Special consideration should be given to the maintenance and design of property perimeter fencing for your horses, especially that which borders or comes near public roadways, what we call “perimeter fencing.” NAHA Risk Reduction Standards require that perimeter fencing, at the very least, must not be of single-strand electric or non-electric wire or rail. Cross fencing or interior fence that is inside the perimeter fence can perhaps be less formidable, but still needs to serve its purposes.
Be sure to first check with local zoning requirements to see if there are any rules you need to comply with. Rural agricultural areas often do not have minimum requirements, so you will be on your own to research the best fencing type and design for your farm. If you live in a heavily populated area, the zoning rules on fencing may be fairly restrictive.
First, let’s clarify that there is no such thing as “perfect fencing” for horses, but some types are safer, more durable, and require less maintenance. Types commonly used for horses include metal pipe rail, wood rail, rigid poly, flexible rail, high tensile, wire mesh, cattle panels, non-electrified and electrified smooth wire, tape or rope.
Of course, the cost can be a factor, and so many people will start out with two or three strand electric and add stronger fencing as time goes on. Some horse owners apply an electric strand inside of a stronger fence to keep horses away so they won’t chew on wood rails or try to lean over it to eat grass, causing it lean and eventually break it down.
Our NAHA standards require that strand wire fences must be at least three strands high if not electric, and at least two strands if electrified. These types of fencing will require more monitoring and repair than some other types. Some states require that electric fences be marked as such to warn people to avoid coming in contact with them.
There are two primary safety concerns. The first is that the fencing should provide an adequate barrier that keeps the horses in the confined area and away from other horses or people and out of public roadways. The last thing anyone wants to happen is for a loose horse to get hit by a truck or car when in the road on a dark night. Not only will the horse likely have to be destroyed, but people in the vehicle can be injured seriously and die as well, and depending upon the state, this can cause all sorts of liability problems for the horse owner.
A horse should be able to see the fence clearly when on the run so they will not easily run through it. If using electric fencing, this is one reason people use tape or rope type electric as it is easier for a horse (and people) to see and avoid contact with. Electric fencing can be quite effective, but it depends upon the power to be on and the fencer to be functioning to be effective and functional. Horses and cattle seem to know when the electricity is off, and some will take that opportunity to push it down to get to the grass on the other side.
With lighter weight fencing, there is always a concern that deer will run through and take it down, allowing the horses to escape. Stormy, windy weather is upsetting to horses, so there is always a possibility that horses may escape from lighter fencing during or after a storm.
Second, is concern for having fences that horses will not get hurt on. Barbed wire fencing can be disastrous for horses. If they run into it or along side it, their thin skin will surely tear, and if they get tangled in it, the outcome can be a ruined horse and big vet bills. Barbed wire works better for thicker-skinned cattle than for horses.
However, a horse can get tangled in and hurt on any wire or rigid fencing. If they run toward a fence and come to a skidding stop, they can slide part way under and get caught long enough to injure a leg. Often horses will get caught in a fence when they roll on the ground, and can’t get out. Horses are interesting in that some will struggle when caught until they really hurt themselves, while others will lie still. Most don’t know how to back out and away from a fence they are caught in or under.
Whatever types of fencing you have, check it frequently for sharp points such as wire ends that turn out or nails. Welded fence can have sharp joints. Consider if a horse’s halter can get caught on a post or hook of some type. Wooden posts, corner posts, and rails should be checked often for rotting, and repaired and replaced as soon as is practicable.
As for constructing fences, there is a lot of great information on-line these days that can help one to build a better, stronger fence. Also keep in mind that you can sometimes rent fencing equipment and tractors and skid steers with post hole diggers, instead of purchasing all the equipment you might need for a fencing project.
In the NAHA Risk Reduction Standards, we state that fences should be both high enough (at least 3’6″) and low enough (18″ from the ground) to keep horses from jumping over or crawling under. Yet, one has to use good judgment….if you keep larger horses in the thoroughbred or draft category, or stallions of any breed, the height will need to be modified upward. If you keep mares with foals, miniature horses and ponies, the lowest rail height will need to be modified. If you have narrow vertical openings in the fence that a human can walk through, but supposedly not a horse, those openings should be chained and marked, and totally closed off if the fence enclosure will be used for small horses or foals.
My favorite fencing is free standing galvanized pipe panels. Long spans of this fence will need to be stabilized with wooden posts. It is expensive, but I’ve purchased panels to replace cattle panels over a number of years so that the expense is less painful. Besides being durable and requiring little maintenance, it takes only a few hours to set up an enclosure and the fence is portable. Therefore, labor costs are minimal compare to other types of fence construction. I look at it as an investment that I can move if I move or sell later. The best part is that I am confident the horses will not get into the road, and it is very, very rare that I have to chase down loose horses any more.
In the next article, I’ll talk about fence enclosure designs for safety.
By Linda Liestman