Don‘t let fencing for equine facilities become an afterthought
“Horses are outdoor animals,” says Debbie Disbrow, president of RAMM Fence & Stalls, Bryan, Ohio. “So horses will spend about 50 to 100 percent of their time out among your fences. That’s why it always surprises me that, in building a horse barn, fencing is often an afterthought.”
That’s a mistake, Disbrow believes, because even the simple question of “What are fences for?” requires some thinking. “You have to remember that horses are large animals,” she advises, “and so the first thing you want is a safe alternative to traditional fencing. Horses are so powerful that traditional fencing , like split rails, board-and-post, rough-sawn lumber, and oak plank , isn’t safe. And traditional fencing requires a lot of maintenance and painting, which can be costly and time-consuming.”
Fences must not only keep horses safely in, but keep intruders out. If predators, deer, or loose cattle enter a horse pasture, horses can become skittish and get hurt. “And if a child gets into a pasture,” Disbrow warns, “that can really be a dangerous situation.”
Safety also demands that barn owners consider whether horses might be impaled by a fencepost, lacerated by a sharp edge or protrusion, chew on and ingest fence material, get a leg stuck in the gap between fence sections, or get their heads stuck in the space between fence rails.
“Only after you’ve resolved the safety issues,” says Disbrow, “do you think about the aesthetics of your fences.”
According to Disbrow, the standard height for horse fencing is at least 4-1/2 feet, “and if you go much higher then you’ll need more rails.” That’s because the space between fence rails should be no more 9 to 11 inches, to prevent horses from sticking their heads between the rails and becoming trapped.
“As for the bottom rail,” Disbrow adds, “some owners like them near the ground and others want enough space for mowing. But 12 to 18 inches is about the maximum height for the bottom rail to be off the ground.” She urges horse owners to attach fence rails to posts so that the rails are on the inside of the pasture. “That way, if a horse pushes against the rails, then the rails will have more strength,” she notes. Putting fence rails on the outside of the posts may be more aesthetically pleasing to some people, but the rails will be more likely to yield to force.
Fence posts are usually spaced at intervals of 8, 10, or 12 feet, says Disbrow. Posts are typically dug or pounded down to 2-1/2 to 3 feet, she adds, though greater depth may be needed for extra-tall fences or if soil conditions or frost penetration requires it. “But for corner posts and end posts,” she advises, “you need a post that’s at least 9 feet in length.” Thus, with a 4-1/2-foot-high fence, half of the end or corner post would be in the ground.
RAMM sells a variety of fencing products including flexible polyethylene fencing; coated wire; V-mesh and non-climb wire mesh; electric wire and tape; and rigid PVC vinyl fences.
Continuous fencing, suggests Disbrow, eliminates the small gaps found in the chinks between sectional paneled fencing. In areas subject to high winds, however, wire fencing may need to be stretched somewhat taut to resist wind damage.
Disbrow points out one final reason for horse barn owners to install a safe fence. “Baby boomers are now at the age where they want to enjoy life at home,” she says, “and so many of them are bringing their horses home, too. But if you’re bringing horses off the farm and into the neighborhood, that presents some liability issues. Horses weigh about 1,100 or 1,200 pounds and they run with great force. So you don’t want your horses to get loose inside your development, hurt somebody or their property, and you end up getting sued.”
Safety, aesthetics, cost
Horse owners also should check their neighborhood building covenants for any restrictions on fences, suggests Doug Jacks, vice president of sales and marketing for Hutchison Inc. “Fence height, for example, is something that comes under a lot of covenants,” he notes. Hutchison manufactures a variety of horse and livestock fencing, and Jacks is based at the company’s Hutchison Western division in Adams City, Colo.
While aesthetics and affordability are fencing considerations, Jacks says, “first you have to make sure your fence can keep horses in and keep other animals out.” He says Hutchison’s top-selling fence is V-mesh, which is constructed by continuously interweaving vertical wires with horizontal cable to produce a dense barrier that prevents hoof and leg damage and keeps out predators.
V-mesh is favored by many higher-end horse barn owners, Jacks reports, as is “non-climb” wire mesh. The latter is designed to provide a strong but narrow 2×4-inch mesh pattern that prevents horse hoofs from gaining enough traction to step on and pull down the fence.
“But the backyard riders typically go for tubular metal corral panels,” Jacks adds, “since the panels come in different colors, fit a low budget, and aren’t permanent so you can take the panels along if you move.” For safety reasons, he explains, corral panels should be rounded at the corners, while the gaps between panels should be small enough “so that you don’t have a young colt get a leg stuck in the opening.” He agrees that vertical posts must be horse-proofed and fencing material should be attached to the inside of the fence posts.
Though Jacks stays current with both the high-end horse barn market and the needs of weekend hobbyists, “I don’t see too many wooden fences anymore, unless the pasture acreage is really big.”
At Innovative Equine Systems of Minden, Nev., owner Dennis Marion believes the three priorities in horse fencing are safety, aesthetics, and cost. Safety comes first, he advises, “because in choosing a fence you have to consider the behavior and size of the animals, the size of the pasture, and whether you’re doing any breeding.”
Marion generally classifies horse fencing as either rail or wire fencing. Rail fencing can employ rails fabricated either from wood, rigid PVC vinyl, high-tensile polymers, high-density polyethylene (HDPE), or plastic-covered wood. For wire fencing the main choices are V-mesh or non-climb wire mesh. Marion’s company offers HDPE fencing products and recommends that horse owners be wary of PVC products that may shatter at below-freezing temperatures.
“Fencing seems to be the last thing on the list in a horse barn project,” Marion affirms, “but that’s because, as humans, we see things from our own perspective. It’s people who want to have a nice barn. But the horses only need to be inside when they’re sick. Otherwise, horses like to be outside and should be outside.”
Operations manager Brian Bosworth of Kiwi Fence Systems, Waynesburg, Pa., confirms that “horse owners often think first about the look of a fence.” For that reason, he says, board fencing continues to be popular among hobbyists with one or two horses. Customers more concerned about cost may favor electric tape and poly-coated wire. “But fencing is still the last item people have on their list,” he states.
Kiwi does not sell board fencing but instead offers high-tensile polymer rail fencing and polyvinyl coated-wire electric fencing. For his part, Bosworth draws a distinction between permanent and temporary fencing. “We sell a lot of temporary fencing,” he reports, and notes his company’s 4-inch-wide polymer rail fencing “costs about the same as traditional fences, while you can run an electric fence charger for only about $1 or $2 a month.” The 4-inch width also provides good visibility for horses, which are poor-sighted animals.
The distinction between permanent and temporary fencing is also helpful for installing a fence. “With temporary fences,” Bosworth explains, “you can use a steel T-post or fiberglass post that only needs to be hammered into the ground, since these posts can handle the weight of wire and plastic fencing. But for permanent wood fences you have to dig a hole, and then either tamp or concrete the post into the ground.”
But no matter what type of f ence an owner chooses, Bosworth believes, “before sending a horse into any fenced-in area you need to train the horse to the fence. Don’t turn a horse loose into an unfamiliar or a newly fenced field or paddock, without first leading or riding the horse around the inside perimeter and actually showing the fence to the horse.” For the first time, this should be done in daylight. Then, before letting a horse out at night, Bosworth advises horse owners to repeat the training process.
At Central Montana Panels of Lewiston, Mont., consultant Bill Boyce is a proponent for tubular steel fence panels. “It’s the most cost-effective way to get a durable, custom-fabricated equine fence,” he contends. Steel tubing comes in light, medium, and heavy duty gauges, while panels come in continuous 24-foot sections “so that you don’t have any joints.” Numerous colors and even wood accents are offered to enhance aesthetics.
Heavy-duty panels are primarily for keeping cattle. But the ability to customize equine fencing for light and medium duty, Boyce suggests, is helpful in getting the most cost-effective solution for “low-pressure” locations such as perimeter fences and “high-pressure” areas such as horse runs. Central Montana Panels also performs installation and recommends that support posts for its tubular steel fences be dug 2 to 3 feet deep, with the bottom two-thirds of the hole cemented in.
As Boyce sees it, wooden fences are subject to rotting and plastic fencing material begins to look old once it weathers. “And with the price of petroleum becoming so high,” he adds, “the cost of plastic fences is going up.”
Learning the facts about fencing is important not only for horse owners but also for rural builders who want the option of offering their barn customers a turnkey project. Debbie Disbrow of RAMM Fence estimates that 70 to 80 percent of owners install fences themselves “because people who own barns often have tractors and can use an auger for the posts.” The remaining 20 to 30 percent of owners, she says, have their fences installed by specialist fence companies.
“But I think there’s a market of horse barn customers who are happier when they can deal with fewer contractors,” Disbrow suggests. “So I think barn builders could have an opportunity to also sell and install fencing. Builders have a lot of the needed equipment already, and I think builders would be amazed at how easy fencing is to install , especially since the technique is basically the same for all projects. And fencing pays pretty well.”
Hutchison’s Doug Jacks agrees that “at least 80 percent of the time, fencing has nothing to do with the barn builder,” since most owners do the work themselves or hire a fencing company. Then, too, he believes that rural builders “often think it’s more profitable for them to finish one horse barn and then move onto the next horse barn, rather than deal with the fencing.” Some builders might also be put off from installing fences, he adds, by the need to acquire such equipment as hydraulic pounders, portable welders, wire stretchers, and a generator.
“If you want to offer your horse barn customers a turnkey job,” Jacks recommends, “one viable strategy is to subcontract the work to a fencing contractor. In a lot of rural areas there are well-known barn builders and well-known fencing contractors, and the two specialties respect each other.”
However, Jacks suggests that barn builders and fencing contractors can profitably work together. “As a builder, you check around for names of fencing companies,” he explains, “and then you refer business back and forth to each other. If you have a barn customer, you can let them know who does a good job on fencing. And the fencing contractors can tell their clients that your company can build a quality barn.”
Kiwi Fence System’s Bosworth is also less sanguine about the potential for rural builders to install horse fencing. “You have to install a lot of fences to make any money,” he counsels, “and you need certain kinds of equipment, like post drivers, which can be expensive. Doing fences is hard work, and so builders may feel their time is better spent by moving on and building another barn. I think that’s why we sell most of our products to fencing contractors.”
For his part, Dennis Marion of Innovative Equine Systems believes that providing a turnkey facility need not be a daunting task. Rural builders can come to companies such as Innovative Equine as their single supply source for every aspect of a barn project. “On our end, we might deal with as many as 20 sources for all the different products,” he notes, “but on your end, you only have to deal with us for all your supplies.”
Admittedly, Marion reports, “If builders deal at all with fencing, most of them sub it out to fencing companies.” But though rural builders typically “don’t want to deal with fencing,” he says that a lot of barn owners want a builder who can handle everything, including the stalls and fencing. You can add value to your clients by providing them single-source responsibility on their barn projects.” More specifically, Marion tells builders not to dismiss fencing. “There’s a lot of money in it,” he believes, “and you can profit by offering the service.”