Sunday, January 17, 2010

Walking the Line: The Importance of Fence Selection for Horse Safety

By: Darlene M. Cox (

Many horse owners will agree that nothing sends one’s heart into your throat quicker than learning your horses have breeched the pasture or paddock fencing and are wandering, unprotected, along a busy road front or are running loose in the community. The safety of your horses is only as certain as the ability of your fencing to keep them safely confined within the realm of their enclosure.

Several types of fencing are available, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and dangers, along with optimum uses to meet the requirements of the area to be fenced. No fence type is 100% safe or escape resistant; however, coupling the appropriate fencing structure with the dynamics of the area to be fenced will ensure you are providing the best barrier protection for the safety of your horses.

When selecting fencing structures, keep in mind what the fence must provide: function (keeping the horses confined), safety, and eye appeal. In my home state of Kentucky, mile after rolling mile of pasture is fenced with black or white wooden, double and perimeter, 4-or-5-rail fencing. This type of fencing structure ranks foremost in meeting the three criteria defined above; however, it is also the most costly to construct and maintain; therefore, it may not be financially feasible for all. Horses recognize the strength of the wooden rails and will learn about its durability when they “test” it. Attaching the rails on the “horse side” of the fence will easily bear the weight and prevent fasteners from being loosened. The rails are highly visible to horses, and minimize run-through incidents, while well-placed boards (12” between rails and 8” from the ground) prevent hoof and leg entanglements. Perimeter fencing provides the added security that if a horse does escape from a pasture or paddock, it is still confined within the property by the perimeter fence.

Rail fences are most often made of treated 2” x 6” oak or pine planks, varied in length between 8-to-12 feet, and are constructed to a height of 5 feet (5 rail) for pasture fencing or 4 ½ feet (4 rail) for paddock fencing. Treated wood provides a longer life span for the wood and deters horses from chewing it. Painting provides an added barrier against damage and may increase the service life of the wood. Fence lines are easily accessible for clearing and cleaning. Over time, wooden rails and posts will decay and will require replacement to protect the integrity of the fencing structure.

In the event of a barrier charge, breaking and splintering of the wooden rails may occur and can cause serious injury to horses; however, most horses respect this fencing structure and breeches predominantly occur because of a flight-or-fight response or a physical altercation between two horses in adjacent pastures that choose their battleground over the fence. Double fencing will prevent such contact. These barriers should be constructed with removable rails and be wide enough to allow access for mowing and other maintenance requirements.

If a rail fence is preferred, but the combined expense of wooden rails and maintenance is too costly, you may choose to use vinyl plastic fencing or vinyl coated wood. While the purchase price of vinyl fencing may be more than wooden rails, the upkeep proves to be less costly in money and maintenance as painting is not required, although periodic pressure washing with an anti-mildew agent is necessary. Vinyl railing is not as strong as wooden rails and may be damaged when a horse leans into or rubs against it. Sustained injuries and their resultant severity may be reduced as the vinyl rails will not splinter and produce jagged ends when broken. The overall structural integrity of vinyl fencing may be compromised and weakened when adjacent railed sections are damaged; therefore, it may be prudent to closely inspect the fencing system any time such damage is sustained. Vinyl coated wood rails have the same properties of painted or treated wooden rails, yet offer the same maintenance requirements as vinyl plastic rails.

Various wire component fencing options and derivatives of wire and vinyl are available and may be more cost-conducive to farm and horse owners. Wire fencing may also better suit the terrain on some farms.

Woven wire fences are the most conventional and least expensive of wire fencing structures. Constructed of 4-to-6 inch square “woven” segments, the wire stretched between and affixed to wooden or metal posts that are separated at distances between 8-to-12 feet. As with the wooden rail fence, the wire should be affixed to the posts on the “horse side” of the fence to better withstand any “testing”. A 3” ground clearance should be afforded to prevent horses from walking the fence down. If ground clearance is too high, horses will attempt to graze under the fence and risk becoming entangled, potentially injuring themselves and damaging the fence. Further damage may occur as horses hang their heads over the top and press down, causing slack between the posts and “crumpling” the fence by bending the weaves. Mashing can be abated by running a wooden rail across the top and affixing the woven wire to the rail. The inclusion of a single electric wire inside of the wooden rail will provide added protection. Tight tensioning will prevent horses from loosening the bottom of the fence. Maintenance requires replacement of the wooden poles that may be damaged or weakened by rot and re-tightening fencing segments between poles. It is important to keep the fence line clear of vegetation, as unabated growth can weaken the structure.

Diamond patterned mesh wire fencing, a type of woven wire, is ideal for keeping out transient animals, such as dogs, skunks, opossums, ground hogs, etc. Although this fencing proves more costly than conventional woven wire, the small diamond-shaped opening prevents hoof entanglement and is safer for use with horses, which may well be worth the investment if woven wire is your best option.

The most basic of the wire fences is the electric fence that, in essence, provides a psychological barrier of a sudden high voltage, yet harmless, electrical shock to a horse when it is touched. Most horses (and humans) quickly learn to respect the fence and lose their desire to purposefully risk an encounter. Although, there are some who learn that the barrier can quickly be broken as the resultant shock is minimal in duration.

Many styles of electrical fencing are available, from its simplest form of a single smooth wire strand, to more graduated types which include vinyl coated wire, poly rope wire, and poly tape. Electric fences should consist of no fewer than two strands, with greater barrier protection being afforded to three or more strands, with five strands being optimal. Utilizing a five strand electric fence with alternating hot/cold (ground) wires will provide optimal current to the fence as the cold wires allow for circuitous flow of electricity back to the charger.

Poly rope and poly tape wire provide a visible barrier; however, vinyl coated and smooth wire may need to have cloth ribbons tied to the top strand to provide horses with visible evidence of the fenced boundaries. Electric fencing is most likely the easiest form of fencing to breech, and with the use of smooth electric wiring may cause the most serious of injuries, as wire entanglements will cut deeply into flesh. Because of the greater likelihood of injury, electric wire fencing should never be used for small enclosures.

Maintenance issues are minimal with this type of fencing, although it is recommended that daily checks be made to ensure the charger is working to power the fence. Routine mowing should be done to prevent contact and grounding out by grasses and weeds that have grown tall enough to touch the bottom line.

High tension wire is less costly than other types of fencing and could be a good option based upon the durability of galvanized wire, which resists rusting, and the fact that the fence can be run greater distances (up to 20 feet) between posts, resulting in fewer fence posts needed. As its name implies, this type of wire may prove to be high maintenance as a result of the effects of temperature variations. High temperatures cause the wire to expand, resulting in slack fencing, and cold temperatures cause the wire to contract and over-tighten, which may result in damage to fence posts.

Poly-coated high tension wiring is available to provide for visibility; however, grievous injuries have been sustained by horses that have become entangled in high tension wire. A safety feature has been built in to immediately release the tension in the event of entanglement.

High tension wire can be electrified to further prevent contact from horses, and may provide the better option for your horses’ safety should you choose to use this type of fencing. Electrifying the wire would require the use of a coated wire to better conduct the electricity.

Regardless of the type of fencing you have or may choose to secure the safety of your horses, regular inspection is required to identify problems before they become catastrophes. With each step of “walking the line” of your fencing, you can rest easily at night knowing your horses are safely enclosed behind a secure barrier, separating them from harm and protecting you from loss.

Happy trails!

1 comment:

fencing supplies said...

Nice post. The different forms of fencing need different types of maintenance. Thanks for discussing the importance of fence selection.