- May 1, 2006
There are many options available today for horse owners when installing or redoing pen and pasture fencing. The first thought should be the safety of the horses. Sometimes a fencing makeover will mean tearing out all of the old fence and replacing it. Other times it might be as simple as re-stretching wire fence, replacing planks on a board fence, or adding a strand of electric fence to protect fences that are either being chewed or to provide a stronger deterrent as a boundary to resident horses.
David Freeman, PhD, extension horse specialist at Oklahoma State University, says that on small acreages, the first priority for many horse owners is the look of the fence. However, they should also prioritize durability and safety. Small acreages will allow for expensive options that especially improve the esthetics of the acreage. "On large farms, however, with more miles of fence, it becomes more of a cost issue; longevity and maintenance become more important," says Freeman.
"The owner of a small acreage has a lot more options because even though the cost per foot of fence may be high, the total cost won't be as much as for a larger area," he adds. "Usually on a small acreage your home and barn are right there, so the aesthetics of the fence are very important.
This is why so many new options keep coming on the market year after year--catering to the owner who wants beauty, safety, and durability.
Poles and boards are traditional fence for horses. Wood is strong and durable, more forgiving than wire or metal if a horse runs into it, and cheaper than some other types of fencing. Wood works best, however, where horses have room to roam and plenty of pasture. Confined, bored horses, fed a minimum of hay (part of the diet being grain or pellets), will chew on wood and demolish the fence in a short time unless it is protected (covered with chicken wire, painted with a foul-tasting but safe anti-chew preparation, or augmented with an electric wire to keep horses away from it). If protected from chewing, untreated poles and boards can last 20 to 30 years in dry climates, or longer if periodically treated. Wood preservative or paint must be applied regularly in a wet climate to keep wood from rotting.
A number of companies make ready-to-install wood fencing or supply posts and rails. Bluegrass Treated Wood supplies a lot of fencing in the central Kentucky area, for example. "The posts are pressure-treated southern yellow pine," says marketing manager Les Smart. Pine is a soft wood, but will last a long time if pressure treated. "Our 1x6-inch rails are hardwood. Painting, however, is the secret to making wood fence last," says Smart.
"With wood fencing, you have to replace a few rails every year," he explains. "In a mile of fence there are 660 posts and 1,320 boards. After a few years, you'll be replacing 25 to 30 boards every year or every time you repaint. The posts, if well treated, should last 30 to 40 years, especially if kept painted to keep the moisture out of them. How long a wood fence lasts depends on the maintenance and protection from weather."
Synthetic materials such as polyvinyl chloride (PVC) won't rot or splinter like wood, and horses don't chew them. PVC planks look like wood, but need less maintenance. They come in several widths, thicknesses, colors, ribbed or hollow (ribbed are stronger), and PVC posts are generally 5 by 5 inches square, installed every eight feet. This type of fencing usually comes with a 15- to 20-year warranty and can last 30 years. It requires little maintenance and usually lasts longer than wood, not needing paint or preservatives. There are no nails to work out and snag a horse. This material is somewhat flexible and won't splinter if a horse hits it, but can break if impact is great enough.
"If horses hit it, the rails usually bend and come back to normal shape," says Freeman. "Occasionally a horse will break them, but these products have been improved, have a long history, and are being used successfully for boundary fencing, with confidence that they can keep horses in. These products are more durable now, especially in terms of hot and cold weather damage. There are some systems where rails run through the posts instead of being attached to the outside. You don't need clips (that might break). There are several options that make some of these fences more desirable than others."
Many companies offer the original white vinyl fencing, but some also have a black vinyl with UV inhibitors to keep it from fading. Some companies will send someone to your place to install the fence, or provide fencing packages you can install yourself if you want to save money.
These planks and square posts are covered with white polymer resin, protecting the wood from moisture and reducing the need for paint or replacement of rotted wood. The ends of the boards and tops of the posts have protective caps to keep out moisture. This type of fencing needs less care than wood, is durable and safe, and is not as readily chewed, but it is more expensive.
Smooth wire (twisted barbless wire) works well as boundary fence for a large pasture if horses don't press the fence, but for it to be adequate you need at least five to seven strands, tightly stretched. In small enclosures, horses tend to reach through or over it unless it is augmented with electric wire or topped with a pole, pipe, or board.
High-tensile smooth wire is strong and requires little maintenance. It is designed to be stretched tightly, requiring fewer posts, using wire spacers to keep the strands apart. It needs solid, well-set braces at the corners to hold it. If it is properly installed, horses bounce off it without injury if they run into it. The wire lacks visibility, however, and you might want to tie bright-colored flagging on it until horses learn the boundary.
High-tensile coated wire is covered with a solid polymer or vinyl, making a highly visible strip that is somewhat elastic; if a horse hits it there's some give. If he sticks a foot through, it's less apt to cut him. Coated wire is moderately expensive, but lasts a long time. Maintenance usually consists of ratcheting once a year to keep it tight. It should be installed in warm weather for maximum tightening and might not work as well in a cold climate.
Centaur Fencing Systems provides a type of high-tensile wire encased in a synthetic material to make it safer and more visible. "We have one we call a hot rail, in which the top bead is electrified," says marketing manager John Saylor. "We also have it without the electrification. We have a five-inch, four-inch, and a one-inch 'rail' and several single strand products."
Net fences are more dependable than smooth wire for keeping horses where they belong, although a pawing horse can get a foot caught if the spaces in the netting are hoof size or larger. Large mesh, used for cattle or sheep, is not safe for horses. The "no climb" netting with 2-inch by 4-inch rectangles is fairly safe for adult horses, but a foal can get a foot through it. Diamond or "V" mesh is safer, since even a small hoof is less apt to go through it, and a shoe is rarely caught by it. The cross wires form hinge joints every eight inches of height, allowing the fence to fold rather than mash down if a horse falls into it or a tree falls on it. The fence can then be restored to its original height.
"Some mesh is made with fairly high-tensile wire that will maintain its integrity if a horse hits it," says Freeman. "This is a better choice than mesh that won't maintain its shape (becoming stretched and loose) if a horse rubs or pushes on it."
Welded netting is cheaper than woven wire, but it is not as strong, and is more susceptible to rusting. If a weld breaks, a piece of wire may stick out and snag a horse. Woven wire stretches better, without breaking. Galvanized wire (coated with zinc oxide) won't rust as readily as untreated wire. Mesh fence stays tight a long time if it is properly stretched, braced, and topped by an electric wire, pipe, pole, or board to keep horses from mashing it down. With some types of netting, you might need to add a pole or pipe at the bottom and across the middle to keep horses from pushing on it.
Install the wire on the inside of the posts for maximum strength and safety; the horses can't push it loose or pop the staples out if they run into or rub on the fence.
A "hot" wire or tape can work for internal pasture divisions (for rotating the grazing) or to augment an existing fence. "If your horses challenge a fence, electric fencing will protect it," says Freeman. "Just offset it out from the top rail or out to the side of the middle rail. It saves the existing fence and keeps the horse from rubbing his mane or tail on the fence."
Some fencing materials run an electric wire through a plastic coating, making a highly visible "hot" fence. "This works similar to some of the portable options like electric tapes that roll out and attach to temporary posts. There are several options in which a small-gauge wire is woven into a non-conductive netting or plastic, where it's exposed enough to shock the horse. This increases visibility of the electric wire and functions like a fence and a hot wire because it's all together," he says.
"These portable options work well for pasture rotation," Freeman adds. "Some types have insulated posts made of plastic or some other material that does not conduct electricity, and a web tape or heavy gauge electric string that can be reeled out and attached to the posts. These are usually set up with a good charger system that gives a quick shock that doesn't hurt the horses, but powerful enough they won't try to touch it again and will leave it alone," he says. "Most of these portable fencing options are fairly safe; if a horse gets wrapped in the tape it will break, or won't cut him."
Many people use steel T-posts for movable electric fence, but sometimes clip-on insulators are not as durable as you'd like. According to Bob Coleman, PhD, extension horse specialist with the University of Kentucky, one way to solve the insulator problem, especially for connectors made for the braided "rope" wires, is to use sleeves to cover the T-posts, screwing connectors into the insulating sleeves. You can buy sleeves, or make your own from PVC pipe, putting caps over the tops. Then you don't have to worry about sharp tops of the posts, and you can screw the connectors into the PVC at whatever height you want the fence.
When you take down the fence to store it, you can put the cap sleeves in one pile and posts in another. When you put the fence back up all you have to do is drive the posts, slip the sleeves over them, and you're ready to hook up the wire.
In some areas, especially where there is oil drilling, there is an abundance of pipe suitable for fencing. Pipe will last forever if coated with anti-rust paint. Pipe rails are usually attached to pipe posts set in concrete. Two-inch drill-stem pipe is often used for top and bottom rails, with three or four strands of cable or "sucker rod" (pump rod) in between. Pipe has more structural strength than wood and can span longer distances between posts, reducing the amount of posts needed. Some horse owners use pipe for stallion pens, boundary fences along roads, or other areas where it is crucial to have a fail-proof fence. Pipe is very unforgiving, however, and can cause serious injury if a horse runs into it full speed or if the spacing allows a horse to get a leg or head caught.
No matter if you just need to replace a few boards, keep your horses (especially warmbloods and drafts) from bending your fence to get to that greener grass on the other side, or fence off an area on your farm for safety reasons, there are many choices. Cost and availability will be a deciding factor, as will safety and type of horses you are enclosing. If you have questions, seek out your county or equine extension agent at your local university.
MORE INFORMATION: Reference Book
Bob Coleman, PhD, horse extension specialist at the University of Kentucky, says there are many tips and examples for fencing options in the new Horse Facilities Handbook, published by Midwest Plan Service. "This publication has been a work in progress for a long time and was recently updated."
It is available for purchase from Midwest Plan Service, 122 Davidson Hall, Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa 500111-3080; 800/562-3518.--Heather Smith Thomas
FREESTANDING FENCE: Metal Panels
Several companies sell portable corral fencing and round pens made of metal panels. The lightweight panels can be strapped to the side of a horse trailer and taken to a show, trail ride, or camp. More durable varieties can be used for training pens, roping arenas, or paddock fencing. C&S Iron Corral Systems, for instance, makes strong, tall panels that can be used for stallion pens, and a variety of light, medium, or heavy duty panels (with round or square tubing) for arenas, round pens, or pasture fencing.
The panels are quick and easy to set up, with hookups mounted on each panel (no loose parts to keep track of). Some are free-standing designs that don't require posts, although posts are recommended if the pen is to be installed in a permanent location. C&S Iron provides panel safety caps that create a continuous top rail effect, eliminating the gap between each panel (and thus the risk of a horse catching a leg if he rears up over the top rail of the paddock or round pen).--Heather Smith Thomas
About the Author
Heather Smith Thomas ranches with her husband near Salmon, Idaho, raising cattle and a few horses. She has a B.A. in English and history from University of Puget Sound (1966). She has raised and trained horses for 50 years, and has been writing freelance articles and books nearly that long, publishing 20 books and more than 9,000 articles for horse and livestock publications. Some of her books include Understanding Equine Hoof Care, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Care and Management of Horses, Storey's Guide to Raising Horses and Storey's Guide to Training Horses. Besides having her own blog, www.heathersmiththomas.blogspot.com, she writes a biweekly blog at http://insidestorey.blogspot.com that comes out on Tuesdays.
POLL: Managing Working Horses