Horse Power

Low-impact logging offers long-term benefits
By Patrick White

Horse logging is undeniably a niche. It's not for every logger, it's not for every woodlot owner, and it's not for every job. However, there are times when horse logging can be used effectively to complete a harvest while safeguarding forest resources for the future.

Horse logging utilizes a skid cart, which lifts the butt end of the log (and the weight) off the ground, allowing the horses to provide the pulling power.
Photo courtesy of Jim Brown.

"The impact that a horse has on the environment and on the woods is really inherently pretty minimal," says John Plowden, who has been logging with horses in Maine for more than 20 years. "There's virtually no rutting. There's very little residual stand damage. Our roads are much narrower."

Still, he emphasizes that opting to go with a horse logger doesn't necessarily guarantee a low-impact job: "It does depend on the operator. It's like anything else. There are some skidder operators who are incredible and do absolutely beautiful work, and there are others who make a mess. It's the same with horses: A guy can go into the woods with a chain saw and a team of horses and make a mess in a hurry."

Plowden (www.plowdenhorselogging.com) got his start with draft horses doing sleigh and wagon rides. "Then I realized there was another use for these creatures other than entertaining folks. You can actually do substantial work with them," he explains. Plowden had done some logging with a tractor prior to getting started with horses, mostly on his own property. "I've always enjoyed being in the woods, and I've always enjoyed horses, so I put two and two together," he says.

Over the past two decades, Plowden has identified both the strengths and drawbacks of horse logging. He says, "On logging jobs where you're being selective and meticulous about what trees you want to harvest and haul out, that's where horses excel. If you're doing a clear-cut or clearing for a house lot, horses can do it, but it's going to take us three times as long, and you can get the same result with a machine."

John Plowden has been logging with horses in Maine for 20 years. "The impact that a horse has on the environment and on the woods is really inherently pretty minimal," he explains.
Photo courtesy of John Plowden.

Therein lies the shortcoming of logging with horses: productivity. "Our skid distances are relatively short - the maximum skid distance when you're interested in production is 300 feet. You get beyond that and the turnaround time increases too much," Plowden explains. "Plus, we're not hauling three or four stems at a time, we're hauling one stem at a time. In the woods, you'll have your twitch roads, and then you'll have your main haul road down to the landing. The horses will go from the stump down the twitch road to a junction on the haul road."

From there he uses heavy equipment to get the logs out of the woods. "I work in conjunction with machinery, such as tractor-drawn forwarders," explains Plowden, who has worked with both Hardy and Payeur forwarders. "They're not as expensive as a $250,000 self-powered forwarder," he points out. He notes that some horse loggers do use horse-drawn forwarders. These units are similar to tractor-drawn forwarders, though they are a little smaller and self-powered with a motor to run the hydraulic boom lift.

Horse logging also requires the use of a cart or arch behind the horses. Plowden designs and fabricates his own arches and sells them to other horse loggers. "It's basically two wheels with a place to hook your chokers. When you tighten them up, it gets the ends of the logs off the ground. When you get to the landing there's a quick-release mechanism that drops the logs." This system bears the weight of the logs, allowing the horses to provide the pulling power. It also keeps the logs relatively clean, "on a par with a skidder," he says.

Jim Brown began with a single draft horse and estimates he's had more than 30 teams over the years. Winter is a great time for horse logging. He says that once everything is frozen and icy, "you can skid really heavy logs really easily; all you have to do is get it started."
Photo courtesy of Jim Brown.
Plowden typically likes to skid logs around 17 feet long with his horses, allowing him to cut two 8-foot logs on the landing. "Sometimes, if I'm doing hardwood pulp, I'll go up to about 24 feet, but that's about the longest," he explains. "It's hard to haul a tree-length log with horses; plus it does a lot of damage. We're not a grapple skidder, we can't compete with that - it's just a different approach."

Plowden says he talks with landowners about the differences between logging with horses and logging with skidders. "I explain to them the advantages, as well as the costs involved. It is a higher cost," he says. "The landowner has to care about what he or she has and realize that they're making an investment in the future of their woodlot."

In western New York, horse logger Jim Brown (www.farmerbrownsplow shop.net) also explains to landowners that this approach offers advantages in terms of limiting the impact of a harvest on a woodlot. "For example, you only have to have one big, dedicated logging road through your woods. And most of the woodlots here in western New York already have that. I'm not into making a lot of roads; I'd rather use what's already there, and horses let you do that," he explains. "If you have, say, a 10-acre section of woodlot with one decent road down the middle of it, that's all you need with horses." Brown does have a John Deere 450H dozer that he uses if a main road needs to be created or improved, and for making and cleaning up landings.

Typically, horses are used to skid logs from where they are felled to a main skid road, where mechanized equipment hauls them out of the woods. This improves the productivity of the horses while minimizing the impact of equipment in the woods.
Photo courtesy of John Plowden.

Keeping the mechanized equipment only on the main skid road and landing keeps it from damaging the woodlot, and it also makes logging with horses more effective. "Using a tractor and forwarder with a pair of horses and the right timber, you can get 4,000 or 5,000 [board] feet out in a day," says Brown. "And it all depends on the job; sometimes we use nothing but two horses, and sometimes we use every piece of equipment we have."

Brown got his start with horses in 1975 after his wife's father gave him a draft horse. "I began just going out to get firewood with a single draft horse," he recalls. "Then I got more and more and more horses and I was selling a lot of firewood. I've sold as much as 1,000 face cord of firewood a year, all hauled out with horses." Over time he expanded beyond firewood to hauling sawlogs as well.

Brown says, "Most of what I've learned [about horses and logging with them] has been through hands-on experience." Like Plowden, Brown has used his experience to build and sell skid carts, and both conduct clinics for others who are interested in learning proper, safe horse logging methods.

For the most part, Brown says he logs using a team of two horses. "There are times where I'll use one horse; I recently did one job where the site was so rocky you couldn't get around there with two horses," he explains. He adds that when it comes to skidding heavier hardwoods, two horses are much better.

Though they can't match the pulling power of a skidder, horses can haul out big logs, Brown emphasizes. "I've skidded short stuff, and I've skidded 40-foot logs. It depends on the wood. We did a job last year where we skidded poles out and they had to be long because they were being used to build a log home," he explains. Typical logs are cut to about 21 feet in the woods to ensure they'll produce two 10-foot logs for the mill. Larger-diameter trees sometimes have to be cut down to 10 to 12 feet in the woods so the horses can skid them out.

Regardless of the length of the wood, like all loggers, Brown says that horse loggers need to place an importance on productivity. "I want to skid at least 1,500 to 2,000 [board] feet a day, every day," says Brown. In the heat of summer, that might mean using two pairs of horses, alternating throughout the day, he explains. "The big thing is the heat and humidity. Anything that's tough on you is tough on horses."

Winter is a great time for horse logging. Brown says that once everything is frozen and icy, "you can skid really heavy logs really easily; all you have to do is get it started. Sometimes the bigger challenge isn't skidding, it's getting the heck out of its way once it starts sliding!" He uses full-cork pulling shoes on his horses with Borium on the bottom for extra grip in the winter - the equine equivalent of skidder chains. "It's unbelievable what they can do, even on glare ice," he says.

Horse logging requires a little extra planning when taking on jobs farther from home. Brown says that for the right jobs he has no problem traveling and has a horse trailer with sleeping quarters. All that's required is someplace for the horses. "A lot of people who hire me have horses, so they have a barn or a pasture," says Brown. In fact, it's better if the horses can be kept on-site. "If you don't have to trailer a horse 60 or 70 miles a day, they have a lot more legs under them," he adds.

While most horse logging is done with teams of horses, sometimes single horses are used to help better navigate logs through tight areas.
Photo courtesy of John Plowden.

This is the kind of thing a skidder logger doesn't have to think about, but Brown says that horse loggers face many of the same challenges as loggers using equipment. "The bottom line is that these days everyone is having to skid more logs for less money, it doesn't matter what you're pulling them with. Guys using skidders are facing the same thing," he states.

If horse loggers can't necessarily compete with skidders in terms of productivity, they can offer woodlot owners an advantage when it comes to low-impact logging. "One of the problems with skidders is they're straight-line machines. The driver puts it in gear and goes. They're not watching out for that little 3-inch red oak or whatever, they're headed for the landing," says Brown. "The end result is the same with horse logging: We get logs on the landing, but I think we're a little bit kinder to everything along the way. Not that you can't knock a lot of trees down with a pair of horses, because you can. And I should say that I've seen guys in skidders do a great job. But if you use your head, you can really watch out for things with the horses."

The biggest difference between horses and skidders is their size and the impact that has on woodlots. Brown says, "I can get my horses through a 7-foot opening, where most skidders have to have 12 or 13 feet. The 6 or 7 feet of woods that I don't run over, I tell all my landowners that I'm going to give them that for free," he jokes. "I tell them to just send me a check when they finally harvest those trees."

All joking aside, Brown says that while some woodlot owners appreciate the low-impact nature of horse logging, "they all want to know how big the check is going to be. They like the idea of the horses, but they also like the idea of getting a big check. I have to try to tell them that it's not just about the check they get today; it's also about the check they get 30 years down the road. I can make that check 30 years down the road a lot bigger, because I'm not going to tear up and run over the trees that are being left, and I'm not going to make a lot of roads all over the place."

Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt. Over the past 10 years, he has covered a wide range of agricultural operations around the Northeast. He is always on the lookout for unusual stories.