A Fresh Look at Horse Fencing
When making decisions about installing or replacing fencing, most people go about it backwards. They start by making a list of fence types available in their region, and then choose one, usually based on installation costs and aesthetics. These factors are important, but your decision-making process should begin on the other side of the equation: What are your specific needs? Different types of fencing suit different horse-care situations. For example, two mellow retirees in a large, grassy pasture can be safely contained with fencing that might be entirely inappropriate for a large group of youngsters in a smaller enclosure.
After evaluating hundreds of equine facilities, including many housing potential rescue cases, Marti Day, an area specialized agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension, and Daryl Tropea, senior deputy director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, developed a system for comparing fencing options within the context of each farm’s particular needs. By using a number of quantitative and qualitative measurements, they remove some of the subjectivity usually involved in this decision-making process. In this article, we’ll explain their system in detail and will tell you how to put it to work for your farm. Next month, we’ll share some real-life examples of horse farms around the country and explain how different fencing solutions met their unique needs.
Step 1: Crunch the Numbers
Before you can choose the right fence, you need to figure out which of its qualities are most important to you. You will rate each of the following categories on a scale from one to 10, with one being very low priority and 10 being very high priority:
What’s on the other side of your fence? The consequences of your horses escaping will determine how impenetrable it needs to be. Is there dangerous terrain (ditches, heavy undergrowth/downfall, etc.) or equipment? Is there a busy highway nearby? Consider both the potential dangers (to your horses and to neighbors, passing drivers, etc.) and the consequences to your pocketbook and neighborhood relations. What if he tramples the grapes of a nearby vineyard or a neighbor’s prize tulips?
Or perhaps you live in a very remote area surrounded by relatively safe terrain and extremely understanding neighbors.
Also ask yourself what incentives your horse has to get to the other side of the fence. Are you trying to keep stallions separate from mares in heat? Are you separating long-lost buddies from one another? Whatever your situation, give it a number within the following range:
1 – No incentives to escape; low risk of horses facing danger or destruction of property
5 – Some incentive to escape; horses face some potential danger/destruction
10 – Greater incentive to escape; horses face imminent danger and/or serious destruction of property
If the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, you’re almost guaranteed to have problems. Hungry, bored horses cause a great deal of damage by leaning on, pawing at or trying to get over or under fences. In a “dry” (grass-free) lot, providing free access to good-quality hay can help, but horses will always seek out green grass when they can. Individuals who have to compete with one another for food are also more likely to chase each other into the fence.
How much acreage is adequate for a given number of horses depends on a variety of factors, including climate, grazing management, forage selection, soil fertility and the horses’ particular nutrition requirements (how many calories they need). A general rule of thumb for a healthy (not overgrazed) grass pasture is about two acres per horse.
1 – Plenty of grass; low-density stock (more than two acres per horse)
5 – Some grass; medium-density stock (two acres per horse)
10 – Little to no grass; high-density stock (less than two acres per horse)
Horse herd energy
What is the composition of your herd? Is it large or small, stable or constantly changing? Is it single-sex or mixed? How old and healthy are the horses? What are their temperaments (peaceful, playful or prone to roughhousing?)? Is there an established pecking order or are there frequent fights for dominance? All of these factors can affect the energy level in a herd—which, in turn, can affect the pressure on a fence.
1 – Low energy (elderly or infirm animals, stable herd dynamics)
5 – Moderate energy (segregated age/gender/temperament groups, some potential for disturbance in herd leadership)
10 – High energy (animals are young, high-strung, prone to flee; mixed age/gender groups; undetermined pecking order; frequent turnover—for example, in a sales or training barn)
Potential predator pressure
Sometimes we need fences not only to keep horses in, but to also keep predators out. These include anything from wolves and coyotes in the wilder parts of the country to stray and even domestic dogs. (Marti says, “One dog is a pet; two are a pack. Packs of tame dogs can behave much more aggressively than the dogs might behave individually.”) Foals and aged horses are most vulnerable to predators, but any horse chased by a barking dog risks injury.
1 – No predator threat
5 – Moderate predator threat
10 – Significant predator threat
There are three installation variables to consider: cost, skill level and labor. Depending on where you live and the type of fencing you choose, hiring a professional installer may increase your cost by as little as 30% or as much as 250%.
1 – The sky’s the limit!
5 – Moderate: Can afford $4-7 per linear foot of fence (including posts and accessories)
10 – Extremely limited: Can afford no more than about $2 or $3 per linear foot
1 – Very skilled, possess extensive toolbox including specialized tools
5 – Moderate skills, some specialized tools
10 – Extremely limited skills, no specialized tools
1 – Unlimited time, multiple strong laborers
5 – Limited time, strength and help
10 – Extremely limited time and strength; no assistance available
“This is one of the most overlooked factors in fencing,” says Marti. How much you invest in materials and installation can determine how long your fence lasts and how many headaches it gives you. Some of the most expensive types pay for themselves many times over in saved maintenance costs. Even more importantly, maintenance plays a significant role in a fence’s safety. “We’ve seen many initially well-constructed fences that have not been properly repaired over time,” says Marti. “They have nails sticking out, loose boards and wire—and are very dangerous.”
As with the installation ratings, break your maintenance estimates into three categories: skill level, budget and labor. Rate your skills the same way you did for installation. Use these scales for budget and labor:
Annual budget for materials (replacement parts, paint, etc.)
1 – More than $500
5 – $50 to $500
10 – Less than $50
1 – Able to inspect fence more frequently than weekly (and immediately after severe weather events, etc.) and spend more than half a day on periodic repairs.
5 – Able to inspect fence weekly and spend one to four hours on periodic repairs.
10 – Able to inspect fence monthly and spend less than an hour on periodic repairs.
When it comes to your horses’—and your own—safety, “gates are a big deal,” says Marti. How big a gate you choose, where you locate it, how well you support it with heavy posts and well-constructed braces, how well it swings open and closed, and how secure and horse-proof its latch is—these are all variables that can affect its safety and cost, both upfront and long-term.
1 – Gate(s) primarily for people and equipment access, horses not regularly going through gate
5 – Horses travel through gates for purposes other than feeding, usually individually
10 – Horses travel through gates daily for routine feeding, sometimes in multiple numbers (three to four led by a single handler or a herd allowed to run loose from the pasture to the barn)
A beautiful fence is no use to you if it doesn’t satisfy all the needs you considered above. However, attractive, well-maintained fencing can raise property values and, if you’re running a business, give your farm an air of respectability and success.
1 – Not important (backyard horse property, minimal exposure to the public)
5 – Moderately important
10 – Extremely important (business with high standards, very visible to public)
After rating your needs in each of these categories, review them to see which received the highest numbers. These are your top priorities. Now it’s time to match those priorities to suitable fencing options.
Step 2: Do Your Homework
“Fences are like supplements,” says Marti. “There are hundreds of different options.” Prices vary widely depending on your region, the quality of the product and whether you choose to do the installation yourself or hire a professional. They range from galvanized-steel board ($10-18 per linear foot of fence), pipe/tube ($8-14) and mesh ($5.20-10) and polyethylene-coated treated wood ($6-12), to wood board ($3.50-8.50) and flexible polymer-covered wire rails ($1.80-10 or more) and high-tensile smooth wire, electrified plastic-coated wire and electrified tape/rope/webbing, all of which can cost as little as $2 or less, including posts and accessories.
To narrow your selection, Marti says, consult your local agricultural extension agent. “There is one in every county in every state. We represent the universities and research and science—and we have nothing to sell.”
Ask the agent to review your priorities list with you and go over any other regional fencing considerations. Labor tends to be more expensive in the Northeast, for example, than in the South. Your local frost line will help to determine how deep the fence posts should be planted (in general, deeper in colder climates). In extremely humid climates, polymer-coated fencing accumulates mold more rapidly (requiring more frequent power washing). Marti laughs, “We see a lot of green fences that used to be white down here in North Carolina!”
If you live in a heavily treed, often windy area, a high-tensile wire or “flex” fence will serve as a physical barrier to horses after a tree or heavy branch falls on it—and will usually pop back in place once the offending vegetation is removed, or can be repaired easily and affordably.
Factor frequent snow and ice storms into your fence-strength requirements (more about fence strength in a moment). Snow and ice can accumulate on polymer-coated wires, sometimes increasing their load to the breaking point.
If grass or forest fires are a risk in your area, instead of using fencing made of wood, which can burn, or synthetic materials, which can melt, consider a galvanized steel product.
Armed with all of this information, use your priority rankings to determine which trade-offs make sense for your particular situation. Here are a few samples:
Strength vs. Safety
Because of their innate fight-or-flight reflex, all but the most geriatric horses are susceptible to crashing into fences. The “safest” fence for your particular situation may not necessarily be the strongest option. Rails made of poured concrete over rebar, for example, are virtually indestructible, but are much less forgiving than flexible materials, such as polymer-coated wire “rails” and even steel boards (which can flex 4 inches or more on impact), or breakable materials, such as wooden board fencing, lower-gauge electric wire, tape, ribbon, etc. On the other hand, fences that stretch too much or break allow horses to escape, which may expose them to even greater risks. As Marti says, “I’d rather my horse get a few stripes across his chest from hitting wire than get run over by an 18-wheeler!”
Ask your extension agent to guide you through the strength vs. safety trade-off. Check quantitative ratings of products, such as “tensile strength” (for wire) and “breaking strength,” to compare different products.
Also consider what potential psychological damage might result from a fence collision. Getting entangled in wire can be extremely traumatic for a horse, as can be encountering electric fencing in too small of an enclosure (where he doesn’t have enough space to flee from a shock without running into the fence on the opposite side).
Many horse people and fence experts believe that certain types of fencing, such as barbed wire and smooth, high-tensile wire, should never be used with horses. Marti and Daryl prefer to focus more on how well-maintained a fence is than on what it is made out of. Marti explains, “I’ve never seen a horse severely injured by smooth high-tensile wire where there wasn’t also a management factor—the wire was not tight or was not hot.” (They do, however, agree that t-posts, used primarily for cattle, are too dangerous for horses. “I’ve seen a lot of horses impaled by t-posts,” says Marti.)
Expense of Materials and Installation vs. Maintenance Input
Many of the easiest-to-maintain products are also the priciest. On the flip side, if you’re truly committed to checking your fence vigilantly and repairing damages immediately, a more affordable initial investment might better serve your needs.
Although many of today’s fencing manufacturers make a concerted effort to produce user-friendly products, some still require specialized tools to install and repair. Others, such as portable, welded steel panels, are extremely simple to assemble but may require multiple people. (A single 12-foot 6-rail panel weighs 106 pounds.)
Gates also involve trade-offs. The more horses you plan to move in and out of a pasture, the wider the gate you need (a minimum of 4 feet is recommended). The wider the gate you have, the more structural support you need. How reliable your hinges and latches are and how easily a gate swings open and closed may affect how likely horses are to escape. Solutions to these problems range from simple, affordable add-ons—such as a wheel on the end of the gate to help to support it and control its swing—to high-tech designs. Prices can be as little as $60 for a powder-coated 4-foot gate or as much as $700 for a 12-foot steel-board gate with a “horse-proof” latch (including posts and bearings).
You may even choose to install two gates in a pasture, one for human/horse traffic and one for large equipment. Ask your extension agent to help you locate them in the safest, most logical places (where horses don’t congregate, etc.).
Aesthetics vs. Maintenance Expenses
Traditional-looking board fencing (picture high-end Thoroughbred farms in Kentucky) and split-rail (think old New England farms) require more maintenance than most other products on the market. Rails and boards, whether they are treated or not, warp, splinter and chip within seven to 10 years. The tapered rail ends and holes in the posts also weaken split-rail fences. And, if you paint your fence, you must reapply every few years to maintain the original look. Even paint poses a trade-off: White paint is more expensive ($1.20-1.40 per linear foot) than black (50-75 cents per linear foot) and grays out much faster.
Some synthetic products on the market mimicking the traditional board-fence look may last three or even four times as long as wood. Their colors are “baked” right into the material. Some companies even offer custom colors (hunter green, tan, western red cedar, etc.) in addition to basic black and white. Typically, the more exotic the color, the higher the cost.
Predator Pressure vs. Installment/Maintenance Expenses
If keeping predators out is a top priority for you, a wire mesh fence that extends down to the ground may be your best bet. On uneven terrain, however, mesh fencing can be challenging to install. “No-climb,” or 2-by-4, mesh is cheaper than “v-mesh,” but the former is more prone to stretching over time and bending out of shape, for example, after being kicked by a horse. Once bent, even galvanized mesh wire can eventually corrode and break, exposing dangerously sharp ends. Repairing such damages can also require more time and sophisticated skills than repairing other types of fencing.
Mix and Match
Many fencing dilemmas can be solved with a combination of products. For example, if you love the look of wood fencing but want to extend its life, add one or two strands of hot wire on the inside of it. Electricity greatly improves every type of fence,” says Marti, “because horses are so sensitive to and respectful of it.” Electricity is also an effective deterrent for predators.
Step 3: Be a Savvy Shopper
Once you’ve decided what type of fencing will work for you, do your due diligence as a consumer. Ask distributors to refer you to previous customers in your area, so you can see how well the fence is working for them. Look for products with warranties—they range from one to 20 years!
Some product materials have improved tremendously in recent years. To tell the difference between new, high-quality versions and old, inferior versions of the same type of fence, ask lots of questions. If you’re buying a metal product, find out how rustproof it is. If the product contains synthetic materials, ask if they include mildew and UV inhibitors and won’t get brittle and crack, chip or shatter in cold and hot weather. Some synthetic products’ colors fade over time; so if esthetics are a top priority for you, ask about color guarantees, too.
Select your installer(s) carefully, too. Just because an installer is a professional doesn’t mean he or she does great work, says Marti. “The quality of skilled labor varies a lot. Ask for references and go to see some of the fences they’ve put up.”
Most importantly, whether you’re hiring an installer or installing the fence yourself, don’t cut corners. “That’s what we tell all of our customers,” says Ramm Stalls & Horse Fencing CEO Mike Disbrow. For example, he says, if you hit a rock when digging a corner or end posthole, don’t try planting the post above the rock and shoring it up with poured concrete. Over time, that will allow the post to pull out of the ground. “Your foundation is everything,” he adds. “That’s your ends and corners. Follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions carefully. It only takes a little bit of extra work to do it right.”
Step 4: Keep It Up
Once your fence is installed, remember the commitment you made to maintain it. “Don’t just put your fence up and think you’re done,” warns Marti. If you chose a wire product, check the tension as frequently as the manufacturer recommends. “You never want loose wires!”
When planning your fence-checking schedule, take seasonal variations into account. You may need to check it more frequently during stormy seasons or when wildlife pressure increases. For example, says Marti, deer in her region cause more fence damage during hunting season, because they are more on the move.
Another rule that Mike’s wife, Debbie, the president of Ramm, says she needs to remind customers of—“more than you would think”—is that electric fences must be on at all times. “Most electric fences that are not turned on should be considered no fence at all.”
Keep an eye out for any other variables that might influence the effectiveness and life of your fence. Are slippery mud conditions developing around the gate? Is water splashing out of the trough and causing erosion under the fence? The better you manage your horses and their environment, the longer your fence will serve its purpose—and the happier and safer you and your horses will be!
Practical Horseman thanks Buckley Fence LLC, Kencove Farm Fence Supplies, Noble Panels & Gates, Pacific Western Lumber, Penrod Lumber and Fence Company and Ramm Horse Fencing & Stalls Inc. for contributing expertise to this article.
Buckley Fence LLC; www.buckleyfence.com
Kencove Farm Fence Supplies; www.kencove.com
Keystone Fence Supplies LLC; www.keystonefencesupplies.com
Red Brand; www.redbrand.com
Noble Panels & Gates; www.noblepanels.com
Pacific Western Lumber; www.pacwestlumber.com
Penrod Lumber and Fence Company; www.penrodfence.com
Ramm Horse Fencing & Stalls Inc.; www.rammfence.com
This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of Practical Horseman.