When using an electric fence, it's important to make sure it can be easily seen. Electric fence tapes are often broader and more visible than wire.
Q. I moved my 31-year-old gelding to a new boarding facility six days ago. The farm owner put him in outdoor pen with electric fence wire, which he's never seen before. He hit it, freaked out, ran to other side of the pen, hit the fence again, freaked out, ran to other side, hit the fence … this continued until he finally charged the gate to escape. He was so scared that he was soaking wet with sweat. I ran to get owner, who shut off the electricity and calmed him down. I was upset, too. What should I do?
A. My experience is that the vast majority of horses learn to respect electric fences. Many of my foals have run through electric fences (used as temporary dividers) in almost deliberate fashion several times over their first couple months, and then just figure it out and stop. So absent any other problems, I suspect your horse will figure out the electric fence, too.
From what you describe though, it sure sounds to me like your horse might have significant vision problems. If you haven't done so, I recommend you have your veterinarian perform a thorough ophthalmic exam. If significant visual deficits are present, then your horse could have trouble with less visible fencing materials, such as electric wire and even electric tapes.
Having a buddy might prove a good solution for your horse; however, unless you also own the buddy you can't assure he or she will always be there for your horse. A horseman friend had an old, blind, pasture-breeding stallion kept in an electric fence that he buddied up with one of his mares! The stallion did great, but one situation he seemed to struggle in was when there was snowy, crunchy ice on the ground. My friend suspected the echoing effect of the crunch as the horses moved around possibly affected the stallion's orientation.
If you know for sure your horse has never in his life been in an electric fence before, and his vision is okay, then this might be a learning phase for him and it should resolve in a short time. If it’s possible he’s seen electric fence before, then it could be that he's had negative experiences with fence that was in ill repair or not used properly, or has failed to learn to respect it. One of the tenets of making sure horses maintain respect for an electric fence is to keep it on all the time. The lure of whatever is on the other side can encourage horses to test the fence and go through when the fence is off. Getting through the fence can be a strong positive reinforcer, so it’s no surprise then they would continue to test the fence, making it more likely they'll go through it, either on purpose or by accident, and whether the fence is on or off.
Of course there is also the standard precaution for any use of an electric fence—make sure it’s visible to the horse. See if you can apply bright strips of marking tape on all the strands. There are also electric fence tapes that are broader and more visible than wire. I've even heard that people have tied small bells onto the fence as an audible signal.
If your horse is not adapting to the electric fence, with repeated episodes of panic as you describe, then for his safety and that of the others he might need solid fencing. I always consider the owner's well-being, too. If the past bad experiences are going to cause you persistent worry, then perhaps it's simply not worth it to keep him in a pen with an electric fence.
About the Author
Prior to attending veterinary school, Dr. Nancy Diehl completed a master’s degree in animal science while studying stallion sexual behavior. Later, she completed a residency in large animal internal medicine at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center and worked in equine practices in Missouri and Pennsylvania. Diehl also spent six years on faculty at Penn State, where she taught equine science and behavior courses and advised graduate students completing equine behavior research. Additionally, Diehl has co-authored scientific papers on stallion behavior, early intensive handling of foals, and feral horse contraception. Currently she is a practicing veterinarian in central Pennsylvania.