Safe and Healthy Fencing: A Place Apart

(Editor's Note: This is the first installment of a two-part series on safe, healthy fencing. Next month: Construction and Maintenance.)

Before I built a wall I'd ask to know: What I was walling in or walling out. --Mending Wall, by Robert Frost

In answer to the venerable poet's query, we must respond: The horse, Mr. Frost, the horse--and therein lies the quandary. Every horse, young or old, sooner or later, in one way or another, will match wits with a fence. A flight or fight animal which has evolved over the millennia in the wide-open spaces of prairie and steppes, with few limits to his physical freedom, the horse has minimal respect for barriers, especially when possessed by anger, sexual desire, desperation, or great fear. In fact, as many people already know, a horse in panicked flight is literally blind as he runs in terror from a perceived danger. He just doesn't see the fence.

A hopefully positive outcome for those horse-meets-fence confrontations involves many factors, the most important of which is quite simply the safety of the fence and of its materials.

Furthermore, like a similar creature--the cow--a horse considers the grass on the other side of the fence to be much greener. If there is a way to get out of the paddock, pen, or field, he will find it. Then you will find yourself armed with a flashlight in the middle of the night, jogging down a country road, and praying you find your horse before a speeding truck does.

Therefore, reliability is the second-most- important factor when considering the construction of a horse fence. The materials need to be durable in all kinds of weather and able to withstand the weight of a 1,200-pound animal determined to down an entr�e in the grain bin, followed by a little dessert in the apple orchard.

"When people call asking about horse fences, the first question I actually ask them is: 'Where do you live?' " says Brett Scott, PhD, state extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University. "Fences need to be appropriate to your location. There is no perfect horse fence, so cost and availability of materials are important factors, along with safety and strength, which must be considered for practical reasons. Once I know where the fence is being built, we start with the safety aspect and go from there."

The Wonders of Wood

Sturdy wooden horse fences have long been favored in the eastern half of the United States and some other locations. Made up of three to five evenly spaced boards, measuring either one-by-six or two-by-six inches, they are usually made of hardwood, such as oak, but occasionally softer (and less expensive) treated pine is used. Round posts measuring from four to six inches in diameter are used to mount the boards.

"We use wood, and we've been very happy with it. I think that is all we would ever consider using," says broodmare manager Leslie Goncharoff, who, with husband and general manager Tom Goncharoff, runs Crystal Springs Farm, a well-respected Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse racehorse nursery near Paris, Ky.

"We really haven't had many serious injuries from the fence, and our horses--from older broodmares to foals and yearlings--can easily see it and don't really test it. We repaint about every seven to 10 years with standard black fence paint, and when one board breaks or rots, it is easy to replace just that board without having to redo an entire fence line.

"Some people in the area I know mix a safety V-mesh woven wire and wood, but it seems like getting those fences built just right is a challenge," she continues. "It's hard to avoid having little pieces of wire sticking out here and there, and if you have even one little broken place, some horse is guaranteed to find it and get cut.

"Where I do like to see that type of material is in a gate made of a heavy duty wire screen like we use on our stall doors and framed by pipe or wood," she says. "I think it makes a very good gate, but they are pretty expensive to buy. Horses tend to paw at pipe gates, especially when it's time to come in, and occasionally put a foot between the pipes, so the heavy wire screen gates seem like a safer option."

J. Clyde Johnson, VMD, a longtime veterinarian in Vermont and past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners (AAEP), also recommends wood, but adds another element. "Wood (or vinyl) can break on impact, and that can cause punctures and cuts. However, my choice is still a wooden fence, but with an electric wire around the inside of the top board. Horses see the fence easily, and they seem to have a sense of electrification even if they don't touch it. All that said, since horses are a 'flight/fight' (mostly flight) critter, when loud noises or bear smells or whatever stimulates them, they are 'outta here!' whether over, under, or through!"

Veterinarian Tom Lenz, DVM, of Louisburg, Kan., and the immediate past president of the AAEP, concurs with Johnson and adds, "The major safety precaution with wooden fences is to always nail the boards on the inside (horse side) of the fence post. While this may not be as attractive as boards on the outside of the fence, the fence will be stronger, more efficient, and safer. Boards on the outside of posts are easily pushed off the post by the horse, which paves the way for puncture wounds and deep lacerations from splintered wood and exposed nails--not to mention an easy escape.

"Hardwood, rough cut boards are best used for horse fences because horses are less likely to chew them," says Lenz. "Red oak is best because it has a sour smell, a bitter taste, and is much more difficult to chew than pine, cedar, or white oak."

Keep in mind that location often will determine the cost of building a wooden fence. Where the right kind of lumber is available, the price obviously is lower than in areas where the materials must be transported great distances.

The Power of Plastics

Richard Decker has a rather different take on the subject. Decker spent many years in Kentucky as manager of Belle Reve and Prestonwood Farms, then as president of WinStar Farm. Currently he is the manager of Vessels Stallion Farm, LLC, in Bonsall, Calif.

"Over the years, we've had horses behind wood plank, wide-ribbon electric, oak with electric, pipe, and HTP (high tension polymer, a type of plastic and wire) fences," he begins. "I would have to say that if I were building a farm from scratch and could build any kind of fence I wanted, I would go with a plastic fence like the Centaur fence--especially for weanling and yearling pastures. This fence is made up of three strands of high-tensile wire molded into a plastic coating and is about 5 1/2 inches wide per strand. We used this type of fencing on the back of the farm in Kentucky (we had traditional wooden fences in the front pastures). Line posts were made up of four-inch plastic posts imported from Canada. These posts work well with this fencing and are made from recycled plastic chemical containers.

"From a distance, people couldn't distinguish the Centaur fence from our wooden fences," Decker continues, "but the best thing about it was its safety and durability. I saw horses kick it, and the fence would just rattle a little. Also, I've seen young horses run into it at high speed, bounce off, because it gives just enough, and then look at you as if to say, 'Oops! I really didn't mean to do that!' and trot off unhurt."

Decker also speaks highly of its durability. "I've seen trees fall on the fence and stretch it to the ground, but once they were removed it was easily repaired (it can be spliced if necessary)."

He warns that it is slightly more expensive than wooden fencing, but he felt one could easily make up for that in maintenance costs saved over the long haul. He recommends using a professional fencing company to build the fence, and suggests placing the required ratchet boxes (used to keep the fence tight) in unobtrusive corners or in other hidden spots. The corner posts also should be set in concrete in order to stand up to the tension.

Scott leans toward another type of plastic fencing, at least personally. Although he often recommends a careful mix of wood and safety V-mesh wire fencing with an electric wire at the top, or metal pipe fencing with reservations and only in special circumstances (especially in West Texas and other areas of the Southwest), he recently put up three miles of four-rail plastic PVC fencing on his own farm.

"The brand I used looks like pipe, but is much more forgiving," he says. "It is definitely on the high side in terms of cost--I had the company install it--but it has virtually no maintenance costs, such as painting, and comes with a 25-year guarantee. The new ones don't yellow anymore (if you put in white), or you can get it in black, or some have brown, too.

"A goofy horse could run through it, but I would rather have the fence give before the horse," he adds. "This fence isn't supposed to splinter when it breaks, either."

The Ease of Electric

As already noted, it is often recommended that a single strand of electrified wire be run along the inside of some fences in order to help keep horses from chewing the top board on a wooden fence and/or from stressing a fence by leaning over or rubbing against it.

There are times, however, when one might choose to use electrified fencing by itself. An emergency situation might require an immediate pasture where there is no other fencing. One person working alone often can put up an adequate electric fence around several acres in an afternoon. Where perimeter fences are already in place, it might sometimes be beneficial to divide a large pasture with electric fence, or use easily movable electric fencing to rotate grazing.

Frederick Harper, PhD, extension horse specialist at the University of Tennessee, has long been considered a top authority on the design, building, and maintenance of horse facilities. He writes in the Horse Industry Handbook: "Electric fencing should only be used as temporary horse fencing, such as a pasture divider. If used alone for fencing, never use the small, uncoated wire commonly used for cattle, as it is not a safe fence for horses. (They can't see it and become confused when shocked by it.)

"When electric fencing must be used, the wire should be encased in plastic (electro-plastic tape) which is about 1 1/2 inches wide and also may be reflective," Harper adds. "This material is more visible and reportedly will break before cutting a horse. Two strands are suggested, with the top wire about 42 inches from the ground and the bottom one about 18 inches from the ground."

Some companies, such as ElectroBraid, claim their product can stand alone as permanent perimeter fencing. Many horse owners have found electric fencing to be a safe and simple solution to their fencing needs. The companies stress, however, that the proper energizer--whether solar powered or connected to a utlity source--be used. Weeds and other vegetation must be kept away from the fence.

Electric fences are best for mature horses. They are not recommended for foals or young horses, as those youngsters often challenge fences when in the process of learning to respect a barrier.

Other Options

As mentioned, welded pipe fences are quite popular in some areas of the western United States, especially in the treeless Great Plains and Southwestern desert areas. While they are durable and last many years with little maintenance, their strength is both an asset and a liability. When horse and pipe collide, there is only one winner--the pipe. Broken bones and severe bruising are more common than lacerations with pipe fencing.

And stone walls, Mr. Frost, beautiful as they are, share basically the same assets and liabilities as a pipe fence. While highly visible, they are unforgiving when horses run into them. Still, many animals manage to do quite well living behind them.

Take-Home Message

In the end, remember that a pastured horse's safety isn't just determined by the materials and construction of the enclosing fence. Other factors to consider include his temperament and age, the number and choice of pasture mates and neighbors, the size of his pen or pasture, and the availability of foodstuffs. If a horse is comfortable and content in his surroundings, he is far less likely to "test" the fence. And that keeps everybody a lot happier. 

Next month watch for "The Art of the Horse Fence: Building and Maintenance."

About the Author

Marian Carpenter

Marian Carpenter, a lifelong horsewoman and writer, is executive director of the Texas Equine Veterinary Association. She lives with her family and equine friends near Amarillo, Texas.

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