Light on the Land, Heavy on their Feet – Horse Logging
by Barbara Minton
St. Maries, Idaho – “Whoa, back, back,” Bruce Spencer, gives orders to Manley Stanley and Highfalutin, a brother/sister team weighing close to three tons, on what to do. The two horses stopped and waited for his next command. And that’s all it took.
His pair of draft horses took a step backwards and waited for the next command. “Back” and again the pair took a step or two back and stopped.
This time Spencer wraps a chain around a tamarack log and chirps to the team and the horses surge forward, pulling a 16-foot log 30 inches around as Spencer maneuvers the team around trees, out buildings and seedlings to the log deck.
“The low impact on the land and the maneuverability is what I like,” stated Rick Davis, the land owner. That is the main reason why Davis and his wife, Susan DiGiacomo, chose horse logging over more traditional methods.
Davis, who worked for the Forest Service and now is a student, and his wife, a botanist with the Forest Service, talked to many people before deciding to use horses to log their four acres for habitat improvement.
The objective is to get rid of some disease pockets and try to improve the lot while preserving the beauty of the stand.
So far, Davis is remarkably happy on the logging operation. “It even has less impact than I thought,” he said.
Many people do not think about horse logging these days, with more efficient mechanized equipment to do the job. But Bob Rehnborg, in charge of Small Sales on the Coeur d’ Alene Ranger District, looks at horse logging as a viable alternative.
Rehnborg just designed a 44-acre commercial thin project specifically for horses, located in the old Mountain View picnic site that over looks Coeur d’ Alene lake and city that went to bid in June.
Although it looks like it’s an old laborious way of doing business, Rehnborg believes this is a viable alternative to managing small parcels of timber.
“Viable,” says Rehnborg, “because it is lighter on the land, reducing the visual ground disturbance. Compared to an eight-foot wide skidder, horse logging is just the width of the tree and that’s good in places like campgrounds, picnic sites or areas with considerable regeneration under the larger trees.”
When Spencer first decided to horse log in 1981, many people thought he was nuts. But being a logger and operating a skidder at the time, “I saw a lot of little trees being damaged and I didn’t like that.”
Right before the big environmental issue started changing our forest practices, Spencer was already an environmentalist. So much so, he decided to quit traditional logging and buy a team of horses. “I saw it as the only way to go.”
“With horses,” Spencer explains, “there is less impact on the land and I can go around little trees so our next generations of trees survive.”
The Forest Service and private land owners that Spencer and other horse loggers have logged for say it is the perfect answer to logging small areas of land without destroying the land or damaging other trees not selected for cutting.
A non-motorized trail runs through the proposed timber sale and Rehnborg feels it is important to keep the area looking aesthetically pleasing and natural looking. “That was a major consideration for horse logging when looking at this area and how to best manage it,” explained Rehnborg
Another advantage is how quiet horse logging is when chain saws are not running. Davis points out the operation in progress. And compared to an eight-foot wide skidder, horse logging is just the width of the tree or a narrow foot path. Tree seedlings can easily grow back and Spencer points out, “every time my horses lift their tails, I also fertilize the land.”
With his team of horses in hand, Spencer first started cutting firewood off Forest Service land and selling it to the public. In 1985, after four years of cutting firewood by horse logging, the Forest Service, seeing what he was capable of doing, put up a small timber sale in a campground. Today, the Forest Service and land owners see horse logging as a nice tool in managing the land.
Spencer would like to see the Forest Service and State Parks put up more timber sales requiring horse logging. There are at least ten horse loggers located in a hundred mile radius alone that could bid on projects. He feels at the moment the federal and state agencies do not reach out enough.
Besides logging, his horses are used for carriage rides, competing in pulling contests and can break and train new teams.
Although Spencer says his wife would like to see him get out of logging, “I like the opportunity to work in God’s creation and manage it a little.”
One of his best horse logging operations was up the river in two feet of snow and letting the horse drink out of the river, with the sun would peaking through the mountains and glistening off the snow. “It was awesome.”
Rehnborg says, “I like horse logging because it is a neat historical system. And I think there are circumstances where it is valuable today. I would hate to see it disappear.”