Fencing: The Art of Good Neighbors

"I have come home to look after my fences."
--Senator John Sherman (1823-1900), from a speech to his neighbors

When it comes to horse fences and the building and maintenance thereof, let's face it, we have all sometimes felt rather like that ol' rascal Tom Sawyer. As Mark Twain described one fateful day: "Tom appeared on the sidewalk with a bucket of whitewash and a long-handled brush. He surveyed the fence, and all gladness left him, and a deep melancholy settled down upon his spirit. Thirty yards of board fence nine feet high. Life to him seemed hollow, and existence but a burden." (From The Adventures of Tom Sawyer).

To build and maintain good horse fence does take time and effort, but in the end it can be very rewarding. We shall assume that the proper fencing materials have been chosen. However, a quick review of good, safe choices is helpful. (See "A Place Apart" in the February 2004 issue of The Horse, article #4913 at TheHorse.com.)

A sampling of veterinarians, extension specialists, and farm managers/owners across the country seems to show they favor fencing materials that are highly visible, have no sharp edges, and are relatively sturdy, yet give way in a collision. A horse will test a fence, one way or another, sooner or later.

Remarkably, the experts noted that aesthetics and beauty were nearly as important as safety for many people, and that while money really shouldn't be a factor when it comes to safety, in reality, costs and easy availability of materials often determine the final fencing choice.

There are a variety of fencing materials available--wood, various types of plastic, high-tensile polymer (HTP) or PVC (vinyl) products, and V-mesh wire. Metal pipe and/or gates and smooth-wire/electric-wire materials are also available.

Location also plays a huge role; for example, metal pipe fencing is often seen in the West and Southwestern areas of United States because importing hardwood is just too cost-prohibitive in some locales.

Barbed wire and (stand-alone) high-tensile wire were judged to be completely off limits. Do not use them under any circumstances in any location.

To Build a Fence

Many people choose to build their own fences. While this is certainly practical in many cases, be forewarned that it is hard, time-consuming work.

"Building a fence is an art," asserts Rich Decker, manager of Vessels Stallion Farm in Bonsall, Calif. Decker has built or supervised the building of fences on several horse farms over the years. "In reality, good professionals really do the best job because they have the right tools and the most experience," he says.

In other words, the pros can save your valuable time (better spent riding?) and hard-earned money (it goes up right the first time).

"I chose to have the company install my own personal fence at home," says Brett Scott, PhD, state extension horse specialist at Texas A&M University. "It cost about $9.50 a running foot (including materials), which is high, but the four-rail, plastic type fence I chose isn't supposed to splinter, comes with a 25-year guarantee, and should look like new for years with virtually no maintenance. But again, each person has to determine what is best for his or her own situation."

Fence Design

No matter what materials you decide to use, certain design elements remain common to all horse fences. Even if you are paying a professional to build your fence, it behooves you to understand the basics and oversee the project.

The average pasture fence should be about "wither high," or approximately 4.5 to five feet from the ground. Stallions should be kept behind six-foot fences, if possible. This "eye level" height is also preferred for small pens or corrals (less than two acres in size).

The bottom of a horse fence should be approximately eight to 12 inches off the ground. This is low enough to keep foals from wiggling under, but high enough to prevent horses from getting their hooves caught underneath.

Another option is to bury the bottom of a fence underground. Rock walls, of course, are partially underground, and some people choose to place woven-wire type fences several inches into the dirt. While this choice can improve safety, it also is costly and becomes difficult and time-consuming to properly maintain as animals paw at or dig up the bottom. Therefore, this design is seldom used or recommended.

When building a rail fence (either wood or a plastic product), you can choose to build with either three or four boards. Occasionally, five boards are also seen. If the pasture is quite large, with abundant foodstuffs available (meaning horses are less likely to challenge the fence), three boards can be used to cut down on costs.

"The major safety precaution with wooden fences," explains Tom Lenz, DVM, immediate past president of the American Association of Equine Practitioners and a frequent contributor to equine publications, "is to always nail the boards (or wire) on the inside (horse side) of the fence post. While this may not be as attractive as boards on the outside of the fence, as commonly seen along driveways, the fence will be stronger, more efficient, and safer.

"Boards on the outside of posts are easily pushed off 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," he says.

Horses racing along the inside of the fence, as they often do, are also less likely to bang a shoulder or hip against a post, says Lenz.

Other design features to consider include rounded corners and proper gate placement. Since horses occasionally pick on herd members at the bottom of the pecking order, rounded corners allow the pursued to more easily escape. Fewer "trapped" horses mean fewer injuries. This is especially true in smaller enclosures.

Because horses tend to congregate near gates, try to avoid placing them in corners. They should be level with the top of the fence, and be constructed of safe materials such as rounded pipe with no sharp edges, and be strong. Minimum gate width for horses is four feet, but eight to 16 feet is preferred if tractors or other equipment need to pass through. Gates should be hung to swing both ways, in or out, and gaps between the gate and supporting posts should be two inches or less.

Wooden fence posts are most commonly used, with cedar offering the greatest longevity and resistance to rot. Treated oak, pine, and other woods are also used. Posts usually are placed eight to 10 feet apart for rail-type fences, and 10 to 12 feet apart for woven wire or other fences. Shorter spacings might be required in irregular areas or across uneven contours. Wooden posts should be set at least two feet deep.

Plastic posts, which do not rot and have a longer lifespan, are also available. They should be installed following the manufacturer's instructions.

According to John W. Worley, PhD, and Gary Heusner, PhD, cooperative extension specialists in the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences at the University of Georgia, in their publication Fences for Horses, posts driven by machine into the ground offer a stronger foundation than other methods. Posts should go in with the small end down. "The results may look strange (large end up), but the resulting fence will be much stronger and damage to the posts during driving is minimized."

Corner posts can be driven, but if wire is used, they must be properly set and supported to withstand the tension. End posts should be set at a slight angle away from the direction of pull so they will be straight when tension is placed upon them, write Worley and Heusner.


Careful, thought-out fence placement will save years of frustration and postpone replacement. If fences are to run along a property line, check and double-check the actual survey. In fact, a conference with neighbors is always a good idea.

Keep gates as close to the barn or other high-traffic routes as possible, enabling gathering and turnouts to be done quickly and easily. When cross-fencing, be creative with gate placement in order to allow various options when horses are turned out. Whenever possible, leave an alley or lane at least 10 feet wide between adjoining pastures--especially if a stallion will be in one of the pens. Horses don't hesitate to try to kick through fences or reach over and bite at other equines.

If a creek or river runs through your property, make sure local environmental regulations are understood and followed.

Trees are great shade and windbreaks. Make sure they are of a variety non-toxic to horses and fence them off, if possible, just enough to prevent the animals from chewing the bark and otherwise damaging the tree.


When working with relatively level ground, an end post can be installed at each end of a fence line and a string or wire stretched between the posts to establish the run. If the ground is rolling or hilly, surveying equipment might be necessary to get a straight line.

Posts should be equally placed, whether driven in or placed in pre-drilled or dug holes and tamped down.

According to Worley and Heusner, for any wire (woven, HTP, etc.), the corner post and end post assemblies are the most important structures in the entire fence. "When wire is first stretched, the pulling force on the corner or end may be 3,000 pounds," they write. "Winter cold can contract the wire, which increases that force to 4,500 pounds. Design fences to withstand forces caused by mowers accidentally running into them, trees falling on them, and animals running into them. Additionally, gates are usually hung on end-post assemblies, so the assembly should be strong enough to hold the gate up without sagging."

Care must be taken to properly fasten or staple wire to the fence posts so it is not easily pulled out. Often it is suggested that a wooden top rail be added to a wire fence to increase visibility and keep a horse from stretching the wire if he leans over the fence to eat. Some fence builders also add a single strand of electric fencing at the top to keep horses off the fence.

Wooden rails should be either 1x6-foot or 2x6-foot boards evenly spaced and attached with long nails or screws. Although 1x6-foot boards are cheaper, they often warp and aren't as strong as 2x6-foot boards. Keep in mind that hardwoods will last longer for posts and rails, but might require that you drill holes for the nails.

Most plastic, PVC, or HTP fences come from the manufacturer with detailed instructions for their construction, says Scott. Many people choose to have the manufacturer's representatives install these types of fences, although that is not necessary if you are handy and have the right tools.

Pipe fencing, or some combination of pipe and cable, is quite common in parts of the West (although it is also seen elsewhere in the country). Unless you are an expert welder and have the portable equipment necessary to build such a fence, including a mobile power source, these are best left to professionals.

Most pipe horse fences are made from scrap oil well building materials, which are often plentiful where hardwoods are scarce or very expensive. Both posts and cross rails are made of steel pipe welded at the junctions. Fences usually have two or three rails, although four or five might sometimes be used if enough money is available. Sometimes one or two strands of heavy-duty cable, at least a half-inch inch thick, is strung tightly across the space between the pipe rails.

Once properly built, a good pipe fence is essentially maintenance-free and will last a lifetime. Occasional painting with a rust-proof paint for aesthetic purposes is almost all that ever needs to be done.

Several veterinarians interviewed expressed reservations about the safety of pipe fencing, including Lenz, especially noting that it will not give at all if a horse runs into it. However, they considered the cable to be more of a threat, as it has the ability to seriously injure a horse which might become entangled in it.

Electric fences are probably the easiest to build. As noted in "A Place Apart," they should only be used in certain situations and never with youngsters. Notes Lenz: "If used alone (e.g., without wooden rails), never use the small, uncoated wire commonly used for cattle. Wide electroplastic tape or braid is preferable because it is easily seen, is reflective, and is less likely to injure a horse. Two strands are ideal, with the top wire around 42 inches and the bottom wire about 18 inches above the ground."

Posts can be spaced up to 50 feet apart for some electric fences. A proper power supply specifically engineered for horses, and plugged into an electrical source or run by solar energy, is essential. A backup battery is a wise investment as well.

Various bracing and fencing designs and "how-to" instructions can be seen on web sites noted in "Fencing Resources" on page 60.

To Maintain a Fence

If horse fences are properly built to start with, maintenance time and costs will be greatly reduced. Probably the most important thing you can do to keep up a fence is to regularly walk its perimeter--at the very least twice a year, in the spring and the fall. With wooden fences, look for loose and/or rotten boards, popped nails, and splinters. Single boards can easily be replaced without disturbing the rest of the fence line. Pounding in nails as you walk along should become automatic.

With woven wire or other similar fences, look carefully for sharp ends and cut them, bend them back with pliers, or tighten/ restring the damaged line. Double-check the posts, especially in corners, to see how well they are standing up to the wire tension.

Wooden fences should be painted with a standard, non-toxic fence paint about every five to seven years. This protects the wood and prolongs the use of the fence. Many owners choose to spray on paint for easier application and deeper penetration, rather than applying it with a brush. Black is more commonly used today, as wear and chipping aren't as easily noticed as with white--although a freshly painted white fence is still gorgeous to look at!

Plastic and HTP fences never need to be painted, although you might choose to wash them regularly--especially in humid climates--to remove mildew and dirt.

Weeds and shrubs need to be kept away from electric fences at all times. These and all fences need to be carefully checked, of course, after a heavy snow or severe rainstorm.

As Robert Frost so beautifully described in the famous poem Mending Wall, each piece of a fence (or relationship!) is important. When it is carefully designed and built, and regularly maintained, everybody benefits. In essence then, writes Frost: "He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors.' "

And happy horses.



Your local county cooperative extension agent is probably the best resource available for information about fencing. He or she knows the area and can save you both time and money. And the advice is free! Following are other sources of fencing information.


  • Horse Industry Handbook, available from the American Youth Horse Council

Web Sites

20-25 years
Polymer-coated wood*
low to none
Lasts indefinitely, rot- and weather-resistant
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC), flexible and rigid*
Lasts indefinitely, rot-resistant
Plastic grid/mesh*
20-25 years depending on color; black variety may have a longer life expectancy than white
Steel and rail*
10-30 years
Woven wire*
30 years or more, depending on installation
Smooth wire
Must be replaced when rusty or stretched
Electric tape
Long-lasting, rot- and weather-resistant

* Acceptable fencing for small paddocks (woven wire used in small paddocks should be V-mesh). The lanes need to be wide enough for equipment and to insure that horses cannot reach across and fight.

Source: Lawrence, L. Fencing Options for Horse Farm Management in Virginia. Livestock Update, Virginia Tech, April 1999.

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.

Stay on top of the most recent Horse Health news with FREE weekly newsletters from TheHorse.com. Learn More

Free Newsletters

Sign up for the latest in:

From our partners