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Field Guide to Horse Fences

Before you add or replace fencing on your horse property, get familiar with the pros, cons, and costs of your many choices in materials.

Photo by David Classen/iStockPhoto.com

While investigating a 5,600-year-old village site in Kazakhstan, archaeologists determined that its Copper Age inhabitants were among the first cultures to tame horses. The evidence? The buried remnants of corral posts. Clearly, fences have been crucial to our shared relationship all along.

Unlike ancient horsemen who were limited to sticks and stones to enclose their horses, we benefit from a vast variety of traditional and modern materials from which to choose. Unfortunately, despite over 5,000 years of development, there’s still no ideal fence for every horsekeeping purpose. Each fence choice involves balancing safety concerns with aesthetics, cost, and upkeep.

Chances are you’ll employ a variety of materials and fence designs on your property for paddocks, arenas, and pasture fences—or even mix fence materials for a single enclosure. Choosing carefully will help maximize the safety, value, appeal, and utility of your fences. Before looking at the broad range of choices, let’s discuss safe fencing construction.

Safety
America’s West was tamed by blazing guns and barbed wire. Both remain murderous when used improperly. While barbed wire is relatively safe for huge pastures holding thick-skinned, placid cattle, the use of barbed wire for horse properties has caused untold tragedies. If you have any on your horse acreage, your first fencing priority is to remove it.

Building codes may ultimately determine fencing requirements for your land, but some general rules of thumb apply nearly everywhere. Field fences should be 54 to 60 inches above ground level. Err on the side of caution and go with a 5-feet minimum height where fences abut highways or anywhere that an escaped horse can flee your premises. Six feet is the safe minimum height for stall runs and paddocks.

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At bottom, an opening of 8 to 12 inches will keep feet and legs from getting trapped, and also prevent foals from rolling under the fence. Fence openings should be either large enough that a hoof, leg, or even the head can’t become trapped, or very small (no more than 3 inches by 3 inches) to prevent a hoof from penetrating. To maintain tension, most wire fences, both fabric and high-tensile smooth wire, require triangular-shaped bracing at the corners and at intervals of about 1/8 mile. The acute angles formed by brace wires represent entrapment hazards if the horse can reach them; good design (such as boards used in corners to block access) can prevent injury, even death.

Visibility, especially with wire fencing, is too often overlooked. While a white plank fence of wood or PVC is easily seen by horses, wires can be almost invisible when a horse panics and runs—the time when the worth of a fence is truly tested. Improve visibility to wire fences by adding a top rail of wood; PVC; or durable white vinyl fence ribbon, either standard or electrified. This addition not only makes a wire fence more visible, it also deters horses from reaching over the fence to graze.

Regardless of fence material and design, one of your goals should be to present a smooth side to the horses. Do-it-yourselfers occasionally make the mistake of mounting boards on the outside of fence posts, which makes them easy for horses to knock loose. Further, the exposed posts can injure a horse that runs down the fence line. With cross-pasture fencing, you may not be able to avoid this exposure; in such cases, using an electric fence wire to create a psychological as well as a physical barrier offers a safe solution.

Corners also present problems, especially if you plan to pasture horses that don’t get along well. Any corner can create an entrapment situation where one horse is bullied. The problem is especially bad when the corner angle is acute (90 degrees or less). Some solutions include corners that curve. This requires placing wire fence barriers on the outside of the posts, but this is less of a problem in corners than it is along straight runs. Another solution is to affix planks across corners to block access.

Wood posts, field fence, a highly visible electric tape, and a twisted smooth-wire top line makes this an exceptionally safe fence.

Posts
The strength and integrity of a fence come from good fence posts, properly installed. Wire fences require tension, which means that corner assemblies and gate assemblies need to be braced against the pulling forces. Generally, when using wood posts, it’s best to use concrete to set corner assemblies and gate posts. Metal T-posts benefit from having sturdy wood corner and gate assemblies as well. These are an absolute requirement for high-tensile wire.

Wood is traditional and commonly used for fence posts. Whether you’re making a plank fence or just using wood posts, local availability and custom may determine your choices in woods. For instance, while hardwood fence materials tend to be readily available in the East, Southeast, and parts of the Midwest, softwoods predominate in the West. To deter decomposition, common softwoods that are resistant to rot and insect infestation include cedar, redwood, and cypress. Unfortunately, these woods are very expensive.

For this reason, horsemen often choose pressure-treated lumber (usually pinewood or fir); such lumber costs 1/3 to 1/5 of the above-mentioned varieties. With pressure treated lumber (or “PTL”), the manufacturer impregnates the wood with chemicals that resist rot, fungi, and insects. Look for treated lumber posts that are certified for in-ground use. Paint won’t bond to the material, so PTL fences are invariably natural.

A professional fence contractor may have the capability of driving round wooden posts into the ground, a technique that packs the posts more tightly than digging and back filling. Rather than being loosened with digging, the soil is actually compacted around the post as it is driven. If you build the fence yourself, consider having a contractor set the posts this way, if feasible. It’s worth the added expense and results in a stronger, longer-lasting fence with less upkeep.

Many horsemen choose wooden posts in concert with wire materials to cut down the overall expense of their fences. Suitable materials include high-tensile wire, woven wire “field fence,” and V-mesh wire fabrics, as well as relatively new materials such as flexible PVC vinyl-and-wire planks and vinyl-covered wire products.

Metal T-posts are inexpensive to purchase and labor-saving to install, though most would agree they lack aesthetic appeal. Regrettably, most horsemen don’t use the savings to make them as safe as can be. If you do use metal T-posts, top them with plastic mushroom-shaped caps to minimize the possibility of a horse getting impaled. Better, buy the kind of caps that allow you to install an electrified mesh ribbon that will increase visibility while discouraging horses from reaching their heads over to nibble. Over-the-fence grazing and socializing often cause damage to wire fencing and can bend fence posts as horses push against the wires or mesh.

Barriers
Barriers are the functional part of fences; posts exist merely to hold up barriers. Ultimately, nearly every barrier can be overcome if a horse has his mind set on escaping. Your goal should be to create a fence that is strong enough to contain a horse, is resilient enough to not harm the animal if it charges the fence, and also provides a psychological deterrent that keeps a horse from attempting to escape in the first place.

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Wood board fence. We’ve already touched on wood in our discussion of posts. Wood board fences are revered for their aesthetics, high visibility, and good strength. Disadvantages include high initial cost ($4 to $5 per linear foot for a traditional, unpainted four-rail fence) and high maintenance due to horse chewing, weathering, etc. Horses can break through if spooked, and nails and splintering can present hazards.

PVC board fence. Many horsemen like these fences, which have the visual appeal of a painted-wood fence without the maintenance headaches. But the cost can be extravagant—around $10 per linear foot. Internally ribbed PVC boards can resist breakage, but are designed to break away when pressure is applied—not the best barrier for a 1,000-pound animal. An electrical wire system is recommended to keep horses respectful of and contained within the PVC enclosure.

Pipe steel. Pipe steel makes an exceptionally strong and long-lasting fence. There is, however, no give to these fences, and a horse can suffer damage if it runs into the fence. Fortunately, high visibility keeps such incidents minimal.

Even in the Oil Patch, where pipe can be cheap and plentiful, transport and labor costs may be high, and you’ll have to hire a professional installer to cut and weld the pipes. Planning must be exact, as modifications will be difficult and expensive once the fence is completed. Upkeep tends to be minimal, though repainting may be required.

High-tensile wire. The term “high-tensile wire” simply refers to wires under tension. This includes woven-wire fabrics, smooth-wire fences, and the majority of electric-fence designs. The key characteristic of all these is that the fence is pulled tight like a tuned instrument string (though not nearly as tight). Posts, corner assemblies, and braces placed intermittently provide the counter force to the pulling forces of the fence material.

Proper construction, therefore, requires a knowledgeable application of construction techniques to assure that fences are properly braced. In some cases, springs or tighteners are applied to keep fences properly tensioned in changing temperatures and as an effect of aging and stretching. Fence fabrics often have kinks, which act as springs to counter the expansion and contraction of metal in changing temperature.

Smooth wire. Smooth-wire designs are the least expensive fences to construct. They’re basically barbed-wire fences without the barbs. Wide spacing of poles—as much as 20 feet—adds to the low cost of some designs.

There are dozens of different designs in use, ranging from three to eight wires. Generally, the smaller the confinement area, the more wires used. Visibility is a problem, so manufacturers have introduced wire wrapped in PVC coating in a variety of colors. These are also safer, as the unprotected, thin metal wires can be dangerous when struck by horses traveling at high speeds. Typically, smooth-wire fences are coupled with electrical systems to create a deterrent effect, as horses soon learn that a smooth-wire fence is safe to push against.

Woven field fence. Woven field fence is used in a wide variety of livestock applications, and is readily available and inexpensive, especially when coupled with metal T-posts.

Its primary advantage is its cost per foot as well as its ability to contain animals safely while fencing out wildlife. Note the word woven. There are cheap fence fabrics that are brazed or spot-welded, but these tend to break and fail under the demands of horses and aren’t suitable for equine use. The best-quality fence fabrics use knots at the wire inter- sections. Ideally, openings should be no larger than 3 inches square. Quality and price can vary greatly and affect longevity and performance. Visibility should be improved with a top board or the use of electrified fence tape.

V-mesh. Among the safest fence materials, V-mesh has horizontal and diagonal wires woven into a fabric to create a “V” or diamond pattern. This wire fencing can absorb the energy of a galloping horse while creating a nearly impenetrable barrier to varmints, wild predators, and roving dogs. These qualities make it a favorite for foaling operations and for small paddock enclosures. Its biggest downside is cost (around $4 a linear foot, almost equal to that of a traditional wood fence). It’s the most expensive of wire-fencing materials, but cost savings can be realized by using metal T-posts in pastures.

Electric fencing. Good barriers work on two levels: They provide a physical presence that deters escape, and they provide a psychological force that makes horses think escape is either too arduous or impossible. We seldom think of psychological deterrents, but that’s the principle underlying electric-fence systems. Once shocked, a horse learns quickly not to touch the fence.

Electric-fence systems include a charger that dispenses a high-voltage, low-amperage current; a conductive wire material to carry that current; and ground rods sunk in the soil to complete a circuit. When an animal touches the wire, current flows through his body, to his feet and the ground, then through the ground to the ground rods. For the system to work properly, the current cannot be obstructed at any point in the circuit. Failure usually results from either a broken wire or ineffective grounding—either the ground rods are too shallow to reach moisture or the ground is too dry.

For these and others reasons, fence installers (either professional or property owners) need to be exacting in following installation guidelines. Further, electric fences need to be routinely inspected for proper function. Damages must be repaired to restore operation. Today’s electric livestock fences are safe when properly installed and maintained.

Most horse owners combine electric-fence systems with conventional fences—whether wood, PVC plastic, wire mesh, or high-tensile smooth wire—to act as a deterrent and keep horses from pushing, climbing, chewing, or other- wise testing a fence. At a cost of about 15 cents per linear foot, electric-fence systems are inexpensive additions that can increase your pasture fence’s effectiveness and longevity.

Horse & Rider

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