‘Horse-high and bull-tight’

This is a great time of year for going on a tour through the countryside. There are so many wonderful and colourful sights, especially maple trees, around Thanksgiving. Look at how the landscape changes from county to county.

A few miles outside of Smith Falls, towards Brockville, Ont. is a state-of-the-art split-rail fence, correctly called a patent fence. This fence is the length of a farm or two and was constructed in the last 10 years. The area has many such fences, but this particular one is outstanding. It’s built tall and solid.

A few weeks ago when I was driving through the area I stopped to examine and study the fence. The soil is rocky, thus there are no posts dug into the ground. Five thin posts standing up in a sort of tepee support five or six 20-ft-long rails. The rails are wired into the tepee and also to a bottom short piece of rail to keep the fence from being overturned. Nails are not used in the construction. Rocks can also be piled on the bottom rail to keep it upright in a storm.

These fences have a long history. Eastern white cedar, common in the area, makes great fence-building material because the wood is strong, insect- and rot-resistant and able to withstand the elements. Different styles of fencing were developed by the early settlers for sheep, cows and other livestock. When the immigrant settlers cleared land and built wooden fences, the term “patent rail fences” became popular because farmers were always trying to get a patent on their designs. These styles became known as Patent Cedar Fences. The design allowed fences to be free standing, withstand heavy winds and take up less fence bottoms than the zigzag or snake fence models.


Cedar rails were usually prepared in the winter when frost was in the wood. Straight cedar trees “split like ribbon” while others with a twist to them were more of a challenge to the axe man. Five or six rails were used to make the fence “horse-high and bull-tight.”

The spaces between the rails could be made as wide or as narrow as required for sheep, cattle or horses. Many split-rail fences have lasted more than a century.

There is a fence-builder in the area who specializes in building this type of fence. I’m told if a vehicle crashes through the fence, he gets called to fix it. You can’t buy supplies at a hardware store for this job. It takes special split rails, which he stocks.

It’s interesting how counties have different types of fences. You don’t see the patent fence in Renfrew County. You do see century-old rail or log fences, but they are not like the ones in Leeds and Lanark. The common rail fences that zigzag across rocky woodland are held together by two posts with wooden crosspieces nailed to the posts. The rails rest on the crosspieces. Some are held together by wire.

Another aging wood fence seen in old pastures is the bunk or bottom block fence, built with logs notched at the ends. Each log is laid on a short log crosspiece or “bunk.” Sometimes holes were augured in the bunks and wooden pegs were pounded in to hold the top bunk firmly in place.

Log and rail fences are ideal on rocky terrain, where you cannot set posts into the ground. These fences can also be built to varying heights.

It’s interesting to note that the “snake” or “zig-zag” split rail fence was often scorned by farm publications of its day. “They are unsightly, take up too much land and are harbourers of weeds. They should be replaced at the first opportunity,” claimed The Home and Farm Manual in 1884.

In 1890, the Farmer’s Advocate wrote that, “While the old rail fence was the best in its day, we need not mourn its departure, as its place is being taken by more satisfactory structure.”
Could they have foreseen a day when most of the rail or log fences built now are only for looks – the old look?!


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