Owning a horse property can bring great satisfaction and delight, especially when you look out your window and see your horses ambling around in the pasture. Whether this is a long-awaited dream come true or has been a luxury in your life for a while, putting together a safe pasture turnout for your horses takes some effort and consideration.
Fencing and Gates
No matter the size of pasture turn-out, safety is paramount since we all know horses have a way of finding trouble given the opportunity. It seems as if fences are magnetic attractions that horses just want to sidle up to. What kind of fencing gives you the best chance of your horse avoiding injuries?
A few points to consider:
• Fence height should be at least 4-1/2 to 5 feet, and even 6 feet for stallions (and jumpers) to discourage a horse from trying to jump over it. Confining a stallion may necessitate the incorporation of a double fence perimeter; this is also useful to discourage human or dog contact with the horses, and/or to keep horses safe if there is fence failure next to a busy roadway.
• Fence posts should be anchored securely within the ground, at least 3 feet deep, with depths of 4 feet for gateposts. Round posts are stronger than square posts, in general. Pressure-treated wood posts delay rot, and a preservative can extend post longevity to 10–25 years.
• Fence visibility is crucial, especially if a horse is startled and running without full awareness of his surroundings. It may be necessary to place white strips (sheet or ribbon material) along a wire fence to ensure horses can see it.
• In construction design, avoid any configuration that might trap a foot or leg, especially keeping in mind that foals are able to roll under a fence or become entangled. If mesh fencing is your choice, select material with openings less than 3-inches square. An 8-inch clearance at the fence bottom tends to prevent foot or leg traps and isn’t quite large enough for a horse to get his head under when trying to reach grass.
• High-tensile wire fencing should be pulled tight with no laxity. Configure diagonal cross-bracing incorporated in the corners in such a way as to avoid leg or foot entrapment. Regularly monitoring your pasture for safety hazards is important for your horses’ well-being and your peace of mind.
• When using wooden boards or mesh wire, position them on the inside of the posts so a leaning horse can’t weaken the fasteners and push off the rails or wire. Separate rail spaces by distances less than 12 inches.
• If using wire fencing, it helps to place electric tape or wire on the inside of the top rail of the fence to keep horses from directly contacting the fence. The distance between electric fence wires or tape can be as wide as 18 inches. Weeds and tall plants need to be trimmed and removed so as not to short out an electric fence.
• Cover the tops of metal T-posts with T-post safety caps to prevent impalement or lacerations from a horse scratching his head or neck.
• Avoid building sharp corners, triangular areas, or dead-ends in fence lines that could enable dominant horses to trap another herd member with no means of escape. Round corners work best. When introducing your horse to a new pasture, be sure to walk him around the perimeter in both directions so he sees everything with both eyes.
Horses like to congregate around gates so consider drainage that keeps the gate area dry, with stable footing for easy in-and-out access. Gates are safest when their edges are rounded with smooth corners. Gate and fence height should be comparable to discourage an invitation to escape or reach over to get grass. It may be advantageous to have gates that swing both ways as long as the posts and gate hardware are strong enough to accommodate leaning horses.
Gates provide access to and from the barn, paddocks, arenas, and trails, so are best installed in the most accessible locations to move horses around easily and to facilitate barn chores. Don’t forget to install gates that are wide enough to allow the entry of tractors, mowers, manure spreaders, horse trailers, or your veterinarian’s truck should you want to move such equipment in and out of the pasture.
Secure gate latches are essential in preventing inquisitive horses from opening the gate and letting themselves out. It helps to use latches that allow one-hand opening but be sure that horse muzzles can’t do the same. It’s best not to have a gap between the post and the gate that could entrap a horse’s head or neck. Be sure to cut away any bolts and sharp objects that stick out from fasteners or edges, as these notoriously cause injury if a horse decides to rub or tries to shortcut a corner while moving around the pasture. Halters, when used, should be the break-away kind in the event a horse snags it on a protrusion, post, or gate.
You may also want to consider forming areas of the pasture separated by fencing and gates for situations where it’s necessary to separate horses or to allow rotational grazing for the preservation of pasture grass.
Obstacles and Equipment
It’s easy to assume that the tractor parked in the pasture poses no hazard but this is far from the truth. Any kind of equipment has the potential to cause serious harm to curious horses who hang out around that area. The safest bet is to fence out any such equipment—tractors, harrows, rakes, cars, and horse trailers, for example.
Other pasture obstacles include water ditches and ditch crossings. If a crossing is composed of a metal culvert, it is necessary to cover the sharp metal ends; this may be accomplished by culvert edge guards, cement, or even old tires. To prevent your horse from inadvertently falling into a ditch hidden by deep grass, walk him around the pasture when he first arrives so he can see and smell the presence of ground irregularities. This doesn’t guarantee that he won’t run through it, but it can help.
Some trees—red maple, Russian olive, yew, oleander, black walnut, chokecherry, buckeye, black locust, and oaks, as a few examples—are poisonous to horses and need to be fenced at a sufficient distance that falling leaves, seeds, or fruit are inaccessible. Keep in mind that horses like to strip bark from trees so even if not a hazard to the horses, they may be a hazard to accessible trees. Dead branches also have the potential to impale a horse or cause eye injury. Check with your veterinarian or county extension agent about which trees you’ll need to fence out, and also have them check for the presence of toxic plants in your pasture.
Access to water is critical for horses no matter how they are stabled or turned out.
Some water sources pose unnecessary hazards, such as ponds or streams with surrounding ground that can become swampy under certain weather conditions and give way beneath a horse’s weight. Natural water sources are also prone to erosion, leading to risks posed by holes, slopes, and boggy areas. Slow-moving or stagnant water also has the potential to grow blue-green algae during hot weather conditions—cyanotoxins from the algae are potentially lethal to horses. The safest strategy is to fence horses away from natural water sources.
Watering troughs or automatic watering systems are more reliable water sources. A large water tank provides available water if freshened and filled frequently. But it does need to be cleaned regularly to eliminate the buildup of debris, sand, dead insects, and algae; goldfish may help keep algae to a minimum. In winter, a stock tank heater keeps water ice-free. The safest type of heater is one that immerses to the bottom of the tank rather than floating on top. Be sure to cover all electric cords with plastic pipe and periodically check that the heater is not shorting out and preventing horses from drinking. In some cases, it is simply easier and less labor-intensive to install automatic watering systems that provide water on demand and also include a heating system.
Be sure there is a sufficient number of water sources to accommodate the size of the herd in the pasture—if too few, dominant horses may prevent more submissive individuals from acquiring adequate hydration. Place a water source in an expansive area rather than in corners of the field or by a gate where one horse could guard it away from others.
In many situations, horses don’t necessarily need a shelter, but a run-in shed may be well used during hail, sleet, or rain storms, and also as a refuge from intense sun and biting insects. If multiple horses share the pasture, then the shed should be large enough to allow all to enter without being trapped, or more than one shed can be erected to provide options for all herd members.
Place a shed on high ground to facilitate drainage. Building a shed into the fence line eliminates the presence of an area between the shed and the fence that could entrap a horse.
The Bottom Line
Good planning in advance of building a perimeter around your pasture can save you from a lot of extra work and keep your horses as safe as possible. You’ll want to consider the safest fencing and exclude hazards when designing your horse’s confinement area. Factor in the needed size of pasture based on forage availability, plant growth, and stability to prevent overgrazing. Parasite control and weed control are also important features for maintaining a healthy pasture, as is a need for good drainage and safe water sources.
Do your research and consult with agricultural experts and your veterinarian to determine the best way to configure your property with horse pasturage. Then you’ll have peace of mind while you enjoy watching your horses frolic in their pasture freedom.