Choosing Fencing

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“The only fence against the world is a thorough knowledge of it,” said John Locke. And though the English philosopher might have been speaking in rhetorical terms, in purely practical terms, it’s that knowledge that inspires commercial horsefarm owners to erect fences around their charges. The world beyond the fence is rife with danger, so we build barriers to it to keep our horses safe. But more than keeping the world out, equine operations must constantly work to keep their horses in.

With that in mind, we took a look at the universe of horse fencing with an eye focused on the special considerations required for equine operations. This overview looks at the various types of systems and points out the pros and cons of each.

Before shopping for your new fence, there are a number of things to consider. First, find out if there are any local ordinances that might restrict fence types. After that, determine its use: is it for a stallion paddock; a pasture where foals will roam; a turnout for Warmbloods?

“These are all things that change the fence selection,” says Dennis Marion, president of Innovative Equine Systems. Marion also points out it’s important to consider how large the space is, whether it is a temporary fence, what the terrain, soil and climate are like, how visible it will be in different locations and whether there are any special needs to be accounted for. Finally, there’s the project’s budget to consider.

“There is no such thing as a safe fence,” says Marion, who points out that since horses are flight animals, ideally they “belong in either a pasture, night and day, or a stall.” But since the real world includes paddocks of different sizes, a strong fence that can keep horses safe is key.

Using Natural Resources

Most of Innovative Equine’s focus is on wood because construction-grade, weather-treated lumber is generally easy to find, except in some regions. It is a traditional material, looks great when it’s cared for, is quite strong, is easy to replace and easy to work with. What’s more, many pressure-treated materials are guaranteed for 20 or more years. Other pluses regarding wood are that it is cheaper than most other types of fencing. If you live anywhere but the Southwest, replacing rails, boards or posts at the local lumber yard is generally easy and relatively inexpensive, making it a good value for its sturdiness. A post-and-board fence using treated lumber will cost between $2 and $4 a foot, including posts and fasteners, depending on the number and type boards used. Wood gets more expensive when it has to be shipped to far-flung locations like the Northwest, where spruce and other softwoods not appropriate for horse fencing grow. There, construction grade southern yellow pine, cypress, hickory and oak has to come from the East and Midwest.

The disadvantages, however, are almost as numerous as the advantages. According to the poet Robert Frost, “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day will rot the best birch fence a man can build.” Well, maybe birch was the wrong choice to begin with, but wood, even pressure-treated, will eventually fall victim to moisture. It also needs regular painting or staining, unless the rustic look is what you’re after. Insects will eventually eat it and, in time, each piece will have to be replaced, hopefully by the next generation. Another problem is that horses can chew wood to bits if they happen to be habitual cribbers, which also adds the chore of continually applying anti-cribbing formulas or wiring with electric wire or tape. Perhaps most alarming is that when continually chewed or rubbed, splinters form. Weakened rails and boards can eventually break, exposing jagged, flesh-tearing points.

But when wood is the only way to go, the most common constructions are post-and-board and split rail. The former requires the use of screws or nails, while the latter doesn’t need any fasteners, instead relying on slipping the ends of rails into precut holes in each post and overlapping for a few inches with the previous rail. This construction can be very sturdy and eliminates the added hazard of loose fasteners that could cause injury.

Gimme Back My Steel

In locations where wood is not as readily available and comes with a high price tag, especially when trying to contain large spreads, steel has often been the fencing of choice. The thinking being, put it up once and never think about it again. Pre-fabricated post-and-rail steel fence can be easily customized on site to conform with changing geography and rocky landscapes. It lasts more than a lifetime if it is treated with a rust inhibitor, while powdercoated steel will look great for decades. It is resilient and may not require welding to construct, as some designs use rails that slide and lock into posts.

All those benefits come with a price; but, if you purchase unpainted galvanized pipe, the price can be lowered significantly. Costs can range greatly from $3 to almost $19 a foot, including posts, depending on how many rails are called for and whether the steel is powdercoated, galvanized, prepainted, round or rectangular. In many locations, stock yards will sell used galvanized pipe, bringing the cost down even more. And though welding fence on-site can save money, it may not look as good as prefabricated steel.

Some other drawbacks are that doing it yourself means painting and trying to stop rust before it takes hold. That can mean time-consuming chores on long fencing, but the payoff, again, is practically unsurpassed strength and containment.

Put Up a Safety Net

Wire mesh, typically woven in a pattern of rectangular or triangular shapes too small to catch a hoof and galvanized against the elements, is often called non-climb fencing because it resists being “walked down” or climbed by horses. Other advantages are that it will keep just about anything (including pets and small animals) in or out of a pasture, has good linear strength, is flexible and a breeze to maintain. It’s not very expensive on its own, running from between $1 per foot to $2 per foot, not including posts. Once installed properly, there isn’t much to do except occasionally eye the fasteners and keep wood posts painted or stained, if that’s what you’re using.

It’s the installation, however, that is the main drawback. Distributors recommend that this type of fencing (V-Mesh, No-Climb, Diamond-Mesh and others) be professionally installed because the corners need to be braced and anchored in concrete and a mechanical device be used to apply tension to the fencing throughout installation. (One 200-foot roll can weigh more than 300 pounds).

Some other disadvantages are that it is not very visible to a horse and it will sag and stretch when horses lean over its top. The fence is typically mounted to wood posts or narrow steel T-posts. This also poses a spearing hazard, but sight rails attached to specifically designed post hardware can eliminate those cons by significantly strengthening the top edge of the mesh and blunting the posts. But that begins to add to its cost, what with T-posts ranging from about $1.30 to $3 each and wood posts going from $4 up to $8 per post, depending on your location.

Keeping Them Belted-In

One of the strongest systems, and possibly the safest, is fencing made of wide belts of either polyurethane or polyethylene. The belts are reinforced with either two or three strands of high-tensile, heavy-gauge wire and are mounted to wood posts using belt-loop-like brackets. The cost range for these materials is about $2 to $3.25 per foot, depending on the number of rails or belts. But those prices don’t include posts, generally spaced from 8 to 12 feet apart; nor do they account for the time-consuming installation process. Sometimes, the tensioning hardware is extra as well.

This system has gotten high marks from users because it is safe, eliminating the cutting factor of single strands of wire: It actually flexes and rebounds when a horse runs into it. It usually carries guarantees of between 12 and 20 years.?The fencing is highly visible, resembling post-and-board from a distance, and does not require much maintenance other than painting posts. When posts are put in correctly, the belts should never need retightening or loosening.

It’s that tension, however, that creates the major drawback. In order for the system to work, says Tabetha Ronfeldt, an account manager at Ramm Fence Systems, source for a number of fence products, it must be installed properly. That means following a step-by-step process for the cemented, braced corners. Installation is time-consuming and anything but easy. (The manual provided by the companies selling the products gives clear instructions.)

According to Chris Westbrook of Centaur HTP, “We recommend installing rails to the inside of the posts. It’s the safest way to do it.” When posts are inside of the rails, they pose a hazard to horses running along the fence. Ramm’s Ronfeldt agrees, explaining that when a horse leans against the incorrectly installed fence, the weight is borne by both the belt and the posts, whereas when it’s mounted outside of the posts, the weight is only on the brackets.

The same companies also offer single strands of heavy-gauge wire coated with the same plastics used in multi-strand enclosures. At less than a dollar a foot for a six-strand fence, it is relatively cheap, but some people feel it has the potential to injure a horse. The wires are not very visible, so manufacturers also offer a narrow polytape to create a visible top rail. As with the belted product, proper installation dictates tensioning the wires, which means extra tools and sturdy post installation. Countering this caution, the manufacturers say as long as the corners and end posts are installed correctly and the wire is tensioned correctly, a horse will not get caught between wires and get cut.

Maintenance-Free Vinyl

The most controversial fencing system on the market, and the one that has made tremendous inroads over the past 10 years, is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Like the other synthetic products, it resists cribbing, but because there’s no exposed wood at all (i.e. posts), horses have no place to chew. It has many other benefits over wood: It often comes with limited lifetime warranties, the PVC posts and rails never needs painting, it always looks great and it is virtually maintenance-free (other than some washing). Also, in some cases, the rails are designed to pop out of pre-routed holes or special brackets when struck hard by a horse. This can prevent injury.

However, there’s a downside when that happens because you have a loose horse. And that’s one of two reasons Bill Mullin, president of Stockton Fence and Lumber, won’t recommend his PVC fencing for equine applications. He says the hollow nature of the posts make them moveable and boards can fall off. Even more reason to avoid it, in Stockton’s eyes, is the fact that PVC can break. “When it breaks,” he says, “it’s very sharp.” Other PVC suppliers counter that when it breaks, chances are it’s recycled PVC.

It works well in riding rings, where horses are always under saddle and it’s very clean, making a good impression on the public. It is also used decoratively to dress up farm driveways.

There are a companies that reinforce vinyl with steel cores. This solves many of the breaking and containment questions, but adds considerably to the price, resulting in a system that can range in price from $5.50 to more than $8 per foot. Other disadvantages are that when using fasteners, namely screws, PVC must be predrilled. The quality of steel-free vinyl varies widely from brand to brand. And that is directly related to its expense. Including posts, it can range in price from $3.75 up to $9 per foot, depending on the number of rails. The price also varies according to the additives used to keep it stable and flexible in sunlight, which degrades ordinary plastics. It should also be noted that some question the manufacturing process, saying it releases dioxins into the atmosphere.

Looks Like Wood, Acts Like Wood...

Another plastic, more stable than PVC, is rigid high-density polyethelene (HDPE). It is extruded into posts and boards that look like the real thing, right down to the grain formed in the surface. Calistoga Ranch Fence, sold by Innovative Equine, is a hollow product like PVC, but it is heavier, with posts weighing about twice as much. (Typical wall thickness is three times that of PVC.) Easy to cut, it can be nailed, stapled or screwed together like wood without predrilling and is credited with ­holding screws five times as well as wood. Not affected by moisture or the chemicals in soil, HDPE is very strong, resists paint and doesn’t get brittle until temperatures drop to -100 degrees F.

It will break when a tractor backs into it, but it breaks off cleanly, leaving no jagged edges like wood. HDPE does, however, also use UV stabilizers mixed in during the extrusion process, but it is apparently much more stable than PVC. Environmentalists love it for its inert ­properties and because it can be a second- or third-generation plastic. Calistoga is recycled only from other construction-grade HDPE, so no contaminants can find their way into the process and possibly weaken its structure. But all these good points come at a steep price: Including posts, it costs between $7.50 and $9 per foot, depending on how many rails you need.

Wood in a Blanket

One way to get many of HDPE’s benefits without paying its high price is to use real wood that is encased in an impermeable layer of medium-density polyethylene. There are two coated-wood producers, TimberClad and Woodguard, making ­­equine-specific fencing and each uses pressure-treated southern yellow pine or spruce (choice depends on the man­ufacturer) and covers it with a thin molten polymer shell. The ends of all boards, rails and posts are also sealed with injection-molded caps that completely protect the wood from the ­elements. The sheath remains pliable, even in the coldest Great Plains ­winters.

This product offers many other advantages: It has the strength and ease of installation of a wood fence, but is more durable. It is easily cut with a saw, posts can be driven in or installed in pre-dug holes, boards are nailed or screwed directly to the posts and there is no maintenance to speak of. It uses UV additives to help guard it from the sun and comes in white, black or brown. Both producers offer 20-year warranties.

If the poly layer is cut and not properly sealed afterward, the interior will be exposed to the elements and all that entails. Though that’s a drawback, perhaps the greatest disadvantage is its cost, which is between $4 and $9 per foot, including posts placed eight feet apart. That is still cheaper than HDPE and, in some cases, vinyl. Installing a system can be done by anyone who can swing a hammer and dig a post hole.

Charged Up and Hot Wired

Thus far, all of the fence systems have relied on physical barriers to keep horses where they are supposed to be, behind the fence. But only electrified wire, rope and tape can help create a psychological barrier. The idea is to give horses a little jolt when they touch the fence and presumably they won’t want to touch it again.

Among the advantages is the fact that electric wire constitutes a very inexpensive way to build a fence. On average, it costs 48 cents per foot to install a typical four-strand fence, while electric rope and electric tape costs between 50 cents and 90 cents a foot for four to six strands. These prices include the charger, but not the posts. And, it’s simple to install. It makes an excellent temporary, moveable fence because of its ease of installation, especially when using flexible, self-insulating fiberglass posts. A single electric strand along a wood, PVC or other type of synthetic top rail adds the psychological deterrent to the physical for relatively little extra cost.

The downside of electric fencing is that the immediate area around the fence and between posts has to be kept mowed and trimmed to make sure weeds or branches do not render it useless by grounding the wire. The most obvious drawback is that it is only effective when electricity is actually running through the wire. Without this, the wire offers virtually no physical strength. The fact that electric wire is virtually impossible to see has been helped by electric tape (between one and one-and-a-half inches wide) and a quarter-inch thick braided rope; each adds a visual cue to the psychological barrier. The rope and tape options add significant strength to the fence as well, and some carry 10- to 20-year warranties.

There are numerous types of wire, depending on number of strands, gauge and thickness of coatings. Choice will depend on the location, size of space to be fenced and the type of power source. Some manufacturers recommend using a low-impedance charger that pulses a charge though the wire, thus reducing the chance of it attracting lightning and shorting out. (Also, teen boys won’t dare each other to hold on!) In some cases, electric rope can be strung between posts 50 feet apart, but that’s not safe during power ­outages.

Looking to the Future

As if the choices currently available weren’t enough, a new maintenance-free product is set to make its market debut next spring. Called Vallaris, it will be manufactured from recycled car tires and plastic. Until recently, ground rubber had to be bonded, but manufacturers say they have discovered a way to meld the rubber with the plastic and create a rigid, solid post-and-board system that will exhibit a wood-like grain. No more information was available at presstime.

Where each of these systems has advantages, all have their downsides as well. Without fail, the suppliers interviewed noted that each customer has to weigh the cost factor against the features and determine where the value lies. But whether you go with high-cost, low maintenance construction or the lower-cost, higher-upkeep option, the only way to build a good fence is to build it correctly. In other words, if you have to cut corners, don’t do it with the installation. If you do, all bets—and likely all guarantees—are off.

Fence Sources

Advantage Vinyl (PVC) – www.advantagevinyl.com 1-800-558-7982

Baja Construction (steel) – www.bajacarports.com 1-800-366-9600

Behlen Country (woven wire) – www.behlenmfg.com (402) 564-3111

Bluegrass Treated Wood (wood) – 859-887-2473

Bufftech (PVC) – www.certanteed.com/fencing/bufftech 1-800-333-0569

Cameo (electric, coated wire) – www.cameo-fencing.com 1-800-822-5426

Centaur HTP (high-tensile rail) – www.centaurhtp.com 1-800-348-7787

Country Estate (PVC) – www.countryestate.com 1-800-445-2887

ElectroBraid Fence (electric) – www.electrobraid.com 1-888-430-3330

Empire Agri-Systems (PVC) – www.empirecompanies.com 1-800-216-6029

Equi-Sales (electric) –1-800-336-2332

Equi-Tee Farm and Fence/Ripco Equine (accessories) www.fencingsolutions.com (541) 878-4114

Ferris (PVC, woven wire, electric) – www.ferrisfencing.com (258) 757-9677

Gallagher Fence (electric) – www.gallagherusa.com 1-800-531-5908

Gardner Fence Systems (PVC) – www.gardnerfence.com 1-800-788-3461

Geotek (fiber posts/electric acc.) – www.geotekinc.com 1-800-533-1680

Great Plains Fencing (high-tensile rail, coated wood) www.greatplainsfencing.com 1-800-504-9099

Heartlight Equestrian (PVC) – www.heartlightequestrian.com (530) 477-7053

HorseGuard Fence (electric) – www.horseguardfence.com 1-888-773-3623

Innovative Equine Systems (HDPE, high-tensile rail) – www.equinesystems.com 1-800-888-9921

Kroy Building Products (PVC electric) – 1-800-385-5937

Parker McCrory Mfg. (electric) – www.parmakusa.com (816) 221-2000

Penrod Lumber &?Fence (wood and wire) – www.penrodfence.com 1-800-553-4117

Premier Fencing Systems (electric) – www.premier1supplies.com 1-800-282-6631

Priefert Mfg. (steel) – www.priefert.com 1-800-527-8616

Ramm Fence Systems (woven wire, PVC, high-tensile rail, electric wire) – www.rammfence.com 1-800-647-9598

Ranchers Pipe and Steel Corp. (steel and steel-reinforced PVC) – www.rancherspipe.com 1-800-554-3929

Red Brand/Keystone (woven wire) – www.redbrand.com 1-800-447-6444

Red River (portable fence) – www.redriverarenas.com 1-800-343-1026

Safe Fence (electric) – www.safefence.com 1-800-843-3702

Saratoga Fence (PVC) – 1-800-869-8703

Shuck Fence (wood, woven wire, PVC, high-tensile rail) 1-800-892-8807

TimberClad (coated wood) – www.timberclad.com 1-800-833-9663

Tractor Supply (high-rensile, electric) – www.tractorsupply.com (615) 366-4600

Triple Crown Fence (PVC) – www.royalcrownltd.com 1-800-365-3625

UltraGuard Fence (PVC) – www.ultraguardvinylfence.com 1-800-457-4342

Vallaris (solid rubber-plastic) – www.vallaris.com 1-800-482-5527

Woodguard (coated wood) – www.wood-guard.com 1-800-521-3633