Create Protective Barriers

You've heard it a hundred times before, and you'll probably hear it a hundred times again: "If there's a way a horse can get into trouble, it will." That means if you have abandoned machinery at the far end of your 900-acre spread, your horse will find it. If you have one little outdoor faucet that protrudes from the barn wall in the paddock area, your horse will bang into it. If you have one segment of rough terrain, your horse will fall on it. That's why it's as important to fence horses out of potentially harmful areas as it is to fence them in safe confines.

There are natural and man-made hazards that need to be assessed for their potential to cause your horses harm. Trees, steep inclines, and ponds are the most common natural pasture and paddock hazards that should be fenced off.

A single tree in an open area is an attractant for lightning, and a horse which shelters beneath a tree that gets zapped will likely not survive. Even standing near a tree that gets struck is dangerous; shallow roots that travel away from the tree can conduct lethal doses of electricity to all creatures standing on the ground above. (For more on lightning, see "When Lightning Strikes" on page 48.)

Ornamental, toxic trees might be beautiful, but they can be deadly. And no, horses don't "instinctively" know to stay away from some of those toxic plants. Also, even if a tree can't kill a horse, a horse can kill a tree.

Explains Ann Swinker, PhD (physiology), State Cooperative Extension Specialist at Colorado State University, "A horse is a continual grazer and will browse on all types of trees and eat the bark off. Once you strip the bark off the cambium layer (the inner layers that take up water and nutrients so the tree can grow) and the tree is girdled all the way around, the tree dies. Also, some trees like black walnut and red maple are highly toxic. Horses will browse the limbs, so you need to keep horses several feet back to prevent them from reaching the tree."

Ponds can be dangerous depending on the season, age of the horse, and what lies within. Some ponds are riddled with debris such as broken glass, cans, wire, machinery parts, etc. Ponds in certain areas contain snapping turtles or alligators.

Thin pond ice can present special problems. "While older horses pretty much know their territory, youngsters may venture onto thin ice, and their buddies will follow," warns Swinker. If a horse falls through the ice into deep water, it can drown or die of hypo-thermia.

"The safest choice for a pond is to have it fenced off, and just leave a small area where the horses can go to get water," says Mike Wessel, Stable Manager at William Woods University Equestrian Studies, Fulton, Mo. He notes that horses are more apt to walk on a frozen pond when it is covered with snow.

Plowed and concrete irrigation and drainage ditches can present some risk to the horse. "A lot of horses are very used to going in and out of ditches," notes Swinker. "But concrete ditches and those with gates that have a lot of metal and cranks to control water flow are definitely a hazard and should be fenced."

If you live in an area that runs irrigation water, check your state fencing laws and investigate the regulations governing irrigation ditches before fencing one off. "You can fence around ditches, but some laws may dictate that you install a gate to allow others to have easements to the irrigation ditch," Swinker states.

Similarly, ravines, gullies, or washes can be hazardous. "Your pasture may have level ground, then all of a sudden there's this wash with a steep drop," Swinker states. "Generally, a horse is accustomed to its home pasture, but horses can fall off of these drops, particularly if they're being chased by a dog or coyote, are spooked by a storm, or scared by something that causes them to bolt."

Corrals or runs from a barn that end on the slope of a steep hillside could be disastrous for the horse which slips and slides into the fenced area. Crashing into sturdy fencing could cause major injury or death, as could getting tangled in wire fencing. The risk of a "crash" increases as the size of the confinement area decreases. Swinker suggests, "If your property ends in the middle of a slope, use that area as pasture or a large turnout. Leave large enough spaces within sloped areas in order to minimize accidents. If the topography is too steep, you may not want to use it for pasture."

Man-Made Troubles

Of course, it is best to plan or keep paddocks and pastures free from harmful obstacles. But that is not always possible due to space limitations, legal right-of-ways, and so forth.

Barn and farm equipment should be fenced off if a separate storage area is unavailable. Injuries could be extensive if a horse catches a leg in tines, blades, or some other mechanical element. (Editor's note: A farm tractor sitting near a barn on our farm somehow became an attractive playmate to a youngster. She reared, came down on some part of the tractor, and after extensive veterinary needlework, had only a long scar on her chest from her unfortunate encounter.)

Electrical outlets and water hydrants need to be fenced or boxed off, particularly in close quarters in a barn or paddock. "Horses like to rub on things," Swinker notes of the hydrants in fields. While these elements might pose only limited risk to the horse, the horse could knock an outlet cover off (which might mean electrical shock) or push plumbing out of place, causing a leak.

Access roads or right-of-ways through fenced areas require horse-friendly gates and hardware. Although inconvenient for the driver, the ranch owner can install a safe, manual gate that opens by hand. If one opts for an automatic gate that opens via remote, Swinker says to make sure the gate has a safety mechanism to prevent animals or people from getting caught when the gate opens or closes.

Additionally, Swinker warns that when fencing horses in, never use a cattle guard (rail grate on the ground) as a gate barrier. "Horses will run through them, resulting in severe damage to the horse."

Safe Fencing

Every type of fencing has its advantages and disadvantages, even when it's just to fence a horse out of a small area. Stocking density, pressure of too many animals, and budget often dictate the type of fencing that works best for an individual situation. Regardless of fence type, there are two basic rules: Make sure the fencing materials are highly visible; and make sure the materials are strong enough for the situation.

Traditional wooden fences are aesthetically pleasing, but can be high maintenance and splinter or break under pressure. "Wood fences rot," Wessel notes. "Eventually you will need to paint them." However, it's easy to replace a broken board.

High-tensile polymer (HTP) fencing systems are engineered to go through "belt loops" on fences, thus allowing an entire length of fence to absorb impact, then return to normal. These fences are promoted as being very horse-friendly, while requiring very little maintenance.

Mesh or woven wire is strong, has some give and, if kept stretched at the appropriate tautness, has a long life span and little maintenance. "But horses can stick their feet through and get their shoes caught in it," Wessel warns.

"Vinyl is good, especially if you have an electric wire around the top," Wessel states. "Here at the university, we have had problems with vinyl fencing when the big Warmbloods and Percheron drafts lean over it or when they scratch their rumps on it, but the wire keeps them off." Vinyl is noted for its low maintenance, good looks, and durability.

Welded pipe fencing or pipe-and-heavy-cable fencing is particularly useful, Swinker says, in areas where there is a lot of pressure. It is an unforgiving fence (gives very little) .

Electrical fencing is the cheapest way to block off any area, Wessel states. "Plus it's very maneuverable--you can simply pull your posts and change locations." He especially likes the electrical wire embedded in plastic for its high visibility. However, Swinker notes that in congested areas, some horse usually ends up getting pushed into the hot wire and knocking it down.

Author and clinician Jessica Jahiel, PhD, recommends high-tensile wire for hilly terrains subject to sliding snow or mud, or where heavy tree branches might come down on a fence. "Since the impact of snow, mud, or trees is distributed all through the fence run, there's unlikely to be any damage, escapes, or the kind of sharp edges that result when boards of any kind break. If a tree lands on the fence, then once the tree has been removed, you just tighten the fence again--if it needs it."


Don't rely on your horse's good sense to keep him from harm in pasture and paddock settings. Identify all possible hazards--anything that can cause a fall, catch a leg, scrape or puncture the body, poison the animal when ingested, and so forth. Then, use suitable materials to safely keep the horse away from the potential hazard. As was stated before, horses are accidents looking for a place to happen. But with proper planning, you can keep your horse away from many of those potentially hazardous places.

About the Author

Marcia King

Marcia King is an award-winning freelance writer based in Ohio who specializes in equine, canine, and feline veterinary topics. She's schooled in hunt seat, dressage, and Western pleasure.

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