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Field Guide to Horse Fences

Before you add or replace fencing on your horse property, get familiar with the pros, cons, and costs of your many choices in materials.

Photo by David Classen/iStockPhoto.com

While investigating a 5,600-year-old village site in Kazakhstan, archaeologists determined that its Copper Age inhabitants were among the first cultures to tame horses. The evidence? The buried remnants of corral posts. Clearly, fences have been crucial to our shared relationship all along.

Unlike ancient horsemen who were limited to sticks and stones to enclose their horses, we benefit from a vast variety of traditional and modern materials from which to choose. Unfortunately, despite over 5,000 years of development, there's still no ideal fence for every horsekeeping purpose. Each fence choice involves balancing safety concerns with aesthetics, cost, and upkeep.

Chances are you'll employ a variety of materials and fence designs on your property for paddocks, arenas, and pasture fences—or even mix fence materials for a single enclosure. Choosing carefully will help maximize the safety, value, appeal, and utility of your fences. Before looking at the broad range of choices, let's discuss safe fencing construction.

Safety
America's West was tamed by blazing guns and barbed wire. Both remain murderous when used improperly. While barbed wire is relatively safe for huge pastures holding thick-skinned, placid cattle, the use of barbed wire for horse properties has caused untold tragedies. If you have any on your horse acreage, your first fencing priority is to remove it.

Building codes may ultimately determine fencing requirements for your land, but some general rules of thumb apply nearly everywhere. Field fences should be 54 to 60 inches above ground level. Err on the side of caution and go with a 5-feet minimum height where fences abut highways or anywhere that an escaped horse can flee your premises. Six feet is the safe minimum height for stall runs and paddocks.

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At bottom, an opening of 8 to 12 inches will keep feet and legs from getting trapped, and also prevent foals from rolling under the fence. Fence openings should be either large enough that a hoof, leg, or even the head can't become trapped, or very small (no more than 3 inches by 3 inches) to prevent a hoof from penetrating. To maintain tension, most wire fences, both fabric and high-tensile smooth wire, require triangular-shaped bracing at the corners and at intervals of about 1/8 mile. The acute angles formed by brace wires represent entrapment hazards if the horse can reach them; good design (such as boards used in corners to block access) can prevent injury, even death.

Visibility, especially with wire fencing, is too often overlooked. While a white plank fence of wood or PVC is easily seen by horses, wires can be almost invisible when a horse panics and runs—the time when the worth of a fence is truly tested. Improve visibility to wire fences by adding a top rail of wood; PVC; or durable white vinyl fence ribbon, either standard or electrified. This addition not only makes a wire fence more visible, it also deters horses from reaching over the fence to graze.

Regardless of fence material and design, one of your goals should be to present a smooth side to the horses. Do-it-yourselfers occasionally make the mistake of mounting boards on the outside of fence posts, which makes them easy for horses to knock loose. Further, the exposed posts can injure a horse that runs down the fence line. With cross-pasture fencing, you may not be able to avoid this exposure; in such cases, using an electric fence wire to create a psychological as well as a physical barrier offers a safe solution.

Corners also present problems, especially if you plan to pasture horses that don't get along well. Any corner can create an entrapment situation where one horse is bullied. The problem is especially bad when the corner angle is acute (90 degrees or less). Some solutions include corners that curve. This requires placing wire fence barriers on the outside of the posts, but this is less of a problem in corners than it is along straight runs. Another solution is to affix planks across corners to block access.

Wood posts, field fence, a highly visible electric tape, and a twisted smooth-wire top line makes this an exceptionally safe fence.

Posts
The strength and integrity of a fence come from good fence posts, properly installed. Wire fences require tension, which means that corner assemblies and gate assemblies need to be braced against the pulling forces. Generally, when using wood posts, it's best to use concrete to set corner assemblies and gate posts. Metal T-posts benefit from having sturdy wood corner and gate assemblies as well. These are an absolute requirement for high-tensile wire.

Wood is traditional and commonly used for fence posts. Whether you're making a plank fence or just using wood posts, local availability and custom may determine your choices in woods. For instance, while hardwood fence materials tend to be readily available in the East, Southeast, and parts of the Midwest, softwoods predominate in the West. To deter decomposition, common softwoods that are resistant to rot and insect infestation include cedar, redwood, and cypress. Unfortunately, these woods are very expensive.

For this reason, horsemen often choose pressure-treated lumber (usually pinewood or fir); such lumber costs 1/3 to 1/5 of the above-mentioned varieties. With pressure treated lumber (or "PTL"), the manufacturer impregnates the wood with chemicals that resist rot, fungi, and insects. Look for treated lumber posts that are certified for in-ground use. Paint won't bond to the material, so PTL fences are invariably natural.

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