Getting Started with Horse Logging

market gardening with fjords
Logging at Southern Draft Animal Days, Newport, Tenn., 2009
by Jason Rutledge
Based on my 20-plus years of experience logging with horses in the Appalachian region of Virginia, I regularly answer the following 10 questions about getting started as a horse logger:
  1. What horse breeds may be used for logging? Any breed of draft horse can log. By draft horse I mean a large, heavy boned working animal weighing around 1,600 pounds. Smaller draft animals can log, but will be limited in their abilities by their size. Many people log with oxen. I work Suffolk horses, but any breed can do the work.
  2. What do these horses cost? In this region the average price of a mature trained working horse is around $1,200. Younger horses that have not been trained are cheaper, with weanlings selling for around $500.
  3. How many horses do you need? We generally work with a team of two horses in our operation, which includes the use of a modern steel logging arch. We use a horse single on steeper ground to bunch logs at a main skid trail for forwarding with the team and arch.
  4. How much can a team pull? Using the logging arch and a team of draft horses we move, on average, about 250 board feet of hardwood per skid. This load would be approximately 3,000 pounds of weight in an average skid condition, with the load capacity being less on adverse uphill skidding or extraction. The capacity is less for a single horse skidding on the ground, without the arch to provide front-end suspension of the logs.
  5. What skid distance is possible? Once the skid distance becomes more than 1,500' we find the production is considerably reduced because of the long return empty. We therefore try to lay out our sites with skid distances of this length or less. Skid distance means from stump to landing or bunched to a forwarding spot for further movement with various methods, including mechanized forwarders, skidders, farm tractors, or multiple hitched horses and an arch.
  6. How steep can horses skid? Skidding uphill (adverse) is seriously limited with draft animals, so a small mountain can limit production if logs must be moved uphill. Skidding downhill is far less limiting, in that the horses can move tremendous loads off the mountain downhill. We often use a single horse to skid downhill, on the ground, sometimes creating a log train of multiple logs attached with grabs to provide braking for the entire package to be brought off the mountain at once. Working on steep slopes requires greater teamster skill and well-trained horses. It is best to fell trees parallel to the slope and extract them as large as possible, taking care not to cause them to run over the horses or their handler. The skid trails must be clear of objects that might cause logs to run on the horses, such as smooth rock, slick roots, round limbs, or anything that prevents braking contact with the soil surface.
  7. What expenses are involved? The daily cost of working horses includes feed for the animals, equipment, and human labor. An average sized draft horse weighing 1,600 pounds eats 40 pounds of good well cured forage, grass hay, or grass legume mixed hay, and one pound of mixed grain per 100 pounds of body weight, fed at the rate of 8 pounds of grain twice a day, about 12 hours apart, morning and night, plus all the water it will drink at least three times daily and free choice while at rest. A horse needs free-choice access to salt at all times. You can compute this cost in your local values for the ingredients, plus the horse handler's labor. Our cost is around $3.00 per 40-pound bale of hay, and $12.00 per 100 pounds of grain = $0.12 a pound times 16 pounds = $1.92 daily in grain. The horses use about 50 pounds of salt per team per month, costing approximately $6.00. 
  8. What is the hourly cost per horse? A simple computing of the above figures suggest around $5.00 per day cost for the horses, divided by how many hours you work the horses. If you work eight hours, your direct daily input cost would be $0.62 cents per hour just to feed each horse (not including the handler or other cost such as shoeing and vet care). Shoeing is the most expense single cost of logging with horses. Shoeing with professional shoes that have heel caulks and toe plates for added traction costs about $200.00 every eight weeks, adding $3.33 per day. On an hourly basis this added cost would be $0.41 cents per hour plus $0.62 cents = $1.03 per hour per horse direct cost. 
  9. In what depth of snow can horses log? We have to log year around, since it is what we do for a living. More loggers are experienced with snow in the northern parts of the country and in Canada. We work in snow up to a couple of feet. Sometimes wet snow balls up under the horses' feet. We have to stop and pick out their feet, and sometimes grease their soles to lessen the snowballing effect. Logging in snow influences our ability to log on steep ground, as the logs will run over the horses in slick snow. We therefore work only on level or gentle ground when it snows, and when the snow is deep we do other activities, like felling and skid trail clearing.
  10. What equipment is necessary? Our modern horse logging equipment for the horses alone includes nylon harness, collars, singletrees, doubletrees, breast yoke, log arch, chains, grabs, and a hammer. The chainsaw operator requires personal protective gear, as does the horse handler.

This form of forestry not only restores the ecological conditions, it restores the human dignity dividend of practicing true stewardship by leaving the world around us better as a result of our presence.

rh horse logo
 Jason Rutledge is president of the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. The above is a summary of a presentation he gave in March 2001 during Community Forestry Week in Washington DC.

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