Horse Fence Materials and Design Tips

So, you have decided you need a horse fence.  There is a high probability that you have never built a fence or had an active say in the decisions regarding the choice or style of fence.  You are not alone, many other horse owners or soon to be horse owners are also participating in the same adventure.  Sales of horse related fencing are exploding.  Good sources of decision making information are also increasing.  The purpose of this article is to assist you.

Demographics suggest that if you are reading this article you are most likely female, well educated and will seek accurate knowledge in your search for horse fencing.  Experience suggests that your horse or horses are very important to you, a very big part of your life.  It is not unusual that you will want the very best for your horse, especially for its’safety.

But, how do you find out what the best fence material or design for your situation?  We would like to try to help you by providing some tools and tips that will assist you in this quest.  Last month we provided a “Fence Decision Matrix” with blanks for you to fill in.  It is obvious to us that there is not “one” fence style or material that is ideal for everyone and that each of you has your own criteria.  We hope that the information and knowledge sources provided here will help you make a safe and educated choice on your horse fence design and materials.

Where to start?  Well, when we advise people on selecting fences the first question we ask is, what critters are you going to keep inside your fence?  The second is, are there any critters you want to keep out as well?  These questions are important because you need to plan ahead for all of the animals you are concerned with managing.  Why, because each type of animal you plan to manage challenges a fence in a different manner or location.  For example, folks often inquire what fence is best for their horses, two cows, one goat, six Border Collies and thirty chickens, oh and by the way, we are also concerned about keeping out the coyotes.  The coyotes and dogs will most often approach a fence down low, horses and cows chest high while goats and chickens any way they can.  If foals are present they need a barrier at a height appropriate for their size.

Rigid Barrier, Psychological Barrier or Both?

Next in the decision chain is whether or not you want a rigid barrier or a psychological barrier style fence or even a combination of the two.  What is the difference?  In most basic terms a rigid barrier fence depends primarily on its structure to control animals.  Other than barbed wire, rigid barrier fences have no components beside the visual presence that actively reinforce training to control an animal’s movements.  The rigid barrier fence, unless combined with a psychological barrier offers no persistent reminder that remaining where humans want them is preferable to testing and escaping.  Both rigid and psychological barrier fences can control and manage animals, it is the tradeoffs or concessions that must be made that you need to decide ahead of time to live with.

Examples of rigid barrier fences include; barbed wire, field fence, no-climb, Super Tuff, post and rail, post and board, vinyl, pipe and wide vinyl covered high tensile wire.  Psychological barrier fences include; electrifiable polyethylene tape, wire and braid, high tensile wire, polymer coated electrifiable wire.  While not inclusive lists these materials represent the common material choices.

Rigid barrier fences can require a great deal of labor to construct and dependent on material chosen these fences can be relatively expensive to purchase.   Depending on the quality and type of materials chosen they may require frequent painting or maintenance.  The quality of the materials has a great influence on the longevity of the fence as well as the appearance of the fence.  For example, a fence constructed of relatively soft, low tensile wire can stretch and bend out of shape when a horse pushes on or continually tests the fence.  The amount of galvanization determines both the appearance of the fence and the life of the fence.  Type three galvanization has three times the amount of zinc applied to the fence material hence increasing the wire’s life by three.  The cost won’t be triple that of class one, but the life and rust free appearance will be.  High tensile wire, or wire that has a high resistance to being pulled apart when stretched will resist deformation and can even act as a spring to retain the fences initial shape and appearance.

Psychological barrier fences can be very effective in providing effective animal management.  Horses have great memories, especially when it comes to the avoidance of pain or threatening sights.  Taking the time and effort to train your horse to avoid contact with an electrified fence in an initial controlled situation will provide long term benefits.  Horses respect the release of pressure.  If they can “control” their own “release of pressure” by avoidance of the pain of touching an power fence you can use this to manage their movement, keep them from testing a fence and keep them safe.  An important component of this is the fence must be operating properly and be of a safe design.  Horses are very aware of electricity flowing in a power fence, perhaps it is the whiskers on their chins that alerts them.  Observance of horses first coming in contact with a properly operating fence combined with subsequent viewing of their respect for power fences will quickly educate you as to their effectiveness.

Aesthetics

So far we have considered that you must plan for the types of animals you want to manage or control and that you will need to decide on a rigid, psychological or combination fence.  What’s next?  Usually aesthetics.  This is where you need to balance your horse or animal management plan with your dreams, budget and reality.  Maybe you have always dreamed of graceful Kentucky pastures divided by beautiful white four rail fences.  However a look at your savings suggests that the only fences like this that you will ever see is on TV.  Acquire the “Fence Decision Matrix” from last month’s article or from the web site and start filling in the blanks.  Look at the potential choices and start comparing.  It will take some time to collect all the information, but the reward will be a fence that fits your needs and is appropriate.  As in many endeavors, time spent planning and organizing can pay huge dividends.  If you are not familiar with all the current options for containment you may be surprised at what is available.  Technology is providing some wonderful advances that will enhance your horse management concerns.

Budget

For many, budget is an obvious major concern.  We can’t provide you with funding but we can help you with some ideas to spend your money wisely.  Something that is often overlooked when deciding on a fence design or materials seems to be that the initial cost is the most important concern.  Perhaps an alternate view to consider, is that the longevity of the fence, the amount of time and labor required to install the fence, how much annual maintenance will be required, does the fence manage your horses effectively and most importantly will the fence be safe may  be of greater importance.  In other words, what will be the long term cost of all the aspects of the fence.  Do you want to become a “fence mechanic” or spend your time riding your horse?  It’s been said that the difference in cost between a poor fence and a good fence is equal to the cost of a major vet bill.

Environmental and Geological Conditions

Additional considerations for your future fence involve the environmental and geological conditions of your property.  What is the size of your place?  How much is available for pasturage?  What about mud and manure management?  What is growing on your property, trees, brush or crops?  Is your property as flat as a billiard table or as steep as a ski slope?  What combination of environment do you have?  What is the usable terrain?  Are streams or other water features present?  Is power and water available?  And these are just some of the above surface concerns.

As experienced fence contractors will tell you, it is absolutely amazing how rocks suddenly appear on properties once a fence construction project starts.  People swear they have never seen a rock and now they are everywhere!  Subsurface conditions can vastly influence the amount and difficulty of labor required to install fence posts.  Until you have actually explored below ground by digging holes, pounding posts or excavating for building construction it is exceedingly difficult to predict what will be found.  Previously glaciated areas can have an overabundance of rocks left over from previous glacial moraines or scouring.  River bottoms may also feature a wonderment of rocks and sand.  Basalt and granite is found extensively throughout the West.  Caliche or hardpan can also prove very difficult to penetrate.  Sandy soils have very little strength to hold up fence posts.  So an investigation of environmental and geological conditions can also prove to be important.

Quality fence contractors are forced to become extremely knowledgeable of regional and local geologic conditions.  The ability to quickly and efficiently install fence posts is an important part of their profitability.  They gain clues to soil conditions by observing road cuts, inspecting recently dug holes, asking questions and in general becoming very observant and knowledgeable of the environment.

Fence material and design choices also influence the quantity of posts to be installed.  Post spacing of eight to ten feet in basalt, caliche or other solid rock can become very labor intensive and or expensive.  Using a compressor and jackhammer is also tiring, costly and expensive.  Rigid barrier fences often require close spacing of posts to provide the necessary strength to the fence.  Other rigid barrier fences simply require many posts just by virtue of design.  However, psychological barrier fences often require fewer posts because their success is not dependent only on their strength but on the animals response to the fence.  It is not unusual to feature fence post spacing of 20 to 30 feet in a modern electrified power fence.  Fewer posts to purchase, fewer holes to dig or posts to install equals less cost, labor and time to build.  In addition when posts are placed further apart the more the fence acts as a spring than as a potentially harmful cutting device.

Equine vision is quite different than human.  When you choose to change where your eyes are focused you have the ability to change the shape of your eyeballs by muscle movement.  Horses must move their entire heads to change their point of focus.  Some sources refer to this condition as “ramped vision”.  What this means to you as a fence designer is you need to be aware of how a panicked horse may see a fence.  Remember they didn’t come from the manufacturer as domesticated animals used to being confined by human devices.  If you can provide your horse with training as to its boundaries that can continually be reinforced and that is easily seen wouldn’t that be an advantage?  Recent advances in materials and design have provided power fences with these advantages.  Imagine a highly visible “sight” wire or braid that both trains the horse to existing boundaries.  The wire has a coating that both increases the diameter and can transmit a shock to the outer surface.  Install such a wire on posts 20 to 30 feet apart.  What kinds of advantages have you given your equine partner?

Obviously there are many things to consider in the design process of a horse fence.  The more you know about this process the greater your abilities to provide a cost effective, good looking and safe fence for your horse.  They can’t manage their environment.  That part is up to you.  We will continue to examine the decision process in future issues of NW Horse Source.  Keep reading and planning for your dream fence!

Contributed By: Rick Newman and Mike Maggitti