Why Horse Logging?

We often hear that folks perceive horse logging as romantic, nostalgic, or a throwback to the past.  Although logging with horses can paint a pastoral picture, modern horse logging actually entails so much more.

Primary is the low-impact nature of using horses as the “base machine” for skidding material out of the forest.  This is apparent by many measures.  It has been established that overall soil disturbance and compaction in a managed area is greatly reduced when compared to ground-based mechanical equipment such as rubber-tired skidders.  Although the pressure of four hooves bearing the weight of a 1,600-2,000# animal is great, it is spot compaction rather than the continuous track created by mechanical equipment.  The relatively small size of draft animals as compared to mechanical equipment causes less of the total area of forest floor to be disturbed.  Also, with a single horse being able to easily work within a 3’ trail corridor (6’ for a team) as compared to 10-12’ for a skidder, primary skid trails are more like walking paths, rather than roads, through the forest.  With less disturbed area, there is minimal potential for severe damage to the remaining trees and understory vegetation.  When horses do rub against a tree, there is no denying that hair & hide can’t take the bark off a tree like steel can!

Other than obvious “on the ground” advantages, there are numerous other low-impact aspects as well.  Rather than hearing the significant noise generated by a mechanical skidder, the only sounds from a horse operation would be the jingle of trace chains, soft verbal commands from the teamster, and the occasional whinny.  There is no doubt that it is more aesthetically pleasing to see a horse almost silently moving through the woods as compared to a 20,000# skidder.  Additional low-impact advantages; horses don’t pollute or use fossil fuel and are carbon neutral.  The only exhaust that is emitted from a horse is in the form of fertilizer.  The fuel is grass & grain, which contains carbohydrates that were created by solar energy. Compare that to using petroleum-based fuel that has, and would have, remained sequestered deep within the earth for millions of years. Grass & grain fuel on the other hand, are considered components of a short and benign carbon cycle.  Another point; horses are a renewable resource.  You’ll never find a baby mechanical skidder parked in the barn the next morning!

It is a fact that our forested landscape is becoming increasingly fragmented.  More people are moving to the wildland-urban interface (WUI) every year.  Most of these private parcels are small (< 40 acres) and many are occupied as the owner’s primary residence or vacation home.  Landowner’s objectives and desires for their properties are often very different than that from traditional forestry uses.  Aesthetics, recreation, wildlife habitat, ecological integrity, and “place of being” often come to the forefront.  Coupled with a high human population density, the aforementioned potential impacts associated with a large mechanical operation are often not desirable from the landowner’s (or neighbors) point of view.  The fact that these parcels are small also favors horse logging from an economic standpoint.  The mobilization costs for a large mechanical operation can be very significant.  Many machine operators’ are not interested or cannot afford to work these smaller properties.  Small operations that utilize skid steers, compact tracked machines, and ATVs’ that have lower mobilization costs can be effective, but are still subject to the issues mentioned previously and can be extremely limited by severe or broken terrain.  Move in costs for a horse logging operation are negligible and horses excel on working on all but the most severe terrain.  Fixed overhead and operational costs for horse logging are less when compared to those of mechanical logging, which relies primarily on economy of scale. The economics of horse logging allow the smaller forested properties to be managed cost effectively while meeting, or even exceeding, the landowner’s objectives and expectations.

Speaking of economics, there is a “big picture” aspect to horse logging, albeit on a local scale.  With mechanical operations, for example, very little of the money that was used to purchase that new skidder remains local.  The local dealer will pocket a very small percentage, but the majority goes to corporate headquarters and is then distributed to shareholders throughout the World.  Most components and parts are manufactured in other countries that do not have the fair labor standards that we enjoy in North America, not to mention the fact that we are shipping valuable domestic employment overseas.  With the fuel consumption of large forestry machinery do we need to even mention our dependence on foreign petroleum and all of the issues that entails?  With your local horse logger the key word is “local”.  Chances are that horse was bred, raised, and purchased locally.  The hay, grain, and bedding were produced and purchased locally.  Services of the farrier, veterinarian, and harness maker are usually local people who spend their money locally.  There is no denying that locally generated money spent on local small business and entrepreneurs tends to stay local.  The end result is a significant contribution to a much more sustainable local economy.

This is not necessarily meant to be a slight against mechanical forestry equipment.  It is meant to highlight the benefits, both environmental & socioeconomic, that logging with draft animals offer as well as their ideal suitability for managing smaller forested properties.  There is opportunity for both mechanical and horse logging operations to compliment one another, however.  Horse logging can be an ideal pre-bunching system.  When combined with an appropriate piece of equipment, such as a mechanical forwarder, the horse logger can operate within the context of what he excels at, performing selective tree removal with minimal impact.  The horse logger skids and pre-bunches material to the edge of a pre-existing road or wide trail and the forwarder comes along, picks up the material, and transports it to the landing.  This blending of systems has great potential in a variety of situations and is something that can augment the quality, value, and economics of forest management activities.

As you can see, there is much more to modern horse logging than a throwback to the nostalgic past.  The benefits that can be realized by forest landowners, the community, and the environment are real.  A horse logger and his horse(s) have a true partnership in the woods and everyday life.  You cannot turn off the key and walk away from your willing partner.  This bond is evident whenever you have the opportunity to observe horse logging in action.  The experience, both real and perceived, is one of harmony with nature not against it.  The “pastoral image” is a perk, as the on-going operation is easy on the senses.  So nostalgia & romanticism, well maybe just a bit…
If you haven't already, please visit our Links page as a resource to further explore the possibilites of using horse logging as an effective & low-impact forest management tool.  Also, feel free to contact us at horselogger@gmail.com with any further questions you may have.