Safe And Secure Fencing

As I turned into the driveway to my friend's barn one afternoon, our veterinarian's truck was just pulling out. I waved at her in passing, but I was thinking, "uh-oh." Sure enough, when I peeked into the barn, there stood her most recent patient, still half-tranquilized and looking decidedly dejected in his stall. Poor Christopher, a gregarious three-year-old, Thoroughbred/Belgian cross gelding. He was bandaged from hoof to hock. Earlier that morning (as his owner Sandra told the tale), he'd had a tangle with the brand-new, high-tensile wire fence, snagging a hoof and eventually sitting down in the fence line while struggling to free himself. In the process, he'd sliced his hock in several places, almost to the bone. Now his leg was a maze of stitches, the edema was swelling the joint to tree-trunk proportions, and he was looking at a six-month recuperation period. And the fence was a mess, with blood spattered liberally in the snow beneath

The moral: just about any fence is safe...until it isn't. This scenario has been repeated with just about any type of fencing you can imagine, although some have proved safer than others for horses.

Sandra had installed her fencing in good faith, on the advice of "experts" - yet in only weeks, one of her horses had been seriously injured. Would another kind of barrier have been any safer? It seems everyone's got at least one fencing horror story to tell, and with all the different types of fence now available, sorting out the options can be a daunting task.

What Makes A Fence Safe?

The act of fencing in horses is contrary to their very nature. As free-ranging herbivores, horses have an instinctive phobia of being confined, and even several thousand years of domestication are not likely to convince them that cougars do not lurk behind every rock and tree. When in a panic, horses will try to jump over, or run right through, a fence - no matter its type - in an effort to escape from real or imagined predators.

Visibility is the first criterion in making a fence safe. When we consider visibility, we have to consider how a fence might be perceived by a horse. Color is not a key factor in visibility, but brightness and contrast are. Traditional "estate" fencing, with whitewashed rails, might provide a brilliant contrast against green pasture, but disappear against the snow. Black rails tend to become invisible in late afternoon shadows, especially when placed against a background of shade trees. Some fencing experts have suggested that if we really wanted to make our fences more visible to our horses, we would paint them in barbershop stripes. However, tradition probably will prevent most people to stop short of that step!

Where you place your fence also has a lot to do with how visible it will be to your horses. Remember that horses are far-sighted creatures which tend to look to the horizon. Placing a fence at the bottom of a hill, even if that's the end of your property line, might be an invitation for your horse to look to (and possibly jump to) where the grass is greener beyond - or fail to see the fence until he is practically on top of it. It might sound like false economy to shorten your potential pasture space by placing the fence along the top of the ridge, but the name of the game is to keep the horses enclosed safely!

Because a horse's eyes are attracted by movement, you also can make a fence more visible by attaching strips of cloth or plastic at intervals along its length. These little flags, which flutter in the breeze, often are employed by those who have wire or electric fence, to call attention to the location of the top wire, and they can be very effective.

For maximum visibility, install your fence at a height at least equal to the height of your tallest horse's eyes when he holds his head up. For most horses, that means five feet or better. This much height is not the norm of most farms who also want an aesthetically pleasing fenceline, but it certainly acts as a deterrent to jumping the barrier. Draft horses might need something even taller, while miniatures and ponies can get by with less. Most fence installers recommend a fence at least six feet high for stallions.

Social pressures usually are to blame when horses challenge fences. Whether one horse is trying to escape another, or one is trying to get to another - either way, if the need is great enough, the matter of a fence might suddenly be inconsequential. We know that virtually any horse can clear a five-foot fence from a standstill if he's sufficiently motivated, but very few horses will be keen to clear two fences that are only eight to twelve feet apart. That's why the safest fencing arrangements are those in which paddocks do not share a fence line. Instead, each paddock has its own fence and "alleyways" (suitable for navigating with your tractor) run between them. This arrangement also virtually eliminates squabbling, or courting, over the fenceline. The downside is that few of us can afford this elaborate arrangement of fencing; it's generally seen only on big-money breeding farms.

If your setup does include shared fencelines, then your horses' safety also will depend on smart turn-out strategies. A peaceful, established herd, where each horse knows its place in the pecking order, will rarely challenge a fence; but add a new horse to that mix and problems could arise. Watch your horses' social interactions closely so that you can determine which new horse will go best with which established herd. Separate across-the-fence suitors or aggressors by at least one paddock, both to reduce the wear-and-tear on your fence and to lessen the chance of injury. Weanlings, because they tend to be particularly rambunctious (and when first weaned, anxious and panicky), should be placed in the safest, strongest paddocks you have. Consider a strand of "hot wire" (electric fence) across all shared fencelines to act as a deterrent against fence abuse.

Your fence only will achieve its best safety rating if it is properly installed. Don't cut corners; sloppy installation of any type of fencing might mean that in six months your fence sags (an invitation to get a foot caught), leans, or has protruding nails, wires, or sharp edges. Given the equine propensity for finding trouble, it's crucial to prepare not only for the obvious accidents, but for the less-obvious ones.

For example, you should "round off" the corners in all of your paddocks, so that a passive horse, being chased by a more aggressive pasturemate, can find an escape route rather than be cornered and thoroughly thumped. Place your gates so that horses don't get cornered and crowded when you're leading animals in or out, and fence off swampy areas, trees, power line guy wires, or anything in which a horse could become mired, entangled, or wounded upon.

There are two main strategies for keeping horses from getting snagged in fencelines: make all the openings far too small for them to get any body parts through, or make all the openings far too large to trap any body part. Of the two, the "way too large" approach usually is cheaper; but an "airy" fence design also could appear flimsy to horses and encourage escape attempts.

Of course, horses will be far less motivated to leave if all is well and good within their paddock. Good grazing is the number one concern. As long as the grass is green beneath their feet, horses won't tend to look elsewhere quite as enthusiastically. Don't forget to provide fresh water and some sort of shelter, as well. If your grazing is poor, you must be willing to supply an adequate substitute (usually hay).

If budget concerns limit which fence you can choose for your property, it might be time to prioritize. Place the safest, most secure, most low-maintenance fence in the high-stress areas of your property (for example, to fence in a stallion or weanling field), or along the side of your property that borders on the road. In the back forty, where you keep a herd of steady, older geldings, you might be able to get away with a less expensive fencing option that would be perfectly adequate and safe for them.

Assorted Safety Tips

Regardless of the material used for the fence, be sure to fasten the horizontal fencing onto the insides of the posts (that is, closest to the center of the paddock, rather than closest to the outside). When horses lean on your fence, the boards, pipes, or wire will be pushed against the posts rather than off them. Boards on the outsides of the posts might look nicer, but they make escape far too easy an option.

Any fence that requires stretching needs good bracing and regular tightening. Stretching often has the effect of pulling staples against the posts, so you might need to walk your fenceline and loosen the staples as you go. Corner posts should be set in concrete for any fence that relies on tension; it might be best to rely on a professional for that job.

Round wooden posts are stronger than square posts of an equivalent size because of the way square ones are cut from a larger round of wood. However, round posts don't provide as secure a nailing surface for board rails - so you should expect to spend extra time walking the fenceline and pounding in loose nails. Wooden posts are also prone to rot; you can reduce the moisture damage by cutting the tops of the posts at an angle and painting them to prevent moisture intake.

When examining wire fencing, choose woven wire over welded, for strength and safety. Thicker is more visible and safer than thinner. Wire is measured in "gauges," and the smaller the number, the thicker the wire.

Avoid, at all costs, metal T-posts (metal stakes shaped like a T when viewed from the top). While they are used as short-cut "posts" in many fencing arrangements, they are horrific accidents waiting to happen. Australian journalist Kate Ames remembers when a friend's horse was pastured in a field with T-posts. "Somehow, he impaled himself between the front legs on a T-post - probably playing "wild stallion." He bent it 90 degrees from the pressure, and pulled himself off. My friend got to him right away, but he bled to death - he had punctured his aorta and done all sorts of internal damage. Very tragic. Very gruesome."

If you are absolutely stuck with T-posts until you can replace them with something better, equip them with plastic caps on the tops (several sizes are available from fencing product manufacturers) to help avoid this sort of danger.

It's amazing that some horses manage to get themselves into trouble on even the most state-of-the-art fencing, and others seem to coexist quite happily with fencing that is straight from the 1800s. Ames relates another fencing story that had a happier ending:

"One of my mares once foaled beside a barbed wire fence - they're common in Australia - only to have the foal get up on the other side. The mare, an older mother, didn't panic; just stood there. When the pair were found in the morning, the foal was happily suckling through the wire, at a very awkward angle! But the outcome could have been very different."

Our conclusion? There are no magical, guaranteed, misery-free fences out there, but some choices are better than others. When you make your choice, remember that horses are endlessly inventive when it comes to getting in trouble. Prepare for both the obvious disasters, and the not-so-obvious, and you'll be far more likely to have sound and happy horses in your paddocks.

About the Author

Karen Briggs

Karen Briggs is the author of six books, including the recently updated Understanding Equine Nutrition as well as Understanding The Pony, both published by Eclipse Press. She's written a few thousand articles on subjects ranging from guttural pouch infections to how to compost your manure. She is also a Canadian certified riding coach, an equine nutritionist, and works in media relations for the harness racing industry. She lives with her band of off-the-track Thoroughbreds on a farm near Guelph, Ontario, and dabbles in eventing.

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