Good Fences Make Good Neigh-bors
If the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, then one had better build a good fence. And how does one do that? Several different ways, actually. There are various types of suitable horse fencing. What type is best for you depends on your situation, your preference, and the purpose of the fence. Stallions will always be interested in the mares in the other fields, horses may play roughly, or you may have foals, so you'll need to fence accordingly.
There are numerous types and combinations of wood fence, synthetic fence, metal fence, and even stone wall fence. When choosing your fence type, there are several key factors to consider: safety, durability, cost to construct and maintain, the environment, the terrain, soil conditions, tools needed, and any pre-existent fence you may need to work with.
In the following section we will take a look at each of the various types of common fence and discuss the pros and cons of each to allow you to make a choice that best suits your needs and pocketbook.
A tangled horse will instinctively panic or try to get free unless he has been specifically taught to stop, stand, and wait for help. Wire, because it can easily cut, coupled with the strength and speed of a horse is a dangerous combination.
Barbed wire, which is very common around beef or dairy cows, is extremely dangerous and should never be used for horses. Using barbed wire for horses is inviting disaster; a horse can be severely injured from the barbs and can easily become entangled, risking serious harm or death. Smooth wire, often two wires twisted together to form one strand, will not cut as easily but because it is wire, it can still cause injury. Smooth wire fence often has upright, twisted-wire stabilizers in between posts to keep the wire strands evenly spaced. These stabilizers can be slid out of place and even worked up off the wires if horses put their necks between the strands.
High tensile wire is commonly used in some areas because of the cheaper expense associated with its construction but there is still the risk of injury due to entanglement. High tensile fence is normally constructed using wood poles as supports with multiple strands of wire strung between them. In addition it requires some form of bracing with a spool or ratchet and spring to take up the slack and put tension in the wire. This type of wire is normally used in conjunction with electrification to keep the horses safely away from it. If the horses lean on the fence, it could easily break if it is a lesser gauge wire (15 or thinner). Electrifying the fence entails using a fence charger or other power source to place a high DC voltage with a very low current through strands of the fence. The shock, either continuous or pulsating, from this electrified fence is painful to the horse but is not harmful; it is much like the static electricity shocks we get when touching something in dry conditions.
Many horse enthusiasts feel that wire fence is not worth the risk of injury if a horse gets tangled in it. Some of the other drawbacks to this type of fence are its poor visibility and its susceptibility to breakage. Because this fence is constructed of wire, it is less likely to be seen by a running horse, especially in dark conditions and if not combined with something to improve visibility. If the wire is subjected to excessive pressure, it can snap; also, the fence staples that attach it to wood posts can be popped out and flung onto the ground where they can end up in a hoof. If you are introducing a new horse to wire fence, it is always a good practice to lead the horse around the perimeter of the fence line before releasing him and possibly allow him to bump the fence to get an understanding of what happens when it is touched.
Electric fencing, at one time constructed of plain wire but now commonly made of thin wire strands woven with a "poly" or nylon fabric or coating, requires a fence charger or electrification unit. It is relatively easy to install and requires little time to set up, but it is best used as only a temporary enclosure or in conjunction with another type of fence like wood, for example. Electric fencing comes in many variations but some of the more common types are wire entwined in nylon, wire woven in poly strands or flat tapes, and wide ribbon poly with straight wire strands for easier handling. These types of strands may still be capable of cutting, rope burning, or otherwise injuring a tangled horse.
Most electric fences come in bright colors like orange, yellow or white to provide better visibility and the wider the tape the better the visibility. Insulated poles or connectors are required to support the strands. Joining the ends of tapes can be tricky - often the thin embedded wires need to be unthreaded for a few inches and twisted together at knots to maintain good electrical flow. Depending on the type of strand, there may be buckles available to attach ends and adjust tension.
One must always retest the wire for electrical flow through tape or wire strands after any impact or stress because the conducting wires may have been severed unnoticeably. Weeds, brush, and snow along the electrical fence must be kept under control because if they contact the wire, they can ground out the fence, burn the strands and leave the fence uncharged. Fiberglass, metal or plastic posts are used and are easy to drive into the ground but are not very strong if force is exerted on them. Strong, more permanent wood posts are also used. Insulators of various styles for different post types are available.
Wire Mesh Fence
Wire mesh fence is rolled fence that contains multiple strands of wire either welded or woven into a pattern of rectangles, squares or triangles. Mesh fences come in many varieties and types, but selecting the correct type and height is very important if you decide to use this type of fence. One common animal fence is welded wire roll fence, intended for sheep, goats, and other small stock, and it is not recommended for horses because it is not strong enough to withstand a kick from a hoof. This type of fence is not very durable and if it gets damaged, it may have dangerous wire protrusions that can cut and puncture your horse. Heavier 'page wire' fence, used often for dairy cows, has openings too large and a horse's hoof can easily slip through it and get caught, so it is not considered safe. With these types of wire fence there is always a possibility of injury because wire can break, snag and cut.
So what wire is suitable for horses? A better mesh is one that is designed to prevent snags with a "wire knot" construction so that the wire mesh is completely smooth on both sides as well as the top. Small openings help prevent horses' feet from stepping or kicking through and becoming caught or injured. The diamond mesh or V-mesh fence, a very safe, durable and resilient 'woven' horse fence with a wood or other top rail, is fabricated with small triangular openings that are designed to prevent a hoof from penetrating it. Foals just bounce off if they run into it. Many breeding farms in the eastern US and elsewhere prefer this type of fence. It can run flush to the ground to keep small animals out or in and it is flexible enough that it adapts to hilly terrain. It is galvanized to resist the effects of weather.
Welded Pipe Fence
Welded steel pipe fence, strong, durable, and often costly to make, is seen on many horse farms and on some stud farms in several states where pipe is readily available. It is visible, tough and virtually indestructible so painting or rust proofing is the only maintenance needed. It will, if properly constructed and maintained, contain the strongest and slipperiest of animals. It is important to promptly repair any areas that are weakening from rust so it does not buckle, break and have jagged edges. The spacing of the rails depends on the types of animals contained; a foal, for instance, could slip between or under its rails. It's tough, but keep in mind that if a horse were to run into it, it won't break or give; it is not at all resilient.
For gates, the types that are made from crimped sheet metal are less durable, can buckle from impact more readily, and the metal edges can become exposed and pose a serious hazard if a hoof or head gets caught in them. The welded tubular or squared pipe gates are sturdier and much safer. The solid gates, a perimeter of pipe with a firm mesh center welded in, are likely the safest gate.
Stone fences are certainly natural and durable if maintained, and should be of appropriate height and preferably without sharp protruding points. A stone wall is a very unforgiving surface if a horse were to collide with it, but the visibility of a solid stone fence minimizes this possibility. Many old stone fences exist, but few new ones are built currently due to the high cost and length of time of construction and the availability of more economical types of fence.
According to the helpful people at Ramm Fence Systems, makers of various types of fencing, stalls and other equipment, the most commonly purchased types of horse fence that they supply are the HTP's. "High tensile wire is entrapped in a polymer web rail. The rails vary in size - 5", 4", 1", and coated wire. HTP's are low maintenance fences that are very durable and safe for horses and other animals," says Ramm Fence Systems.
With synthetic fencing there is very little maintenance needed and most companies claim that this type of fence will last 25 years. There may be some slight maintenance necessary on the posts and there may be an occasional need to wash the fence, but the materials have incredible strength and longevity. The fence always stays new looking.
Which in their opinion is the safest? They answer, "Of the fencing systems we sell, the Centaur fence is the safest and strongest; its break strength is over 4,000 pounds. It has three strands of tough, high tensile wire encased in the polymer. Along highways and high traffic areas, motor vehicles sometimes test the fencing. If a horse hits the fence, it flexes on impact up to 6 1/2 inches and maintains its original shape. The posts or brackets may break, but the fence won't. There are no broken wood rails for a horse to get hurt on."
"Another feature of the Centaur fence is that it is non-palatable," they say. "Horses won't chew on it like they do with wood. It is also economical in that it needs virtually no painting, repairs, or maintenance. If the fence needs washing, plain soap and water cleans it. Mold, if it appears, does not penetrate the fencing. If there is mold, it is from the surface dust and washes right off. You may want to use a little bleach." For a 4-rail Centaur fence, the price is currently $3.49 per foot, posts not included (based on a 660 foot paddock, one gate area).
"Ninety five percent of what we sell is self installation," says Ramm Fence Systems. "Probably our Polystrand is the simplest to install." Polystrand is a 12 1/2 gauge wire, coated for strength, visibility, and safety. Its break strength is 1320 pounds. "Nylon tapes may cut, however our Polypropylene tape is designed to stretch or break and be a safer fence, so as not to cut the horse. The key to building a strong fence is making strong corners. They should be set in concrete and horizontally or diagonally braced," they advise.
Another popular type of synthetic fencing is the PVC rigid fence, also virtually indestructible and maintenance-free. The hollow, reinforced rails are very durable yet resilient, springing back when hit. It's safe because if a horse runs into it, it will flex, disassemble or make a clean break on impact. Also, there are no nails or hardware used to put it together.
As far as constructing the fence, it's easy because the rails just slip in, and it is very lightweight. The PVC posts are hollow, though, and manufacturers recommend concrete in the holes. Some types of synthetics are less desirable in that they will absorb heat and will sag. These types are generally the ones manufactured from recycled products. They have no protection to sunlight and exposure to the sun weakens the material. The PVC has protection, like vinyl siding, and won't hold heat from the sun. Titanium dioxide is commonly known as the ultraviolet inhibitor and is used in paint, plastics and other outdoor products to protect them from the sun. It is probably the most expensive ingredient in the manufacturing of vinyl fence. Nine parts or more is considered necessary to have a lifetime warrantable product, so check with the manufacturers.
PVC types are the lowest maintenance in that they don't need to be painted patched or replaced like other types of fencing do. Large commercial operations, newer farms, and horse hobbyists often prefer less maintenance. The average price for PVC fence is currently $5 per foot, but maintenance costs are next to nothing.
And what about wood? Traditionally, wood is the most popular and is still the most commonly requested fence in several areas. Many horse people, especially those on the farms that have been around for a long time, already have wood fence and just maintain it. When they add new sections they generally stay with the same type. Wood is natural, visible and attractive.
Common wood types of fence are split rail, post and board, and slip board. Split rail, a traditional farm fence, has a rustic look and is readily adaptable to hills and other challenging terrain. Post and board fencing gives a more dressed look but is more challenging on unlevel terrain. Split rail and slip board fencing are both easy to install with no need for nails or hardware. These are easy for the do-it-yourself fencer because of their simplicity, and because they afford some leeway on the distance between posts. Maintenance consists merely of replacing broken or deteriorating rails and posts, as neither need to be painted, although they can be painted if desired.
Post and board fence is strong, visible, and sturdy but more challenging to install and maintain. The use of nails is always potentially hazardous if a nail or nail head should become exposed. Horses and the normal expansion and contraction of wood due to moisture can cause nails and boards to work loose from the post. Ring shank nails or screws are best used instead; they won't work loose. Unlike the poly fences, wood will rot, warp, and sag, can develop mold and fungus, and is palatable to many horses. It is also quite breakable if a horse runs into it or rubs or leans on it, and the jagged ends of broken wood can be dangerous.
With split rail, one may need to start replacing the wood after about nine years. It is not pressure treated and is more susceptible to breakdown from the elements. Slip board fence is pressure treated oak so it is longer lasting, and because the board ends slip into the post and overlap inside the post, there is less rotting of the ends. Pressure treating greatly extends the life of the wood and it is considered relatively non-toxic for animals even if they were to chew on it. Animals are less likely to chew pressure treated wood, though, because treated wood is less palatable. Electric strands or wire can be used with it as a deterrent to prevent leaning over it and rubbing against it. Wood fences currently cost between $2.50 to $3.50 per foot for a 3' to 4' high 3-rail fence.
When building a fence, the length of the rails is important. With PVC, for instance, going with a 10' rail is not recommended. Because of the longer length between posts, there is more room for it to flex and the rail can be popped out. Posts set at 8' with alternated 16' rails is much stronger. This is true with post and board fence as well.
Which fence is more environmentally friendly? That's hard to determine. Welded pipe fencing poses no threat to the environment (providing environmentally friendly paint is used) until it is rusted out or otherwise expired at which time disassembly is difficult and time consuming. Disposal ideally consists of loading up the old metal and taking it to the local metal scrap yard for recycling. Wood, in that it is a natural product, is non-toxic and will break down and decompose without harming the environment, or it may be burned as fuel. However, because wood breaks down it needs to be painted and preserved, or replaced more often by sacrificing trees. Poly fence, a man-made, unnatural product, does not have the 'feel' of wood, but it virtually never breaks down. Unless it is somehow damaged, it rarely needs to be discarded. It can be moved if done carefully or even resold.
When you decide you need a fence, have a plan. Consider the future and if there will be other livestock. Plan the traffic flow between the paddocks and the barn. Decide where you will want the fence, where the gates will be, and where the paddock areas need to be whether you plan to do your own installation or not. Safe, sturdy fencing is important - it keeps your horses and animals in and other animals out. Keeping animals safely contained can prevent many accidents. No fence is 100% perfect and what makes the best fence for your situation is your decision; assess the needs of the types of animals you are keeping. Determine if you prefer high initial cost and low maintenance costs or low initial cost and high maintenance costs. If you build your own fence, construct it well. Remember that the skill of the installer determines the soundness of the fence.
Fence prices will vary depending on location, manufacturer, quantity purchased, warranties and shipping costs.
Natural Horse Magazine thanks Ramm Fence Systems, Inc. for their help in preparing this article.
For more information on fencing, contact:
Ramm Fence Systems, Inc.
P.O. Box 268
Swanton, OH 43558