Hang around the horse world long enough and you’re bound to hear grumbling about clay clods in the arena, slow ground around the poles and slippery sand around the barrels.

Ask any arena dirt worker why barrel racers have to be cremated, and he’ll likely laugh as he completes the old joke, “Because the dirt’s never good enough.”

But that old ditty is losing its legs at the Elks Unocal Event Center.

At the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas last December, the Women’s Professional Rodeo Association awarded Santa Maria Elks Rodeo the 2018 Justin Best Footing Award for the California Circuit. The award recognizes rodeo committees that put forth extra effort to ensure their rodeo had the safest, most consistent ground conditions throughout the entire rodeo to provide a safe and level playing field for the barrel racing competition.

“The WPRA Best Footing Award means a lot to all of the volunteers who have worked very hard over the past few years to get the dirt in optimal condition,” said Santa Maria Elks Rodeo Chief Operating Officer Tina Tonascia.

Real work on improving the arena began in 2017 with a WPRA grant to research the mixture of soil elements in the arena.

“They found our sand content was too low, plus the sand we had wasn’t really compatible with what we needed. It was sugar sand or ball sand from the hills around here. All the granulars were round. We needed irregular sand, like what they use to mix cement, so clay wouldn’t form around it as bad,” said Elks volunteer Joey Silva, arena preparation chairman.

A water test also showed high levels of bicarbonate and magnesium, which only added to the claying problem. The arena was amended to help balance the soil’s pH.

“Balancing those levels, introducing that sand, really helped everything start mixing and working right so we don’t have an arena full of dirt clods,” Silva said.

Before the 2018 rodeo, 125 tons of sand were also added to the arena in the weeks leading up to last year’s rodeo, and the riders took notice.

“We did something really good because everyone noticed the difference. It took lots of man hours to get it correct, but it was well worth it,” Silva said.

And the ground work hasn’t stopped. Another 275 tons of proper sand and water-softening material have been raked in, and riders are recording record barrel times at this year’s California Gymkhana Association events held regularly in the arena.

“It’s a labor of love. I enjoy what I’m doing and I really like the outcome. They’re seeing record-breaking rides. Everyone’s having a good time. We did something good and it worked. Now let’s keep it growing and grow this rodeo,” Silva said.

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