A few months ago I got an email from Beth Carlson of Bath, Maine. Her email inspired me to write this article. She and a student of hers had been barn shopping and saw some beautiful facilities, but were surprised by inadequate fencing on some of the farms visited. Beth wrote: “Accidents waiting to happen, I’m sure. I’ve known of barn owners that would spend money on cross country jumps, etc. while their fencing was in terrible condition. Boarding stables need to know well educated horse people will not board at their facility when they see these scary situations. The sad thing is, I think many potential boarders are afraid of hurting the barn owner’s feelings so walk off without offering some constructive criticism in a kind way.”
I totally agree with Beth. Good fencing keeps horses safe. It should contain them and never be a source of injury. The first job of our fences is to keep animals confined so that they don’t wander off. My suggestion is to walk your fence line every spring before pasture turn out. Tug on every post. Replace the rotten ones. Make sure that the boards are secure and will take the weight of a horse leaning into them. The rails should be fastened on the horse side of the posts. Not as pleasing to the eye as rails on the outside, but they won’t pop out if leaned on. Electric fences are a real advance in fencing. You can fence a field almost as fast as you can walk. We forget that electric fences also need maintenance. Electric fencing without a charge running through it is really no fence at all. In every herd of horses there is one who will test the fence every so often. If he finds it dead, he will push against it to get to that green grass on the other side. Most electric fence posts are no contest for a hungry horse. Weed whack regularly to keep the wire clear and use a fence tester to make sure that your electric fence is delivering adequate charge. My suggestion is to turn off the fence once a week before you let the horses out and walk the line, straightening things out as you go. Then, most importantly, turn it back on again.
The second important aspect of our fences is that they not cause injuries. The biggest offender is barb wire. It has no place on horse farms. Horses tend to panic when trapped, and your vet can probably tell you what a mess barbed wire can make of a horse that gets tangled in it.
I sometimes run into situations where people use fencing that I can only describe as ornamental. The most striking example of this for me happened over 20 years ago. The call was from a client named Chet who asked me to drop everything and get over to his farm.
“Better get over here, Doc, there’s a board sticking out of my old mare!” I asked him where the board was sticking out from and if he had tried to pull it out. I knew Chet as an excitable guy and was thinking that the “board” was probably just a stick.
“It’s coming out of her chest, and nope, I ain’t pulling on it. It’s a 2×4! If I pull it, I’m afraid she’s gonna bleed to death. Just get over here!” The drive to Chet’s farm normally takes 15 minutes. I was there in 10. When I drove up I saw Chet and some of the neighborhood folks in the paddock next to the barn. They were in a circle around the old mare. Her head was head down, and she was standing very still. The crowd parted when I walked up. This was long before cell phone cameras, and I remember wishing I had a camera in the truck because I was sure no one would believe what I was seeing.
There was a two foot length of 2×4 that did look like it was coming out of her chest. When I got closer, I could see that it was actually sticking out from that space between the shoulder blade and the chest. I walked around to her side and saw the other end of the board coming out from the behind the shoulder blade and lying along the outside of the rib cage. This meant that there was about 18 inches of a 2×4 buried in the mare’s muscle between ribs and shoulder. To complicate things, the front end of the board coming out from the mare had a few big nails sticking out of it. I had never run into anything even approaching this much trauma with a horse that was still on its feet. I had to fight the growing panic that arose because I had absolutely no idea what to do about this. I forced myself to think about what had to be done and how to prepare for each step. I grabbed everything I thought we might need from my truck and talked the situation over with everyone present. They were all eager to help.
I gave the mare a strong IV tranquillizer. Within 2 minutes her head dropped, and she got wobbly. We tried pulling the board out from in front, but it was stuck fast, and she got uneasy. Next best was to pull the board from the back of the shoulder, but we had to get rid of the nails sticking out in front first so that they wouldn’t tear through the heavy muscles as the board passed through. Chet got a hammer and used the claw end to pull on the nails, but even tranquilized the mare felt every move. It was obvious that we had to put the mare completely out I gave her an IV general anesthetic, and with everyone’s help we laid the horse down gently so that the 2×4 was on the up side. I knew that we had at most 20 minutes to get rid of that board. It still seemed to make sense to push the board from the front to the back, the way it went in, but we still had those nails to contend with. Chet tried to pull the nails again, but they were badly bent, and he couldn’t get a strong pull on them without severely twisting the 2×4.
Someone suggested a skill saw to cut off the front end of the board to get rid of the nails. Chet ran an extension cord from the barn, plugged in his skill saw, and whacked off the first 6 inches of the board. I had two of the neighbors pull straight up on the leg to ease the weight of the leg on the board. One man pulled the board from the back as another pushed from the front, and it slowly slid out! I was able to get my hand into the gaping wound from both the front and the back behind the shoulder blade to check for splinters and possible broken ribs. It was clean as a whistle. I flushed the gaping wound, gave the horse antibiotics, some IV bute, a tetanus shot and said a quick prayer.
After the horse was back on her feet, I asked Chet show me how the mare had managed to impale herself on that board. At the side of the barn was a steep wooden ramp that ran from the barn down to the paddock. Chet had made a railing along the side of the ramp by nailing two 2×4’s as uprights to the side of the ramp. Another five foot long 2×4 was nailed alongside their tops to serve as a hand rail. That afternoon Chet had been sitting on his back porch when heard a commotion in the barn, some horses squealing, and then the thunder of horses tearing down the wooden ramp. There was a brief silence, then crashing and the sound of wood splintering. We figured that one of the horses had run out the door at an odd angle and crashed into Chet’s railing, snapping off one end. The mare must have followed, and she ran run into the broken end at full speed, driving the 2×4 into her body between the shoulder and the ribs. In her struggle to get free she broke off the railing supports, leaving those nails at the front end of the board. Chet had put together the assembly for people going up or down that steep ramp, but it was definitely not horse proof.
Lesson learned: expect interaction between horses and anticipate all the things that can happen. Anything you build with wood has to be able to withstand the weight of a horse slamming into it. Use big dimension solid lumber that is firmly secured. Power driven screws are stronger than nails, and bolts trump screws. The episode had a happy ending as amazingly, the old mare never went off feed and stayed sound.
Several years ago I was called to remove what was left of the right eye in a quarter horse gelding. His owner actually saw this accident happen. The horse was playing with another one in the pasture, running back and forth at a full tilt. At one point they were running near the fence line. The gelding got very close to it, perhaps felt trapped, went up on his hind legs and came down full force with head sort of sideways like goats at play will do. He slipped and dove right into the top end of a steel T post with his left eye. I have seen T posts that have not been maintained lean into pastures leaving the raw steel end to penetrate legs or bodies. T posts have a history of trauma to livestock which is why plastic shields are made to place over that dangerous top end. If you use T posts, buy an equal number of shields, and when the posts have been pounded in, jam those shields on top. Old tennis balls can also be used to cap them. T posts without the top shielded are dangerous.
Have you ever seen a spring gate? It is a large diameter spring that looks like a long slinky. It connects on either end to the electric fence and is made to stretch out across gate ways that may be 12 to 15 feet wide. When hooked over the wire at both ends it carries the same charge as the electric fence. They had always seemed handy to me as an easy gate…until I had a run in with one. I was helping a client catch her horses to bring into the barn for vaccinations. She led her mare and I had the 17 hand 3 year old mostly unbroken gelding. Mary unhooked one end of the spring gate and as she and the mare passed through she handed me the insulated handle. I held the handle with one hand and guided the colt through the opening by pulling on his lead. After he passed through I hooked the handle back onto the fence, completing the electric circuit. The spring gate was now carrying a full charge. Can you see where this is going?
As I turned to walk the colt to the barn, he backed into the gate, got a shock and went airborne. I was trying to control him when his long tail got caught in the coils of the spring gate. In trying to free his tail his butt touched the spring and he received a second shock and took off at a gallop. His shoulder knocked me down and I was dragged a few feet before I had the sense to let go of his lead. Off he went, and one end of the spring gate disconnected. The coil quickly stretched out to make a nearly straight wire which allowed the release of his tail. What a cluster! I have not been a fan of spring gates since. I saw one in a catalogue made of bungee cord that must have wire woven into it to carry the juice. Sounds like a better option than the coils, but I’ll take a well-constructed steel, aluminum or wooden gate any day.
You can anticipate that whatever kind of fence or gate you use will be leaned on, scratched against, run into, legs stuck under, and sometimes successfully, sometimes not, leaped over. Anticipate all of the crazy things that horses do, and plan or improve your fencing accordingly.
–David A. Jefferson, DVM