What type of fencing is best for horses?
Pose that question to owners in different parts of the country, and you’re likely to get a variety of answers—some delivered quite vehemently. “People often become emotional about fences,” says Marti Day, of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension at North Carolina State University. “Some think wire fence is evil and that you must have board fence for horses.” Others might insist just as firmly that wire is the only viable option for their own properties.
But the correct answer, really, is, “It depends.”
“There are many good fences, and different situations can make them good or bad,” says Day. “You can’t make a blanket statement as to what is a good fence and have it cover all the possibilities.” What’s “best” for one herd on one farm may not work at all for someone else in a different situation. On smaller farms surrounded by busy roads or development, just keeping the horses in might be the highest concern. Whereas on larger ranches that need miles of fencing in remote areas, cost, maintenance and longevity might be more important.
Whatever the circumstances, fencing has one basic job: “A fence should be able to keep the horses on your side of the property line,” says Bob Coleman, PhD, state extension specialist at the University of Kentucky. “Also, you might want to restrict access to your horses, by keeping out neighborhood dogs, predators or small children.”
To accomplish that goal safely, good fencing needs to present both a physical barrier—which is strong enough to contain a horse who runs into it or who applies pressure by leaning or reaching through it—and a psychological barrier, so the horses can see it, always know it’s there and not continually test its limits. But good fencing must also strike a balance—if it’s too “strong” it may entrap or injure horses. Too weak, and it may allow horses to escape.
Whether you’re renovating an existing farm or building from scratch, you’ll first want to consider several factors to help you decide which type of fencing is best for you. Then, you’ll be prepared to analyze the many choices of material and make the best decision for your property. We’ll help you get started.
7 Questions for fence shoppers
The many choices available for farm fencing may seem daunting. But going through the following list of questions can help you identify your priorities:
1. How much fencing can you afford? Pricing for fencing materials varies from as little as five cents per foot for wire to $15 or more per foot for wood. Not surprisingly, people with large ranches spanning hundreds or even thousands of acres are more likely to opt for more inexpensive fencing. Economics can influence choices for owners of smaller properties, too.
2. Do aesthetics matter? If you can afford it, of course, there’s nothing wrong with selecting a more expensive fence simply because you like the looks of it. And there are situations where the expense of a better-looking fence is actually a good investment.
“If you have a boarding/training facility and are trying to attract high-end clientele and charge a lot for your services, your fences need to be pretty,” says Day. “Also, many rescue farms depend on funds from local philanthropists, and those people want to spend their money on something that looks pretty.” Wooden fences might also add more to your property value, especially if you live in an area where they are common and expected.
3. Who lives in your pastures? “Do you have the same horses who have lived together for years, such as a group of old geldings who are not interested in getting out? They are happy to be where they are,” says Day. “The physical strength of your fence can be much less for those horses.” In contrast, if you have young, active horses, or if it’s common for horses to come and go from your property, herd dynamics will be more unsettled, and new members might be more inclined to test their boundaries, so the fence needs to be stronger, and perhaps electrified, to discourage escape attempts.
If you have foals or Miniature Horses, it might be wise to add woven wire fencing, with openings too small to entrap little hooves. The fencing also needs to go low enough to the ground that smaller horses cannot reach under it and get their heads caught.
If your horses share large pastures with other livestock, such as cattle, sheep or goats, your fencing needs to accommodate those species as well. Woven wire fencing is generally needed to enclose sheep or goats. Cattle are more likely to press against fences, so they will require measures such as electrification.
4. How large are your turnouts? Horses who have plenty of room to roam are less likely to test the limits of pasture fences. Smaller paddocks and corrals, however, have to have stronger fencing.
“In a small pen where there’s more pressure from the horses, you may need something with more visibility that presents more of a psychological as well as a physical barrier,” says Coleman.
The quality of grazing available also matters. Horses with plenty of good hay and/or pasture grass are more likely to be content where they are and won’t put pressure on the fences, whereas those in dry lots or with poorer grazing may be more inclined to try to reach through fences to nibble on vegetation growing just outside.
5. Do you need to keep other animals out? If predators or small animals such as opossums or raccoons are a concern, you may want to choose woven wire fencing or look into adding barriers to other types of fences. “I hear of more people making their existing fences even more secure, such as putting net wire behind the boards, to keep out predators or animals that might carry diseases to their horses,” says Jenifer Nadeau, PhD, associate professor and equine extension specialist at the University of Connecticut. “They are often worried about diseases like EPM, rabies or leptospirosis, or they are worried about dogs that might come in and chase the horses.”
You might also want to consider the risks of small children wandering into pastures and getting hurt—this might be more of a concern if the general public has access to your farm or neighboring properties along the fence line.
6. How much time can you spend on maintenance? A well-built metal fence will stay in place for years with little maintenance needs. Electrified fences will need to be checked periodically to make sure the current isn’t shorting out. Wood fences require maintenance checks to make sure nails aren’t popping up or boards aren’t splitting or deteriorating, and if they’re painted, they will need to be repainted every few years.
7. How serious would it be if a horse got out? The goal of a fence, of course, is to keep the herd inside, but the stronger it is, the higher the risk a horse will hurt himself if he runs into it or becomes entrapped. Consider which outcome poses the higher risk: a horse who injures himself on a fence, or one who breaks it and gets out.
“In some areas of the country you just have to go find them, or a neighbor calls to tell you he saw your horses wandering past his place,” says Day. “Around here, you get a call from a veterinarian saying that he just shot your injured horse in the middle of the highway, and you owe somebody to replace a wrecked car.”
Also consider this question in terms of whether the horses in your pasture belong to you or to someone else. “If you are boarding, you definitely need to keep them in, but you may also have to deal with an emotional owner if the horse becomes injured by the fence,” says Day.
Commonly used fencing materials
A number of materials can be used to make safe fencing for horses, either alone or in combination. And regional factors make some materials more popular than others in different parts of the country—for example metal pipe fencing is more often seen on horse properties located in regions where the energy industry is active.
Costs, of both supplies and labor, will vary widely, depending on where you live and other factors. Estimates listed here are for purchase price of materials only. Here are some of the more common materials used for horse fencing:
Electrified wire fence
Electric fences can be made with a variety of metals—aluminum, high-tensile steel or polymer-coated wire—with the addition of insulators to separate the wires from any conductive material including the posts, as well as a charger (also called an energizer) and some sort of grounding system, usually conductive posts or wires set into the ground. Some chargers can be plugged into the farm’s electrical system; other fences come with solar-powered chargers. The entire fence may consist of electrified wire, or a single strand may be added to the top of other types of structures.
• Maintenance: In addition to maintaining tension in the wire, it’s important to keep the electricity flowing through the fence. “A person needs to understand electricity to install and to take care of this kind of fence and the principles that make a good fence charger effective,” says Day. “You must ground the wire properly and have lightning gaps.”
One important chore is to keep vegetation mown down under the fence—contact with wet plants shorts out the electricity, reducing the ability of the fence to create a shock to animals. “You have to get out there and chop down the vegetation that grows into the fence or spray the fence lines,” Day says. It’s also a good idea to use a voltmeter to check the flow of electricity to the fence every day so that you can find and fix any serious issues.
Overall, though, care for the fence is relatively easy. “With properly installed wire, if a tree falls on your fence, the maintenance and repair is simple,” Day says. “You cut the tree off and use a ratchet to tighten up the tensioners again.”
• Practical considerations: “This type of fencing is sturdy and has relatively low maintenance, but you do have to make sure it’s visible to the horses,” says Nadeau. “Some types are more visible than others.”
Electric fences present a formidable psychological barrier to a horse. Once he has learned that the fence will shock him, he will be much less inclined to lean on it or reach through it. “The advantages of the electrified fence—if constructed and maintained properly—is that the horses stay in,” says Day. “They may get a wire cut if they run into it, or scrape some hide off, but they are still inside your paddock.”
Electric tapes, ropes and braids
Tape and rope fences combine the electrical deterrent of wire fencing with the higher visibility of boards. These products incorporate conductive wire in other materials—plastics, polyesters, nylon, etc.—to create electrified fencing that is also more visible and aesthetically pleasing. Tapes come in different widths, most between one and five inches wide, to create a look that mimics wood boards. Ropes are rounded and generally less than an inch in diameter. “With electric fences, the wider strands—tapes or ropes—create a better physical barrier than the old electric wires and are certainly more visible,” says Coleman. These can be used for perimeter fencing in larger pastures or for temporary fencing.
You’ll find products in different colors, from white, to stand out, to browns and blacks that blend in with the terrain. All of these products can be mounted on all matter of permanent or temporary posts, including wood, metal or fiberglass.
• Maintenance: Care for electric tape, rope and braid fencing is pretty much the same as with wire electric fencing: The vegetation under the fence needs to be controlled, and it’s important to check the electricity flow regularly. A knowledgeable owner could install these fences without professional help.
• Practical considerations: To reduce the tendency of ropes and tapes to sag, the posts may need to be set closer together than those for standard electric fences—as little as every eight to 12 feet—which may increase material costs.
In windy regions, the constant flexing of the tapes may cause the tiny wires inside to eventually break, which would mean they’d need to be replaced. “The wide tapes are harder to maintain and keep tight,” says Coleman. “They catch more wind and hold more moisture and sag more. I personally like the braided rope rather than the tapes. It’s durable and also easier to handle. You can roll it up and unroll it and it doesn’t blow as much in the wind.”
Stretched tight between posts, high-tensile wire comes in different forms. Smooth wire is bare metal that is galvanized (coated in zinc) to protect against rusting. The thicker the zinc coating, the longer the wire will last before rusting. The official standards for zinc coatings rank from Class 1, the thinnest, to Class 3, which is the thickest and will last the longest. The wire is also measured in gauges, which refers to its thickness. The lower the gauge number, the stronger (and more unforgiving) the wire fence will be. High-tensile wire may also be coated in polymers that make the fencing more visible to the animals and also less likely to cut them.
A full fence of smooth or polymer-coated wire contains five to seven strands; some types have 10 to 12 stands. It can be difficult to see the wires from a distance, so many people add a top board or pole for better visibility. Even tying brightly colored flags to the top strands can help to make the fence be seen more easily. Some people may also add an electrified wire to increase the horses’ respect for the fence.
• Maintenance: Generally, very little, but the wires will occasionally need to be tightened to prevent sagging.
• Practical considerations: High-tensile wire fence is an inexpensive choice as a boundary fence for large pastures. When horses do run into or press against the wire, the strands tend to stretch without causing serious harm. It is, however, possible for a horse to get entangled in the wire.
Coleman says, “The high-tensile wire is workable but you have to educate your horses so they know it is there. I prefer to have a visibility barrier along the top, just to help them figure it out. Some horses never have a problem with it but others get exuberant and forget to watch where they are running and playing. I have kept horses behind high-tensile wire fences, and it has worked well, but I sleep a lot better at night when it has a visibility barrier.”
PVC and other plastic materials
Plastic fencing can be molded to just about any shape, but for farms, these fences are often designed to mimic the look of post-and-board fencing. There are also wood-board fences that are coated in vinyl to improve the look and eliminate the need for periodic repainting. All of these come in different colors for aesthetic effects; some plastic products are made specifically to mimic wood.
• Maintenance: Plastic materials were originally marketed as a way to look like painted wood without the need for as much maintenance. Because the plastic is the same color throughout, it does not require painting. Plastic fences may need periodic cleaning if they get dirty. And especially in more humid climates, parts of the fence that don’t catch direct sunlight may develop mildew that needs to be cleaned off periodically. Wood that is covered with plastic or vinyl can still warp and deteriorate over time, causing nails or screws to loosen.
• Practical considerations: PVC fencing and similar products may be used for perimeter fencing instead of wood. But, generally, it’s not as durable as wood. “PVC fencing was very popular for a while, but we found that it became brittle in cold weather and tended to break,” says Nadeau. “If you had a lot of horses in a small area it didn’t hold up very well if they leaned on it.”
The new kinds of PVC fencing seem to weather reasonably well, says Coleman, “But there is some concern about how much horse pressure these fences can tolerate. I have seen a few places that used that kind of fencing, and now we have special clips that can be put on, to install an electric wire along the inside of the fence. This can keep the horses away from it and make them respect the fence—so they won’t be leaning over it, rubbing on it, and are less likely to run into it.”
“If cost was not a concern, I think my choice would be the wood boards that are covered with PVC,” says Nadeau. “This would be sturdy and long-lasting as well as looking nice.”
Wood board or poles
Wood fencing, which may consist of wooden posts with plank boards or rounded wooden poles, is a traditional choice for horse properties. Different types of wood may be used—pine versus hardwoods, for example. Many people paint wood fences, both to protect the wood as well as for aesthetic reasons, but they can also be left natural.
• Maintenance: Wood, like any natural material, deteriorates over time and requires regular upkeep. The amount and frequency of work required depends on the type of wood used. Oak and other hardwoods will cost more upfront but will also be more durable than fence made with cheaper pine boards. “We estimate the life of a wood fence to be about 20 years or less unless you use some kind of wood preservative periodically to keep it from weathering,” says Nadeau.
Over time, boards may crack or come loose and will need to be replaced. “There is always the potential for nails or screws to come loose, which are dangerous when sticking up on boards that have come off a fence plus the jagged edges of broken boards,” Day says. Some people may paint or apply preservatives to wood fencing to help it last longer. However, she adds, “If you paint a board fence, you have to keep painting it or you loose the aesthetic appeal.”
The time and costs of maintaining a wood fence are something to consider before installation. “Board fence is probably the most expensive and the most time-consuming to check and maintain,” Day says. “You can detect a sag in a wire fence anywhere along the run, but with a board fence you must actually walk the fence line to see if there are boards broken, nails working out or boards popped off.”
• Practical considerations: In many parts of the country, board fencing is used for perimeters, largely for its visual appeal from the road. “Post-and-board fences are probably the most common in this area for perimeter fence,” says Nadeau. “It has good visibility, keeps horses from escaping and is aesthetically pleasing.”
Wood fencing can, how-ever, produce splinters that may injure a horse, and if he runs into it, the boards may break. “Our local veterinarian has had many cases where he had to pull chunks of splintered board out of a horse’s neck, chest or abdomen,” Day says. “When a horse hits the fence and it breaks, it all goes flying.”
Pole fences, which are more common in the West, are stronger than boards. “A board fence is more of a mental barrier because horses can break through if they run into it with enough force,” says Day. A fence made of sturdy wood poles will not break, and the poles won’t pop off if they are nailed to the inside of the posts.
“Some people double fence,” says Coleman. “The outside board fence looks really nice, but it’s mainly for appearance. The inside fence is safe for horses. I’ve seen places where the rails were on the inside—against the posts like you need them to be for the horse pressure—with a nice wire mesh on the outside. The rails keep the horses a little bit farther away from the mesh, which is helpful.”
Woven or mesh wire
These include any fencing made with horizontal and vertical wires in different configurations. Woven wire, in which the wires are not connected to each other where they overlap, can vary from fairly small openings up to those that are five inches or larger, often used for sheep, goats or cattle. Because the wires slide past each other, these fences tend to flex more readily when animals press against them. In mesh fencing, in contrast, the wires are either entwined or clipped together at each intersection, creating a structure that is sturdier and less forgiving. These include diamond mesh fences, with V-shaped openings. These wires, too, are likely to be galvanized for longer life, and the wire comes in different gauges.
• Maintenance: Because the rolls of woven or mesh wire can be heavy and cumbersome, it can be difficult to stretch them without specialized equipment, so these fences may need to be professionally installed. Once properly installed and stretched tightly, woven or mesh wire fencing lasts a very long time and requires little maintenance. The mesh does need to be checked periodically and repaired if a kick or fallen branch has broken part of the wire, and snow or heavy weed growth may stretch the wire, creating holes big enough to entrap hooves. A larger accident like a fallen tree will create damage that requires major repair work.
“A big problem here with woven wire fence is deer damage,” says Day. “We have a lot of deer and even though they are capable of clearing any fence, it’s not unusual that they might misjudge or catch the top of it or even land on the fence, and mash it down.”
• Practical considerations: Fences with relatively small openings tend to work best for equine properties. Diamond mesh fencing, for example, is considered one of the safest types for horses. “Make sure the mesh is such that there is no hole big enough for a horse’s foot to go through,” says Coleman. Keep in mind that even smaller meshes may still be large enough to entrap hooves if you have foals, ponies or Miniature Horses.
Experts do recommend combining mesh fencing with some sort of solid board, rail or pipe along the top for visibility. “You don’t want any kind of netting to sag, and you don’t want any cut ends poking in toward the horse,” says Nadeau. “Think of using a board or rail along the top so it stays tight and the horses don’t reach over it and mash it down. Also, add a board along the cut edge.”
A single strand of electrified wire around the top may also be a good idea if horses are still reaching over the fence. “Woven wire, whether it has a strand of electric wire or not, is more of a physical barrier than boards,” says Day. “If there’s an electric wire above it, this is also a mental barrier.”
whatever fencing material you choose, make sure it is installed as the manufacturer intended. “Probably the biggest problems and maintenance issues occur where a fence was not constructed in a proper fashion,” says Coleman. “Perhaps the posts were not set deep enough, or were not big enough for a corner or brace or gatepost. High-tensile wire, for example, puts a lot of pressure on the posts, so you need to have the posts in line and the fence well braced so the posts won’t come loose.”
Quality materials and professional installation may cost more up front, but the investment could prove to be well worth it in the long run. “Don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish,” says Coleman. “Buy good posts and durable materials so you won’t have to replace the fence sooner than you planned. Some of the cheaper materials may save you money today, but you may be buying them again next year.”
This article first appeared in EQUUS #476