In which Becky needs to know about fencing and I share what I've learned

Becky is getting closer to the dream of having her horse in the backyard.
So, here ya go:  

Aarene's Guide to Fencing Horses in a Swamp

I'll start with some universals about fencing:
  • The best fence contains everything a horse wants for happiness: food, friends, and safety.

Story was frequently confined in ridecamps by a non-electrified "electric" string fence.  Inside the fence was enough room to turn around, plenty of food and water, and her best buddy in the immediately adjacent "pen."  We used to joke that Story could easily be confined by a pen made of masking tape.  She was a very content mare.

Story (not Fiddle!):  a content mare

  • Terrible fences might effectively contain a horse for years if the horses isn't interested in leaving.  If the fence encircles everything the horse wants, he will have no wish to leave.

Blaze was more inclined to lean on fences and escape...but if we penned him between Story and Cabbie in camp, with a big bucket of clean water and a huge heap of hay inside his pen with him, he didn't even look around to see what was on the other side of the "fence."  His friends were nearby and there was plenty of food.  

L-to-R: Blaze, Story, Cabby (and some girls I love)
True Friends 4-Evah
  • Awesome fences may not ever safely contain a horse who is VERY INTENT ON LEAVING.
I used to keep Story in a pasture with a mare called Beware.  They stayed in there, perfectly content together.  But if I removed Story, I had to take Beware also.  Otherwise she would break down the fence, even if she broke her legs in the process.  She was that herdbound.

  • Small enclosures need strong fences.  Very large enclosures can get by with wimpier fencing.
Horses have very empty social calendars, and they will explore the spaces where they are confined.  If you keep 10 horses on 40 acres, they stay busy running around.  If you keep a horse in a small space, he will nibble posts, lean on gates, and fling feed pans at cross beams.  Therefore, it's important to make a stronger fence around a smaller space.

This pasture is about 4 acres and contains 1 horse and 2 goats, which is lots of room for a small population. 

So, let's look at specific fences.  Some might work really well in some climates, and suck in others.  
Some fences that are really practical here in the Swamp might not be workable for our friends in Arizona or Colorado.    I invite readers who live outside of the Swamp to comment on your preferred fencing--what works for you, and why, and also what does NOT work for you.

Here's what I have:

Capped t-posts spaced about 8 feet apart, strung with mesh field fence wire and topped with a hot wire.
We used to have have a middle and lower hot wire, but they are unnecessary.

T-posts can be pounded in by a single person.  Stringing the mesh is easiest with two people, but they don't have to be big people.

The mesh keeps dogs (my dogs and neighbor dogs) out of the pasture, and (mostly) keeps goats in it.

Reinforced corners made from railroad ties and braced with boards and tension wires
These posts are HEAVY, and require a lot of brute strength to put in place.  

The creosote on railroad ties makes these posts extremely long-lived in our Swampish environment (they will probably be standing when I die of old age), but the coating is toxic.  No good if you have (or ever will have) orally-fixated animals who will chew.

Here are some photos I took of neighboring fences.  Some are sturdy and useful.  Others...not so much.

untreated wood post, woven wire, hot wire

The fence (above) has been in place for at least 30 years, with bits and pieces replaced as they rot, fall apart, or come loose.  The pasture is more than 10 acres, and the horses have no reason to hang out at this spot--the hot wire keeps them from leaning on it, and the grass in this corner was eaten away years ago.   If the enclosure were smaller, or if this post was near a gate where food is served, they would have pushed it over.

no climb woven wire, board on top to keep it from sagging, and a hot wire to keep horses from leaning

This fence (above) is a higher traffic area in the same pasture as the 30 year old post.  Notice that the posts are newer, and the woven wire is supported by a board.  No-climb mesh has smaller holes than field fencing, and is more expensive; it is considered safer because it's unlikely that a hoof could get stuck in the mesh.  No-climb is a good choice for foals who stick their noses and feet in everything.

Wide web electric tape, 3 strands

The wide-web electric tape (above) is significantly longer-lived than the narrow stuff and packs a powerful electric punch if you run into it (ask me how I know).  The tape does turn green from moss, and it would be a colossal pain to power wash it clean again, so if the "clean white fence" look is important, don't choose this.

Wide web is an excellent choice for cross-fencing or perimeter fencing big spaces away from roads, unless your place loses power frequently AND you have a horse who "tests" the electric fence to see if it's on.  In that situation, combine wide web electric with less-ephemeral fencing like woven mesh.

Wooden gates, unsupported posts

These gates (above) don't lead anywhere interesting, so the horses don't bother them.  Not a good choice for small acreage where boredom will lead to leaning.

Nice post...but not reinforced, and starting to tip. This is only 2 or 3 years old.  

The lean in the gatepost (above) will increase until the post uproots.  BTW, there are no animals in this pasture--the post is tipping over only because of the weight of the gate.

Wood board fence.  Electric wire, uncapped t-posts as cross fence.
On the fence above, you can see that the boards are attached backwards, that is, on the road side of the fence, rather than the horse side.  If you are concerned about the road jumping into the pasture, this would be correct, but I'd rather keep the horse from jumping through.

Put the boards on the inside, please, and point the sharp ends of the nails or screws away from your pony.

Uncapped t-posts are an unnecessary hazard.  You only need to see one t-post impalement injury to shy away from those suckers for life.  The caps are cheap and easy to install.  There are places to skimp.  This isn't that place.

Uncapped t-posts and welded cattle panels, with treated wood posts.

Welded cattle panels are super-strong and will never "wilt" the way woven wire eventually does.  They are more expensive than woven wire, but also sturdier.  I believe the fence (above) was originally made to contain goats.

Beautiful, spendy fence.  Note that the vinyl cross boards are turning green--you can clean them with a power sprayer...
because everybody wants to power spray their fences every year to keep them looking pretty?

The property (above) is about 2 acres with two horses on it.  Notice that there is not one single green leaf in the enclosure.  The ground is frozen now; under normal circumstances, these horses would be at least fetlock deep in mud, and the mud will not stop.  Ever.

It will not dry out until July.  It will not sprout grass until the horses are removed, the soil is tilled up, and grass seed is planted.  After that, it will take about 3-6 months of undisturbed growth for the root systems to grow strong enough for horses to walk on.

Seriously: overgrazing is really a thing here.

Decorative wood board fence (boards on the road side again) covered in lichen.  This fence is about 5 years old.
Several nearby cross beams have been recently replaced.

Board fences will break when a horse hits them, usually without causing injury.  Of course, it's best to avoid a situation where a horse can safely escape a fence and end up in traffic instead.

Vinyl fence with mesh inside.  These people keep alpacas.

Uncapped t-post with 3 strands of barbed wire.  This fence is for cows.

Metal panels attached to railroad ties.  Originally built to contain buffalo, the pasture now houses beef cattle.

Three strands of hot wire, capped t-posts with unreinforced corners

The fence (above) works to contain horses because the three horses who live there are happy.  They have food, they have shelter, they have each other.  Otherwise, they could knock this fence down and be out on the road in a heartbeat.

untreated wood posts, with uncapped t-posts and mesh wire nailed to it

Sometimes, you work with what you've got.  I wish the fence (above) had capped t-posts, but otherwise, it's pretty safe.  Those wood posts will eventually rot away, but they add support and strength for now.

Railroad tie posts with vinyl cross boards, and a hot wire strand inside on top.  Pretty and sturdy.
I think this guy mows his pasture with manicure scissors,  it's always immaculate.

The crossbeams on the fence (above) are flexible, rather than "board like."  This is safer if your horse kicks boards or throws himself on the fence. Inflexible boards can shatter when they are aged, especially in cold weather.

Uncapped t-posts and barbed wire.  Notice the vertical wire "struts" to keep the cross wires from sagging.
This is an excellent fence for cows, but not for horses.

I once boarded with a Morgan mare who had run through barbed wire.  The scar tissue in her chest, more than 20 years after the original injury, felt knotted and torn just like the barbed wire that had ripped into it.  Don't fence your horse with barbed wire, please!

Barbed wire with hot wire inside.  

Or, if you must fence with barbed wire (really never a good choice, but sometimes we must make do) please use hot wire to keep the horses away from the spikes.  

The book Horsekeeping on a Small Property by Cherry Hill is a valuable resource for building an equestrian property.  I don't usually recommend buying books (except mine, obviously) but this title is one you will consult frequently.  Go ahead and pony up $20 or so to own it.

Okay, everyone, what have I missed or got wrong for your climate?  Let's get your comments rolling in the box below!


  1. I have to admit, part of my hesitance about using t-posts are the sheer number of horse injuries I've seen and/or treated for punctures or impalement. One sturdy little Mustang died after gutting himself (admittedly on uncapped t-posts, but still). Are the caps really that effective at preventing injury - and let's face it, horses LOVE to get injured?

    PS: As this is the internet, I feel I must ward off comments by saying I did not own (nor was I responsible for ) any of the horses who were injured.

    1. Our caps never come off - except after a windstorm the tree branches got under the wire and whipped a cap off but I found it the next morning. I think what Aarene said was right on about the space you have - the smaller the space the bigger the risk of fence injury - and I regret putting t posts in our paddock area because it's simply too small and the one time Mag rolled there, he cut his leg on the tpost.

      I love Aarene's "How not to build your fence" (get it?) photos!!! Especially the sagging post that is failing to hold the gate up. Don't they have galvanized steel gate posts in America that you can put in concrete? We have no no-climb fence here, none whatsoever. This region has the world's ugliest horse fences. Even the fanciest barns have appalling fencing.

  2. Excellent, love the pictures. I agree completely with the need to cap T posts, we have some that are capped to protect children ;) But at the barn I used to board at they had to take the tractor and loader out to lift a horse off of a wood post it had managed to impale itself on. Large pasture, plenty of room, only wanted to point out that if a horse wants to get hurt it will.
    Put the time and money into good corners, make sure they are lined up straight with the next corner in line. The importance of that can't be over stated. Good luck!

  3. We started with woven wire "field fence," topped with a strand of electric rope/tape for our perimeter and cross-fencing, and 2X4 "horse-safe"/"non-climb" for all our paddocks. But we have been replacing all 12 acres of the field fence with the "non-climb"--partly because too many babies got in trouble in the field fence (though one also managed to get a foot through the non-climb stuff), and partly because even adults will get in trouble if they're on opposite sides (Kate!). Our paddock and corner posts are 6X6 treated (not RR ties) and the rest of the posts are capped Ts. Some horses will never lean over the fence, even if the hot wire is off. Others will constantly test it. The top rail helps in the paddocks, but can't do that with Tposts, so the pastures suffer some due to currently undetected shorts in the hot wire!

  4. Nice write up & great pictures. In Colorado, I used a combination of post & wood fencing, PVC, panels (for shelter runs), and post & wire in the larger areas (over 3 acres). Agree with capping the t-posts. Yes, Becky - it does help, but you have to watch for "mouthy" horses thinking they are a plaything and itchy horses rubbing on them and knocking them off. You should walk your fence lines often and take care of problems immediately. I have Cherry Hill's book - it is a good resource. I only used electric fence tape when I had a mare that liked chewing on the wood rails. It was effective for that.

  5. I have t-posts with 1inch hot tape. I hate the tape. High winds stretch it, so it's always sagging. When it stretches, it breaks the wires, so even with my bison strength fencer it isn't nearly as stout as it should be. It does break fairly easy though, so when my 6 year old destructive inmate decides to go to the neighbors, she doesn't hurt herself. Unless she slips and slides under it and pulls muscles that way. The hot tape was a good idea, and it does keep the deer from destroying the fence daily, but it doesn't hold up well at all.

  6. What Skittle said - we have 6mm electric rope and in a wet snow it gets heavy enough to sag a little, but when the snow falls off it bounces back. However the plastic step-in posts we use to divide the pasture are not strong enough in a heavy snow to stay upright, and the 2 strands of rope can bend the posts to the ground! I don't think you have quite that much snow though!

  7. Excellent, comprehensive article!


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