Farming Magazine - December, 2011


Working Horses: Fencing, Forage and a Friend

By Vicki Schmidt

Modern-day horse keeping has hundreds of options. There are differences between draft horses and light horses that need attention, but in all reality, think about keeping it simple. Everything builds on a foundation of support, and caring for your horse is no different. Concentrate on three key elements of fencing, forage and a friend, and whether a light or draft, you'll begin that good foundation of support toward a safe, healthy home for your equine companion.

To reinforce good forage habits, take the time to spread flakes of hay over a wide area, which will encourage your horse to move about.
Photos by Vicki Schmidt.

Fencing itself can make a horse owner dizzy with all of the options. Choices range from wood, plastic, vinyl or fiberglass boards to metal wire or woven tapes and ropes on posts of wood, metal or fiberglass. The cost of fencing is also as varied as the choices, with prices ranging from a low of about 75 cents per foot for a single strand of electric rope or wire, to over $5 and up per foot for board or composite rail fencing. But one fact remains, good fencing not only makes good neighbors, it makes for safe horse keeping. Most horses respect efficient boundaries, and wood boards with an electric guard wire or quality electric fencing is the choice of most horse owners.

If you choose wire fencing, make sure it is highly visible to a horse. Their combination of monocular and binocular vision and both long and short-range vision makes their eyesight very different from ours. The popular wide tape and vinyl is easily seen from a distance by both horse and humans. Routine perimeter checks are also swift and accurate with this type of fencing. High-tensile and barbwire are high-risk fencing options for horses. Avoid these at all costs, as a horse tangled in high-tensile or barbwire is subject to extreme injury and probable death.

The ideal fence for your draft will efficiently and safely communicate his spatial boundaries. This is his home and where he will feel most safe. In the best of a horse's world, good fencing also holds good forage and at least one good friend. Nature designed horses as gregarious creatures; their natural instinct is to be part of a herd and have companionship. Due to domestication, many horses live very happily as the lone horse in a "one-horse family," but only when the family is dedicated to being part of their horse's herd. This is not unusual, as horses bond on a different level than most humans can identify with. Humans, a friendly dog, goat and even a chicken can all be part of a horses "herd."

Poplar branches provide important nutrients and fiber and, like most things, are best enjoyed with a friend.

A horse's grazing factor is something to pay attention to as well. In the wild, horses walk and graze for the majority of the day. As a general rule, horses are mostly grazers, and to a smaller extent browsers, so a foraging horse is a happy horse. Adequate foraging reduces boredom and makes for a happy, contented and healthy horse.

Smaller acreages often suffer from grazing fatigue in no time at all. The foraging needs of the average draft will quickly turn most small areas into compacted dirt and a few undesirable weeds. If at all possible, to help reduce grazing pressure on small grassy areas, utilize rotational grazing or supplement your draft with hay in a smaller paddock for a portion of the day.

While we all know expert horse keeping goes a bit beyond fencing, forage and a friend, good attention to these three elements builds a foundation on which you and your horse can flourish. Here are a few more fun factors regarding your horse's needs for good fencing, forage and a friend.

  • Routine perimeter checks

The visual following of the outline of your fencing should become automatic every time you view a pasture. If practiced, this activity will become a core behavior, and one day you'll realize you do these checks without realizing it a dozen times a day. A good complement to perimeter scans of your fence lines is noting that all horses are "on all fours." Many a near disaster has been prevented by conscientious farm owners making routine visual checks of their fences and horses.

  • A variety of forage

There is no one forage type that's best for all horses all the time. Horses enjoy the occasional twig and bark browse as well as lush timothy and clover. Your Farm Service agency or local extension service can best advise foraging types for your region and soils.

  • Patterns with a purpose

Horses are pattern grazers and will often seem to overgraze an area while ignoring tall grass in others. One reason nature designed horses as pattern grazers is because it allows one part of the pasture to always have new growth that is prime with nutrients, while other areas grow and produce a new seed crop. Keeping horses in a fenced area often destroys nature's ability to keep an area from being overgrazed and from producing good forage.

  • Foraging with a friend

Spread out flakes of hay if feeding outside as it encourages your horse to move about and mimics their natural need to forage. Alfalfa cubes or sunflower seeds scattered on clean ground or snow also provides a foraging treat for horses, especially during the winter.

  • Poplar browse

The bark on polar tree logs, branches and twigs are a browsing favorite of livestock and especially horses. A whole tree hauled into a pasture provides hours of nutritional occupation - reducing browse and its fiber content works to keep your horse healthy and warm.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manger of Troika Drafts in Hebron, Maine. The farm harvests an average of 86 tons of hay a year.