Centuries ago, horse fences weren’t required. However, as man settled down and domesticated horses, fences (or some means of containment) became necessary. Since the materials that we take for granted weren’t available these horse people had to use what was available. Trees, branches, brush, stone and natural corrals were popular. Each of these materials had different characteristics that made them popular. Availability of materials and the environment near the fence site dictated the materials and designs. Did these early horse people have trouble with escaping horses? Probably. It depends on what they had to work with and their experiences with horses and the environment.

In some ways we have it a lot easier. Just think of all the options you have for a horse fence today. However many horse owners have limited experience with fence design, choosing fence materials and the actual construction. It is easy to become bewildered and confused at the apparent choices. The authors have assisted many people with deciphering just what makes sense for a safe, long-term horse fence. Read along and see if we can help you with your decision.

The primary considerations when consulting and designing horse fences include; horse behavior, safety, visibility, the size and breed of horses, ease-of construction, durability, maintenance, visual appeal, lifespan, owner professed desires and the cost. Other considerations are: active contributions to training and avoidance reminders for the horses, fence post spacing, presence of foals, other animals to be contained or excluded, the actual site including the geography and geology.

It is hard to pick fence materials or design a fence without first understanding how a horse behaves and relates to the confinement of a fence. Fences operate on two principles. The first principle is the physical barrier principle. Rigid barrier fences are designed with the concept that if the confinement structure is rigid or strong enough the horse will not be able to break through the barrier. An example would be the Great Wall of China. The second principle is psychological. Psychological barriers operate by training the horse that pain is associated with touching the fence, hence avoiding the fence prevents the pain. A prime example would be a properly designed and operating electric or power fence.

We have heard a great deal about release of pressure when we train horses. Horses experience "release of pressure" when they refrain from touching or testing an electric fence but they rarely feel pain or associate pressure with a rigid barrier fence. Consequently they learn to push on, lean on and reach through rigid fences. There is no active learning component available in rigid barrier fences and no resultant incentive to avoid them. We repeatedly observe horses avoiding a properly designed and operating electric fence. As long as the fence remains energized the training continues and continually reinforces the horse’s first painful impressions.

There are several qualifiers of a properly designed and operating fence. Not all electric fences are equal. Poor ground systems, poor electrical connections, posts installed too closely, poor conductor choices, poor visibility, excess grass, weeds and branches touching the fence as well as improper wire spacing can affect the overall performance and quality of the fence. When everything in the fence is safely and correctly designed the chances of injury to the horse are substantially reduced. If sufficient power is delivered when a horse contacts the fence, the effectiveness of the training is greatly enhanced and often requires only one session.

Safety of the horses comes first. Avoid designs with materials that can easily injure a horse. Barbed wire won the west, but the many sharp spikes do not contribute to a safe or happy horse. Other sharp wire ends and knots in woven fence materials can also injure a horse. Openings of inappropriate sizes for the breed of horse in woven materials can trap a horse, often resulting in injury. A fence with a corner whose inside angle is less than 90 degrees can provide an unwanted trap for startled animals. Safety of the horses is compromised without a proper understanding of their eyesight. Many of us take for granted that what we see and how we see it is the same as our critters. However, while we can utilize muscles to change the shape of our eyes to change where our eyes are focused, horses can not.

Some refer to a horse as having "ramped" vision. They must change the position of their head and hence their eyes in relation to the object they are trying to bring into focus. What does this mean to you the fence builder/designer? It means that you can give your horse an advantage by providing it with a fence that is easy to see, especially when the horse has been spooked. If you have provided a fence that is visible and provides continual training in avoidance you have greatly improved your horse’s ability to remain uninjured. Consideration of the appropriate amount of pasture area per head, the feed quality and availability and the total number of animals confined all contribute to the safety of the horses. If your animals’ physiological and psychological needs for food, water and social interaction are met and they are not crowded, the pressure on the fence will be greatly reduced.

Obviously if your stallions can smell a mare in heat, you will have greater pressure on your fences. All of this needs to be taken into consideration when designing and building your fence. Lifespan, maintenance, ease-of-construction and fence material choice all go hand in hand. If durability, longevity, reliability, safety, visual appeal and effectiveness are of prime consideration then it is common for the initial construction process to require a substantial expenditure of time, money and effort. However, a fence properly designed and constructed with forethought and planning can last 20 to 30 or more years. Appropriate material choice combined with careful and considerate craftsmanship provides a fence that requires little maintenance, good visual appeal, safety and a very low cost per year. Best of all, if you don’t have to spend your time being a fence mechanic you can spend your time riding!

Contributed By: Rick Newman and Mike Maggitti