Horse logging thrives
When the first settlers came to America their primary objectives were clearing the land to grow food and building shelter. It wasn’t until Columbus second voyage in 1493 that agriculture supplies were included. Those items included seeds, plants and domestic livestock. Animals consisted of a few light Spanish horses for cavalry service, sheep, heifers, calves and other small animals.
Oxen were not employed until the heifer reached maturity. The settlers could not afford the luxury of an animal for milk and a different animal for meat. Consequently, the same animal was used for milk and meat. These sturdy bovines also served well as a team of oxen for farming and to clear the land.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries horses in America were used primarily for riding and pulling light vehicles. Oxen were the preferred draft animal by the American farmer. Their cost was half that of horses. They required less feed and provided food when they died or were no longer useful. However, oxen could only work half the speed of horses. Their cloven hoof left them nearly useless on frozen fields and roads. And they were unsuitable for drafting the new farm equipment developed in the 19th century. This led to the emergence of the draft horse that was first imported in 1830. Subsequently, the heavy horse became the primary working animal in the United States.
DRAFT HORSE USE EVOLVES
The development of the draft horse through selection and breeding became necessary and lucrative during the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century. During this period great numbers of draft horses were imported from Europe. These horses became the foundation of today’s American draft horse breeds.
According to an earlier article in the Draft Horse Journal, “The number of horses and mules in the United States peaked in 1920 at about 26 million.” These animals remained key factors in both farming and logging. Although draft horses became the principal farm power, the industrial revolution created the downfall of the heavy horse in America.
As this revolution evolved, the Plain community rejected mechanical power. They remained steadfast to their culture by farming and logging with draft animals. Through their ethos, many Amish and Mennonite have become astute breeders of the magnificent draft horse breeds.
LOGGING WITH HORSES
Henry Raber and his sons own Sharp Turn Lumber sawmill in Baltic, Ohio. Raber shared insightful information on logging with horses. Combined with experience, Raber gained knowledge from the Ohio State Forestry Department to aid in forestry management as it relates to their logging business.
To maintain a healthy forest, proper management is necessary. A primary factor is maintaining an open healthy environment. The number of canopies growing at the top of a tree determines the proper stage for harvesting. A canopy is the ring of branches with leaves. The maximum number of canopies touching other trees should not exceed four. Without adequate light, trees will die in four or five years. Raber noted that trees grow three times faster over the span of five years with proper light and nutrients. Naturally, dead trees should be felled along with those suitable for lumber.
In Ohio, oak is the dominate tree suitable for lumber. Poplar and cherry trees are frequently harvested as well. Raber selects the older trees and cuts them regularly. He stated that trees are like a field crop. When they reach maturity, it’s time to cut them. He prefers to harvest trees on a need basis. This affords periodic harvesting throughout a forest owner’s life. Some loggers will cut everything larger than 16 to 18 inches in diameter. This method allows young saplings to flourish.
Raber’s logging outfit consists of three men and two horse teams. Some loggers will operate with a three-horse team. Still others employ mules. One crew member is the designated cutter while the other two drive the teams. Depending on the job, an additional team and driver may be hired. Equipment includes axes, chain saws, and logging carts. As for the harness, Biothane is preferred due to its maintenance free and durable qualities.
The Raber family strives to log during the winter months. There is less disruption to the forest floor when the ground is frozen. After trees are marked, they are felled with chain saws. Limbs are then trimmed, and the log is dragged to a location where trucks will load for transport.
A team of horses will typically skid about 3,000 board feet in a full work day. This volume consists of approximately 25 logs cut in lengths of 12 to 16 feet. The logs are dragged by draft horses hitched to a two-wheel cart. As the team begins to pull, the log raises where it’s secured by the swivel grab, skidding tongs. This enables less resistance when dragging the log. It’s not uncommon to drag a log a half mile to the loading area.
A typical work day starts by feeding and watering the horses. The outfit aims to be on location, fully equipped to start work at 8 o’clock in the morning. The crew works until 11:30 when the horses are unhitched, fed and watered. This provides rest time for the horses while the crew enjoys their lunch. The work concludes at 4:30 when the outfit returns home. Horses are once again fed and watered.
Raber estimated the startup cost for equipment and a team of horses at approximately $18,000. “This breaks down at $12,000 for a well-trained team of draft horses. A two-wheel cart costing $1,700. Harness and additional equipment would run an additional $4,300. Compare horse logging costs with mechanical equipment. That equipment can run up to $100,000 including a skid loader costing from $35,000 to $40,000,” Raber detailed.
Raber credits his love for horses to his Amish culture. “I started working with horses when I was 7 years old. As a kid, it was fun going to the field or woods with dad to work with the horses. Today we farm our 120 acres with Belgian horses. When we started Sharp Turn Lumber sawmill, the horses were put to good use for logging,” Raber said.
In 2019, Raber tapped into a niche market by breeding and training pulling horses. “We strive to breed Belgians that are more suitable for farming. Through our experience, we found a wider, muscular horse has a preferred temperament for heavy draft and pulling competition,” he said.
The colts resulting from their breeding and are raised on the Raber family farm. At about 2 years of age training begins. “The woods are a great place to break a new horse. They’re very awkward the first couple days because their feet can get tangled up. However, each day we see improvement when they’re teamed in a hitch. As a result of this training, a young horse is good to go in a week’s time. We normally do not sell a trained team until they’re 4 or 5 years of age,” Raber said.
Raber explained further his preference for logging with horses. “Although we prefer logging in the winter months, horses are suitable to work throughout the year. They are less harmful to the forest floor as compared to mechanical equipment. Skid loaders will often cut trenches causing erosion. And horses can work in tighter spaces.”
He concluded, “I enjoy working horses in the woods. It takes longer to complete a job compared to mechanical equipment. And additional time translates into a little more cost. But forest conservation is a critical benefit achieved with horses. An added value for us is being able to break our colts in a logging team. With 8 million forested acres in Ohio, logging thrives with our family involvement.”
Raber welcomes your contact to discuss horse logging or his breeding experiences, he can be reached at (303) 275-9086.
Hendricks was a resident of Colorado for 32 years. He now resides in Mansfield, Ohio, his home state. Hendricks covers a vast array of subjects relating to agriculture. Email at email@example.com.