Horse Farm Fencing Choices, Design and Construction

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Credit: Thinkstock

Credit: Thinkstock

Many horse property owners worry about fencing. What fencing is best? How much will it cost? What is its lifespan? Is it safe? At first these seem to be difficult questions to answer because of the vast variety of fencing products and the difficulty of sifting through fence manufacturers’ marketing information to find the facts. In this article, we will present some overall rules of thumb that will make your fencing selection a lot easier. We will also present pros and cons of various products so you can easily determine the product that is best suited for your stable.

Safety First: The Basics of Fencing Selection

Safety is the number one priority for the design of any element of a farm or stable. Safe fencing is especially important because the fence is the barrier to the outside world. Owners count on fencing to keep horses in and the outside world out.

To choose a safe fence product, consider these important requirements:

  • Visibility Fences that are too transparent from a distance can be hard for horses to see. Horses see better to the side than straight in front of them and have been known to run into some types of fencing. Regardless of the product you choose, the fence should have features to make it visible. For example, if you are using an electric fence on its own as a temporary enclosure, use the ribbon type so that it is easily seen by horses.
  • Resilience What this means is how the fence reacts to a strong impact, such as to a horse running into it. Some fences don’t give at all. These are not as unsafe as the fences that break apart in sharp pieces. For instance, in very cold weather, low-quality plastic fences can become very brittle. In those conditions, they can shatter into sharp, dangerous shards when hit forcefully. The best fences are those that have some give or resilience.
  • Maintenance requirements Some fences may become unsafe if not properly maintained. For example, some wire fence types sag significantly over time, potentially creating a hazard for your horses. If you don’t have the time or money to maintain a fence, consider one that requires less time and effort to maintain so that safety is not compromised.
  • Height A horse fence should be at least five feet tall if it is a perimeter fence. Interior fences between paddocks may be four feet six inches, but a five-foot minimum should be the rule for the containment fence. Some horses may jump a five-foot fence. If you own a barn housing many athletic horses, consider increasing the perimeter fence height to slightly higher than five feet.

Unsafe Fencing

You should also be aware that some fencing has a reputation for being unsafe. These fence types are not discussed further than in the following descriptions because they are not recommended.

  • Barbed Wire Never use barbed wire for horses. It is never safe because it is so sharp and can easily tear a horse’s skin.
  • Single Strand Wire Unless wire is tensioned, strand wire fencing should not be used for horses. It sags easily, can’t easily be re-tensioned, and when sagging becomes a huge hazard for entanglement. Once horses get entangled, they usually panic, causing further damage.
  • Un-Capped T Post A T post is a ubiquitous type of steel fencing used in a lot of range areas of the West. It is often combined with barbed wire, but it might be used with other wire fencing. If you have T posts, it is very important that they be capped with a plastic cap. Uncapped posts are very dangerously sharp and have been known to impale horses

Recommended Fencing

Now let’s review the recommended types of equine fencing options on the market, their relative costs, maintenance requirements and lifespan. Below is an overview chart that organizes the products we will review with more detail. Actual costs are not listed because they are location dependent, but people spend between 50 cents per linear foot on the very low end to close to $10 per linear foot on the highest end. This is why cost is always such a big consideration for anyone who is contemplating fencing options.

Keep in mind that low-cost fencing might cost more over its lifetime than a higher cost fence because of high maintenance requirements and short lifespans. Therefore it is important to factor in all of the information about how much money a fence will require in maintenance and replacement over the years.

Fencing Chart sm

Wood Post and Rail Fencing

Wood post and rail fencing is the beautiful fencing that we associate with old horse country properties in Kentucky and one the East Coast. Originally, wood fencing was a source of pride and a status symbol. The more rails that could be maintained beautifully, the more resources and money the farm owner typically had. In addition to obvious improvements in functionality, this is why five- rail fencing was considered superior to three- and four-rail fencing.

When wood was plentiful and of high quality, and when paint products were more durable, wood fencing was a good option for many farm owners. Today, it is more difficult to get durable, old wood for the posts and rails, and the environmentally friendly coatings that we use for painting don’t hold up as well as their predecessors.

Many people find that wood fencing is too expensive if done right, and it will require rigorous maintenance. It is therefore expensive over its lifetime. It must be painted regularly and patrolled relentlessly for rotted boards and loose nails or screws. To replace the need for purchasing high-quality woods, wood fencing products are pre-treated with a modern chemical preservative.

On the positive side, wood easily accommodates changes in slopes on a pasture, can be laid out to create rounded pastures with no corners, and can be maintained by the barn owner. While the original installation of a wood fence might only have a 10-15 year lifespan, it can be maintained piece by piece.

When wood fencing is against a road or at a dangerous perimeter, it is often combined with a single electric hotwire to prevent the horses from leaning against it.

Wood Post with Wire V Mesh

Barn owners who prefer wood fencing, but who want to cut down on some of the maintenance, can consider combining wood with a wire, v-mesh panel. Of all of the wire mesh patterns, this is one of the safest to use for horses. Horses can’t get their legs trapped in it, and it is very resilient. If running the wire mesh between vertical wood posts, it is important to also provide a top rail for visibility.

The wire/wood fence combination is still a lot of maintenance. The wood must be maintained and the wire patrolled to ensure it doesn’t come loose. But it has lower initial and lower maintenance costs than a wood post and rail fence. It is also often combined with a hot wire for a very safe fence installation.

Vinyl or PVC Fencing

Vinyl fencing can be an equally attractive alternative to wood fencing. It is crisp and pre-finished, it is low maintenance, and it is often used as an alternative to wood where the same type of aesthetic is desired. It also accommodates slopes, rounded corners and other landscape features.

For all of the positive characteristics of vinyl fencing, it also has some significant flaws. One flaw is that it can pop loose when leaned on, and worse, some lower-quality brands can shatter in cold temperatures when exposed to high impact. Vinyl should not be used on its own to enclose horses. It should be used in conjunction with an electric hot wire to prevent escape or injury.

Vinyl fencing varies a lot in quality. High-quality products have long, sometimes lifetime warranties. Expect them to cost more than wood post and rail fences. Low-quality products may break, splinter or warp and be difficult to repair. If you’re considering using vinyl, follow these rules of thumb:

  • Use a brand that has been used for equine fencing for many years. You don’t want your fence manufacturer going out of business as this renders a warranty useless.
  • Use vinyl primarily as a decorative perimeter fence. If you use it with horses, use some discretion. At least combine it with an electric wire so that it is a safe containment.

HDPE Fencing

HDPE is short for high-density-polyethylene. This plastic is superior in its chemical properties to vinyl or PVC. HDPE fencing is tough enough to support horse impact without splintering. It does not become brittle in cold temperatures. It does not need to be combined with a hot wire (although that is always a good idea for a perimeter fence). It is virtually maintenance free, and many manufacturers offer a 20-year warranty.

The only negative consideration is initial cost. HDPE is one of the highest cost fence types on the market, and some barn owners might not be able to afford its installation, despite its low life-cycle cost.

Pipe Fencing

Pipe fencing is common in Texas, Oklahoma and the dry, western areas within the United States. It is produced from welded steel pipe that is plentiful in the oil-producing states. It is extremely durable fencing and will last decades as long as it is specified with the proper diameter piping (1 5/8 inches is a typical durable rail). It is offered in three-, four-, five- and six-rail fencing. Four-, five- and six-rail fencing is safer than three-rail fencing, which can provide too much air space, and a horse can become stuck in it.

Pipe fencing is absolutely rigid when horses run into it and can cause injury. Injuries aren’t that common because the fence is clearly visible to the horses. Because of its toughness, it is not necessary to install an electric wire along a pipe rail fence.

Pipe rail does not always conform to sloping pastures as easily. Some brands allow for the rails to slope with the ground. Some products have to be “stepped” up and down slopes.

For extra durability, pipe rail can be galvanized, but it is typical in much of the West to simply let it rust. This type of fencing would not be appropriate in a wet climate, but in dry climates, pipe fencing requires very little maintenance over its lifetime.

High-Tension Wire Fencing

High-tension wire fencing is a low-cost fence product that requires tensioning devices to hold wires taught. The wires are typically anchored to thick wood posts. Although this type of fencing has a low initial cost, it can be very dangerous if not tensioned constantly. Sagging wire fences pose a huge risk of injury to horses.

If combined with an electric wire to prevent the horses from pushing on the fence, and if rigorously maintained, tension wire fences can be safe, but they’re not an ideal type of equine fence. They also lack visibility, which is another potential safety flaw.

Polymer Tension Fencing

To counteract some of the negative aspects of tension wire fencing, a wire in tension can be encapsulated by a flexible polymer rail. This makes an ideal type of equine fence because it is springy and gives when a horse runs into it. It is far more visible than a tension wire on its own, and it is less likely to cut or entangle a horse. The tensioned polymer rails are combined with vinyl or wood posts, although wood posts are usually the better choice because they provide a solid surface for attaching the rail tensioning devices.

If you are interested in this type of fencing, consider that it does require regular maintenance to retighten the rails when they sag. It is also necessary to choose a product with a good reputation in the equine industry, as there are some products that are easier to install and maintain than others.

Electric Fencing (Wire and Ribbon)

Electric wire fencing is most often and most safely used in combination with other types of fencing. It has a variety of problems when used on its own, including low visibility, possible sagging and risk of entanglement, and failure from lack of electric current. It is not durable and can fail if a tree limb falls on it.

The ribbon type of electric fencing is a little more expensive, but it is safer because it is more visible. Even so, it should not be used as a perimeter fence, but it can be used as a temporary fence for rotating pastures, for example.

Be sure to use a safe post for anchoring an electric fence, even for temporary use. We have already mentioned the danger of uncapped T-posts.

Jackleg Fencing (Buck and Rail)

Jackleg fencing is a quintessential western fence used to contain livestock and horses in climates where the ground is too rocky or frozen to dig post holes. It is common in the Rocky Mountains. Although it is typically left unpainted, it requires rigorous maintenance like all wood fencing. It is highly visible, but its large gaps and low height don’t make it a horse-proof containment for an extremely determined animal. It is best used in large ranges where horses are less likely to press against the perimeter boundary.

Making Your Fence Work for You

Once you have made your fencing selection balancing safety, lifespan, cost and maintenance, there are a few general rules of thumb to follow to be sure the fence will work its best for you. As with all things construction, a product is only as good as its installation!

  • Follow the manufacturer’s installation instructions to the letter. Enlist help if you need it from a manufacturer’s installer.
  • Posts should generally be set so that one-third of the total length is buried below the ground surface. Clarify this depth based on your climate. In very cold climates, you might need to dig the posts deeper to avoid frost heave.
  • Some posts require being set in concrete. Clarify which and how many with the manufacturer, and get specific instructions based on your situation.
  • Wood posts often need to be treated with a preservative before being set in the ground. Keep in mind that many preservatives are now banned from use due to their environmental hazards, so get specific advice before proceeding.

Take-Home Message

A fence is a big investment. Seek advice from manufacturers, as well as other barn owners, before proceeding, and weigh all of the cost factors. Visit other farms that have the fence product you are considering so you can see it in person.

If you cannot afford the fence of your dreams, prioritize those perimeter fences that have to be safest, and purchase the lowest-maintenance, highest-quality products for those locations. Or consider fencing pastures and turn out areas incrementally as you build your business rather than settling for the lesser fencing product.

A good, safe fence is the best peace of mind a barn owner can buy.

Tony Cochrane, AIA, is a principal with Animal Arts, which specializes exclusively in veterinary hospital and animal shelter design with a proven track record of success with over 600 projects in 40 states and overseas.