Let's Go Horse Logging

Horse logging is the right choice if you want to harvest your trees sustainably and promote healthier woodlands.

| December 2006/January 2007

The vision of a team of enormous draft horses pulling a log down a forest path may hearken back to days gone by, but it may be more modern than you think. A sizable movement is underway toward more environmentally sound forest management practices called “modern horse logging” or “restorative forestry.” Perfect for small- to medium-sized woodlands, this method uses selective harvesting to open the forest and allow air and sunlight to reach the healthiest trees. Over time, restorative forestry can increase logging profits and wildlife diversity, while greatly reducing the environmental impact of harvesting trees. Selectively culling weak trees mimics how nature also clears the forest with storms, wind and other natural occurrences. In addition, using horses reduces damage to the land and remaining trees. The healthier trees left standing hold not only the greatest revenue potential, but also the most promise for providing a beautiful, thriving habitat for wildlife, recreation and overall environmental health.

Nature’s Logging Machines

To remove heavy logs from woodland areas, horse loggers rely on sturdy draft horse breeds, such as the Belgian, Suffolk Punch and Percheron. Because no heavy machines are involved, horse logging is low-impact. A horse typically weighs about 1,600 pounds, whereas a rubber-tired skidder can weigh up to 10,000 pounds.

A few organizations are spearheading the movement toward modern horse logging, including the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation (HHFF), a nonprofit group based in Virginia, as well as the North American Horse and Mule Loggers Association. Jason Rutledge, president of the HHFF, spends several weeks each year on the road endorsing the benefits of horse logging. “Horses are the ultimate low-impact overland extraction technique available, period,” he says.

Horse logging usually involves harnessing a draft horse that then drags or “skids” logs along the ground to remove them from the forest. Horses can maneuver through the trees much more nimbly than cumbersome machinery, and also can skid logs up or down steep slopes with greater ease. This allows the horse logger a wider range of options in determining which trees to harvest and which to leave intact.

Small-acreage landowners often benefit most from horse logging. In a 1,000-acre forest, industrial log extraction has a significantly higher efficiency margin than horse logging, because skidding machines can drag multiple trees along bulldozed roads — quickly producing big results (and money). But as property size decreases to less than a couple hundred acres, the use of horses becomes more viable. Horses allow you to care for a smaller tract of land in a more intimate, selective way, increasing the land’s overall health and beauty, and avoiding the damage caused by industrial tree harvesting.

The small disturbances on the forest floor caused by horse logging even can be beneficial by helping seeds and nuts germinate. In addition, horses produce natural “fertilizer,” rather than the noxious gas or diesel exhaust that their mechanical counterparts belch into the atmosphere.

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