In 1914, Robert Frost wrote his famous poem about fences, The Mending Wall. In that poem, he openly questions the adage that “good fences make good neighbours,” suggesting that we often separate ourselves from each other unnecessarily. In the 1970s, the TV show WKRP in Cincinnati said: “We don’t need more walls Les; we need to knock down some of the walls that we already have!” Obviously neither of these two pundits had any livestock – or if they did at some point, their emotional objection to walls and fences allowed them all to wander off.
I’ve spent countless hours of my life building fences. I grew up in dairy farming country, and when those fences are used to separate your cattle from your neighbours’ grain, corn and hay fields, good fences quite literally make good neighbours. Even within a farmer’s own property, the economic loss of a herd of dairy cattle wandering through a crop field is significant. Not to mention what can happen to the digestive systems of cows, when suddenly they get a belly full of nothing but green corn or too much straight alfalfa.
Equine digestion is considerably more delicate, and for some unknown reason, horses seem to like to congregate on busy roads whenever they manage to break through a fence. The bottom line is that for those of us who keep livestock, fences are not a poetic symbol of how humans separate themselves from one another, they are a functional and necessary part of keeping our animals safe and off of our neighbours’ property.
According to my friends in the real estate business, good fences are not just an investment in your horse’s safety, or your relationship with the soybean grower next door, they have a measurable impact on the value of your property. People are willing to pay more for a property with good fences, and will offer less for a property where investment in fence repair will be necessary. A commercial enterprise with a fancy sign, a well-designed logo and excellent staff can easily be undermined by poor fences. Everyone knows that horses have an uncanny ability to injure themselves, and when horse folk are looking for a new home for their companions (whether renting, boarding or buying), fences are the #1 thing that they take note of. My father always said “fences are a public demonstration of how you operate your private business.”
Because of my dairy farming roots, I’m a big fan of woven wire (also known as page wire) fences. They’re relatively inexpensive, last a long time and have very little ongoing maintenance. However, this type of fencing is not often recommended for horses, as the spacing between the wires is too large and a horse could get a leg caught up. A good, similar, alternative for horses is 2×4 mesh wire.
Board fences look awesome, but require constant maintenance. We seldom use them for cattle, because cattle will lean on the boards (because the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence) until they break. If you have heavy horses, who have a similar tendency to stretch their necks well into the next paddock, you’ll have the same problem, and end up having to run an electric wire as well, to protect the fence from the thing it’s supposed to be hemming in.
The type of wood is critical to a board fence’s longevity. Those miles of four panel fences along the interstates in Kentucky are all local oak. As long as you paint them every couple of years, the hardwood will last a very long time, but that’s a very big job. A common mistake is to use softer wood to save money. It’s like buying a cheaper car, appliance or anything else; if it costs half as much, but wears out twice as fast, you’re in the same place, with a whole lot more work. Cedar split rail or pole fencing is a good Canadian option, but it’s very soft (horses tend to eat it like beavers), and many people make the mistake of painting it. Those 200-year-old split rail fences are cedar, and they’ll last for generations – unless you paint them. Unlike hardwoods like oak, cedar will only rot if you DO paint it.
Flex fencing has been on the market for more than 30 years now, and is one of the most attractive and long lasting fences for horses, provided that a little maintenance is completed every year – ten minutes of work and your fence looks brand new again.
Electric fencing has been the norm for most livestock control for a long time now – everything from cattle, to elk, to bison farms have turned to the inexpensive and effective system. When I first married into the world of horses, there was a fair bit of resistance to its use, but more and more it has become the norm here too; especially as new technology has been introduced to make the electric fence look more substantial (read board-like). It doesn’t look as impressive from the road, but it certainly keeps everyone in their own yard. And with periodic maintenance can last upwards of 20 years. It can be used as permanent fencing in four strands with coated electric wire, or various 1.5” to 4” electric tape options are available, which are long-lasting and easy to maintain.
Fences have always been a balance of form and function. Even Robert Frost concedes that a fence is needed “when cows are there.” The function can be accomplished with a simple wire and solar powered zapper. The form can be a truly inspiring work of the stone mason’s art. Everything in between is a balance between these two forces. Each farm owner needs to strike a balance between form, function and, obviously, cost.
Businesses do the same with their buildings. Historically, banks were large impressive structures, so that people felt safe leaving their money there – same with insurance companies and government buildings. Today, people see it as far less important, so you see all these services popping up in strip malls and plazas now. The balance of form vs function. Are you trying to make a public statement about your business, or just keep your horses off the county road?
Whatever statement you are (or are not) trying to make, when it comes to the equine world, good fences certainly DO make good neighbours. And you thought they were just wood and wire!