Whether you’ve just moved to a new horse property, or you want to fence a new section, or add some cross-fencing, or you’ve got challenging terrain to fence – we’ve got you covered! I’ve gathered together some of the best fencing ideas for you to peruse, along with my personal opinion on barbed wire and Bayco elastic fencing.
First of all, I watched an excellent presentation by an experienced Veterinarian, Dr. 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, barns and fencing. 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 Geoff’s 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. Again, boards should always be on the inside of fence posts, so horses can’t pop the boards off easily.
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 was a mix of barbed wire, high tensile steel wire, and board fence. The only injury incurred in the last six years was with the smooth steel wire; which my then 2-year-old colt (Montaro) 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, Montaro 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:
My semi-feral and wild horses go right through blackberry bushes too! I routinely check their faces for embedded blackberry barbs and pull them out. And the younger horses 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, since 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! I’m not saying that barbed wire is necessarily better, but at least they realize barb wire hurts and stay away from it. With this smooth 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 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 also covered over this steel wire with a length of mesh fence. Yes, it’s more expensive, but cheaper than another 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 high tensile steel 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 an intriguing new elastic fencing option called Finishline Fencing. This fencing material is produced by a company called Bayco. So you may also see if advertised as Bayco elastic 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!
I figured 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:
So four years ago, I decided to fence about 10 acres at the back using this new elastic fenceline material. Since this area is densely forested and home to lots of wildlife, I decided to see if an ‘organic’ curvy fenceline would work; rather than just straight lines, which would require a lot of tree-cutting.
Let me show you the challenges that resulted from both using this elastic wire/line and not having poker straight fencelines!
1. Brace against tension
When you have a curvy fenceline, and then you tighten up the lines on it, the tension is not even. This sounds obvious, I know, but we thought we could counter the pull by moving the line to the other side of the posts where needed, to offset the tension. Nope. Maybe if you lived in a dry climate and your ground was rock hard for your posts, that might work. But in our rainy Pacific Northwest/UK type climate, our posts just could not withstand the torque. So we had to add bracing at all vulnerable spots:
As you can see, we had to add a lot of bracing to make up for the all the points of torque threatening to pull the fence posts over. But due to the posts not being in a perfectly straight line, we also couldn’t tension up with lines the way you’re supposed to. Which created more issues…
2. Escape routes
Since we couldn’t fully tension up the lines, our lines were looser than recommended – which the horses quickly discovered. Montaro and Juno figured out how to go through the fence, graze or forage on the other side and then come back in whenever they pleased! Here’s one of the spots they favored. They would step on the lowest line to pin it to the ground, then use their neck to push up on the lines above – which would create a perfectly adequate gap to squeeze through.
As you can see, we added branches to try and discourage them, but they just knocked the branches out the way. The only thing that worked was to add 2 lines of barbed wire along these sections.
You might be wondering why we didn’t just add more lines and space them closer together…? Well, we started out with 5 lines like this:
However, the deer did not like this arrangement! One day my dogs were chasing a deer and it fixed eyes on me as it scooched under the fence, staring at me as it popped up the other side, “You see?? We don’t have time to jump over the fence when coyotes are chasing us!”
Someone had been chewing through the bottom strand of the Bayco elastic fencelines at key points where there were wildlife trails – hence my bottom, 5th line had disappeared in numerous places. In one forested section of the pasture, they had chewed through the bottom 2 lines. This didn’t create a problem with the horses, since there was no inducement for them to leave the pasture at that section – all that was on the other side were trees.
So when I placed the strands of barb wire on the fenceline in the photo above, I placed them as high as I possibly could, to leave the deer and other animals as much clearance as I could. I had thought this fencing material would be ideal to leave passage open to wildlife. But as the deer showed me, during a high speed chase, they have to be able to get through the fencing in a split second.
3. Perfectly straight fencelines
Here’s the other issue that occurs when using this tensioned elastic fence line, that no amount of bracing can fix. If your posts are too far out of alignment at any spot, the tension in the lines simply pops your staples out of the posts:
Not sure how this post got so far out of alignment with the others, but this is very rocky ground with buried boulders, so sometimes you just have to move the post to a new spot.
Then guess what the horses can do with a section of fence like this?
4. When a tree falls…
However, where this type of fencing is totally outstanding, is how it performs in heavily treed areas! This is where all that stretchy elastic really comes in handy:
Once we removed the tree, we simply tightened up the lines again and voila! Fence was fixed in 5 minutes flat.
Oh and I have one last point to make – although this would apply to any kind of strand fencing – is to consider where your blackberries are. I was staring at this part of the fenceline, wondering why the blackberries had gone hogwild in this section… when I realized that by putting the elastic fenceline there, I had built them a trellis! What do we know from tomatoes and peas? Yep, if you give them a scaffold, their growth will increase greatly due to increased sun exposure.
If I’d realized this, I wouldn’t have bothered hacking through the blackberries in this spot to place the posts here, I would have just moved the fenceline over. Or, known that I would have to be rigorous about keeping them cut back on a regular basis.
Would I use Bayco or Finishline Fencing again?
If I had domestic horses (with no escape artists in the bunch) and perfectly square or rectangular pastures, hard ground, and not much wildlife migration, then yes, this fencing is a good option. It is certainly way better for safety than high tensile steel wire. And for withstanding falling trees, you just can’t beat it!
I don’t like the fact that it is a plastic product – if I could ban plastics from the planet I would – so for me and my situation, there are not enough benefits to make up for the plastic pollution aspect.
I hope that round-up of fencing options has been helpful for you. I only use electric fencing when there’s no other option, or it’s only temporary, like when I’m regenerating pasture for a few months, so I haven’t gone into that option here. I don’t feel I have enough information on the effects of enclosed electrical loops on animals to make a choice about electric fencing as an option, or not. I don’t know how the currents travel through the air or through the ground. I do know (after having an engineer come and test my house) that it’s much healthier for me to unplug everything in my bedroom at night before sleep. But I haven’t seen any information on how electric fencing affects an animal’s electromagnetic field. If you know or have any links to data, please post them below!
Originally published May 2016, updated March 2021