5 Horse-Containment Options

Keep your equine Houdini safely in camp with these handy containment options.
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Keep your equine Houdini safely in camp with these handy containment options.

Horse camping adds a special dimension to your trail-riding experience. Contentment commingles pleasantly with fatigue as you and your equine companion settle into camp after a day of exploring the wilderness.

Dusk ensues, stars twinkle, and that pleasant munching you hear just beyond the flickering campfire adds to the ambiance as you nod off, dreaming of the next day’s adventure.

But wait, something awakens you. You sit bolt upright in your sleeping bag. It’s quiet, way too quiet. You jump up and investigate only to find that there’s only empty silence where your horse used to be.

Dreams turn into nightmares in a split second if your horse disappears from camp and hits the trail without you. At the very least, there’s the inconvenience of finding and catching him. Worst-case scenarios include serious injury to your horse or even losing him in the wilderness. Safe, secure containment is vital for overnight journeys where permanent accommodations are unavailable.

Here, we’ll give you the rundown on five horse-containment options: portable corrals; portable electric fencing; hobbles; and two tying systems, a highline and an overhead tie arm. We’ll give you the pros and cons of each option, plus price considerations.

Containment Option #1: Portable Corrals

Corrals-2-Go constructs its solid metal panels from three-quarter-inch square tubing. Matching racks bolt to the side of a horse trailer, so the panels can be hung on them for storage and transport (typically over the trailer wheel wells).

Corrals-2-Go constructs its solid metal panels from three-quarter-inch square tubing. Matching racks bolt to the side of a horse trailer, so the panels can be hung on them for storage and transport (typically over the trailer wheel wells).

Description: Portable corrals are fairly sturdy and reliable. They’re typically constructed of a lightweight metal or plastic tubing. They disassemble into components that store readily on or in your trailer or truck.

Of all the containment options available to trail riders, portable corrals carry the highest price tag; even a few panels typically run over $500, and a sizable pen can be well over $1,000.

Pros: Portable corrals have high visibility, relatively sturdy structural nature, and the option of adding enough panels to provide a pen with ample space for freedom of movement, casual grazing, and rest. The panels may also be easily moved to a new grazing area. Many corrals attach to a trailer with brackets, enlarging the corral’s perimeter.

Cons: Your horse may discover he can shuffle the entire pen himself to access new grazing area. Portable corrals aren’t completely escape-proof. An excitable or spooky horse can catch a leg in the tubing and pull the pen over. (To cut the risk of this occurring, familiarize your horse with the portable panels at home before you hit the road.) Mobile fence panels are too large to pack in, so camping with them is limited to areas accessible by vehicles.

Containment Option #2: Portable Electric Fencing

Description: Portable electric fencing is typically sold in complete kits, with a carrying bag. If you’ll be camping away from 120-volt AC power source, you’ll need a battery to charge the fence. Most typical is a12-volt DC fence charger equipped with a small solar panel to recharge the battery during sunny spells. This charger uses relatively little current, so if you fully charge the battery before you leave, it should last days or even weeks.

A fencing kit usually contains temporary fence posts made from fiberglass rods. These are light and effective, but might not stay securely in sandy or wet soil, so consider your camping terrain before you choose this option.

And of course, the kit will contain lightweight, highly visible electric tapes or ropes. (Avoid electric-fencing wire, as it's rigid and heavy to pack, can be awkward to put up and take down, and has low visibility.) These are made from woven UV-resistant polyethylene with conductive strands of wire in the weave.

Also needed are insulators for the posts (unless the posts contain grooves to hold the tape or rope), a ground rod, and a wire to go between the charger and fencing. Some kits come with a reel to run the electric fence tape in and out.

At around $200 to $300 per kit, electric fencing is less expensive than portable corrals, but more expensive than hobbles and some tying options.

Pros: Portable electric fencing is relatively cost effective, packable by horseback, and capable of defining a fairly large area with a minimum of material.

Cons: Wildlife, such as deer and elk, often crash right through electric fencing. A spooked horse will also go through it easily. Take time to familiarize your horse to electric fencing at home, so he learns to respect it, even when spooked.

Also, note that the battery can be heavy, so if you’re packing in, take this weight into consideration when choosing which one to purchase.

Description: Hobbling is a time-honored and inexpensive way of keeping a horse contained. The method consists of tethering two or more of a horse’s legs together, which interrupts regular strides and may nearly trip a horse that doesn’t stand still or take very small steps.

Hobbling can be an effective means of keeping horses close to camp for overnight-camping trips says Allen Russell, a noted Western photographer, seasoned backcountry guide, and Long Rider. He and his Quarter Horse, Kono, made a continuous journey alone from Canada to Mexico.

Russell says a horse that’s been on the trail for a couple of days appreciates the chance to rest and eat when he can, thus hobbling becomes increasingly effective the longer a journey lasts.

Add a bell to your hobbled horse’s halter, Russell advises, so you can zero in on him if he wanders out of sight. If a string of horses are turned out together, choose a lead mare to wear the bell, since the herd will typically follow her lead.

If several horses are turned out together, Russell suggests keeping one saddle horse otherwise contained close to camp; that way, you have a saddle horse to find the others should they give you the slip and cover substantial ground.

Pros: Packing hobbles is literally as easy as securing a belt to your rig, and the additional weight to the pack is negligible. Hobbles can be especially useful in country where there’s nothing to tie a horse to, and is likewise handy for short stints of containment most anywhere.

Also, your horse can wander and graze over a wide area, notes Russell. This provides maximum feed while helping to avoid obvious bare spots, which is undesirable in wilderness areas.

Cons: If you wish to hobble your horse, you’ll need to train him to accept the hobbles safely well in advance of hitting the trail.

Another downside: The most common hobbling practice of simply tying the front feet together, while interrupting regular travel effectively at a walk and trot, doesn’t hinder a horse’s stride at the lope, during which both front feet travel together.

Your horse might figure out he’s free to lope away and cover plenty of ground before you notice him. To counteract this loophole, carefully train your horse to accept the addition of a hobbled hind foot, as well.

Containment Option #3: Hobbles

Hobbling is a time-honored and inexpensive way of keeping a horse contained.

Hobbling is a time-honored and inexpensive way of keeping a horse contained.

Description: Hobbling is a time-honored and inexpensive way of keeping a horse contained. The method consists of tethering two or more of a horse’s legs together, which interrupts regular strides and may nearly trip a horse that doesn’t stand still or take very Hobbling can be an effective means of keeping horses close to camp for overnight-camping trips says Allen Russell, a noted Western photographer, seasoned backcountry guide, and Long Rider. He and his Quarter Horse, Kono, made a continuous journey alone from Canada to Mexico.

Russell says a horse that’s been on the trail for a couple of days appreciates the chance to rest and eat when he can, thus hobbling becomes increasingly effective the longer a journey lasts.

Add a bell to your hobbled horse’s halter, Russell advises, so you can zero in on him if he wanders out of sight. If a string of horses are turned out together, choose a lead mare to wear the bell, since the herd will typically follow her lead.

If several horses are turned out together, Russell suggests keeping one saddle horse otherwise contained close to camp; that way, you have a saddle horse to find the others should they give you the slip and cover substantial ground.

Pros: Packing hobbles is literally as easy as securing a belt to your rig, and the additional weight to the pack is negligible. Hobbles can be especially useful in country where there’s nothing to tie a horse to, and is likewise handy for short stints of containment most anywhere.

Also, your horse can wander and graze over a wide area, notes Russell. This provides maximum feed while helping to avoid obvious bare spots, which is undesirable in wilderness areas.

Cons: If you wish to hobble your horse, you’ll need to train him to accept the hobbles safely well in advance of hitting the trail.

Another downside: The most common hobbling practice of simply tying the front feet together, while interrupting regular travel effectively at a walk and trot, doesn’t hinder a horse’s stride at the lope, during which both front feet travel together.

Your horse might figure out he’s free to lope away and cover plenty of ground before you notice him. To counteract this loophole, carefully train your horse to accept the addition of a hobbled hind foot, as well.

Containment Option #4: High Line

Description: High lines are a particular favorite among horse campers. Both in a trailer-camping environment and in the backcountry, the high line provides an inexpensive and relatively safe way to contain a horse or horses, while still providing them some room to move about. 

A high line is quite simply a rope strung between two tall, stable mounting places. Most often, these are two live trees (avoid dead trees, as they're unstable), or a trailer and a live tree.

Tie a single horse from the halter to the high line with either a half hitch with quick release or bowline knot, or by using a quick-release snap that allows the halter rope to move along the entire length of the high line.

Tie the halter rope short enough so that your horse can't readily step over it (and entangle a leg), but long enough so that he can graze, eat, and lie down.

You can tie multiple horses to the same high line, but be sure to tie them to a fixed position, spacing them out, and providing ample room so that they can't come into contact with one another and thus get caught in the lines.

Several handy and inexpensive products are available to make high lining easier. First, invest in tree-saver straps — nylon straps several inches wide and a couple feet long with metal D-rings or similar attachment points. Place tree savers around the trees you'll be tying your line to, to save the bark. (Note that some areas require the use of tree savers when high lining.)

If you'll be tying multiple horses, consider using knot-eliminator devices. These are essentially small, metal figure-eights you'll place on the high line to make stable purchase points on which to tie each halter rope.

If your horse spins around and causes the halter rope to twist and shorten, consider buying a metal swivel. Attach the swivel to the halter rope to keep it from twisting and bunching. Also, continue to work with your horse at home so that he learns to stay calm while on the high line.

Pros: A high line is relatively inexpensive and keeps your horse secure. You can also use it to secure multiple horses. High lines are lightweight and easy to carry to a remote camping spot.

Cons: You'll need to find two trees or other stable objects on which to tie the high line; this isn't always possible in some camping areas.

It takes time, effort, and a bit of skill to set up a high line. If you attach the high line to trees, you'll need to constantly watch for any bark damage, even if you're using tree savers. Also watch for damage to the ground caused by your horse's hooves.

And finally, a high line doesn't allow your horse to walk around and relax, as a portable corral, electric fencing, and hobbles do. Therefore, it's best used for shorter camping trips.

Expert tip: If you plan to tie your horse while camping, make sure he’s comfortable being tied. Also, tie him with a knot or clasp that can be quickly released, and always pack a knife on your person when in camp and on the trail as an additional option for quick release in the event of a mishap.

Containment Option #5: Overhead Tie Arms

Credit: Photo by Kent and Charlene Krone Overhead tiearms are flexible metal arms that mount to the trailers side.

Credit: Photo by Kent and Charlene Krone Overhead tiearms are flexible metal arms that mount to the trailers side.

Description: Overhead tie arms are typically metal brackets that mount high onto trailers. These, like high lines, provide an overhead tie point, except in this case for a single horse and only to a single point.

Some models, such as the Hi-Tie, provide extra motion to the system by offering a flexible, fiberglass arm that extends four feet out from the trailer’s side. The extra flexibility allows your horse to pull and gain a little additional space.

Another product, the Tilt-Tie, is a heavy-duty, spring-loaded aluminum unit that similarly adds flexibility to the arm.

Pros:An overhead tie arm is extremely quick to set up and use. Once it's attached to your trailer, simply swivel it out 90 degrees from the traveling position, and tie your halter rope to the end.

Cons: An overhead tie arm tends to be one of the more costly containment devices, running about $280. And note that some models are noisy, so you'll need to find one that moves quietly. Then your horse won't find an excuse to spook, and you'll have some quiet while trying to catch a little shut eye.

Tom Moates (www.tommoates.com) is a widely published equestrian journalist and author. He's the author of Between the Reins, A Continuing Journey Into Honest Horsemanship.