Fencing Injuries and how to prevent them…
This month, Dr Adrian Owen, a member of Equine Dental Vets, talks about the common injuries caused by poorly designed or maintained fencing.
He encourages every horse owner to consider how they can protect their horses from serious, and even fatal, injuries, with a few simple changes, including electrified fencing.
As a horse vet, I see certain types of wounds caused by fences frequently. Horses can certainly injure themselves in even the best designed and most expensive properties. Economics will dictate that not all horses are going to be kept in paddocks of post-and-rail, but thoughtful design of less expensive fencing can go a long way towards minimising injuries.
Although barbed wire is inappropriate for horse paddocks, entanglement in plain wire can also cause severe or life-threatening wounds. In forelegs, the typical wire wound is a heel bulb laceration, where the horse has pawed, caught the leg in a low strand of wire and pulled back. When they get a hindleg caught, typically by kicking at a horse across a fence, they lacerate the front of the cannon area or, less commonly, the front of the hock. The extensor tendon is often lacerated in the process, causing a gait abnormality. I have seen the front of hock joints penetrated in these wounds.
In my opinion, by far the most useful tool for stopping horses impacting fences, and sustaining injuries, is an electric fencing unit. They can be either mains powered or battery (+/- solar) powered. Units are rated for the number of kilometres of fence they can power and it is important to use one appropriately powerful for the size of your property.
If multiple electric strands are used on a fence, this obviously increases the power required. You can have earth wires in the fences or have the ground used for earthing. The fence should be switched on at all times and monitored to make sure it is functioning. Horses do quickly work out that fences are no longer live. Temporary electric fencing using polymer tape or stands does not seem to cause severe wounds, as it breaks when a horse becomes tangled in it. Having said that, it is obviously not appropriate for permanently containing horses.
It is important to note that most fence injuries seem to occur when horses in adjoining paddocks are interacting over a fence. Ideally, laneways should separate paddocks, so that horses cannot socialise over a fence. Failing this, a properly functioning electric fence should be used to keep horses off the fence and apart from each other. Electric strands can either be incorporated into the fence or stand-offs used (preferably on both sides) to keep the horses as far apart as possible. Incorporating electric stands on a pre-existing barbed wire fence will make it safer. Even post-and-rail fencing should ideally have electrics attached for the same reason.
Low wire strands in a fence are a risk. Most legs seem to get caught in the bottom strand of a fence. Except for foals and small ponies, there is no need to have very low stands of wire in a fence. So I suggest either having no low strands of wire, or using wire mesh or netting for at least the lower section of the fence. Mesh has to be of a design that doesn’t have holes in it big enough for a horse to put its foot through. There are several brands of mesh fencing marketed for horses.
Stock mesh used for sheep and goats is not suitable, as the holes in it are too big. Mesh fences still need electric strands to keep horses off them. Also, fences should well maintained and properly strained. Loose wire strands are a risk for entanglement.
Paddock layout should not involve acute corners (less than 90 degrees). If a number of horses share a paddock, a more dominant horse can corner another, who may then attempt to jump out of the corner to escape. I have seen properties set up all with paddocks with curved corners.
Another category of injury seen is wounds caused when either being led or running though gateways. Care should be taken when walking horses through gateways. If the horse is not sufficiently clear of the swinging gate as they walk through, they can get the end of the gate caught in their flank and end up stuck with one hindleg over the gate. Likewise, gate latch hardware protruding from a post can cause lacerations.
Some gate fittings are innately more dangerous. The common mushroom-shaped fitting on gate latches is often a cause of injury. Keeping horses in stables with an adjoining yard accessed through a stable door can cause injuries. If the horse takes fright and runs through the door, they can get wounds or even fractures in the hip area (“knocking down” a hip). It is safer to have the horse in either the stable or the yard.
Gates should ideally have electric strands across them to keep horses off them. Standard stock gates, with the curved top corners, pose some risk, as they create a slot that can catch a front leg if the horse rears or strikes over the gate.
Custom-made gates with right-angled top corners are less likely to trap a leg. The mesh on a standard stock gate is often course enough for a horse to put a foot through, and finer mesh is more suitable. Stock grids used for cattle are not appropriate for containing horses and can cause horrendous injuries.
Staking injuries, when a horse comes down on the unprotected end of a steel star post can be severe, and even fatal. Star posts are safer with protective plastic caps, but obviously wooden posts are preferable for horses. Hardwood split posts are comparable in price to star posts, but are more expensive and labour intensive to install. In my experience, horses tend to chew on treated pine fencing, although some brands are marketed to be unpalatable for horses. Concrete posts and recycled plastic post should be very durable.
Despite our best efforts, injuries may occur. But, as horse owners responsible for the welfare of our animals, it is important that we try to do everything within our means to provide them with a safe environment.