Electric fence can be a quick and inexpensive way to contain horses or make existing fences safer and longer-lasting. It works best in conjunction with other types of fencing (which keep horses away from the electric fence and help prevent chewing or leaning on it). But it’s not foolproof. Electric fences require fairly constant repair and maintenance. And both wire and tape have limitations.
Electric fence, especially if only 1 or 2 strands, is more a psychological deterrent than a physical barrier. It won’t stop a determined horse, nor one that is being chased by a herdmate and seeking an easy way out. Traditional electric fence has low visibility unless flagged with bright pieces of cloth, and a horse may run into it before he sees it. (Wire fence of any kind, should have flagging on it unless it has a visible top pole or some other solid portion.) Brightly colored fence tapes, “ropes” or web strips, being an inch or two wide, are more visible, and some of the newer types of fencing—electrified metal boards, wide webbing “tapes,” etc.—create more of a true barrier and are not as readily breached.
Some horses become smart about electric fences and can tell when the electricity is off or otherwise not working, taking advantage of the situation to walk through or over it or to graze under it. Therefore, electric fencing is best used in conjunction with a solid barrier. A sturdy fence presents a physical barrier that protects the electric wire. The hot wire teaches the horse to respect the fence boundary and can also prevent chewing of the barrier fence. Even a bold horse won’t try to jump it, lean over or go through it after being shocked by the hot wire. This can save a lot of wear and tear on fences, keeping maintenance costs of the primary fence very low, especially in situations where there are large numbers of horses in small areas, or horses across the fence from one another.
Understand that electric tape and even wire can stretch over time. Some tapes break when badly stretched, and electric tapes tend to sag. The wind can stretch them, and a heavy snow will put them clear down on the ground. Even regular electric fence wire will sag under the weight of a heavy, wet snow.
The electric fence must be strong enough to withstand being hit by a horse (as when one is pushed into it by a herdmate, or slides into it), yet not so strong that it cuts into a horse before it breaks. Most electric fence will break if a horse hits it at full speed or tries to jump it.
What if if doesn’t break??A small diameter wire that doesn’t break can cause serious injury. Plastic tapes that don’t break can be a hazard if a horse paws or gets a loop around a leg, causing injury. Horses have also been known to strangle themselves by getting their heads through and not being able to get out—constantly fighting because of the electric shock.
Webbing or tape will break if hit hard enough. The tape and the wire within it should be the same strength; a wire that is stronger than the tape around it can injure the horse if the tape breaks and the wire does not. Check your fence periodically to make sure it is not losing its durability. Sunlight weakens plastic and vinyl polymer tapes or ropes; use the type with UV inhibitors, and with a 15- to 20-year guarantee. Tapes with small wires woven into the plastic to carry the current are easy to install or repair. You can fix a break in the fence by tying the broken pieces back together.
Electric fencing is often installed on metal T-posts set 8 to 10 feet apart, with wood posts for braces at gates and corners, and periodically along the fence if it is a long span. When using metal posts, always top them with smooth, rounded, molded plastic caps; otherwise the sharp metal posts can be a hazard. (Be aware, however, that some horses fiddle with the caps and take them off.) Electric tapes can be hooked to lightweight push-in posts, but these are not as durable as wooden or metal posts and should be considered for temporary use only.
Steel posts can be driven into the ground with a hand-held post pounder (a metal sleeve that slips over the post). Electric wire or tape is hooked to the steel posts with plastic holders that serve as insulators to keep the wire from touching the metal post and shorting out. Insulators for wood posts are generally nailed on.
A new kind of post for electric fence is made from dense wood that does not conduct electricity, requiring no insulators. Holes are factory drilled in the posts, so high-tensile wire or regular electric fence wire can be run through them. The disadvantage to these posts is that they are small enough to break off at ground level if a horse hits them. If you use electric fence by itself, you may prefer the new flexible posts that have no sharp edges and safe, smooth tops.
An electric fence should have at least 2 or 3 strands of wire or tape if used by itself. A 2-strand fence generally has the bottom strand 18 inches off the ground and the top one at least 20 inches above the lower one. Most horsemen prefer the top wire to be at least 42 inches high or, to prevent attempts at jumping, at wither height—48 to 52 inches high.
Gate handles for each strand at gate openings allow you to unhook the gate without getting shocked. Be sure the handle disconnects from the side of the gate closest to the current source, so the gate wire is dead when unhooked. That way it won’t shock you or a horse or create sparks when it’s open.
Some newer types of electric fencing are worth noting. One is polyethylene-covered high-tensile electric wire. The coating is enfused with carbon, which conducts electricity to the outer surface. It looks like a black, coated wire and is fairly thick and elastic—and is less apt to injure a horse than regular wire. Polyester covered wire is similar; it has a soft braided fabric cover over copper wire. It is elastic and flexible if a horse runs into it, but does not expand and contract with temperature changes. Another type is galvanized steel wire embedded in a conductive polymer coating (outside diameter 3/16 inch), making it safer and more durable than traditional wire.
Generally speaking, stainless steel wire lasts the longest, since it does not corrode. Tin, copper and aluminum will oxidize. This inhibits the flow of electric current and makes wire brittle, so it breaks more readily.
Electric Shock Teaching
Horses unaccustomed to electric fence must learn about the hot wire in order to respect it. If you put a horse into an electrified enclosure with no prior experience and no solid fence to create a boundary in his mind, he may crash right through the hot wire. He will get shocked, but won’t learn to respect the fence.
A horse will learn best about electric fence if he is in a controlled situation where he is not upset and trying to go through it. When you first turn him out in a pen or pasture with electric fence, make sure he checks it out. Most horses will smell the wire or tape and get a shock on the nose, and leave it alone from then on. If he doesn’t check it, tempt him to touch it by offering him a treat from the other side of the fence. This sounds cruel, but it can save him much trouble (and possible injury) later.
When turning any horse out into a new paddock or pasture, lead or ride him around the fence boundary before turning him loose, especially if the fence is not highly visible.
Checking the Fence
Electric fence requires regular checking to make sure it is working. Wet grass and weeds or tree leaves may short it out. You must periodically trim grass and branches away from the fence during summer when plants are growing rapidly, or the green foliage may touch the wires and short out the fence. But there are other causes of shorts:?Wildlife going over or through it may push the wire or tape into the solid fence next to it, or stretch or break the wires. If the wire gets caught on a nail, staple, or some other metal structure, it will short out and won’t work.
Most fence chargers have a blinking light to show if the fence is working. The light will go off if the fence is not plugged in or is shorting out. You can also use a fence tester to check the current. The tester has a small rod to stick in the ground and a wire to touch to the fence. If the fence has electric current, the light in the tester will go on as the current passes through the wire into the ground. There are several types of fence testers; the best have several small lights that tell you how strong the current is. A weak current will light only one bulb, whereas a strong charge will light them all.
If you have no tester and are not brave enough to touch the wire, you can touch the end of a long blade of green grass to the wire. If your fence charger has a weed zapper, the charge may be strong enough to deliver a rude shock as soon as you touch the tip of the blade to the wire. To avoid that, choose a less-conductive piece of grass—one that is not so green and moist. If you don’t feel any shock at all, slide the grass blade over the wire so your hand comes closer to it, until you feel a pulse through the grass. The closer you have to move your hand, the weaker the current. If you feel nothing, the fence is not working.
Another easy test is to see if you have a spark at your gate handles. A good spark when you touch a handle to its attachment will mean the fence is working fine up to that point (but could be shorting out somewhere beyond it). A spark at a gate handle means there is good current between the fence charger and that handle; when you unhook the handle, the light on your fence charger will glow.
If you have several gates, you can quickly pinpoint the area of a short, and this can save you a lot of fence walking. The fence may be broken and on the ground in a certain paddock, for example, or perhaps it’s touching a metal post or netting—and you’ll only need to check that area instead of all the pens and pastures that have electric fence. If you have a long stretch of fence with no gates, you can save a lot of time over the years if you install insulated handles at intervals so you can check for shorts a section at a time.
The Fence Charger
You can electrify your fence via a plug-in or battery-powered fence charger or, in a sunny climate, a solar charger. The fence charger sends out a low-amperage electrical pulse that will not seriously harm an animal that touches it, yet is strong enough to deliver a shock. A mild charge is best, since horses do not tolerate electricity as well as other livestock and can be deterred by even a weak shock. Weed-burning fences must send out a stronger current, to kill the grass or weeds that touch the fence.
If you use a plug-in or battery- powered charger, put it in a weather-proof place. For a plug-in, use a grounded electrical outlet. A solar box can be placed anywhere along your fence line with a southern exposure, to get the most sunshine; it does not need protection from weather.
The charger should always be in an accessible location, since you may need to turn the fence on and off. You should also check daily to make sure it is working. Plus, if you use a battery charger, it will need to be replaced about every two months. Know that a concrete surface may drain the charge of a dry cell battery unless you insulate it with a rubber mat behind and under it.
If your fence charger is in a barn or building, install a gate handle somewhere near the start of the fence so you can always unhook it quickly from outside—for repairing a section of it, or to enable a horse to get untangled from a hot wire if he gets caught in the fence. [sm]