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Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine

February 2000

Dragging a tree down a trail to a more accessible, hard-surfaced road. © Paul Scott

A peaceful harvest

Skidding logs with horses is quiet, economical and ecological.

Paul Scott


Dragging a tree down a trail to a more accessible, hard-surfaced road.

© Paul Scott

Horse teams may be nearby
Heavy horses are lighter on the soil

"Step up, buddies." Dick and Dan leaned into their work. Muscles flexed and we were under way. The felled tree made a swishing sound as the team dragged it through the soft snow, partway across a frozen lake, then into a lane that curved through a black spruce swamp.

Dick and Dan are English Shires. Black with red highlights, they sport four white fetlocks between them. Dick weighs 1,800 pounds and stands 17 hands high. Dan is a tad lighter and smaller. Together they're a lot of horseflesh. The buddies and their owner / teamster, Russ, were helping me move some felled tamaracks. I wanted to build a 300-foot boardwalk, and tamarack is the most weather-resistant wood that I have in any abundance.

Our finest tamaracks grow along the edge of Lake Bogbound, a 6-acre spread of water on the south forty. Russ suggested that I fell the trees so that the tops lay on the lake. That way, he could back up to the trees and skid them out without having to take the team into dense brush.

It worked slick. Russ backed the horses to a downed and limbed tree. Dan had reservations about backing up, but he did it. The horses stood still while I wrapped a chain around the top of a felled trunk and hooked it to the cart located behind the team and on which Russ stood.

"Step up." The team dragged the tree onto the frozen lake and stopped. I unhooked the chain. Russ took the team to the butt end of the tree. Using a peavey, I raised the tree butt, slipped the chain around it and hooked the chain to the cart. I kept the chain as short as possible, trying to raise the butt end to give the horses a bit of leverage. "Step up," and the tree made that swishing sound through the snow. Some of those trees were fairly large, up to 17-inch in diameter. D&D never complained.

It took two days to move the trees. The buddies skidded them from the lake, down a 45-rod lane, then 20 rods to an improvised landing east of our garden.

Horses allowed us to retrieve a truly handsome tree, large and straight, that was a bit too far into the bush and tilted slightly in the wrong direction. I felled it anyway, confident that we would figure a way to drag it out. We did. It required seven chains for a total of 90 feet. We made the connection with scarcely a link to spare. Lucky thing I collect old chains and maintain them in good repair. I had to cut through the ice on the under side of the trunk in order to free it from the frozen rock-hard grip. That tree either had to come out whole, or we'd leave all but the nearest eight-foot log, for we had no more chain. The horses could come no closer as they were breaking the ice over a bottomless strip of bog. Of course, every foot of chain reduced the advantage the horses had. Still, they dragged that tree onto the lake without strain.

I've since sawn the trees into logs and transported them to a neighbor, a high school teacher who operates a sawmill as a sideline. The band type sawmill stands in a corner of his hayfield.

D&D impressed me as calm, cooperative beasts willing to do their best for their human partner. Watching Russ work with them, I realized that "team" properly referred

not only to a brace of horses harnessed to one another, but rather to matched horses and teamster working together. Matched because, as Russ explained, the horses are paired according to size, speed and temperament. Russ respected his horses, and they trusted him completely. They were more than willing to work hard for him. When they jangled the harness, or steam rose from their flanks, or they panted, or at any other sign of tiredness, Russ let them rest. At break, they lunched on hay. Me? I was too busy for lunch.

I admired Russ's skill in turning the team and cart right around on our one-lane road. My pickup requires two Y-turns to reverse itself in that same spot. When turning sharp, Russ sometimes encouraged the buddies by making kissing sounds. Their ears would prick up and they'd tighten the turn. It was a pleasure to see what the three teammates could accomplish together.

Horse teams may be nearby

When planning this project, I had no idea how to find a teamster to skid the logs. I called members of the local riding club and other horse associations. Everybody was helpful and, somewhat to my surprise, I soon had the names of three teamsters. Two lived some distance away, but the other was within 15 miles of me. That cut the travel expense and made the enterprise affordable. It turns out that Russ is a bison rancher who also owns about 20 draft mules and horses. Fairly often, a visitor will find him using animal muscle instead of gas-powered machinery in the day-to-day operation of his ranch.

I wanted to have those logs moved by horse rather than by skidder for two reasons. First, a skidder would require a drag area wider than the existing lane. I didn't want to cut several score of black spruce that I had no need to remove. As it turned out, I felled only the trees that I had marked; no others were cut or damaged. Second, there are places under the snow where the bog soil does not freeze. I worried that a skidder would expose and compact more of this soil.

Heavy horses are lighter on the soil

George Host, Ph.D., of the Natural Resources Research Institute in Duluth, Minn., is researching the effect of logging machinery on different types of soils. The concern is compaction. There has been little corresponding research on soil compaction due to logging with horses. Host hypothesizes that the compaction rate would be much less severe when using horses than when using conventional machinery. The machines leave a wider, more uniformly compacted area.

Biologists once believed that the freeze-thaw cycle of seasonal changes would reverse soil compaction following logging. Research by Host and his colleagues at a number of sites in the Great Lakes states shows that this is not true, at least in the relatively short term. They used a sort of cart called a wobble wheel to simulate the compaction that results following logging. The sites chosen spanned a variety of soil types. Seven years of follow-up observations reveal that freeze-thaw cycles have not reversed compaction. Soil types at the various sites show little or no recovery. Aspen growing on such sites are only 75 percent as tall and their biomass (weight) was about half of those on the control plots. The research shows that forest productivity declines in areas with compacted soil.

On sloping or fragile soils where compaction can occur, the author says skidding logs with horses may be the way to go. © Paul Scott
On sloping or fragile soils where compaction can occur, the author says skidding logs with horses may be the way to go.

© Paul Scott

Compaction occurs quickly. Much of the damage occurs in the first 4-5 passes with equipment. The recommendations, therefore, are for loggers to keep their machines on established routes and to avoid making that first pass on uncompacted soil. Newer – and terribly expensive – machines exert much less pressure per square inch of soil. And techniques, such as driving over a bed of slash (branches trimmed from felled trees), may further reduce compaction.

While continuing to monitor the soil and tree growth at these experimental sites, Dr. Host and colleagues are preparing to mount a Global Postioning System on a skidder. They will then use a computer to map where the skidder actually goes. This will enable them to sample soil affected by the movements of a working skidder.

The Sustainable Woods Cooperative of Spring Green, Wis. uses horses in its forestry management. Doing so costs the co-op about twice as much as using conventional machinery. (It also uses small winches and "pre-haulers" – logging implements more common in Europe and northeast Canada designed to lessen the environmental impact of logging, that also add to the cost of business.) The horses prove especially valuable on steep slopes where minimal impact means less erosion. The co-op offsets the increased cost by adapting a market value approach – acting as landowner, forester, mill owner and marketer rolled into one entity. Above all, says director Jim Birkemeier, selective cutting becomes economical. Loggers can afford to keep skidders out of the woods when the soil is wet and vulnerable to damage. A horse can snake out a single log and leave only a narrow trail. A skidder would drag a dozen full length trees, require a wider area and could do considerable damage to trees along the sides of its path. The trees it drags can break saplings and scrape the bark off larger trees.

During the last trip down the lane, I told Russ about the property history. A hundred years ago, a landowner made a road through the woods to the lake to cut ice for his ice house, which lay a mile to the north. He transported the ice with a team of horses. (I didn't tell the other part of the story that the team broke through the ice and drowned.) Parts of that old wagon road still exist, but the lane we traveled is the best-maintained portion. That old settler laid out the road with economy. A team of horses could fit, but barely. In places, only a hand span separated the animals from the trunks of trees on either side, trees that predate the road.

I felt happy to see horses working in the lane. I've had a skidder in my woods many times. I didn't, however, want to send one over the swamp and into this lane. Skidders are noisy and inevitably leak oil. Besides, you can't look one in the eye and recognize the intelligence looking back at you. Nor can you hear the quiet swishing sound that a horse-drawn log makes through soft snow on a bright winter day.

Paul Scott writes from South Range, Wis.