A trained forester revs his chainsaw as he buzzes and directionally fells a tree, then limbs it up before attaching a steel chain to the top of it. He then subtly nudges the reins and commands in a terse voice “Gee!” (right) or “Haw!” (left), to maneuver his draft horses back so he can attach the other end of the chain to the wheeled cart. Soon, the only sounds in the woods are the clop of the horses’ hooves and the jangle of the chain as the log skids across the ground. These impacts are minimal compared to the roar of the diesel engine.
Horse logging is an echo of an earlier, distant time but it is gaining steam as a modern, sustainable form of logging. This practice goes back nearly 10,000 years, though it almost went extinct in the 1980s with the advent of advanced technology like feller bunchers, bulldozers, skidders, and forwarders. In the last several years, a renaissance has been occurring in the Northeast as interest in horse logging has burgeoned.
Logging has been a part of American history and deeply rooted in the growth of the United States since the early 1600s when the Jamestown settlers began to cut timber to build the first settlement. It is also embedded in the American psyche, as with the folk hero and lumberjack Paul Bunyan and his blue ox Babe. Bunyan represents hard work and the labor needed in the logging industry. Over the years, there have been many ways of transporting logs. The most efficient way was to cut timber near water and float the logs downstream for processing or delivery. Log flumes were tied together like rafts then floated downstream. Once it became necessary to move farther inland away from waterways due to lack of trees, loggers relied on horses and oxen to haul timber.
People are returning to this method with a renewed vitality because they want to be lighter on the land and have a smaller ecological footprint. Trained foresters that log with horses survey a forest searching for dead and dying trees to harvest first. This practice gives the most robust standing trees room to grow and allows a complex soil structure to develop without being harmed. Horses are a low impact method of transporting the fallen timber because they place just one hoof at a time on the forest floor.
Horse logging ensures the forest’s long-term health and growth by allowing younger saplings, brush, and other vegetation to regenerate. It also doesn’t harm the mycelium network under the soil. Horse logging enables foresters to get into spots where skidders and bulldozers can’t go and surgically remove trees without compacting soil or cutting wide swaths for roads. A horse can maneuver upslope or through the brush that big machines can’t. The only fuel required for these solar-powered engines is hay, grasses, and grains.
When landowners realize that the residual damage to the forests is a cost to them, they will acknowledge non-damaging practices like horse logging to be an investment in the future of the land. Studies show that woods logged with horses grow at a more vigorous pace and have higher production than conventional mechanically logged areas. These foresters aren’t worried about short-term profit for shareholders but are thinking about harvesting wood ten and twenty years down the line.
But the trade is not for everyone. A horse logger must have the patience to work with unpredictable animals and the diligence to work them nearly every day. Horse logging is very arduous and dangerous work, but the rewards are plenty as the ancient art exponentially expands.