Over the last 20-some years, I have traveled the world, giving seminars on fencing design and advising horsemen, cattlemen and even zookeepers on the best ways to keep their animals safely contained. I could, with some authority, tell you how to build the most high-tech, elaborate and expensive horse fence possible--but I won't. I won't because, as a lifelong horseman, I also know that the price you pay for a fence has little to do with how well it will protect your animals.
1. Build your fences to standard specifications. Even the most expensive fencing materials won't work if you cut corners on installation. People who buy prefabricated fencing can get themselves into trouble by skimping on materials or ignoring the manufacturer's advice. If the specs call for six strands of polycoated wire, for instance, anything less may be putting your horses at risk for escape and injury. And if a loose horse lands you in court, failure to comply with the manufacturer's instructions can damage your case. Before beginning any fence installation, familiarize yourself with standard safety practices or consult your local agricultural extension specialist.
2. Secure the perimeter. The most escape-proof properties have an unbroken barrier of fences and gates all the way around, leaving no open areas where horses can slip through. A key component of this controlled-perimeter approach is a gate at every entrance. For convenience, it's possible to install affordable motorized gates that open and close automatically, just like a garage door. Don't forget to close off entrances to trails as well. You can get similar protection from an "internal perimeter," a secondary fence that encompasses the barn and any openings to horsekeeping areas so a horse escaping from a stall or pasture gate encounters a second barrier on his way to freedom. At the very least, paint parallel white strips or run inset strips of metal across any paved entrance--most horses are reluctant to cross such highly visible markings. (Note: Cattle guards may seem like a tempting alternative, but avoid them for safety's sake. Horses who run over them in a panic can get their legs stuck, risking grave injury.)
3. Keep gates closed. When I was growing up, we followed this rule: "Leave any gate you use exactly as you found it." Unfortunately, not everyone understands the importance of that rule these days. Believe it or not, most horses escape by simply walking through a gate or stall door that's been left open. Make it a habit to check all gates and doors before you leave a barn or pasture. Since others who pass through your property may not be as conscientious, post a sign on each gate to remind people to close it, or install self-closing latches that engage when the gate swings shut. Also, remember that clever, bored horses can figure out simple latches. Choose horseproof hardware, or shield the mechanism with an overhanging shelf to keep curious lips away. If a 2-year-old child can open a latch, chances are a horse can, too.
4. Reduce temptation. The lure of greener pastures can be irresistible to some horses. Providing lush pasture on your side of the fence--or offering quality hay when pasture is sparse--can ensure that potential wanderers stay home. Sticking to regular feeding times is important, too. When dinner is an hour late, your horse may go looking for it on his own. Also, I've learned from experience that a horse who leans over or through a fence may lose respect for it. To discourage your horses from grazing beyond the fence, mow underneath and just outside the fence line as part of your regular pasture maintenance.
5. Respect herd dynamics. Be careful when introducing that new horse to your herd. A rowdy group can quickly overwhelm a hapless newcomer, running him through fences until the pecking order is reestablished. Try turning a new horse out with just one companion to start; then add to the herd, horse by horse, always keeping an eye out for trouble. You may want to limit your new horse's turnout to daylight hours at first, when he can clearly see fences and obstacles. Horses who never manage to fit into the herd and are continually pestered may be better off in their own field. Likewise, if you need to remove a horse from the herd (after an injury, for example), make sure the fence around the horse's new enclosure is secure. Most horses will want to get back with their buddies, particularly if they can still see, hear or smell them. If possible, relocate the horse with a companion, or keep a close eye on him to make sure he's not trying to go through the fence.
6. Beware of roaming dogs. I served as an expert witness in two court cases where horse escapes were probably caused by packs of dogs traveling at night. The dogs likely spooked the horses, who then ran through the fences in the dark. This happens a lot more than people realize: Your own dog might even be chasing your horses without your knowledge. If you see a stray dog or dogs on your property, notify your local animal-control office immediately, if only to have a record of the problem. If you know the owners, report that information, too. Animal-control officers usually take loose dogs seriously because they are a hazard to both people and livestock. Although you may be able to chase strays away, I wouldn't recommend trying to catch an unknown dog by yourself or harming it in any way. Electrified wire installed 6 to 8 inches above the ground on perimeter fences will discourage dogs from entering paddocks.
7. Keep an eye on the weather. Stormy, windy conditions can unsettle horses, particularly those who aren't familiar with their surroundings, and make them more likely to seek escape. If you know a storm is coming, it may be wise to bring excitable horses into the barn ahead of time. Immediately after a storm, inspect your fences to make sure they are in good shape. Fallen trees can flatten a fence, opening up an escape route before you realize it. Lightning is a major cause of fence-charger failure; remember to check your electric fences after a thunderstorm. (Obviously, it is unwise to attempt to bring in horses or check an electric fence during a storm.)
8. Walk your fence line. Finally, one of the most important ways to make sure fences are secure is to check them regularly for trouble spots. Inspect your fence line at least twice a month, on foot if possible, examining it from the ground up. Rotten boards, loose posts and downed wires demand immediate attention; it doesn't take long for a horse to discover and take advantage of such opportunities. In addition, from a legal standpoint, having your fences in continual disrepair may be considered negligence. If your horse habitually rubs or leans against your fences, you'll save time and money by installing a single electric wire along the top board. If you have electric fences, use a fence tester often to make sure they're always "hot." It only costs about 15 cents a month to run an electric fence, and, believe me, your horses can tell if it's on or not.
As horse owners, we strive to ensure our horses' safety. As members of a community, we avoid threatening our neighbors' safety. To accomplish both goals, it's important to keep our horses contained. Buying the latest, most expensive fence isn't enough--and can even lead to a false sense of security. Just as important as what kind of fence you install is what you do after the posts are sunk, the boards nailed on or the power is hooked up. For everyone's well-being, care for your fences as conscientiously as you care for your horses--with diligence and an eye toward potential problems.
Bob Kingsbery grew up on a Texas cattle ranch, where his family also bred Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses. A graduate of Texas A&M University, with a degree in agricultural journalism, he got his start in the fencing industry with a large, international electric-fence company. Today, as president of Kingsbery International, he conducts fencing seminars, helps manufacturers design enclosures for properties ranging from cattle ranches to zoos, and writes books and articles on livestock management. He has also been called as an expert witness in several court cases involving fencing and loose horses.
This article first appeared in the April 1999 issue of EQUUS magazine.