Safe Fencing for Horses
- May 1, 1998
Selecting reliable confinement for a horse often is no easy matter, as safe fencing relies upon individual circumstances. Matters of consideration include the amount of area to be enclosed; the number of horses to be contained within a fence; the size, strength, and temperament of the horses; proximity to suburban neighbors; and fence materials suitable for the climate and soil type. Other factors might include cost, life expectancy of the fence, maintenance, and aesthetics.
Because of all the variables, there's no single fencing solution to cover all situations, so horse owners should first identify their fencing goals, then look to applicable fencing types.
Primary Fence Types
All fence types have their advantages and disadvantages, their fans and their detractors.
A classic, well-maintained wooden plank or post-and-rail fence long has been admired for its sturdiness and aesthetics. Highly visible, wood appears intimidating to horses, discouraging them from crashing into it. Says Frederick Harper, PhD, Extension Horse Specialist at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, co-creator of the United States Drug Administration's most popular facilities/housing plan for horses, and author/lecturer (Top Form Book of Horse Care), "Wood plank fencing is still a pleasant and pleasing fence, and if properly constructed, very safe."
Harper is less enthusiastic about post-and-rails, as rails eventually change with the climate and fall out. They're seldom painted, however, saving on maintenance costs.
Drawbacks to wood include its high cost and maintenance--wood can split, fall down, warp, swell, and contract; planks require frequent painting or sealing; nails can work themselves out; and horses, termites (in some geographical locations), and other critters can chew on them. In addition, wood can splinter and injure a horse either by fine splinters through rubbing or leaning, or by large, dangerous splinters driven in through a hard impact. Lisa Wytiaz is a certified trainer and instructor and a former chief trainer and assistant director of the equine science division at Brenau College, Gainesville, Ga., and owner of the BashCurl breeding farm (Bashkir Curly performance horses), in Athens, Ga. She says: "I had more trouble with wood, including ongoing minor and occasionally serious veterinarian bills. I don't like it for horse or cattle property."
To lessen risk and maintenance, Harper recommends using hard woods (less subject than soft woods to chewing and splintering) and spray-painting with approved black paint (which lasts about eight years and reduces splintering).
This thermo-plastic resin fence offers the look of wood without the upkeep--no painting, no chewing, no creeping nails. Planks come in several widths, thicknesses, and colors.
"PVC planks are very attractive, relatively expensive, and relatively low maintenance," says Larry W. Hudson, PhD, (Animal Science), extension horse specialist at Clemson University, Clemson, S.C. "If put together and installed correctly, they last a right smart time. But some brands still have a little difficulty in staying together; the boards slide into the post and if the post moves, the planks may slide out. Other brands have keepers that lock a plank in, so even if a plank breaks, it's relatively hard to get those out."
Comments Wytiaz, "They are very visual and if high enough, should discourage a horse from going over. If there is any kind of impact, they have some give, but when they stop giving, they splinter, then they're like broken glass and very dangerous. They are great for geldings and quiet mares, but are not sturdy enough for stallions."
PVC Coated Lumber
Made of wood with a thermo-plastic resin coating around it, this fence offers most of the advantages and few of the disadvantages of PVC planks and wood. "It's maintenance free, looks very elegant, is unaffected by termites, and doesn't warp, decay, or splinter," says Wytiaz. "Horses usually won't chew on it, and it's very strong." Cost is fairly expensive.
High-Tensile Coated Wire
This fencing consists of one or more high-tensile wires encased in a solid polymer or vinyl ranging in height up to a five-inch-high band. The bands are highly visible, somewhat resembling narrow, white-painted board. "This is my favorite fence of all," says Wytiaz. "It's designed specifically for horses. It has an elastic quality, so if the horse hits it, he'll bounce off, or if he sticks his foot through, it won't cut him."
Of moderate price, coated wire is long-lived and maintenance free, usually requiring annual ratcheting to keep it tight. It's also exceedingly durable: Wytiaz reports she never had a horse go through it (although she does electrify the fence so her stallions "won't lose respect"). Even when a 45-foot tree crashed down on her fence, it failed to break the wire. "After we got the tree off, all I had to do was tighten the fence up. A five-minute job," she says.
The exposed wire at the end should be bent and tucked around or covered with a guard.
Wytiaz favors the single-strand wire as the multi-strand is less economical and more difficult to tighten: "You can increase the tension of one wire, but not equally increase the tension of the other wires."
Harper cautions that coated wire should be installed in warm weather for maximum tightening, and that it might not work as well in colder areas.
High-Tensile Smooth Wire
This fence is very strong, economical, and maintenance-free. "The 12.5-gauge smooth wire has a breaking strength of 1,300 to 1,800 pounds," says Harper. "It's reported that horses bounce off it without injury if properly tensioned. They even use this to keep elephants in, although they do electrify it. Since it's stretched so tight, fewer posts are required--up to 60 feet apart with spacers to keep the wires straight." Ten or twelve strands are best.
The wire lacks visibility, raising the risk of horses running into it and sustaining serious injury. Therefore, Harper recommends tying streamers cut from old garbage sacks to each section, then walking the horse around the periphery of the fence on a windy day. "They'll get a real sense of where the periphery is," he says, "once you've walked them around two or three times and you've got those little streamers flapping in the wind."
This is probably the most dangerous fence for keeping horses. "Still," notes Hudson of Clemson, "huge numbers of horses live in barbed wire for purely economic reasons as this is the cheapest fence to build. But there are potential problems, because when barbed wire cuts, it's not very forgiving and makes for some very ragged wounds."
For those who must keep their horses in barbed wire paddocks, Harper suggests the following for added safety: replacing the top wire, covering it with a plank on the inside, or stringing electric wire on the inside; moving the bottom strands up to 12-18 inches from the ground; and letting weeds, vines, and small trees grow up through the wire to provide a solid sight line and to discourage contact with the wires. "Most injuries are where a horse cuts the neck on the top wire or cuts a leg by pawing the low strands," he says. "This eliminates a good part of the risk, but not all of it."
"The best wire for horse fencing is a five diamond V-mesh wire," says Harper. "Its close weave prevents a horse (even a foal) from catching a foot in it. It is strong due to its design and has some give. It can even be used in stallion paddocks." If kept stretched at the appropriate tautness, mesh has a long life span and little maintenance.
"The biggest problem with mesh wire is a tendency to sag or get ridden down by the horses, a situation that is prevented by installing a top board--good for visibility as well as structural soundness," says Hudson. "That forces us to put our posts a little closer together, probably 10 feet, because the boards tend to warp if we go much father apart." The woven joints might catch and pull out mane and tail hairs, and the mesh sometimes can catch a shoe. Mesh is available in vinyl and wire.
This is a fairly expensive, long-lived, and exceptionally strong fencing material, making it particularly useful in high-stress areas. While some pipe can rust (particularly in damp areas), requiring wire-brushing and/or painting, some pipe is made from non-rusting materials. It's seen primarily in the Southwest, a by-product of the oil industry. "Pipe works great in small confinement areas," says Hudson. "It's very unforgiving, and when a horse hits, he tends to cut himself; but they learn a little more rapidly."
Wytiaz points out that pipe fence can get very hot to the touch: "In the desert area, once a horse comes in contact with it once or twice, they tend to stay away from it and won't bother the fence to get to the grass on the other side."
Lesser Used Materials
New Zealand Wire
This is a smooth, spring-loaded, tightly pulled wire useful in large pasture settings where posts can be placed very far apart. "It's intermediate in cost between barbed and woven wire," says Hudson, "lasts about 10-15 years, is relatively easy to put up and maintain, and is practical."
The spring loading helps keep the wire from breaking in a heavy impact situation. Hudson suggests installing three to seven wires, depending on how solid the fence needs to be, along with reinforcement rods in long runs to keep the wires separated, and using extra-sturdy corner posts due to the wires' pressure.
Twisted Barbless Wire
This fencing offers many of the same pros and cons as high-tensile smooth wire. "Five strands should be stretched tight and attached with long staples," says Harper, "because if it sags, a horse could get a leg caught in it." As with smooth wire, a sight line should be provided, either with top board or intermittently attached streamers.
"This looks like coated wire, only there's no wire inside, the theory being it's more elastic," Wytiaz reports. "If a horse hits the fence, it bounces off of it, with no injuries. Unfortunately, with the slightest nick or abrasion to its surface, the fence just falls apart where the nick is. It has no integrity."
This is a very forgiving fence, as horses bounce off of it without being hurt. Nevertheless, Harper doesn't like it. "It's very difficult to keep taut, and if you don't keep it taut, horses can crawl through the strands. Also, horses pull and chew on the rubber and the little cords that stick out of it. The result is colic with a number of deaths reported."
This is an expensive, long-lasting fence that offers excellent confinement, particularly in small areas. "It requires a top and bottom pipe so horses cannot paw it down," says Wytiaz. "It should be high enough so horses won't get their heads over it, because even with a top pipe, those ridges at the top can cut horses under their jaws and around their throats. Also, horses may get their shoes caught on it."
The soft plastic, chain-like mesh seen around construction sites and sewer openings is sometimes used for foal confinement. "This contains babies extremely well, but foals never learn to respect it and will test every fence from then on out," says Wytiaz. "But nothing gets in or out, and as long as there's an electric strand on the top to keep mama from leaning or pushing, you have a really good fence."
Nearly every type of fence benefits from the addition of an electric wire along the top. Explains Hudson, "A hot wire adds lots and lots of integrity and strengthens all of them because it keeps horses off. That's particularly true for large numbers of horses in a small area or horses across the fence from one another."
"I like electrical wire embedded in plastic, the electroplastic tape," says Harper. "It's an inch or two thick, has some sight, and the coating reduces risk of injury." The tape also is very visible.
Wytiaz is not so keen on the electric tape. "The tape sags, the wind stretches it really bad, and it will stretch to the point where it breaks," she has found. "We used it for a little while, and it was wonderful until we had snow, and it completely destroyed it."
Instead, Wytiaz prefers a polyethylene-covered, high-tensile electric wire enfused with carbon to conduct electricity to the surface. "It looks like a black, coated wire," she says. "It's thick, has substance, is semi-elastic, contains a physical impact with the electricity off, and won't cut or injure the horse."
Avoid thin cattle wire, which is difficult for the horse to see. If unelectrified, this could seriously cut a leg if the horse gets into it.
When purchasing a fence, identify your needs and your budget, then seek advice from your local extension agent. Make sure your fencing and posts are installed correctly by a reliable crew (your extension agent might help there, too). By proceeding thoughtfully and carefully, you'll have a fence ideally suited for your horses' needs and your lifestyle.
Besides confining horses, fences should also discourage trespass from suburban neighbors.
Frederick Harper, Extension Horse Specialist, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, notes there have been several lawsuits over fencing, some of which involve neighborhood children climbing into the fenced area and getting hurt. "There was one lawsuit in the Lexington area where a housing development went up next to a breeding farm," he says. "Even though they posted their property, kids got in there and maybe threw some rocks at the yearlings. The breeding farm posted a guard to try to keep people out, but eventually a child got in and was kicked in the chest." The child's parent filed suit against the breeders.
In this case, the breeding farm won the lawsuit. However, courts often find for the injured parties and make horse owners responsible for accidents that happen on their property, whether the injured persons were supposed to be there or not.
Posts And Gates
Like the weakest link in the chain, a fence's integrity relies on the strength and the stability of its posts.
Generally, one uses wooden posts for wood planks and boards, PVC posts with PVC panels, pipe frames for pipe fencing, and wood, fiberglass, or metal for wire and mesh. Lisa Wytiaz, breeder and trainer, warns against the metal posts. "They have short, rough edges, are very unforgiving, and can impale a horse should the animal come down on one. Even with caps they're bad, because horses fiddle with the caps and take them off."
A newer kind of post is the New Zealand Insul-Timber. "The wood is very dense--so dense it doesn't conduct electricity or require insulators," says Wytiaz. "The holes are factory drilled where you can run high tensile or electric wire. However, if your horse hits the post, it breaks off at ground level, and then you have a dangerous spike. With large horses, I don't think it works, but for ponies and quiet geldings and mares, it should be fine."
Corner and gate posts are crucial to the strength of the fence, and should be larger and set deeper than the others. Frederick Harper, PhD, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, says particular attention should be paid to tamping the dirt with gravel and soil tightly around the entire depth of the post to increase stability. Some opt to add dry concrete mix to the hole, although that can create tension at ground level, increasing the risk of breakage. Dirt, stone, or concrete also can be heaped up around the post an inch or so above ground level in order to shed water away from the post.
Gates are an equally important element of a fence, again, constituting a possible weak link.
Make sure the gate is wide enough for your needs. Will you be taking a tractor through the gap, or just walking a couple of horses through? Warns Harper, "Don't have big openings between the gate and the post where a horse can catch a foot or a foal could stick its head. Make sure there isn't a big opening between the top two rails where a horse could get a head in there."
Wytiaz suggests installing the gate so it never sits on the ground. "Horses are always milling at the gate, and in rainy weather, they really churn up a lot of mud. If your gate isn't high enough, it'll rust on the bottom and you'll lose your bottom bar."
Avoid aluminum gates, which have sharp edges, says Harper. Wytiaz also recommends staying away from wooden gates, which fall apart due to rubbing and pushing against them. Instead, she recommends tube gates, which are safer, although they require periodic painting.
About the Author
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.