The diary of the home-made livery yard: Like trying to dig a grave with a teaspoon

  • Earlier this month we finally completed our arena. The unwavering advice when building an arena is to get professionals in to do it for you.

    My husband Jerome and I laugh in the face of professionals. There is nothing that we cannot conquer together when armed with the joint forces of Google, ebay, YouTube, Jerome’s brilliant engineering mind and my ability to shut up and do as I am told.

    Besides, professionals were simply not within our budget. When we built our yard, everything had to be done ourselves, with a little help from friends and family along the way.

    As a non-horsey muggle, I could not express enough to Jerome how important it was not to balls this up completely. I’ve seen an awful lot of lakes and duck ponds posing as all-weather riding arenas and I really didn’t want us to spend thousands of pounds building a swamp. I am simply not qualified in equine hydrotherapy.

    In the planning stages I was very pleased with myself for convincing Jerome that a 60x20m arena was an absolute necessity: “We wouldn’t get a single livery with a 40x20m, Jerome! No, no, dear. Only an international, Olympic-sized dressage arena will do!”


    However, when it came down to shifting an estimated 3,000 tonnes of earth with a 3.5 tonne digger and 3 tonne dumper truck, I was less pleased. It was a bit like trying to dig a grave with a teaspoon.

    Looking back, I have no idea how we managed it. When we first started the ground works our son was only three-months-old. After every third trip on the dumper truck I would have to hop off and feed this tiny infant in our makeshift site office, an Argos six-man tent. Then I would put him back down to sleep and get back to the two-man chain gang to continue shifting earth.

    I suppose if you just get up and get to work every day, no matter how little you feel you are achieving at the time, progress will happen of its own accord.

    There are advantages to building a DIY arena. Having the freedom of your own time scale, not depending on a construction team’s deadlines and schedules, means you can take a little more care over each phase. For example, if you need to build up a platform of earth for the base of the arena, the ideal is to let that newly built land settle for six months in case there is any subsidence or shifting of its form that would affect the drainage of water off of the arena or leave you with a dodgy, wonky fence line.

    One of my little helpers

    One of my little helpers

    Taking extra care is something Jerome is very good at. Unlike me, he is fastidious in his work. When digging the base of the arena, we wanted it gently sloping to ensure good drainage. Most people would have hired a laser level for the job but, being something of an eccentric and possibly something of a wind up merchant, he had me crawling the length of the arena on my hands and knees in front of the digger with a bubble level, while he scraped one tiny shaving of earth off the surface at a time and I shouted out “higher!”, “lower!” or “level!”

    It was agonising at the time, but I must admit, we have had some shocking weather lately and there is not one tiny puddle on my arena.

    Over the course of building the arena I had pretty much every ailment and minor illness going. I don’t know whether it was due to being run down, a new mother combined with having a school age child mingling with the diseased general public at school or just generally being a wimp. I had at least three colds, one bout of actual flu, mastitis, a stomach bug, various crippling muscle strains and developed a boil inside my ear (grim!) to name but a few.

    I could always be certain that if we had a major deadline to meet or needed to hire plant machinery at great cost, without a doubt, either the kids or myself would be unwell. We just had to keep going, though (how did I keep going each day with a boil in my ear? I know. I am inspirational and a hero.).

    Katy Malone

    The day that we had the sand delivered for the surface we had booked seven lorry loads to come in one day. Jerome was spreading the sand over the arena membrane with the digger and I had to transport it in by the load on the dumper truck from where the lorries had left it in the yard. I should have been really excited but I had one of my life-threatening common colds and was genuinely feeling really rough. We were on a very tight schedule to get the sand shifted before each subsequent lorry load arrived and, despite struggling to remain upright, I had no time to feel sorry for myself.

    When I finally tipped the last lorry load of the day onto the arena, I was so incredibly relieved and shattered after a month of such long, tiring days (on top of the life-threatening cold) that I climbed down from the dumper truck and just curled up into a ball right there on the floor. While I lay, exhausted and collapsed on the membrane, Jerome just continued to spread the sand around me, leaving a Katy-shaped gap in the sand surface that had to be filled at a later date while I had a little snooze.

    On the dumper truck

    On the dumper truck

    Whether you spend hundreds of back breaking hours building an arena or whether you sell a kidney to pay professionals to build one for you, either way, you will feel protective over it. Sometimes to an illogical extent. This was neatly illustrated to me just the other day when a horse I was schooling suddenly bolted in the arena. Real head to the floor, bit between the teeth bolting. As I grabbed one rein and desperately anchored the out of control beast onto a 20m circle my immediate thoughts were not so much, “Oh my God! We are both going to die!” but more, “Christ, this will need harrowing in the morning!” and, “Damn you, horse! We’d better not go down to the membrane!”

    Continued below…

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    At one point I did consider riding the horse into the arena fence in an attempt to stop it. But the thought of any damage to the upright timbers that we and a couple of friends spent ages concreting in made continuing to gallop out of control on the wall of death much more appealing.

    Schooling one of my horses, Lordy, once the arena was completed

    Schooling one of my horses, Lordy, once the arena was completed

    During the building of the arena I found it hard to visualise the project ever completed. In the midst of the endless hours we spent digging and measuring, digging and measuring, I could not imagine riding or coaching in it. But here I am, one month in, schooling horses, teaching lessons watching liveries enjoy the facilities on their own horses and I can tell you I absolutely love my new office. It has a view to die for and, much like child birth, the pain of building it is long forgotten.

    Would I recommend building your own arena? No. If you can afford to pay someone to build it for you, do, only a fool would do it themselves. However, if it is the only route to owning one then I suggest you do a lot of research, get advice from loads of professionals and get a really, really big digger!


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