Horse Camping with Portable Panels and Electric Tape

Tips for making overnight trips with your horse easy, fun and safe using a portable pen. By Sandra Cooke for Practical Horseman magazine.
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Tips for making overnight trips with your horse easy, fun and safe using a portable pen. By Sandra Cooke for Practical Horseman magazine.

Question: What's inexpensive, easy to assemble, and and a doorway to a whole new world of enjoyment with your horse?

A portable electric-tape corral. | Photo by Mandy Lorraine

A portable electric-tape corral. | Photo by Mandy Lorraine

Answer: A lightweight, portable pen or corral, designed to stow on or in your trailer and to set up with a minimum of fuss at a campground or trailhead. Put one up and you can snug down peacefully in your sleeping bag, knowing your horse has a secure place for the night where he can stretch his legs, watch the scenery as he munches his hay, and lie down to rest.

These enclosures come in two basic types: electric pens and portable panels. Each has advantages and drawbacks, and each works best when you train your horse to accept his pen as his home away from home before you hit the road, then make his first camping trip (and yours!) as stress-free as possible.

Here's how to get started.

ELECTRIC FENCE

What you need:

  1. Posts: Can be fiberglass (lightest and lest expensive, but may become splintery with exposure to sunlight), polyprolylene "step-in" (metal tip at base, designed to push into ground with your foot), or metal rods (can be pounded in with a hammer). Fiberglass and metal both require insulators to hold tape or wire; step-in posts are self-insulating.
  2. Electric tape or wire: Polyethylene tape with imbedded conductive metal strands comes 1 to 2 inches wide, in white and colors--highly visible. Wider tape makes a more substantial fence, but it's more expensive, and the 2-inch width doesn't fit through all insulators. Poly-coated wire is less expensive but breaks more easily; for visibility, flagging is a must.
  3. "Fencer" or electric charger: battery- or solar-powered (solar is bulkier).
  4. Gate handle: Insulated handle with metal spring core, hook at one end, and loop at the other for connecting tape or wire, creates a gate at any point in the pen perimeter.

Pluses:

  • Flexibility. Complete electric-fencing kits are available, but many campers buy components separately from farm or garden warehouse stores, hardware stores, and catalogues--and occasionally luck out with bargain prices on individual pieces such as the charger. Size and shape of the pen modifies readily to fit available space.
  • Affordability. Less than $150 buys everything you need; complete kits go for less than $200.
  • Easy storage and handling. One person can easily set up and take down. Tape or wire rolls up for storage. Posts (insulators still attached) bundle together with shock cord, or even slide into boxes designed for golf clubs. Then it all goes in your trailer's tack room or the back of your tow vehicle.

Minuses:

  • Easily demolished. A horse panicked by accidental contact with his own pen, or by a disturbance nearby, can forget his reluctance to touch the fence and bolt right through the wire or tape. Or another camper's panicked loose horse can run through your horse's pen.
  • It only works with the charger on. Many horses can tell when the fence is electrified and are quick to lean over it for grass when it's not (one reason a spare battery is recommended).
  • Less effective if you're blanketing. A blanket insulates your horse against electricty (though the lower tape or wire may contact his legs if he leans on the fence).

PORTABLE PANELS

What you need:

  1. Panels: Ready-made panels are available in several weights and styles (both steel and aluminum); one popular type, about 6 feet long by 4 feet high, comes in sets of eight. Or have a local welding shop build panels to your needs.
  2. Fasteners for attaching panel ends together securely enough that a horse can't separate two panels by sticking his neck through the bars and lifting.

Pluses:

  • No posts--an advantage in hard or rocky ground.
  • More likely to keep a spooked horse in, a stampeding horse out. A spooked horse may knock his panel pen out of kilter with kicks or body swipes, but he probably won't demolish it. Runaways are more likely to notice and respect the solid appearance of panels--and not crash through them.
  • Stows neatly. Brackets on your trailer exterior can hang panels out of the way. (Exception: 8-foot-wide trailers must carry panels inside.)
  • Durable--Panels are low-maintenance and last for years.
  • Expandable. Many panel pens are about 12 feet square; depending on available space (and number of panels you have), you can add panels to make a larger pen.

Minuses:

  • More difficult to handle. If you're a small person, finding panels light enough for you to move around comfortably yet sturdy enough that your horse respects them can be a challenge. (That's one reason some campers who use lighter-weight panels add a single strand of electric tape around the top.)
  • More expensive than electric. Prices vary; a set of four welded-to-order 13-foot galvanized steel panels cost one of our camper experts $250.

INTRODUCING THE IDEA
Camping is new for your horse, so introduce it a step at a time. (And before you even start, consider: Laid-back, people-oriented horses make the best campers. If your guy's a high-anxiety, reactive type who frets about every change and hates leaving home and his regular buddies for any reason, camping may not be a good career move for him.)

If you plan to use an electric pen, does your horse know about electric fencing? If not, set up your first at-home practice pen inside a paddock or riding ring for extra security, and make it extra large (about 20 feet square). That way, the first time he touches the fence, he'll have room to react without inadvertently backing into the other side. Use 3- to 4-foot posts and at least two courses of tape or wire (three is even better) so he feels securely enclosed. Even if you use wide electric tape, flag the fence generously--you want him to see it, be curious about it, and touch it on his own. (You don't want to lead him to the fence and persuade him to touch it--because he might think that your actions, not his, caused the zap.) Make sure the charger is on; then lead him inside the pen to the center, unsnap the lead shank, and leave him there as you exit and close the gate behind you--but stay well within sight and sound to give him confidence. He'll probably approach, touch the fence with his nose, and jump back from the sensation. Most horses think things over, touch the fence a second time, and respect it thereafter. If yours seems to accept the fence quietly after a few minutes, go back into the pen, give him a treat, and lead him out. Repeat this several times over a couple of weeks to make sure he remembers and respects the fence.

Is your horse accustomed to confinement in a small area? Many portable pens are only 12 to 16 feet square, both because space available for campers may be limited and because smaller pens are safer (see "More Tips" below). If your horse lives out in a field with a run-in shed--and especially if he's part of a herd--teach him to spend time on his own in a small space. Set up your panels or electric pen just outside his field, where he can see his buddies and even touch noses with them over the fence. Put his water, grain, and hay in the pen, and keep an eye on him to make sure he's not getting upset. Begin by leaving him there an hour or so; increase the time as he gets used to it. (If he spends part of each day in a box stall, he may find the confines of a portable pen more familiar.)

Fake overnight camping at home or at the barn where you keep your horse. Try to enlist an equine camping buddy for company, or locate your "campsite" near a paddock where other horses are turned out at night. Set up your horse's pen near your trailer, make him comfortable, retire to your tent or camper--and spy on him regularly during the night. (If you've arranged for a buddy, put their pens close together.) If he cleans up his hay and (better yet) lies down to sleep, he's got the idea.

Connect with an experienced camper for your early trips. Not only will you learn the details of fun and safety from another horse person who's "been there/done that," but your horse will pick up on the attitude of a veteran equine camper.

More Happy Camping Tips

  • For electric pens, space posts no more than 6 feet apart to keep tape or wire from sagging. (Space posts even closer on either side of gate opening.)Use tall posts (3 feet or more) with tape or wire strung near the top to discourage leaning. A second, lower course of tape or wire provides extra security.
  • Although many horses camp happily in a 12-foot-square pen, make electric pens more generous (14 by 16 feet or so) whenever possible--to lessen the chances of an accidental "zap" when your horse rolls or lies down. (Don't go bigger than that, though. If your horse gets excited, too much space gives him the opportunity to build up dangerous momentum.)
  • Bring plenty of hay. Even at grassy sites, grazing inside a pen disappears quickly, tempting your horse to lean over the fence.
  • Avoid using your trailer as one side of the pen. Your horse can injure himself rubbing on or bumping into an unprotected edge of metal (and if that edge is therer, he'll find it!).
  • If you're with a large group, set up your horse's pen where he can see as many of his fellow campers as possible. He'll feel more secure than he will if he can hear but not see them.

When setting up a panelpen, leave your horse inside the trailer so the sight and sound won't rattle him.

Updated from an article in the June 2000 issue of Practical Horseman magazine. For help in the preparation of this article, the editors thank the following competitive trail and endurance riders: Lori Stewart, Eric Thompson, Louise Bower, Gail Dillon, Hallie McFadden, Cathy Lochary, and Heidi Andersen.