Fencing for Pastures

What is the correct fencing for your farm? The correct answer is: it depends. It would be wonderful if there existed one type of Good Horse Fencing that we could all install and be done. While there is unacceptable fencing for horses, there is no perfect fence for all situations. Therefore, before we choose fencing for our farms, we need to be clear on the use for that fence. Once you establish your needs, features are easier to sort through. For example, if you know you will be moving a fenceline, you wouldn't sink six-inch wood posts into concrete.

One need for fencing is to make the best of the land available. Where will the horses be and what will they be doing there? For the purposes of this article, we will assume there will be some cross-fencing on the property. Running all the horses on one pasture means one big perimeter fence--which necessitates a different approach to pasture management, one that doesn't rely as much on fencing products.

Editor's Note: The following is a discussion of some fencing options available for pasture management. It is not intended as a definitive list, nor is it an endorsement of any brand or company.

Questions to Consider

Why will the horses be moved around the property? Cross-fencing gives the property manager flexibility to keep horses on or off parts of the land, temporarily or permanently. Rotational grazing allows pastures to rest and/or be reseeded.

Farm managers with facilities in low-lying areas might need to fence horses away from certain areas while the floodplain drains. In other situations with limited rainfall, you might want to create one sacrifice lot (dry lot) and limit the time the rest of the pastures are grazed.

How many horses will the land need to accommodate? While horses are like potato chips (it seems you can't have just one), you probably know if you will have five or 50. Of these horses, how many will be in each fenced area, i.e., will there be individual paddocks for all, or two big ones to split mares and geldings? Will you be using the pastures for 24-hour turnout or as restricted turnout during the day or at night?

What are the zoning restrictions where you live? They might limit total numbers housed on the property or have restrictions related to fencing off flood plains or streams.

How stable is the herd? Long-term pasturemates are more predictable than a herd where new members constantly change the dynamic. Herd realignment might mean fighting or charging the fenceline. If split into separate paddocks, new members might inspire curiosity or fighting over the fence.

Will you have sale horses or boarders that will need to be separated or isolated? Will horses be moved in a group--for example, shifting from summer to winter pasture--or will the cross-fencing be used to divide horses at various times of the year for various purposes? How desirable is the other side of the fence: does the horse see grass, other horses, the barn? Finally, how likely are these answers to change?

Permanent Paddocks

Joseph Berto, co-owner of Equi-Tee, a fencing manufacturer in White City, Ore., advocates investing in permanent fencing instead of temporary, but to plan your barriers wisely. "For example, if you have five acres, one big perimeter fence can cost too much money," says Berto.

"Use yours to make several smaller permanent pastures, any one of which you can put a horse in safely," he says.

Permanent cross-fencing has strength as an advantage. You can install the strongest, safest barrier you can afford. Permanent fencing comes in three forms: closely-spaced mesh, tensioned wire, and post and rail. The latter is available in both wood and vinyl. The disadvantage of permanent fencing is just that: it's permanent. You can't adapt it to modify your land use or to accommodate a changing number of horses. Permanent fencing around one or more areas will work if you have some land that you know will be "out of bounds" for part of a year, such as the floodplain.

Do you need something to discourage horses from reaching over or through the fence, either to eat or to socialize?

Horses reaching for grass can lean on a mesh fence, causing it to sag, or they could reach through post and rail, breaking or popping out a rail. Fighting over the fence could inspire a horse to strike out or rear and, thus, get tangled in the fence. Several options exist to address these problems with permanent fencing.

On a mesh fence with wood posts, a wood plank or board will usually keep horses from reaching over the fence toward grass on the other side. If they can reach the ground on the other side, the board will prevent sagging. A top board creates a sight line that also increases visibility at a distance.

Alternatively, an electric cord or tape with a low-voltage charge added inside the fence will keep the horses from approaching the fence at all.

Insulators come in several styles to accommodate rope or tapes. Some insulators hold the hot wire close to the fence, while others keep it a few inches out from the fence. Insulators can be nailed or screwed directly to wood posts.

Unfortunately wood posts mean time, expense, and a lot of posthole digging.

Berto's recommendation to combine cost-effectiveness with safety is a mesh fence installed with metal T-posts, combined with a vinyl top rail. The pasture corners will still need to be large wood posts that are secured deeply in the ground. As intermediate posts, metal T-posts prevent sagging, eliminate posthole digging, and will not rot. The major disadvantage of this mesh and T-post installation is the exposed top of the T-post, perfect for impaling a horse that's having a goofy moment.

Equi-Tee doesn't sell mesh, vinyl rails, or T-posts. "Like the plastic company BASF," Berto explains, "we don't make fencing. We make products that make fencing better." Their Equi-Tee six-piece adapter kit securely attaches to the top of a T-post, covers the exposed top, and has space to attach a solid eight-inch vinyl rail, as well as mount a hot wire. The result is a vinyl sight line and a fence with, Berto says, "the strength of mesh, the visibility of vinyl, and the mental deterrent of electricity."

Berto says he loves his T-post adapters not just as an inventor, but as a horse owner.

His 5-year-old Andalusian stallion got away from him one time. A willing mare sidled up to one of the mesh/vinyl fences. Berto watched as the stallion mounted the mare right on top of the T-post, which fortunately was covered with one of the adapter caps. No one was harmed, and the fence escaped unscathed as well.

Other T-post caps are available. Some have attachments for electric tape/twine. Equi-Tee is the only one that provides the option to affix a vinyl rail.

Materials Galore

Post and rail is the classic horse fence. We all love the look of white boards running over acres of green fields, but who has the time to maintain painted wood fences? An alphabet soup of modern materials (PVC, HDPE, etc.) have given horse owners the option of lower maintenance with the classic look. But horses will still be horses, and they'll insist on reaching for the grass on the other side. As with mesh fencing, a hot wire adds a mental deterrent to the post and rail fence.

If the post and rail is high-tech plastic, Equi-Tee offers a hot wire stud that snaps into a small hole drilled in the post. Berto strongly advises against using any sort of smooth wire with this stud. "That would be putting a cheese slicer between your horse and where he wants to go," he says.

Equi-Tee sells a compatible braided polyrope "scare wire" for use with its studs. "The rope will break," explains Berto.

Tensioned fences have a different set of problems. Barbed wire is a cattle fence, not a horse fence. Surprisingly, smooth high-tension fencing, often called New Zealand fencing, can be just as deadly. Berto's veterinarian told him, "The only difference is a clean wound versus a ragged wound (from barbed wire) that's harder to sew up."

Fortunately, the same high-tech plastics that have been used to make posts and rails have been applied to high-tensile horse fencing. For example, RAMM Fencing and Stalls of Bryan, Ohio, sells a variety of coated wire and wires embedded in bands of various widths. Instead of resisting a horse's weight, these fences give and spring back in the event of a crash or a horse reaching through the fence.

A flexible fence is also more forgiving to any knees (horse or rider) that get slammed against it. Debbie Disbrow, president and owner of RAMM, explains some of the features to look for in flexible plastic and wire fencing.

These are questions you should ask, she says: What is the tensioning system? If you are installing the fence yourself, how easy is the system to understand and use? To keep the tension on the fence, some form of spring, box, or ratchet will be left in the fence line. Will there be anything protruding on which horses can get hurt?

Many fencing companies sell to the general agricultural market. If you are not using a company that specifically designs fencing for horses, be sure you understand how horse fencing needs to be different from cattle or sheep fencing.

The lines in tensioned fences run in continuous strands that slide through brackets fixed to each fence post, Disbrow explains. What is the bracketing system? How easily does the fence slide through the brackets? This is important to allow the fence to stretch and flex along its length, rather than just between two fence posts. How are the brackets affixed to the fence? Will they stay attached under the weight of an impact? How strong are the brackets themselves?

One of the unique features of the RAMM Flex-Fence is its brackets of powder- coated, galvanized metal.

Another important feature that Disbrow points out is prestraightened wire. Anyone who has tried to unkink a hose knows how a loop can fold into a point. When this happens with coiled wire, the wire is weakened at the point of the kink. Prestraightening in the manufacturing process reduces the risk of weak points, which means there won't be as much tension to straighten. This makes the resulting coated wire or band easier to handle.

These are "differences that sound small, but will be major," explains Disbrow.

Temporary Measures

Temporary fences are not boundary fences. The land will still need a strong perimeter fence to keep the horses on the property, but also to keep intruders out. The biggest advantage to a simple temporary fence is the flexibility. Temporary cross-fencing allows you to change how you move your horses about. Use it to reseed one area during the fall, then re- arrange the fence to keep them off a floodplain in the spring.

This kind of fencing is usually an easily installed post with some form of line strung along the posts. Berto says his T-post and vinyl rails could be installed more easily than a full-scale permanent fence, but at best, it would be considered semiportable. Temporary fences are often electric fences. There are endless options in rope, twine, or tapes, with or without the option to run an electrical charge. It is important to ensure that the rope/twine/tape will break rather than tangle or cut the horse, unlike uncoated smooth or barbed wire. The fact it will break underscores the need for a stronger perimeter fence.

The T-posts from the mesh fence can be used for temporary fencing, but they will need to be capped in some way. For example, RAMM sells a two-inch square by five-foot long sleeve to cover an entire T-post. Posts also come in plastic and fiberglass from a variety of sources. Some posts have an insulator or cap at the top that holds the fence line and eliminates any protruding piece of metal.

The downside of temporary fencing is it will not hold up in a fight with a horse. Even electricity will not stop a determined horse. A fence that gives or breaks under major impact or stress is better for the horse's safety, but what happens on the other side? If the fence is for rotational grazing and the loose horse gets into a resting pasture--no harm done. But if a down fence leads to your horse trotting down the lane to visit the neighbors or even out toward a busy highway--nightmare time.

Even without going through a fence, a horse can get into trouble. To prevent visiting or fighting over the fence, Disbrow recommends creating aisles between temporary paddocks. If you are dividing your pasture, divide it into thirds, leaving the empty one between.

"Don't have horses congregate over the fence," says Disbrow.

Take-Home Message

A final note on money spent for your fencing. Disbrow recommends pricing every option. She has had customers surprised to find that they can, in fact, afford a fence they thought was out of reach financially.

When deciding on what constitutes too expensive, Berto reminds us that price between good fencing and bad is the price of one catastrophic veterinary bill: "It doesn't pay to put up bad fencing," he says.

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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