Putting Up Boundaries (Fencing)

Horses are nomads by nature, with an inclination to travel far and wide searching for forage and water. Along with their wanderlust, horses possess a strong sense of curiosity, and they are constantly investigating their surroundings. Turn a horse out into a paddock, and he'll roam around it finding the best place for a roll, looking for water and food, and discovering who has been in the field before him.

Attempting to enclose any creature with this type of nomadic nature is problematic, but fencing is required to keep horses at home. Trying to figure out which fencing is right for your horse, your situation, and your budget can be tedious, but with a little guidance, you and your horse can be satisfied with your fencing.

Shopping for fencing materials is best done once you've armed yourself with knowledge. But before you even begin, take a minute to consider your needs: How many horses do you have to enclose? Do you have any stallions or foals? What are the temperaments of your horses? Do they run in their pastures, or do they spend their time behaving like lawn ornaments? How big is your pasture or paddock? Do you have enough money now to pay for top-grade fencing that will last you for years and be inexpensive to maintain, or do you need a quick, cheap solution?

This article discusses the most popular fencing types along with pros, cons, and their costs to install and maintain. Once you've chosen the route you're going to take, call up various companies and ask questions--lots of them. Find out what the guarantee is, if there are any extra costs, what the maintenance costs are, etc. If you still have questions, consult your local extension agent.

Wooden Fencing

I remember traveling as a kid through Kentucky with my parents, watching rolling field after rolling field pass by my window. What struck me were the fences. Miles of pristine white panel fencing enclosed those fields where Thoroughbred mares and foals grazed contentedly. What I didn't see was the massive amount of work that went on behind the scenes to maintain that fencing.

Most plank fence owners aren't surprised to find their wooden fencing munched down to nubs--one of the major drawbacks to wooden fencing is its palatability to horses. It also is prone to termites, splintering, and breakage. Constant painting is needed to keep it looking nice and to protect it from sun, wind, and rain. Planks can pop out easily if they are nailed to the outsides of posts.

The good news is that nails generally pull out before the board breaks, preventing a horse from becoming injured due to splintered boards. The bad news is that same ease of board removal allows easier escapes.

Plank fencing is expensive to buy and maintain--a Texas A&M study showed that the average wood fence ended up costing twice the original price in additional materials and labor over a 15-year lifetime, with 50% of the rails being replaced at least once during that time period. However, this fence appeals to many because it is traditional and looks good. It's also visible to horses, meaning that they can see and define their boundary, particularly if they are galloping over rolling ground.

Pricing for wooden fencing varies depending on the footage and location.

Polyethylene-Coated Lumber

If your heart is set on that traditional but labor-intensive plank fencing, there is another way you can get the look you want with fewer problems--with polyethylene-coated lumber. Wooden planks are coated with thermo-plastic, which renders it unpalatable to horses and bugs and resistant to weather. It will not chip, peel, or rot, and it never needs painting, but it is expensive.

However, Woodguard PVC fencing representative Chad Hobart says that the reduced cost of maintenance makes this fencing more cost-effective than regular plank fencing in the long run. Research has shown that it costs between $0.60 and $0.80 per foot each year to maintain a typical wood fence. On just 500 feet of fence (enough to enclose a small paddock with 125 feet per side), that's up to $400 per year. Plastic-coated lumber, on the other hand, is simply "lumber with a permanent paint job." Because it is lumber, it is strong and durable, says Hobart.

"Woodguard costs roughly the same as a good, clear-grade redwood (the product commonly used in wooden plank fencing)," he says. "A Woodguard three-rail fence with two- by six-inch rails runs roughly $7.00 per foot, not including shipping (shipping can cost thousands of dollars due to the weight of lumber). The price includes posts."

Maintenance cost are negligible, and the product is under warranty for 20 years.

Vinyl and PVC Planks

PVC (vinyl) planks have the look of estate fencing mixed with the resemblance of the slats of an old-fashioned HotWheels toy racetrack when you get closer. This type of fencing is good-looking, visible, and horse-friendly--maybe a little too horse-friendly. Leaners searching for greener grass on the other side can stretch the planks of vinyl fencing. The advantage is that, if a good-quality PVC plank is stretched, it will return to its original shape. A poor-quality PVC plank, however, can break into splinters.

You can discourage leaning by topping the planks with a strand of electric wire, which also makes it a better enclosure for stallions. The drawback is that it is more expensive than standard wood fencing--the retail cost of purchasing and installing the fence is around $5 a foot (including posts), according to Mark Suchyna, head of marketing at Bufftech Fencing. Maintenance costs are virtually nil.

Suchyna estimates that the PVC fencing will last more than 20 years as it is manufactured much like vinyl siding for houses. It comes in four colors--white, tan, gray, and wood grain--and it's easy to clean with a non-abrasive cleanser.

"It's very simple to install yourself as the posts are pre-routed with holes," says Suchyna. "You set them like wood posts, back-filling with sand or concrete, then slide the PVC slats through the holes."

High-Tensile Polymer (HTP) Fencing

HTP fencing was designed specifically for horses, with tensioned wire encased in polymer. If a horse hits this fence, he'll bounce off of it instead of going through it. If installed properly, the entire length of the system shares the shock of the jolt, then springs back to shape. If a section is damaged, you can tighten it quickly and easily. It comes in one or more bands, although the single strand fence is the cheapest and easiest to install and maintain.

Its pros are many--it's long-lived, requires little upkeep, and is easy for anyone to repair. It's good in wooded areas as it can handle the impact of falling branches without breaking. Also, the fence line can be contoured to follow the lay of the land with no corners needed.

Centaur is the only company selling HTP fencing with the polymer known today as high-tensile polymer, which was developed by E.S. Robinson Corporation.

"Many within the fencing industry have categorized all similar flexible rail fences as HTP. Although this is flattering, it's incorrect," says John Saylor from E.S. Robinson. "Our HTP material is the only material within this fencing category that has proven 20-year testing. As the pioneer for the category, we carry a great deal of burden to be the standard."

HTP comes in the economical Poly-Plus, which is tensioned wire encased in round polymer. The company also offers an electrified version called PolyCharge HTP. You can get a premium "estate fencing" look with Centaur HTP, a five-inch polymer rail that looks quite similar to plank fencing, and a less-expensive, four-inch polymer rail called Spur HTP. Polysite is a one-inch plank that is usually installed on top of the fence.

As with any permanent fencing system, installation requires careful attention to details. Says Saylor, "If a horse owner can do handy work around his/her barn and stable, then he or she can install this fence. However, this is no different than many projects around the house or barn; if you want it to look like a professional job, chances are you need to hire a professional." Centaur can recommend a qualified installer in your area.

Typically, installation will run anywhere from $1.50 per foot to $3.50, depending on the terrain, total linear footage, and accessibility. Product prices can run from $0.12 per foot to $1.00 per foot depending on which product you choose (includes post, concrete, and braces). The fencing comes in white, black, and brown, and it is warranteed against manufacturers defects. Financing programs are available in many states.

"We claim zero maintenance costs if you don't paint your posts or if you go with a synthetic post," says Saylor. "If you paint your posts, you can expect to repaint every two to four years. Our rail and single-stranded products are guaranteed to last 20 and 12 years, respectively. Therefore, they don't fade, rust, peel, warp, or crack. We remove all the problems traditional horse fences incur."

Mesh Fencing

Diamond weave mesh fencing is strong and impenetrable by hooves and legs, gives when stressed, is long-lived while requiring little maintenance, and is strong enough to restrict stallions. Cheaper-made fencing has a tendency to sag, and thus requires posts to be set a maximum of 10 feet apart. You also must make sure that the fence is built so hooves and legs can't get stuck between the wire and the ground.

Maintenance costs tend to be very low with wire fence, but be sure that the fence you choose is galvanized. This gives it a protective zinc coating that stands up to the elements for years.

"Our fence does not require the paint and maintenance that wood fences do," says Doug Stitt of Red Brand Fencing, which makes mesh fencing. "However, it is difficult to provide accurate numbers for longevity of any fence due to the varying weather and geographical considerations found throughout the country. For example, the life of any wire or steel product fence will be diminished in coastal states due to the effects of the salt in the air."

Wire fence does not sag if installed correctly. The woven design of the fence (if not overstretched) provides for some additional give if impacted by a horse. Wooden, pipe, electric, and welded wire fencing do not have this type of give, which will result in the horse either being injured by the unforgiving fence or breaking the fence, exposing sharp edges that could further injure him.

Installation is not easy. You can put it up yourself, but you'll need to be savvy of heavy tools, such as chainsaws and hand stretchers. You'll also have to enlist the help of several people due to the heavy weight of the rolls. Instructions are available from Red Brand (on their web site at www.redbrand.com or by hard copy), but the average horse owner might become overwhelmed by the process.

The approximate cost per foot for Red Brand: Non-Climb fence of 60-inch height is $0.90 per foot, and Keepsafe fence of 58-inch height costs $1.33 per foot.

Keep in mind that these approximate prices will vary based on the retailer and geography. Also, these prices do not include posts, which usually cost anywhere from $1.50-$2.00 each. The number of posts per foot will vary depending on location.

Electric Fence

Electric fencing is more of a psychological barrier than a physical one, because any horse which has touched the fence and discovered that it bites back will give it a wide berth. The downsides are that electric fencing used in a small enclosure, such as a run outside of a stall, can discourage a horse from rolling or lying down. Also, some horses are afraid of electric fencing and even the tick or hum of the charger can cause anxiety, though this is rare.

Horses can still run through the fence, particularly if they can't see it. So, if you're planning to install high-tensile electric wire (the type used for cattle) on your property, tie streamers along the wire every few feet so your horse can see the fence perimeter.

This fencing is cheap, around $0.50 a foot (poles not included), but you'll have to constantly be on the lookout for damage. (This price is a rough guide based on a 40-acre (5,280 foot) enclosure with four corners, one gate opening, and an energizer, and miscellaneous accessories as per Geotek, Inc.) If your horse does manage to run through it, the injury can be devastating (as with any wire).

In recent years companies have developed electric fencing specifically made for horses, but with those improvements have come higher costs. Poly-tape is one such improvement. It is made of an open-mesh woven material encasing several chargeable wires.

The benefit is that it is highly visible, light, and easy to install. The drawbacks are that due to weather stresses, the strands might last only a couple of years, after which you will have the additional cost and inconvenience of replacing the entire system.

With some systems, stretched webbing can be tightened and torn webbing can be spliced, but the wires inside can be damaged, causing shorts to the entire system that will be difficult to track down.

Poly-tape is still a very safe alternative, and Safe Fence Company claims on its web site that its maintenance costs are "three times cheaper than wood."

Prices for the tape range from $0.36 per foot for a two-acre, two-strand complete kit (not including posts and energizer) to $0.15 per foot per strand (not including posts and additional hardware).

ElectroBraid is a patented braided electric fence from Canada that was designed for horses. Its white color is highly visible, and it has a breaking strength of more than 1,300 pounds per strand. In case an animal charges the fence, the ElectroBraid will "give," allowing the animal to bounce back into the paddock unharmed.

ElectroBraid alone costs about $0.16 per foot, and when combined with Geotek's fiberglass Common Sense Fence system (a system of flexible fiberglass posts that won't cause shorts in the wire and will snap back into shape), the cost will average about $2.00 per foot. (This price is a rough guide based on a 40-acre enclosure with four corners, one gate opening, an energizer, and miscellaneous accessories as per Geotek, Inc.)

Common Sense Fence and ElectroBraid offer 25-year warranties against weather deterioration and manufacturing defects. Installation of the entire fence system is quick and easy, the fence has extremely low maintenance, and it is exceptionally safe for horses.

Electric fencing is easy to install and move, and it follows the contours of your land. Power can be supplied by battery, dry cell, and solar chargers. Prices vary with power suppliers--the average price for a good-quality unit is $200.

The trouble with purchasing the fence is the bits and pieces needed and the hidden costs involved. But it doesn't have to be that complicated, says Rich Merkley from Geotek, Inc. "Putting up an electric fence is a lot simpler than the part sheet implies," he explains. "We supply a printed hard copy fence planner and installation video that will walk you step-by-step through the planning process. It will give you ideas and options for any animal containment situation.

"We also have the fencing industry's first online fence planner on our website (www.geotekinc.com), which is very quick and easy to use," he adds. "The planner walks you through a series of questions about your fencing needs, then computes an entire materials price list."

Barbed Wire and High-Tension Wire

One plus with barbed wire is that it is inexpensive--around $0.02 a foot without poles, but only at the outset. Costs quickly add up when you weigh in the additional veterinary bills. Barbed wire was originally designed to enclose sheep and cattle, not inquisitive horses. Injuries with barbed wire are common, and the wounds are jagged and leave terrible scars.

Tensile wire tends not to snarl a horse like barbed wire, but the shearing injuries of limbs are very high, and it's much more expensive than barbed wire--around $0.15 per foot without poles.

If you must use wire, add streamers and planks for visibility, and perhaps a strand of electric wire for safety and peace of mind that your horse will never go near it. Never use wire in a small enclosure--when your horse rolls, his legs can get caught.

You can install a wire fence if you've had experience with "do-it-yourself" projects before. If you haven't, you might want to hire someone with experience.

"Some people with larger installations use fence contractors, while others may do the job themselves," says Stitt. "We thought a couple of years ago that maybe more people were using contractors than before, so we ran a survey on our web site asking people questions like, 'How much do you fence per year? Will you do it yourself?' etc. We found that the vast majority were do-it-yourselfers. I think part of that trend stems from the growing number of smaller hobby farms that are cropping up.

"On the contractor side, there are a number of companies throughout the country that do field fence or horse fence installations for large farms," he adds. "These companies have large crews they send out all over the country to put in the fence and potentially other items."

While there are other types and brands of fencing available, these are some of the most common ones you will find around horses. Any fencing company should be amenable to answering all of your questions, offering information about their products and warranties, and giving you the names of other horse owners in your area who have installed the fencing they are selling. Visit those people and see what they have to say about the fence's value, safety, and durability.

Remember to ask about initial cost, installation, and long-term maintenance. Check out the good and the bad points, and weigh your options.

Then, when you are fully informed about all of your fencing options, you can make better decisions about the type of fence to install. You will also know exactly what you'll have to do in the future to keep that fence safe for your horses and looking good.

About the Author

Sharon Biggs Waller

Sharon Biggs Waller is a freelance writer for equine ­science and human interest publications. Her work has appeared in several publications and on several websites, and she is a classical dressage instructor.

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