Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Scott Barbour really concentrates as he backs up his Belgians to hitch up to a North Idaho log.

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985

by Jim Lotan, Research Forester, USDA Forest Service, Intermountain Research Station, Forestry Sciences Laboratory, Missoula, MT

Around the turn of the century, early day foresters called Northern Idaho a wonderful place, a veritable paradise of woods and lakes. It was a dense forest of big, beautiful white pine, cedar, larch, Douglas-fir, hemlock, and grand fir trees, without roads and power lines. Northern Idaho is no longer roadless and most of the big, old mature white pines have either been hauled away to the mill or have long since succumbed to an introduced disease, white pine blister rust.

Northern Idaho is still a wonderful place, a veritable paradise of woods and lakes. Today, however, it is fairly well roaded. The forests are owned by federal agencies, the state of Idaho, Native Americans, private industry, and small private owners. Although much of it is in large tracts, it is often interspersed with relatively small “stump farms.”

Northern Idaho has the most productive forests of the Rocky Mountains. It has a combination of climate and soils that is highly favorable to growing trees. Moisture is relatively abundant because of the western flow of air coming in off the Pacific Ocean. Soils are highly productive. Nearly 7,000 years ago Mount Mazama blew its top (this is now the Crater Lake area) and deposited a thick layer of ash on the area. This ash cap together with wind-blown soils provides the nutrients and moisture-holding capacity to grow diverse and productive forests.

Roads and productive forests make horse logging efficient and economical. Horse logging is not at all uncommon in Northern Idaho. The University of Idaho in Moscow is therefore a logical place to conduct a Horse Logging Short Course. The University of Idaho also has a 7,000-acre experimental forest dedicated to experimentation and trial of new and innovative approaches to forestry. It is managed as a working forest producing about 2 million board feet of timber each year. Harold Osborne is the manager of the experimental forest and organizer of a two-day horse logging short course held in Moscow on October 11-12, 1985. Harold was instrumental in organizing the first horse logging short course at the University of Idaho in 1982. Mike Fitz reported on the first course in the spring 1983 issue of the Small Farmer’s Journal (Vol. 7 No. 2: 60-61).

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Scott and his team, “Duke” and “Rusty,” approaching the log deck along the access road. The logs are sometimes bunched with Scott’s small tractor kept for this purpose. The logs will be loaded with a self-loading truck and hauled to a nearby sawmill.

I have known Harold for quite a few years and have spent time with him on the experimental forest. When visiting with Harold on forestry matters, I did not realize that he had an interest and enthusiasm for horse logging. It just happens that I also have an interest in modern-day use of the draft horse. I use a draft horse team on a small farm in the Bitterroot Valley in Montana and skid firewood with them on my woodlot. Further, in my job as research forester, I have a professional interest in the effects of different methods of logging on tree establishment and growth. Therefore, it was natural for me to accept Harold’s invitation to sit in on his 1985 short course on horse logging. Harold’s second course attracted over 30 people from a variety of interests: foresters, artists, students, forestry consultants, private landowners, and horse loggers gathered in Moscow to further their interests in this ancient art. Some were experienced and some were not, but all came to the short course with some degree of interest in logging with horses.

The first day was spent on campus listening to speakers provide many facts and figures on horse logging. The second day was spent in the field watching Scott Barbour log with his registered Belgian team, “Duke” and “Rusty,” on the experimental forest in the Palouse Range near Moscow. Participants learned of the history of horse logging in Northern Idaho; learned something of tack, equipment, and operation of logging with horses; how to harness and hitch the team; learned of the capabilities, limitations, environmental effects, and economics of horse logging; and heard first hand of two case histories: the LaTour Demonstration Forest near Redding, California, reported by Dave McNamara, and the University of Idaho Experimental Forest, reported by Nick Kent. As an extra treat, Patricio Carey told us of the use of oxen for logging in his native Chile and why these animals are still being used in 1985. Near the end of the indoor session, a panel of people with varied interests was assembled and each person was given a chance to comment on horse logging.

A delightful member of this panel was Edith Betts, a private landowner. She said that although she was interested in getting a return from her timber, she also has a concern for esthetics. She uses unevenaged management (using selection regeneration methods) because she wants her forest to look natural following logging. She has real concerns about soil compaction, erosion, and wants to see the skid trails recover quickly. She does not want small trees and shrubs damaged. She has also had a problem in the past in getting big operators interested in logging her property.

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
The team returns to the forest to fetch another round of logs. Average skidding distance here is 350 feet.

And as important as her environmental concerns, Edith particularly enjoyed seeing the big horses work. She liked the jingle of the harness, the whinnying of the horses, and watching the horses work and respond to the verbal commands of the loggers.

Another view was presented by Mark Munkkittrick of Pacific Crown Lumber Co. from Plummer, Idaho. In answer to a query about discrimination against short logs, Mark said that short logs (16 ft.) were not a problem once they were received at the mill. In fact, he said that they were often cut to 16 ft. at the mill. Some log haulers just do not like to haul the short logs. Other haulers aren’t concerned.

Mark admitted that he did not have much experience with horse loggers, but what experience he had was not good. He had bought a sale where he thought the logger was going to use a tractor. A team was brought out and they took out only 60-80 thousand bfm and then quit the job. Mark did admit, however, that the logs were cleaner and the stobs and branches were cleaned off better than with tractor loggers.

Mark felt that, generally, log buyers had a negative attitude towards horse loggers. He had made a telephone survey just prior to attending the meeting and log buyers interviewed on the phone were not enthused about horse logging because:

  • Slash cleanup was not good enough.
  • Couldn’t skid uphill.
  • Production rate was too low.
  • Costs were too high.
  • There was a tendency for horse loggers to camp out on site.
  • There was no situation where horses could be used but that a tractor couldn’t do better.
  • Horse loggers are just people on a nostalgia kick. They are just hobbyists who are most often not reliable.

It would be inappropriate to make a point-by-point rebuttal to these comments, because it all depends upon the situation. The points presented show a strong prejudice against horse logging, perhaps by people that have had little or no experience with horse logging or who have had bad experiences with unreliable horse loggers. However, the landowner’s concern for management of his or her property should certainly take precedent over the logger’s convenience, particularly on small private holdings.

Because of widespread inexperience with horse logging in today’s society, well documented case studies are important to show exactly what horses can do. The University of Idaho short course provided participants with two well documented studies that answer many questions that people may have in considering using horses to log.

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Jerry Tower, District Forest Ranger, Pocatello, Idaho, was pleased with the minimal amount of disturbance caused by Scott’s team. This skid trail was only a few inches deep and only a few feet across.

LaTour Demonstration State Forest

The LaTour study was conducted in a commercial thinning where protecting the leave trees was an important consideration. The stand is composed of 1,000 trees per acre (91% true firs and 9% pine) and had never been logged previously. Slopes are gentle, ranging from 0 to 25%. In this study they compared logging using 6 Belgian Horses and a rubber-tired skidder (a Clark 667).

The horses were a little slower than the tractor, but overall costs were less. In this case it was more economical to log with the horses by about $10.00 a thousand board feet although most of this difference was in lower trucking costs, a result of using a more efficient self loading truck for logs skidded with the horses. Even without this advantage, the horses competed well. The horses skidded about 9,000 bfm per day compared to the tractor’s 13,000 bfm per day. An important difference between using horses and tractors was in the amount of damage to the residual stand. The tractor damaged about 16 leave trees per acre compared to 1 for the horses. In addition, half of the tractor-damaged trees had to be removed, while none of the horse damaged trees had to be removed.

In reporting on the LaTour study, Dave McNamara also remarked that he noticed a considerable difference in the nature of horse loggers compared to machine loggers in that the horse loggers usually were much more relaxed and didn’t mind pausing to talk (while their horses rested a few moments), whereas tractor loggers were always in a hurry and under much pressure to get on with the job. Apparently, production has to be maintained in order to make payments to the bank.

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Scott shoes his own team to keep down expenses. Here he removes a shoe that broke during the demonstration. The horse was out of commission for all of 10 minutes with no trip to town for parts.

University of Idaho Experimental Forest

This study was installed by the University of Idaho to obtain production rates by horses on a group selection harvest on the experimental forest. The study site is on the Flat Creek unit of the 7158-acre school forest. The stand being logged is composed of a typical northern Idaho mixed conifer forest high graded for large and valuable ponderosa pine, larch, and white pine in the early 1900’s. Prior to the recent logging, there were about 430 trees and 25 thousand board feet per acre. About 60% of the stand was in medium to large sawtimber. Slopes are from 5% to 40% and average 24%. Purpose of the logging was to increase vigor in the residual stand and to obtain tree regeneration in the understory.

The area was logged by Scott Barbour, an Idaho forestry graduate, who has been horse logging about 3 years. He used a team of registered 7-year-old Belgian geldings weighing about 3300 pounds. It took about an hour of falling and bucking to produce enough logs to keep the horses busy skidding for about an hour. Scott would sometimes work alone and sometimes he had a person falling and bucking.

Skidding production data were recorded by graduate student Nick Kent. Scott and his team skidded about 106 thousand bfm in 47 actual work days. His average daily production was 2.3 thousand bfm, for which he was paid $65 per thousand, including about $5 per thousand for data collection.

Conclusions from this study were similar to the LaTour Demonstration in that horses were shown to be effective, economical, and easy on the residual stand. Data were not available on the success of regenerating the stand.

With the frequent entries required in unevenaged management (using selection harvesting techniques), logging damage must be kept to a minimum, and the horses helped to accomplish this objective. To assist in this, log lengths were kept to 16 feet as an aid in maneuvering through the stand. From the viewpoint of the manager of the experimental forest, horse logging has an advantage in that stands do not have to be cut as heavily as with machinery to justify setup costs for the machinery. Silvicultural objectives could be met without a concern about over-cutting.

For the small private landowner, using horses has many advantages over machinery. They have a place for the right conditions and should not be dismissed as simply satisfying someone’s nostalgia kick. As shown in Lynn Miller’s books, Horses at Work and the Work Horse Handbook, draft horses have a legitimate place in today’s energy-conscious society. Some of these advantages and limitations in logging are summarized below:

Idaho Horse Logging Short Course 1985
Appearance of the mixed conifer stand during logging operation.

General Conclusions from Short Course

Some Advantages to Using Horses:

  • Damage to the residual stand (trees and other vegetation) is significantly less than when using machinery.
  • Soil disturbance and compaction is low.
  • Horses can maneuver in tighter spaces than machines.
  • Set up cost are lower than machinery.
  • Noise pollution is low.
  • Horse logging costs are lower than machinery under certain conditions, particularly on small tracts of timber.

Some Constraints of Using Horses to Log:

  • Horses generally have lower production rates than machines.
  • Horses generally should not be used to skid uphill on slopes over 10% and downhill on slopes over 40% (this is probably true for tractors also. On steep slopes cable systems are used).
  • Horses usually should not be used to skid logs larger than 24 inches diameter, although multiple hitches and skidding arches can assist in raising this limitation.
  • Sometimes horses do not expose sufficient mineral soil to obtain tree regeneration.
  • Horses have difficulty skidding on rocky ground.
  • It is not economical to use horses to skid beyond about 700 feet.

All in all, the warming fire and hot coffee were appreciated on a cool, but not unpleasant, October day in Idaho. Scott’s Belgians were willing performers. Old friends were discovered (sometimes under grey beards) and many new friends were made. Anyone with the idea that horse logging is history should attend this course. We thank you Harold, the many speakers, and Scott for another successful short course!

For more information see:

Fitz, Michael R., 1983. Horse Logging Short Course. Small Farmer’s Journal Vol. 7 No. 2: 60-61.

Gilman, Kristi; Miller, Lynn R., 1983. Horses at Work. Davila Art & Books, 219 p.

McNamara, Dave, 1984. Horse Logging at LaTour. California Forestry Note 88. State of California, Department of Forestry, 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA; 10 p.

McNamara, Dave, 1984. Horse Logging at LaTour. Small Farmer’s Journal Vol. 8 No. 2: 31-33.

McNamara, Dave; Kaufman, Lois A. 1985. Can Horses Compete with Tractors? California Forestry Note 95. State of California, Department of Forestry, 1416 Ninth Street, Sacramento, CA; 7 p.

Miller, Lynn R., 1981. Work Horse Handbook. Davila Art & Books; 224 p.