If you’ve ever worried whether electric fencing is welfare-friendly, you can put your mind at ease. New research from Switzerland has revealed that the threat of electric shock from electrical fencing doesn’t cause your horses to stress.
However, most horses will maintain a greater distance from an electric fence compared to a wooden fence, researchers say. And that could impact the total usable space of your paddocks.
“Horses will stand close to wooden fencing, but they don’t like to go near electric fences, so by using an electric fence you’re limiting your horse’s turnout area to a certain extent,” said Dominik Burger, DVM, a scientist at the Swiss Institute of Equine Medicine (University of Bern and Agroscope), in Avenches. Burger co-authored a recent study on the topic with Rupert M. Bruckmaier, DVM, PhD, professor at the Vetsuisse Faculty at the University of Bern, Switzerland, and other Swiss researchers.
In their study, the team looked at 20 horses aged 6 to 18 years as they spent time in different-sized paddocks fenced with either electric ribbons or wooden boards. Small paddocks measured 12.25 m² (125 ft²), and large paddocks measured 36 m² (360 ft²). The scientists monitored the horses’ heart rate, heart rate variability, and salivary cortisol levels throughout the experiment. They also observed how the horses used the available paddock area and their behavior, primarily for signs of stress.
They found that horses respected a larger “border” area—about 50 cm (nearly 20 inches)—in front of electric fencing than wooden fencing, Burger said. With small paddocks, this caused a significant reduction in the total usable space. Perhaps as a result of this, the researchers noted much less rolling in the small paddocks.
There were no notable differences in the stress parameters among the different paddock sizes and fence types, he said. However, the research team did detect a tendency toward more stress behaviors in small paddocks (regardless of fencing) compared to large paddocks.
“We didn’t see any signs of increased stress with horses that were accustomed to electric fencing,” Burger said. “This type of fencing can be considered safe and ethical to use for the contention of horses, provided owners keep in mind that it narrows the practical space of the paddock by about 50 cm all along the perimeter. Minimum paddock size recommendations (by law in Switzerland, 24 to 36 m² [240 to 360 ft²] per horse depending on paddock accessibility) should ideally be respected, taking in this calculation.”
However, there is one situation in which electrical fencing could cause stress, he added. “Our experiments focused on individual horses in paddocks, not on groups of horses. In the latter condition, lower-ranking horses might get trapped or pushed into that area near the fence,” he said. “If they find themselves in that zone, it can cause them stress.”
In shared paddocks, therefore, Swiss law demands enough space to let lower-ranking horses avoid that situation as much as possible.
The study, “No increased stress response in horses on small and electrically fenced paddocks,” was published in Applied Animal Behavior Science.