved ground conditions move to the front and get a lot more notice in the last few years. Animal welfare is a prime concern with WPRA and rodeo committees. It’s a huge educational process; people have to learn. We even produce a newsletter about dirt that’s sent to rodeo committees,” Melody says. “When girls are upset about ground conditions I tell them no committee has a ground problem with malicious intent, it’s just getting educated and knowing how to deal with ground.”

Donna Vold of Triple V Rodeo agrees, saying in WPRA’s specialized newsletter Digging In, “Rodeo Committees and Stock Contractors have to work together to evaluate and prepare the ground…ground varies so much from location to location: the Sand Hills of Nebraska are different than the Rocky Mountain tops of Colorado and the Gumbo Hills in Montana. Remember no rodeo committee or stock contractor sets out to have less than perfect ground.”

Lambert said, “Unfortunately, ground is something that requires almost constant monitoring the first thing you should be concerned with is your mix of materials. The only way to make this happen is with soil testing. You need to know what makes up your ground before you know what steps you should take to improve it.”

Link to Digging In:

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