Fence Planning For Horses
Adapted from eXtension article
Eileen Wheeler and Jennifer Smith Zajaczkowski
Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences
The Best Fence
Understand the purpose of a fence. The true test of a fence’s worth is not when horses are peacefully grazing, but when an excited horse contacts the fence in an attempt to escape or because he never saw it during a playful romp. How will the fence and horse hold up under these conditions? A horse’s natural instinct to flee from perceived danger has an effect on fence design. Like other livestock, horses will bolt suddenly, but since they are larger and faster, they hit the fence with more force. Also, horses fight harder than other livestock to free themselves when trapped in a fence. There are many types of effective horse fencing, but there is no “best” fence. Each fencing type has inherent tradeoffs in its features.
A “perfect” fence should be highly visible to horses. Horses are farsighted and look to the horizon as they scan their environment for danger. Therefore, even when fencing is relatively close, it needs to be substantial enough to be visible. A fence should be secure enough to contain a horse that runs into it without causing injury or fence damage. A perfect fence should have some “give” to it to minimize injury upon impact. It should be high enough to discourage jumping and solid enough to discourage testing its strength. It should have no openings that could trap a head or hoof. The perfect fence should not have sharp edges or projections that can injure a horse that is leaning, scratching, or falling into it. It should be inexpensive to install, easy to maintain, and last 20 years or more. And finally, it should look appealing.
Unfortunately, no type of fence fits all the criteria for the perfect fence. Often there is a place for more than one type of fence on a horse facility. Stable management objectives and price ultimately determine which fencing is chosen. Many new fence materials and hybrids of traditional and new materials are now available. Details of fence materials and construction may be found in other publications (see Additional Resources).
Features That Apply to Any Fence Type
Good Planning Attributes Planning includes more than selecting a fence type. It is best to develop an overall plan where the aesthetics, chore efficiency, management practices, safety, and finances are considered. The best planning involves a layout drawn to scale that shows proposed gates, fence lines, where fences cross streams or other obstacles, irregular paths along a stream or obstacle, traffic routes for horses and handlers, routes for supplies and water, vehicle traffic routes, and access for mowing equipment. All these should be in relation to buildings and other farmstead features.
Select and install fencing that allows easy access to pastures and does not limit performance of stable chores. Gates should be easy to operate with only one hand so the other hand is free. Fencing should also allow easy movement of groups of horses from pasture to housing facilities. All-weather lanes should connect turnout areas to the stable. Lanes can be grassed or graveled depending on the type and amount of traffic that use them. Make sure they are wide enough to allow passage of mowing equipment and vehicles. Vehicles such as cars, light trucks, and tractors can be up to 8 feet wide. Farm equipment needs 12- to 16-feet-wide lanes to comfortably negotiate. Narrower lane widths are acceptable for smaller tractors or mowing equipment. Remember to leave room for snow storage or removal along the sides of lanes and roads.
Left: Gates should be securely braced, easy to open from both sides and wide enough to allow equipment access.
It is best to eliminate fence corners and dead-end areas when enclosing a pasture for more than one horse. By curving the corners, it is less likely that a dominant horse will trap a subordinate. Round corners are especially important for board fences and highly recommended for wire fences.
Right: A rounded fence corner helps eliminate areas where a horse can get "trapped" by a dominant horse.
Most wire fencing is installed with the wire under tension as part of the design strength of the fence. This tension may be modest, just enough to keep the wire straight and evenly spaced throughout seasonal temperature changes in wire length, or may be quite substantial, as with high-tensile wire fence. With tensioned fencing, rounded corners may not be as strong or durable as square ones. A slight outward tilt of support posts on curved corners can help resist the inward forces of the tensioned wire. Position the tensioned wire on the outside of the fence post as it travels around the curve, then back to the inside (horse side) on the straight sections. It is possible to build square corners for tension fences and use boards to prevent horses from getting into the corner. This creates areas that limit grazing, requiring regular mowing, but it is cheaper to construct than curved corners.
Good Fence Attributes Horse fences should be 54 to 60 inches above ground level. A good rule for paddocks and pastures is to have the top of the fence at wither height to ensure that horses will not flip over the fence. Larger horses, stallions, or those adept at jumping may require even taller fences. At the bottom, an 8-inch clearance will leave enough room to avoid trapping a hoof yet will discourage a horse from reaching under the fence for grass. A bottom rail with clearance no higher than 12 inches will prevent foals from rolling under the fence. Fence clearance varies with fence types. Higher clearances allow small animals, such as dogs, to enter the pasture. Fences should be built with particular attention to fence post integrity. Several fence material manufacturers provide good detailed guides to assist in construction and material selection.
Fence openings should be either large enough to offer little chance of foot, leg, and head entrapment or so small that hooves cannot get through. Small, safe openings are less than 3-inches square, but can depend on the size of the horse. Tension fences, such as the types that use high-tensile wires, usually have diagonal cross-bracing on corner assemblies. These diagonal wires or wood bracing provide triangular spaces for foot and head entrapment. Good fence design denies horse access to the braced area or at least minimizes hazards if entrapment occurs.
Horses will test fence strength deliberately and casually. Horses often reach through or over fences for attractions on the other side, thus, sturdy fences are essential. Fences that do not allow this behavior are the safest. Keep open space between rails or strands to l2 inches or less. For electric fences, this open distance may be increased to 18 inches since horses avoid touching the fence. With most fencing, and particularly with paddock and perimeter fence, a single strand of electric wire can be run 4 to 6 inches above or just inside the top rail to discourage horses who habitually lean, scratch, or reach over fences.
Left: Corner and gate posts need a strong brace.
The fence should be smooth on the horse side to prevent injury. Fasten rails and wire mesh to the inside (horse side) of the posts. This also strengthens the fence. If a horse leans on the fence, its weight will not push out the fasteners. Nails and other fasteners should be smooth without jagged parts that can cut the horse or catch a halter.
Visible fences will prevent playful horses from accidentally running into them. A frightened horse may still hit a visible fence while he is blinded with fear. A forgiving fence that contains the horse without injury is better than an unyielding brick wall. Wire fences are the least visible, so boards or strips of material are often added.
The most time-intensive part of fence building takes place before any ground is broken. Thoughtful fence planning and layout will help make daily chores and routines more efficient. The best fence differs from facility to facility and even within a horse property; different fence types are used to meet the objectives of the enclosure. Good fence design emphasizes a proper foundation, or post integrity. By taking the time to understand a facility’s fencing needs and expectations, you can provide a safe, functional fence that will provide years of service and enhance the property’s value.
Right: This 2X4 inch wire mesh fence has a wooden rail on top to increase fence visibility.