You have acquired a place to keep your horse but it is not fenced. Now what? There are many types of fences, but not all of them are safe for horses, or horse-proof. If you have never built a fence before, just choosing materials can be intimidating, let alone figuring out how to actually construct a corral that will last. Fortunately, with a few basic tools and a little planning (and sweat), you can build your horse a corral that is easy to maintain, durable and safe for your horse.
Choose the Site for your Corral
Select an area for the corral that is large enough for the horse to trot around, that drains easily and that can be accessed by a large vehicle such as a pickup or tractor. Ideally, your corral should be no smaller than about 30 feet wide by 100 feet long.
Pick a spot for the gate to your corral. It should be a minimum of 10 feet wide, big enough to drive a pickup or tractor through. It must also be easily accessible to the road as well as to the place where you store your horse's hay and feed. If your barn has a stall that opens to the outside, you might consider building your corral with access directly to the stall.
Make sure your corral has good drainage, as standing in mud can lead to a variety of hoof diseases such as thrush and mud rot.
Make sure your corral has easy access to fresh water for your horse. Find a good place for the water trough where you can easily refill and clean it and where your horse(s) can get to it easily.
Level at least one end of your corral, if possible, to give your horse a comfortable place to stand.
Clear as many of the rocks out of your chosen site as possible, as walking and standing on rocks can lead to serious hoof or leg damage.
Choose Your Materials
Determine the materials for your corral based on your budget, the type of horse you intend to keep, and the "look" you want, as all of these factors have an important bearing on the end result. You may want to match existing fences or enhance the "curb appeal" of your property, or you may have a large area to fence on a tight budget. Post-and-rail or post-and-wire fences are the most common types used for horses. Post-and-rail (wood or vinyl) is usually far more expensive. Post-and-wire can use either wood or metal posts with "field fence" mesh-type fencing or barbless twisted wire. Plan for a fence that is at least 4 feet high (6 feet for mustangs or stallions). At a minimum you should plan for a three-wire or three-board fence. "High and tight" is a good rule of thumb no matter what sort of fence you are building for horses.
Choose your fencing from "horse-proof" materials a horse cannot easily crash through and break, such as:
- 2-by-6 inch treated wooden rails
- Posts of at least 6-by-6 inch size, or 4-by-4 inch set in concrete
- Heavy-gauge tubular fencing panels
- "Field fence" or twisted smooth wire (NOT barbed wire)
- Electric wire or tape
- 6-foot heavy-duty T-posts
- 4-inch round wooden posts
- Tubular steel or wooden gate Never use barbed wire in fences meant for horses, or go with light-weight materials to save money. Both could result in huge veterinary bills and a crippled animal. Check your local hardware or farm supply store for horse-rated fencing.
Match your additional materials to the type of fence you have decided to build. These may include:
- 4-by-4 inch treated timber for cross-bracing
- 3/8-inch lag screws for fastening wooden rails to posts
- Fencing staples for attaching wire to wooden posts
- Clips for attaching wire to metal T-posts (these should come with the posts)
- Nails for cross-braces (20d 4-inch common or better)
- Concrete mix for setting corner posts
- Insulators for electrical fence wire or tape
Decide what sort of gate you will want, as it may affect the type of gate posts you choose. Depending on where the gate post is set, you may also need a brace post for it. Wooden gates can be heavy, and the wider the gate of any type the more prone it is to sag and become difficult to open and close. Many people prefer to set a very tall gate post so that they can run a support wire from an eye bolt toward the top of the post to the latch end of the gate. You can also set two tall posts (10 feet or taller) and brace them across the top with a crosspiece. This type of gate post should be tall enough to ride or drive under. Any gate post should be of at least 6-by-6 inch construction. Be aware that pre-made commercial gates come in standard sizes, usually 4 feet, 8 feet, 10 feet, 12 feet, and 16 feet. Plan your gate width accordingly.
Sketch out your corral design, factoring in gate posts, corner and brace posts, and regular posts. If you are not planning to set corner posts in concrete, you will need two additional brace posts at each corner. You will refine your sketch and determine exact numbers of posts after you have marked out the site. Carry the sketch with you and jot down your measurements as you work to help you determine the exact materials you will need.
Set Your Corner Posts
Begin at the barn or the side closest to where you want the gate to be and drive in one of your wood or metal marker stakes where you want the first corner post to be.
Measure across the barn end to where the opposite post will be set and drive a second stake
Use a long tape measure or count your steps to measure down the long side to the far corner and drive a third stake, then measure across the same width as at the upper end and drive the fourth stake.
Square up your rectangle by measuring from one post at the barn end to the corner post at the other end on the opposite side. Write down the result, then do the same for the other pair of opposite posts. If your distances are uneven, move one of the corner stakes in or out until your diagonal measurements are even.
Before digging post holes, choose the type of post you will use for your corner posts and dig the hole accordingly. Railroad ties, 6-by-6 inch treated posts, or 4-by-4 inch treated posts set in concrete can all be used for corner posts.
Evaluate your soil and decide whether you will need to set your corner posts in concrete. If the soil is sandy, exceptionally rocky, or hard to dig, your posts will lean within a few months or a year, making the entire fence rickety. If you cannot dig a hole at least 36 to 40 inches deep for an 8-foot post, you will need to either set the post in concrete or cross-brace it in accordance with Step 9.
Use your posthole diggers, obtainable at any farm supply store, to dig your first corner post hole, making it either just large enough for the post (about two inches larger on each side) or with a 4 to 6-inch space around the post for concrete. Set the dirt aside in a bucket or mound. Don't just scatter it; you may need it to fill the hole back in around the post.
Stand the first post in the hole. If you are using concrete, pour the hole full, use your level to make sure the post is perfectly vertical, and brace it lightly with T-posts or 2-by-4 inch timbers until the concrete sets.
Set posts that do not use concrete by using the dirt excavated from the hole. Level the post vertically and shovel the dirt from the hole back in around it. Stop frequently to pack the dirt down around the post with a heavy bar or the handles of the posthole diggers. Rock the post slightly to help settle the dirt as you go, and tamp it thoroughly several times. When the hole is full, heap all the remaining dirt around the post and tamp it down.
Cross-brace your corner posts, especially if they are not set in concrete, by setting a second post 4 to 6 feet away on each side to keep them from leaning. Wire fences put a great deal of tension on corner posts, and frost and rain eventually loosen the soil around them. There are three ways to cross-brace:
- Use a treated 4-by-4 inch timber cut to the length of the inside distance between the corner post and the brace post. Use large nails or 3/8-inch lag screws to secure it about two-thirds of the way up from the ground. Drill screw holes with a 1/4-inch drill first to make it easier to secure the crosspiece in place.
- Measure between a spot about two-thirds of the way up the corner post and a spot about 6 inches from the ground on the brace post. Cut a treated 4-by-4 inch timber to length, and cut its ends at 45-degree angles (one with the long end on the top, one with the long end on the bottom). Set the lower end against the brace post and the upper end against the corner post and secure it with nails or screws.
- Cut a notch on the outside upper end of the corner post and the outside lower end of the brace post. Braid multiple strands of fencing wire (not electric fence wire) together long enough to reach around both notches and secure in the center. Use a post or bar to twist them tight to keep the posts from sagging outward.
Set Your Fence Posts
Start by tying a rope or string at the first corner post and run it the length of the side you are working on. Pull it tight and secure it to the next corner post to give you a straight line for setting posts. Make sure that if the string is on the outside edge of the first post, it is also run to the outside edge of the second corner post.
Determine the number of posts you will need for each side by measuring the distance between the brace or corner posts and dividing by the distance between posts. This will differ depending on whether you are building a post-and-rail or post-and-wire fence. T-posts or 4-inch round wooden posts for wire are usually set 12 to 16 feet apart. Wooden posts for wood rails are set 10 feet apart on-center. If you want the posts to be set evenly between the brace posts, run a long measuring tape first, marking where each should be set, and adjusting slightly if the distance does not come out perfectly even.
Before setting your gate posts, measure your gate (with latch hardware, if used) and hinges, and then carefully measure the distance between the hinge post and the latch post. You want the gate to swing freely without rubbing the latch post, yet not leave a gap big enough that a horse could get its head or a leg through the opening. The opening for a 10-foot gate is more likely to be close to 10 feet 6 inches.
Set your gate posts before setting other posts in that line, as other posts can be adjusted for distance, but not those. You may even want to hang your gate before putting in any other posts to make sure your gate posts are set correctly.
Dig a hole for wooden posts at each mark down your string line, not less than 36 inches deep for 8-foot posts, and set your wooden posts in the same manner that you set your corner posts. Use your string guide to keep the posts even, with the face of the post just touching the string when the post is vertically level. If you are going to hang wooden rails on these posts, ensure that the posts measure 10 feet apart on-center, not 10 feet between posts. You will need to be able to secure your boards onto the posts.
Drive in T-posts using a post driver, obtainable at any farm supply store. Make sure all the T-posts face the same way, either to the inside of the corral or the outside. The flat side of the T-post is the "face."
String Your Fence Rails or Wire
Allow time for any concrete used around your corner posts to set well, usually one or two days. If you are using wire, you will be putting quite a bit of tension on the posts, and you don't want them to lean.
Secure one end of your roll of barbless fence wire to the first corner post (either staple it or wrap the end around itself until you are ready to secure it permanently). If you are running four wires, start about 12 inches above the ground and run one wire every 12 inches above that. If you are running three wires, space them a little wider and start about 14 inches above the ground.
Roll the wire out the length of the side. Cut it about 4 feet past the second corner post. Using a fence staple, secure the wire loosely (don't pound the staple all the way in) to the corner post at the same height that you started with at the first post.
Tighten the wire gently. You can "hand tighten" wire by pulling it as tight as you can and having a helper pound in the staple to secure it. You can also secure the four-foot "tail" to your tractor or car hitch and slowly pull the wire tight through the staple. Do NOT over-tighten. What looks loose will in fact be surprisingly tight when you pick it up level and start fastening it to posts.
Secure the free end of the stretched wire by stapling it down tight to the corner post. Make sure you don't over-sink the staple, as you could break the wire, and you may at some point need to get the staple back out.
Fasten the rest of the wire to individual posts. For metal T-posts, clip the wire against the flat side of the post at the same height as at the corner, using the special wire clips that came with the posts. Crimp down the ends of the clips with your fence pliers so they don't pop off the post. If using wooden posts, staple the wire to each post at the same height. Drive the staples in flat, again being careful not to break the wire.
Secure the long end of wire at the corners by wrapping it around the post and stapling it down. Don't try to "wrap" the whole pasture or corral with a single strand of wire. If it breaks, the whole fence sags.
Cut or staple down any sharp ends of wire to avoid injury to your horse.
Hang wooden rails, if used, consistently on the inside or the outside of the posts, whichever is easiest to maintain. Many people prefer to hang rails on the inside so horses push them against the posts. Set your fence rails 12 to 14 inches apart to prevent horses from reaching through, starting about 14 inches from the ground.
"Tack" the first rail to the fence with a nail loosely driven in, allowing the board to rotate so you can level it. If your ground is even, use a level to make your rails perfectly straight and even on the posts. If your ground is not level, you will need to measure between rails to maintain an even distance between them at each post.
Hang your fence rails in a way that creates as sturdy a fence as possible, one that will minimize damage if a horse goes through it. If you are using wooden rails, use at least 2-by-6 inch treated boards, not 1 inch or 2-by-4 inch. While you can use boards that are all 10 feet in length, you can achieve a "woven" effect that serves to stiffen the fence by alternating 10-foot and 20-foot boards. Start with a 10-foot top rail, a 20-foot middle rail, and a 10-foot bottom rail at the corner, then work down the fence, alternating lengths. The second section will have 20-foot rails top and bottom with a 10-foot middle rail, and so on.
Lightly tack your fence rails in place until you are satisfied with their placement, then use 3/8-inch lag screws to secure them permanently. Screws or bolts are preferred over nails because nails tend to back out under the effects of weather, and horses can more easily push the boards off the fence. To save time and muscle power, drill the bolt holes first with a 1/4-inch drill or use the drill to drive the screws.
Mount Your Gate
Hang your wood or metal gate, using the gate posts previously set. You can build your own wooden gate out of 2-by-6 inch treated lumber, or buy a pre-made gate of tubular steel or steel panels. Pre-made gates come with their own mounting hardware; if you build your own, you will need a latch, hinges, and two 1/2-inch screw eyes and two 1/2-inch pintel screws to hang it.
Measure the height of the top rail to either side of your gate and mark the gate post where the top of your gate should be with a nail or carpenter's pencil. If your pre-made gate is taller than this, raise it so it has at least 10 inches clearance above the ground to accommodate snow and mud.
Hang your pre-made gate by following the instructions that come with it, using a wrench to turn the mounting bolts and a plumb line or weighted string to align them vertically on the post.
Measure the height of the gate latch from the ground and mark the latch post. Mount your latch hardware and verify that your gate latches easily and can swing past the latch post without striking it.
Protecting Your Fence
Protect your investment against horses pushing on it, fighting over it, or chewing on it. There are a variety of ways to keep horses away from the fence, including electric ("hot") wire, and paint-on or spray-on chemicals to stop them chewing on the boards. Rolls of electric wire or tape as well as chew-stop can be obtained at your local feed or farm supply store. Adding a single strand of hot wire along the top of your wire fence or down the middle rail of your wooden corral will discourage horses from challenging the fence.
Determine whether you want to use electric wire or white electric tape. The tape is more expensive but is much easier for horses to see.
Obtain the correct insulators for your chosen fence material. Wire and tape use different insulators, and T-posts use different insulators than wooden posts. If your posts are wood, you will also need lightweight 3-inch nails to fasten the insulators to the posts. T-post insulators clip onto the post.
Buy and mount a fence charger suitable for the length of your fence (most inexpensive chargers are good for at least a half mile). Follow the manufacturer's instructions for mounting your charger. Not all can be mounted outdoors.
Ground your charger according to the manufacturer's instructions.
Snap or nail an insulator to each post in your corral, on the inside.
Run the end of your hot wire through one of the studs on the charger, then run it through each insulator and secure the end to the other stud on the charger. To keep wire from sagging, wrap it around every third or fourth insulator, making sure it does not touch the post and ground itself out.
To run your hot wire across the gate, you will need to buy an insulated handle to attach to the end of your hot wire. Secure it by a loop of hot wire mounted on insulators at the gate post. Remember that for the fence to work, it needs a continuous loop of current. You can't just tack an end of electric wire to the gate post for your gate handle to hang on; it must be part of the entire wire run.
Turn on your fence charger and see if it works. Most chargers have an indicator that tells you if the wire is grounded out anywhere. If there is a problem, walk your entire fence line to make sure your hot wire does not touch either wood or metal anywhere in its run. Tall grass or low-hanging leaves touching the wire can also keep it from working.
Mark your new post-and-wire fence with rags or tape to keep your horse or the neighborhood dogs and deer from crashing into it at first. Fluttering tape or a vertical strip of wide tape or string stretched between the top and bottom wires midway between the posts can reduce damage from animals accustomed to having the run of the spot where your corral now stands.
Now you're done! Lead your horse around the new corral to make sure it knows all the boundaries, turn him in, and let him play. Then go put your feet up. You earned it.