Many barns don’t use their outdoor arenas over the winter – but what if you could repurpose the space into an ice rink during the cold months?

Across Canada, where the snow and ice can last for months, some horse owners have been discovering that their outdoor riding arenas can serve a dual purpose as the base for winter skating rinks.

Stephanie Huyssen from Coldwater, Ontario, has turned her outdoor riding arena into a homemade ice rink for the last six years – but the first year, she says it happened completely by accident.

“We had a really wet fall and a heavy rain after the ground was partially frozen, creating a large puddle,” Huyssen says. On Christmas Eve, a strong wind blew the snow off the ice. “We skated that year without having to do anything special.”

Since then, Huyssen makes a plan to create the rink each winter, and says that the rink has gotten better and better every year. They have bonfires beside the ice where they enjoy roasting marshmallows and hot dogs, and even have a “home-bonie” to maintain the ice.

The process

For Huyssen’s rink, she starts by waiting until the ground is frozen, and then clears off the snow.

A person watering an ice rink.

The sides can be built up with sand, railroad ties or other lumber, straw bales, etc. to keep the water in. The secret to a smooth surface is many thin applications with the hose. (Stephanie Huyysen photo)

“Once the snow is cleared, we hook up our one-horsepower gas-powered pump and drop a line into the creek adjacent to the riding ring,” Huyssen says. “We then use a two-inch hose to flood the rink. We try to flood at night and we try to keep the layers thin so as not to create bubbles in the ice. We also try to do it between the temps of minus 10C and minus 20… the colder it gets, the harder it is to make good ice without bubbles.”

Huyssen says the only essential materials are a water source, a method to flood, and (of course) cold weather. They don’t use boards and don’t use a plastic liner – they just try to keep the ice as thick as possible with regular floods.

As an added bonus, Huyssen says they have a “home-bonie” water spreader. Using a plastic barrel and hot water running into a horizontal plastic tube with a saddle pad to help smooth and distribute the water evenly over a wider area, the home-bonie keeps the ice “nice and skateable” between floods. “Before we home-bonie, we shovel to get the ice as cleared off as much as possible before we add water to avoid slush.” (Look online for some clever homemade home-bonie videos such as this one.)

Huyssen’s outdoor arena is 150 x 150 feet, and she says the skating rink usually ends up being approximately 70 x 100 feet. “We tried making the rink the entire ring area, but found it was too much work to flood and shovel if we got a lot of snow.”

An expert weighs in

Alex von Hauff, CEO and vice-president of Strathcona Ventures, says that it’s “quite easy” to create an ice rink over your skating arena.

He builds riding arenas and teaches people how to maintain and maximize arena surfaces, with more than a decade of experience in the industry. He comes from a horse family and has created an ice rink over his own riding arena, as well as had clients who created ice rinks over their own arenas.

For his rink, he started by packing the arena sand into a bowl shape, before it froze; then he placed a hay tarp over it. Alternatively, he says, instead of packing the sand into a bowl, you could take railroad ties, straw bales, or anything heavy, and roll the tarp over it so that the seam faces the outside.

Once it was cold enough, he slowly flooded the arena on top of the tarp. “The biggest thing is just slowly adding to it,” he says. You have to flood and let it freeze, on repeat, to allow the sand a chance to compress and avoid ice pockets.

Will it damage my arena footing?

In the six years they’ve done their ice rink, Huyssen hasn’t noticed any damage to their riding arena or footing. “As long as you have a good sturdy base, there shouldn’t be any issues come springtime,” she says.

Additionally, Von Hauff says it’s important to have a membrane (such as a tarp) between your arena and the rink, so that you’re not freezing the sand. As long as you use a membrane, he says, the type of arena or footing that you have underneath doesn’t matter.

If you don’t tarp it, Von Hauff says, it could cause problems.

Firstly, the arena footing may float to the surface of the rink, depending on what type of arena you have (light material floats). This could create an abrasive surface for your ice rink.

“Second, you’re going to destroy your base,” Von Hauff says. “In most arenas, it works out naturally that as it’s getting colder, people don’t ride outside, so they stop watering the arena, and it has a natural ability to freeze just like the ground around it.”

Problems could arise if the arena doesn’t have a good base and the owners have continued using the arena into the fall and winter and throwing water at it, Von Hauff says. This could mean that if you then create an ice rink without a tarp, you’re potentially introducing a lot of water to your arena, and it could separate your arena footing. Frost heaving is also a concern.

It’s more of a problem in the east coast, Von Hauff says, where it doesn’t gradually get colder, and temperatures may change more drastically – causing more upheaval to your frozen arena.

The spring thaw

When spring arrives, Huyssen says that surprisingly the skating rink area is the first area to melt and clear. “It drains nicely and we’ve been able to ride on it sooner in the spring since doing the ice rink.”

Von Hauff also says that having an ice rink over your arena will speed up how quickly the ice and snow melts from the arena in spring, but only if you’ve used a tarp.

The tarp will have “prevented all the precipitation from the winter from going into the arena,” he says. Some horse facilities will tarp their outdoor arenas over the winter anyway, both to protect them from becoming waterlogged and to expedite the spring thaw. In spring, you simply drain the water off and peel it away.

An ice rink at sunset.