Horse friendly hedging is a subject especially close to our hearts as we are in Somerset and close to Dorset and Wiltshire - all counties full of keen horsey folk.
There are several choices of fencing, but all have their drawbacks:
Horse-proof-and-safe hedging performs three roles: it keeps your horses in and other animals out, it offers shelter against winds and rain in winter and the sun and flies in summer, and once established it supplements your horses' diet. For bonus points, it is great for wildlife, looks lovely, and will last for over a hundred years with just a bit of maintenance.
Your cheapest option is either all or predominantly Hawthorn (aka quickthorn), the backbone of almost all country hedging.
For more visual appeal, wildlife value and diverse nutrition for your horses, mixed native hedging is definitely the way to go.
So, next up in terms of price is the Economy Hedge Mix – 70% hawthorn plus 10% each of three other native varieties. Please note that it does contain blackthorn, which some horse owners do not like, although it is widely found in paddock hedging.
For much more variety and no blackthorn, take a look at our Stock Friendly Hedging Mix – 50% hawthorn plus 10% each of five other horse friendly hedge plants.
Prepacked mixes are always the most economical way to buy hedging, in part because we choose what goes into them. You can, of course, concoct your own hedge recipe, or buy some other varieties to add to the ready mixed options. If you make your own from scratch, then always start with Hawthorn and make it at least 50% of the total. These are some of the classic choices:
Stay away from plants such as Spindle, any of the Buckthorns, Holly and Blackthorn. They may be fine for other livestock, but they are not suitable for equine hedges.
If you plan on doing this, buy them as whips (small plants) and mark them with a solid stake in the hedge. Some people put them inside tubular tree guards. When you cut the rest of the hedge back very hard in the first two years, leave these trees alone. When they have reached about 2-2.5 metres, cut the top couple of inches off between November and the end of February, and they will produce side branches just below the cut.
If you keep your hedge well maintained and protected, it should be stock proof in about five or six years. In addition to using spirals and canes against rabbits, you will need a temporary fence or electric tape that is 2m away from the hedge, otherwise your horses will be nibbling away at all of those soft buds and, if they are in the mood, ripping the plants out entirely.
Protected plants grow away quickly and bush out in no time. Plant in a double row which means staggering 5 plants per metre in two parallel rows 40 cm apart. See our video on How to Plant a Country Hedge.
For a belts and braces approach, plant either side of a post and rail fence. Fresh horse manure on young roots burn them, so only use well rotted manure (at least a year old) as mulch, and even then be sparing – it is very rich.
As for final height, a metre is sufficient for ponies, and a metre and a half for most horses, depending on how Thelwellian they are. An energetic stallion needs two metres to be secure.On that happy note, we would not be doing our job properly if we did not warn you off the hedging plants that must be avoided altogether because they are poisonous to horses. The three that most people are aware of are Sycamore, Maple and the acorns from Oak trees. The seeds of the Sycamore (Acer Pseudoplatanus) have been associated with Atypical Myopathy in horses, which is fatal In about 70% of cases. It is not a proven connection, but many cases have been linked with the presence of sycamore seeds which are made more attractive to the horses by the lack of grass. Grazed in good pasture, the horses would no doubt ignore them! Field Maple (Acer campestre) is in the same family as Sycamore and consequently many people feel a little windy about including it in horse hedging.
These caveats aside, a field demarcated by a horse friendly hedge will be a fantastic investment on so many levels, adding to the long-term bio-diversity in your area, looking beautiful at all times of the year, and much better for your horses than a sugar lump! Just to think that if you engage stirrups and trot on, five years from now you could have your very own version...
As a final note, if you are planning to take out a hedge to replace it with a more horse friendly version you may need to apply to your local planning authority for a removal notice .....more fun and games - but it will be worth it and rosettes will be awarded for commitment to the cause! Tally ho!