Horsekeeping: What’s Wrong With This Fence?

Growing up on a Colorado ranch, I learned certain rules. Quite a number of them seemed to be about fences and gates.

  • Never climb over or stand on a gate because your weight will make it “fall” – sag so that it doesn’t swing properly or, in some cases, latch properly.
  • Likewise, don’t leave a gate standing open for the same reason; close and latch it so its own weight doesn’t bend the hinges and create a permanent sag.

Heavy wooden corral gates you have to lift to move and over-stretched wire gates weren’t just an annoyance when I was growing up. Sometimes they were impossible. And there are times when you really need to be able to open or close a gate quickly, generally either to stop cattle getting through or to let only the right cattle through.

In cow country, you often have to pass through gates to get where you’re going, both on your own property and when you’re visiting neighbors. Get out, open the gate, drive through, get out, close the gate. In all kinds of weather. I always identified with the stories of challenging gates in the stories of James Herriot, who memorialized his adversarial relationship with the gates on one farm in particular.

You  learn pretty quickly one very basic rule about gates: If a gate is closed when you get to it, close it behind you. If  it’s open, leave it open.

There is nothing quite as frustrating as spending all morning gathering a bunch of cows out of the brush next to the river and finally getting them headed toward home only to find someone has closed the one gate you need to get through – and that you left open for that very purpose. Especially when it’s one of those tightly stretched barbed-wire gates you have to struggle and strain to open and close.

There you are, with this unruly bunch of cattle – the sneaky, wild ones who hid out successfully when you were clearing out the herd for the day-long drive to summer pasture. Now you have to try to ease up through the bunch, get off your horse, open the gate, remount, ease back around the now-spread-out bunch and herd the  animals through before that one crafty old cow sees a chance to turn and run like a deer back for the cover of the  willow thickets.

Whomever closed that formerly-open gate – little brother on dirt bike being the prime suspect – will get an earful. As will that same little brother when you find out that the back gate to the corral you finally manage drive the cows into (the gate you closed before you went in search of said cows) has been opened in the meantime so the whole bunch runs out into another 200-acre pasture. Hence, the rule.

This is actually a perimeter fence (you can see the electric tape that encloses a pasture a few feet behind this fence), but imagine this fence is actually meant to enclose horses. Then, perhaps, the all-too-common flaw will become apparent.

Gates and fences are equally important focuses for horse people. Ever turned out a horse into a pen, releasing the halter just as you looked up and realized the gate on the other side of the enclosure was wide open? And that your horse had seen the same thing just a split second before you did?

I’m constantly amazed at what people will use for fencing horse enclosures. Horse-shopping clients and I once looked at a young Arab gelding at a backyard “barn” where part of the “fence” around the dry-lot pen was, I kid you not, a bed spring propped up on end.

On the ranch, of course, the fences were all barbed wire – essential to keep the cattle in, but certainly not ideal for horses. I was lucky not to have had any horse badly injured in those fences, though I have doctored many, many superficial wire cuts. I attribute that to the fact that the ranch fences were all very well maintained, a year-round effort. A well-stretched wire fence is much less dangerous than one where the wire is left slack either because it has come unstapled from posts or because the posts have rotted and don’t hold fast.

I have a definite phobia of running horses in pens or pastures fenced with T-posts, even if they’re capped. I’ve just heard one too many stories about horses impaling themselves on those to ever feel comfortable with my horses corralled that way.

But, even when people have obviously chosen safe and appropriate materials to construct horse fencing, there is one maddeningly common construction mistake I see much too often. It’s a matter of good sense and most people, after you point it out, can see the logic and the importance. Can you figure out from the photo what it is?

I’ll give you a hint: Surprisingly, most of the general articles I looked at (and some I linked to above) fail to mention this issue at all. But here’s one that does include this important instruction about how to build a functional fence to enclose horses (or pretty much any animals).

5 thoughts on “Horsekeeping: What’s Wrong With This Fence?

  1. Wow, this article is certainly timely for me….we have continuous fence and have had good luck with it, but from time to time it is tested. This morning I let the dogs out and just happened to decide to stay out with them. Two of my geldings were play/fighting over the fence and I heard a terrifying squeal. One gelding had reared up and when he came down his right front leg because hung up on the second rail (from the top). By the time I got there he was trembling. I actually had to get my husband to get his foot off the fence….my flip flops and bathrobe were not proper attire! He is very sore and will most likely get a trip to the chiro in a few days as I am sure he will be needing it!

    • Hi Kelli,
      Thanks for reminding us that 1) horses will test any fence and 2) even good fences can be implicated in horse injuries. What’s that saying about horses finding a way to hurt themselves even in a padded stall?!

      I’m smiling in sympathy with the image of you in robe and flip-flops out there with your horse. Horse emergencies don’t always wait until we are dressed, do they? Glad your guy didn’t get cut (and that I know you have a good chiro handy to deal with the aftermath.) If you use homeopathic arnica, this is just the kind of trauma that seems to respond well. Also lavender essential oil topically on the sore spots – shoulder, withers?

  2. Well – actually, I see 2 things I don’t like with this fence. . .but the most important thing is that the planks are too close to the ground and too close together. I’ve known more than one horse get cast under just such a fence or get a hoof caught between the planks. I would prefer to see the poles cut off even with the planks, and angled a little to prevent rain rotting the wood and if a horse happens to have a halter on, it won’t get caught up. JMHO.

    • Hi Allana,
      I agree with both of your observations, though I’ll bet the bottom rail does match the low end of the recommended height above the ground, which seems to be 8 inches. (I think the shadows and the way the ground rises just outside the fence at the right side of the pic fool the eye a bit.) If I don’t ever intend to house foals, I’d really prefer 12-18 inches of clearance. And it does look like a foot could just get through the gap between rails, but not get out very cleanly. Adjust those two things and your second point – cutting off the posts – would probably be unnecessary.

      You get two gold stars in our “what’s wrong with this picture” game! But, there’s still one more extremely common “fail” in the construction of this fence.

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