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What's involved in building a menage?

Many people like the idea of a ménage and quite often they decide they want one, long before they ever do anything about it. Most people see the obvious benefits of having a ménage so that they have somewhere convenient to work, train and exercise their horses, all the way throughout the year, during both good and bad weather conditions, without ending up with a soggy, boggy or frozen mess, but very few people have any idea about what really needs to be considered before one is built and even fewer people know how to build one.

There are lots of things to consider, when you’re thinking about a ménage and the following list is not intended to be exhaustive, but we hope it’ll give you some guidance and hopefully answer many of your questions.

Position

Of course there are planning issues to consider with the position of a ménage, and a great deal of thought needs to go into the visual and sometimes environmental impact on the surrounding area and your neighbours. Even if you are proposing to build a ménage in the middle of the countryside and nowhere near your neighbours, having the ability to ‘tuck’ a ménage into the corner of a field, or being built against the side of a building would tend to be looked at more favourably from a planning point of view.

You should give some thought to it’s drainage as well, a well built ménage will also be a well drained ménage, (after all it’s not going to be of much use if you build a ménage that gets waterlogged easily), so wherever a ménage is built you need to be able to get water away from it and into existing underground drains, streams, ditches, etc.

Obviously the finished ménage needs to be flat, so if you are going to build it on the slope of a hill, more excavation and fill is likely to be required where you cut into the slope to create a level surface, than if you build it on a flat or level surface to start with.

Size

The size really depends upon whether it’s for private or for commercial use. Most ménages that are for private use are 40 metres long x 20 metres wide, but if you’re thinking of using it to do dressage or do a lot of jumping, then you may want to consider extending it. If you are going to extend it, bear in mind the standard circle sizes used for dressage because simply adding a few metres won’t gain you anything, you’ll probably need to add a minimum of 20 metres to the length for the extension to be worthwhile.

Ménages for commercial use are likely to have completely different needs to a private ménage purely because of the amount of people who use it. It’s likely that the commercial yard may want to have more than one lesson taking place at the same time and if that’s the case then doubling the length of a standard ménage may be something to consider.

Having said all of the above, by far the greatest majority of ménages that are built are the standard 40 metres long x 20 metres wide.

Basic Ménage Construction

Many people look at a ménage and see a nice finished surface on which to work their horses, surrounded with a nice looking post and rail timber fence and they have no idea what lies below in order to keep the finished surface in good condition in all weathers for many years to come. If you get the principles of the construction wrong, or cut a corner somewhere, you stand the chance of having a soaking wet ménage, in the middle of winter, that could also freeze solid when it’s cold enough. As with most things, good preparation is the key to success. We’ve split the basic construction principles of building a ménage into the following stages:-

Creating the formation level

The overall construction thickness of a ménage, will be between 350mm and 400mm thick, depending upon your choice of final surface. It isn’t a good idea to build directly upon the existing topsoil, as this contains a lot of organic material that can block the drainage, so this will need to be removed. Don’t dispose of the topsoil that you remove, because you can use it to ‘regulate’ around the outside of the newly constructed ménage, when it’s all finished off, or fill in other lower lying areas of the field and then simply spread new grass seed on top to finish it all off. Try to avoid sending anything off site for disposal at a tip, because these days disposal of any material can prove to be quite expensive pastime.

Once you’ve removed the topsoil, you’ll need to get the ‘formation’ down to a relatively flat and level surface. Depending on the location and slope of the field, this may mean that you have to excavate in some areas, but fill in other areas. Don’t worry about this too much, because as long as the filled areas are compacted correctly, you shouldn’t have any problems. If you end up with excavated material left over, once the formation level has been established, you’ll need to find another home for it; if at all possible, find another hole to fill somewhere, or level an uneven area of the field with it, as with the topsoil, use a tip as a last resort.

Once you got your formation level established, you can start on the actual build of the ménage itself.

Underground drainage structure

It’s surprising how many people aren’t aware that ménage drainage is an integral part of it’s construction, as we’ve said earlier, one of the main principles of having a ménage in the first place, is to create an area that you can use for your horses, in all types of weather, an in order to achieve this, your ménage needs to be well drained. Probably the most common drainage layout is to use what’s called a herringbone pattern, where a main carrier drain run is installed, down the centre line of the ménage, with drainage pipes running off this at an angle, all the way to the outer edges of the ménage. Other patterns that can used , include a comb pattern, where the main carrier drain runs down one side of the ménage, with the  other collection drain runs, going across the ménage, from one side to the other. Whatever drainage you choose to use, they all follow the same principle of having collector drains feeding into carrier drains, with your carrier drain then feeding into another main drainage run, a ditch, stream or other watercourse. If you choose to simply let your carrier drain discharge onto the side of a hill or slope, then you’ll need to be careful that you don’t cause erosion of the hillside, or worse still, flood your or somebody else’s property lower down the slope.
It’s also worth remembering that the usual sort of drain pipes that are installed for houses, simply won’t work on a ménage. Those sorts of drains are used to carry water from one point to another without leaking or letting any water in, whereas the whole idea behind draining a ménage is for the drainage to let water into the systems, wherever the drain pipe run, so the drain pipes need to be perforated or slotted, which means that they will let water drain into them. The most common form of drain pipes are perforated plastic drain pipes, 100mm diameter and they usually come in a large roll or coil. They need to be laid in a trench, approximately twice the depth of the pipe and the trench filled with pea gravel, sometimes it may also be necessary to line the trench with a geotextile membrane, before anything is placed into it. The collection drains then feed into the carrier drain, which in turn discharges either in a nearby ditch, stream or watercourse.

Sub-base construction

Once the drainage layout has been installed, the whole area will need covering with a geotextile membrane. This will help to stop the formation layer mixing with either the newly installed drainage or the next construction layer of the ménage which in most cases is the actual porous drainage bed laying underneath your finished ménage surface.

The next layer of the ménage needs to be from a sub-base material that will allow itself to be compacted slightly, but still let water pass through it and down to the newly installed underground drainage system. There are a number of options for this, just remember that it shouldn’t be something that will degrade over time, and it mustn’t be something that has a lot of fines in. There are many natural aggregates that can be used for this, such as granite, slate, flint, even some limestone and sandstone can be used, you just need to be sure that whichever aggregate you choose to use is clean and free from things such as clay, coal or sand as these can cause problems with blocking up your new drains. You can also use many forms of recycled aggregates, such as crushed concrete or crushed brick, again just make sure that it’s clean and doesn’t have things such as wood, plastics etc present in it. It’s worth remembering that some types of crushed brick can break down further and produce dust and we wouldn’t personally recommend using clean road planings, since this is a bituminous based product and it can over time consolidate and prevent water passing through it. Whichever sub-base you choose to use, you need to make sure that it is between 25mm and 75mm in size, with no fines; that way it’ll allow water to pass through it very quickly. If fines are present, then they can work there way down through the geotextile membrane and into the drains, which is something else that can cause the drains to block.

We’d recommend a minimum layer thickness of around 100mm, which for a standard 40m x 20m ménage, will amount to approx 180 tonnes of material.

Once the sub-base layer has been installed, you’ll need to provide another layer of geotextile membrane, this will help keep the sub-base layer separate from the final working surface and prevent the two getting mixed.

Final working surface

There is lots of choice, when coming to a decision about which type of final working surface to choose, and generally speaking, whatever final surface you do choose, then you should really place a layer of clean silica sand on top of the newly laid membrane. The sand helps to protect the membrane from damage from the horses hooves and it also adds to the drainage benefits with many of the surfaces on the market, we would say that the sand needs to be at least 50mm thick, but we wouldn’t say you need to go as deep as 100mm and this will amount to between 90 and 180 tonnes for a standard 40m x 20m ménage.

There are a few surfaces on the market that don’t break down at all (such as shredded carpet/rubber/ insulation etc) that don’t need sand above the top geotextile membrane to help the drainage. If you do intend to use this type of material we’d recommend increasing the layer thickness to around 200mm – 225mm to give a little added protection to the membrane from the horses hooves, or still placing a small amount of sand above the membrane to protect it. We wouldn’t ever recommend omitting the geotextile membrane, because in our experience this has always led to problems with drainage.

The choice of final surface is really down to personal preference, but sand based mixtures tend to be the most popular. It’s always a good idea to speak to other people who have a ménage to find out their thoughts, if it’s possible go and ride on a few different surfaces as well. There are pros and cons to all the different mixes of surfaces on the market and generally speaking surfaces that are good for jumping, tend to be bigger and springier materials than those used for dressage. Prices do vary, which may be one of the deciding factors in your choice, but try and pick a surface that isn’t prone to freezing (remember that sand used on it’s own can freeze quite easily when it gets wet).

Oh and bear in mind that the fencing around a ménage isn’t just for decoration, the timber or concrete retaining boards that are attached to the fence posts are used to retain the various construction layers of the ménage itself and bear in mind that the total thickness of various layers can be 300 or 450mm thick.

Cost

Cost is always important factor to consider with anything and it sounds easy to say that generally speaking you still get what you pay for, however, there are very few people around where the budget isn’t important. We’ve tried to outline the basic things to think about when considering a ménage and you’ll always get somebody who recommends that you can cut a corner somewhere to save you some money, or use a particular type of surface because it’s cheap, but generally speaking cutting a corner somewhere may well lead to problems in the future.

If you know what you’re doing and can do much of the work yourself, then that’s fantastic and the cost of the build could be as small as a couple of thousand pounds, but most people aren’t in this position and need to employ a contractor or supplier to do the work. If that is the case with you, seek out references and go and see their work, if possible go and see something that they built a few years ago, that way you can see whether or not the drainage element of the work is still working.

The cost of building a ménage will depend on many things, some areas require more drainage work than others, depending upon it’s position, you may have to do more preparatory excavation and fill work etc, but as a very rough guide, you can expect to pay somewhere between £15,000 and £20,000 for a basic ménage, that doesn’t need a lot of preparatory work carrying out and has a decent final working surface to work on, although I have heard figures quoted approaching £50,000 for a domestic ménage and over £100,000 for ménages for commercial and professional yards.

Remember that whatever ménage surface you choose, it’ll need to have plenty of ongoing maintenance during it’s working life and you’ll need to allow for the purchase and operation of an appropriate leveling device in your budget somewhere.

Whoever you are considering to employ to carryout the construction of the ménage for you, always make sure that you get a very detailed specification for the works that they are proposing to do. That not only gives you the ability to compare contractors and suppliers with each other, it should also enable you to make sure that you know exactly what you’re getting for your money and it’ll give you something to check against whilst the works are being carried out

Things to avoid

Insufficient underground drain pipes. You can save money on the construction of a ménage by reducing the amount of underground pipework that you install, but in the long term this very rarely works unless the ground you are building on is extremely well drained throughout the year. If you don’t put enough underground pipes in, water will not get away fast enough in times of heavy rain and you’ll potentially end up with soggy wet patches in your ménage. Quite often this problem doesn’t materialize until the second or third winter after it’s been built.

Reduce the thickness of the sub-base construction layer. Don’t forget that the main purpose of this layer is to help with the drainage, of the ménage; if the water can’t drain through the final working surface and quickly get to the drainage pipes, then your ménage will become soggy, and potentially unusable. This is probably one of the commonest corners to be cut by some people, but the unlike the one above, the problems in doing so will materialize very quickly – probably after the first really heavy downpour.

Inappropriate final working surface. Like we’ve mentioned above, there are many different types of surface available these days, but there are a couple to be wary of.

If you decide to use woodchip, wood shavings or bark, remember that these are natural organic materials and will always break down, no matter how they are treated. They will work fine for a year or two (depending upon how much you use it), but after a period of time, it’ll need to be replaced. Due to their organic nature, these materials will also tend to need more ongoing maintenance to keep them in good condition until they become unusable but perhaps the most important thing to remember is that as they break down, it starts to turn into a compost type of material that’ll completely block up both your sub-base drainage layer and potentially your underground drainage pipes as well. It’s also worth remembering that these types of materials can be very dusty in dry conditions, which can cause problems for both the horse and rider.

Although not often seen, silica sand that’s a by product of mining operations can also be an issue. Most silica sands tend to be from stone quarries and generally speaking these are the best ones, but one or two are also by products of the mining industry and they can have impurities such as clay in amongst them. Even though the sand is often washed, screened and kiln dried, to remove impurities such as clay, if it is present in the mix, it can very quickly turn your ménage into a very wet surface indeed.

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