This is an excellent presentation by an experienced Veterinarian, Geoff Tucker, who’s been to many different farms and barns. Geoff has then collected photos of some of the do’s and don’ts we can apply to our properties and barns. In this post, I’m going to focus on the fencing options as this is something I’ve been experimenting with lately.
If you want the full barn safety info (and it’s excellent – based on decades of experience with thousands of clients), then start watching the video here at 5 minutes (the beginning is just intro):
For now, I’m going to show you some of the best fencing options that I screenshot from this video:
1. Board Fence Done Right!
In this photo you can see the boards are on the inside of the fence posts – keeping a smooth surface against the horse (prevents them banging/hooking a shoulder on a post). This also makes the fence stronger as the board will not pop out when a horse leans or rubs hard on it. Note the bottom board is far enough from the ground that if a horse lays down next to the fence, their legs will not get stuck when they try to get up.
However, as Dr. Tucker points out, this distance is too high to be safe for a foal, who could roll under and get up on the other side of the fence – separated from mum! Also note the buffer alley in between paddocks (handy for manure and hay carts too!). A lot of fence damage is done by horses trying to get at each other – for reasons of play, aggression, or in heat.
2. Diamond Mesh with Boards
Dr. Tucker says this diamond mesh is very tough and he’s never seen a horse that can break through it, nor has he ever seen one caught up in it. Note the boards are on the inside of the fence posts – keeping a smooth surface against the horse (prevents them damaging a shoulder on a post). This also makes the fence stronger as the board will not pop off when a horse leans or rubs hard on it. Likewise, the diamond mesh is also afixed to the inside of the fence.
This is Dr. Tucker’s favorite fence and was used for Secretariat. He also points out that the corners are rounded off (no square corners) so a horse can’t get trapped there by another horse. The corners have 3 boards, but the straight sections only require a single board at the top. Not only does this improve the strength of the fence, it also takes care of the visibility issue (wire fences are hard to see in certain light conditions or when the horse is in a panic).
3. Vinyl Fence with Electric Wires
Here’s a vinyl fence with electric wires running along the inside of the boards. Dr. Tucker likes this fence because if the horse runs into it, he’s just going to bounce off. Note the fence boards are on the wrong side of the posts in this picture – but on the fence line in the background, they are on the correct side of the posts. Boards should always be on the inside of fence posts, creating a smooth surface the entire length of the fence, and increasing board strength.
4. Pipe Fencing
Another fencing option that Dr. Tucker likes is welded metal pipe fencing – a cheaper option if you live in an area with an oil/gas industry that generates cheap surplus pipe. If you don’t, and you have to buy steel railings or posts from a fence company, then it is a very expensive fencing option.
Barbed Wire vs. High Tensile Steel Wire
Now let’s get into a thorny issue. We all know that barbed wire is not a good fencing option for horses. However, some people have a line of barbed wire fencing because they share a field with cows. Or, they are boarding their horses on someone else’s property.
I recently read a great article on barbed wire and the Comments underneath the post are as good as the article – especially the one where a horse ran into the wood fence on one side, then into the barb wire fence on the other… (spoiler alert: The wood did more damage). So if you currently have some barbed wire fencing, take some time to read through this article and the comments. I’m not going to repeat anything here, because it’s just that good!
I will say that I had 3 horses and 2 foals in a well-maintained (no loose wires) barbed wire field for 10 years in Alberta and not one of them sustained an injury. In my current place (I’m boarding) there is a mix of barbed wire, high tensile steel wire, and board fence. The only injury incurred in the last year has been on the smooth steel wire; which my 2-year-old colt used to slice off the back of his heel (it has a 3,000 lb break weight) requiring surgery and a $450 vet bill.
Ironically, we used the smooth steel wire in that spot to keep them away from the rotting wood fence, as the tenant didn’t want barbed wire used on that fence line. Personally, I think that if the wire had been barbed, my colt would not have stuck his foot through. All the horses figured out pretty quickly that barbed wire hurts and they stay away from it for anything vigorous. For minor activities, like leaning against it, they don’t care:
But these are former wildies and they go right through blackberry bushes too! I routinely check their faces for embedded blackberry barbs and pull them out. And the two colts have minor rips all over the place (they also spar quite a bit). My domestic horse won’t touch barbed wire or blackberry bushes.
I also used the high tensile smooth steel wire in a corner of the paddock area as I’d heard it was a good alternative to barbed wire. Again, if you’re boarding on someone else’s property, or money is really tight, you can’t always implement the ideal. Having had no experience with smooth steel wire, I thought I’d test it:
After observing the horses for several months, I would not use this kind of fencing again either! I’m not saying that barbed wire is any better, but at least they realize barb wire hurts and stay away from it. With this steel wire, they play with it! Having no idea that it can slice through flesh; they rub on it with their head and necks, they stomp on it with their feet, they push against it. Apparently vets have seen many, very serious injuries from high tensile steel wire.
And if the horse happens to run into it, this wire is not going to break – it’s just going to slice through the horse’s flesh. Here’s what happened in a wind storm when a few trees fell on it. The wire loosened (even more fun to play with!) but did not break:
I have since covered over this steel wire with a length of mesh fence. Yes, it’s more expensive, but cheaper than a vet bill or two!
However, the main problem with any kind of single-strand wire fence is not what the horse does when they’re conscious, but what they do when they are being chased by coyotes, or in a fight, or otherwise frightened. As Dr. Geoff Tucker says:
“The reason we use cowhides, is because it’s tough. I’ve seen cows go right through barbed wire, leaving [only] little tufts of hair, and the wire is in shambles. But as soon as the horse goes through barbed wire, it’s a meat cutter and it’s no good, and it should be outlawed for every horse.”
So on the fence line where my colt sliced his foot, I put up 2×4 inch wire mesh, on the pasture side, covering up the steel wire and the wooden fence. They lean right over the top of it to get to the grass lawn on the other side, but so far it is holding up well and no injuries! The wooden posts on this line are sunk into concrete – otherwise, they would no doubt just push the whole fence over. I didn’t know about diamond mesh when I used this 2×4″ mesh, otherwise I would have used that instead. This size mesh is fine for adult horses, but a young foal could get a hoof stuck in this:
And here’s another consideration for those of us in wet, rainy climates. Even if you use treated posts, your fence posts (and boards) can rot in 15-20 years and need to be replaced. The only type of fence you could use in this climate that would never have to be re-done is steel posts, sunk in concrete. However, treated wood posts sunk in concrete with a combination board (even just 1 board) and diamond mesh fence should last at least 30 years.
If you already have barbed wire, or high tensile steel wire up, you could even just place the diamond mesh over top of the existing wire. If you don’t have cows to contend with on the other side though, then you may want to remove the barbed wire, to prevent your horses getting little tears from it.
New Option: Elastic Fencing!
Now, having said all of the above, I attended a workshop with trainer/filmmaker Elsa Sinclair and she told me about a fantastic new elastic fencing option called Finishline Fencing. Although these stretchy strands have a break-weight of 1200 lbs, they are also designed to stretch/give 20%. So even foals who have gone completely through the fencing are unharmed and just come back in through the strands which stretch out of the way! This video is an excellent summary of this fence in action and how to install it with either wood, or T-posts:
This fencing would be great for me to use in the wooded areas of my pasture, where trees and branches fall on the fence all the time; either taking out the fence line, or making the use of electric wire impossible. Here’s the picture that convinced me this elastic fence could actually work in my forested areas:
For myself, any other fencing I do (or re-do) is going to be either the Diamond Mesh with Boards Fence (see option #2 above) or this elastic Finishline Fencing. Depending on the area to be fenced (budget) I would also like to sink the treated posts into concrete.