Keep dust to a minimum in arenas, barns, and paddocks for both aesthetic and health reasons
A group of friends and I were riding in my outdoor arena the other night, really kicking up the dust on a warm summer evening. As I took a break, I watched the hazy plumes billow across the pastures and thought to myself, “I sure hope the windows in the house are closed.” Dust, I figured, is a fact of life when you have horses—a minor inconvenience you learn to live and put up with. Right?
Not so, says Ann M. Swinker, PhD, who worked as an extension horse specialist and associate professor of equine science at Pennsylvania State University, in State College, prior to her retirement in 2017. Swinker says dust is actually quite hazardous to both human and animal health.
“The problem with dust is that people are actually more susceptible to damage compared to livestock, who have much bigger lungs,” she says.
In a 2006 study Swinker conducted while working at Colorado State University, she found that the incidence of the respiratory infection bronchitis was 35% higher for riding instructors than for the general population (5.4%, American Lung Association, 2001), simply from working out in all that dust. Thirty-nine percent of riding instructors reported wheezing, usually associated with a cold or respiratory infection. The prevalence of reported asthma was 17% and physician-diagnosed asthma was 14% among riding instructors, compared to 6% and 12%, respectively, in the general American population. Twenty-three percent of the respondents had a history of pneumonia, and 25% of this group had been hospitalized.
These statistics point to one thing: All that dust you’re inhaling when you’re working with horses is harmful to your respiratory system as well as theirs. In this article we’ll break down how to control it both in the ring and around the barn.
The Arid Arena
“You know you’ve got a problem in your arena if you reach down to grab a handful of footing and it runs through your fingers,” Swinker says. “Then you know it is way too low on moisture. You want to be able to see at least a little clumping of damp arena footing material.”
Swinker started out as an animal physiologist doing nutrient work. Forty years later she is helping horse farms meet regulatory standards with manure management and other practices. A horse person herself, Swinker has raised Arabian horses since the ’60s, and she sees a lot of issues with manure and dust control. “It fits hand in hand,” she says.
Manure is composed of fine organic material. If it’s not picked up, that material either binds with water in the rainy season, turning into mud, or it dries out in the summer sun, becoming extremely fine organic material that blows away in the wind as dust. Swinker’s research shows that the finer pieces of organic material are likely to travel deeper into human lungs, causing increased incidence of respiratory disease.
Swinker says the best way to avoid dusty arena footing is to begin with the right footing—the least dusty option. “Sand is the gold standard in arena footing,” she says, explaining that most all arena footing products need sand to stabilize. Shredded tires, shredded tennis shoes, fiber products, crushed wood … each of these products usually still needs sand of some sort mixed in. “Coarse washed sand that’s not too fine is best,” Swinker says.
Sand comes in different grades, and its durability depends on its parent material. River sand might be from river rock, beach sand might have more shell material, granite might be more angular and chunky. Avoid any kind of product labeled as a waste or reject product. “Waste sands in the industry are already pulverized and can get really dusty,” says Swinker. “Crushed up sandstone can be too dusty to begin with.
“You have to go with the type of sand that’s available in your area, but it really needs to be angular,” she adds. “Take a magnifying glass and look at it; if it’s too smooth it will clump together and not let water drip through. Just by making sure that your sand particles aren’t too crushed and broken down will help a lot to reduce dust.”
What are your control options? “Most people prefer water as their dust control; it’s safe, has no side effects, it’s easy, and environmentally safe,” Swinker says. “Vegetable oil will work, but it’s messy and expensive. There are wetting agents from the horticultural industry, which hold moisture the same as they do for bedding plants. These are very expensive to use at the scale of a horse property; the best thing still is just watering the footing.”
Watering systems are many and varied, ranging from overhead sprinkler systems in indoor arenas to lawn sprinklers, spray guns that shoot in a circle, or boom sprayers on the back of a tractor or truck. “Anything that’s not manual makes life easier, but is more expensive,” Swinker says. “The cheapest and easiest is still a hand-held hose. What’s important is to never allow an arena to completely dry out, otherwise it’s a real challenge to rehydrate.
“You need to work the arena, too; you can’t just let the water sit there,” she continues. “An arena is never done. You need to keep watching it, watering it, adding sand, working it. The finer the sand, the more often it will need to be watered. It’s something you just can’t let go unless you’re willing to start all over again.”
Whatever footing product you choose, it will wear out. “Replace the sand often to reduce dust production,” Swinker says. Remember, “the smaller the particle, the more they can really reach into the lungs.”
Swinker suggests taking a tip from the Denver Stock Horse show facility, which places its different piles of arena sand outside, letting them rest and mix with rain, which sorts out the very fine silica dust particles.
Landscaping is another possible dust control option. Plant native trees and shrubs, which require less watering and are more hardy and naturally resistant to pests and disease than their non-native cousins, around your arena. A hedge row of shrubs or a row of trees bordering your outdoor arena might also help keep your neighbors from eating your dust, and it will help block the wind (and its drying effect) as well as shield arena footing from the hot summer sun.
The Hazy Horse Farm
Then there’s the dust in other areas of your horse property. We know that inhaling dust can stress equine respiratory systems—we can hear the effects as our horses cough! The list of diseases associated with dusty conditions is long, including a persistent cough, heaves, and pneumonia.
Indoor dust from bedding, dirt floors or aisleways, outdoor paddocks, and hay can be tough on horses and barn workers. Barn construction plays a big part in dust control, and good ventilation is paramount. Horse facilities, especially older ones, are often underventilated due to the misconception of needing air-tight construction to trap and hold heat. “Older barns tend to be closed up tight, making dust, mold, other particles, and moisture a breeding ground for respiratory diseases,” says Swinker. “In winter it’s even worse.” But aside from a light misting of water on stall bedding, what are your options?
Eileen Fabian-Wheeler, PhD, has written books on agricultural engineering topics, including barn construction and ventilation. A professor in the Department of Agricultural and Biological Engineering at Pennsylvania State University and a former horse owner, she specializes in ventilation system design for agricultural operations, including horse facilities. Fabian-Wheeler participated in a study in which researchers outfitted horses with dust monitors on their halters. The results showed that horses experience far more dust exposure in the stable than in a riding arena. “Horses really aren’t in the arena for all that long nor are they always going fast enough to really stir up the dust,” Fabian-Wheeler explains. “But in a stall horses have their face in hay for a large part of the day. Combining that with dusty bedding, they are being exposed to way more dust.”
Here are some options Fabian-Wheeler suggests for reducing dust in stables:
- Keep horses outside in a pasture or paddock during stall-cleaning and aisle-sweeping. Researchers have shown that it takes anywhere from a half-hour to an hour for dust to settle post-stall-cleaning, so don’t move horses back in until after the dust has dissipated.
- Store hay in a structure separate from stables to reduce stall dust; overhead hay storage in horse barns is particularly dusty.
- Do not attach an arena to the barn. “There are all kinds of testimonials as to how much this affects dust in stalls,” Fabian-Wheeler says. If the airspaces are shared, horses end up inhaling the dust that’s kicked up.
- Consider an all-weather surface in your paddocks and confinement areas, such as crushed rock or a similar gravel product that will drain and keep them mud-free in the winter and less dusty in the summer.
- Bring as much fresh air as possible into stalled areas. This includes windows and doors and narrow vents at the eaves, which should remain open even in the winter. Some form of opening is needed year-round to allow stale air to escape.
- All arenas are going to have dust to some extent. Again, the key is to not start with very dusty material. Bigger particles eventually break down into smaller particles, which are problematic. Starting with very fine footing material particles is extremely detrimental. Fabian-Wheeler recommends adding in sawdust to sand-based arena footing as 10% of the mixture to help hold moisture.
- Chose a less-dusty bedding option such as pelleted bedding, which comes bagged. Or, if your horses have rubber stall mats and paddock access, you might be able to eliminate bedding use altogether.
Air quality in stables is of utmost importance for the horses living (and people working) there. Fortunately, you can make many beneficial changes in stable management, including selecting low-dust hay, footing, and bedding and supplying fresh air via ample ventilation. Ideally, horses should spend as much time turned out as possible. The key point is to remember that it’s so much easier to prevent dust than get rid of it.
Back to me and my dusty outdoor arena—what did I do? In their stalls and paddocks my horses are faring pretty well dustwise. I store my hay in a separate building, eliminating all those potential particles proliferating in the barn air. My horses don’t have bedding because they each have continuous access to outdoor paddocks. My barns and shelters are all open year-round, again allowing for good fresh air via ventilation.
But where dust still can be an issue is in my outdoor arena, with the billowing clouds that potentially bother my neighbors and possibly impact my horses—and me. My solution to the dust storm, now that I have recognized I have a problem, is to research and invest in some type of watering system for my outdoor arena. Dust, be gone!