There is the clanking jingle of reins and the shush-shush sound of hooves pressing down into mud and leaves as David Marrale calls out to his team. "Come on, Tug. Come on, Trace," he softly urges. The two muscular Suffolk Punch draft horses move in unison on the wooded hillside in southwest Virginia. The large horses are precision-trained to take tiny steps as they slowly pull on a chain attached to a log that's locked behind another tree.
Marrale praises the horses and encourages them forward. Down the hill the threesome go, skidding the log to a nearby clearing where it will be loaded onto trucks for shipping.
Marrale works for Sinking Creek Horse Logging owner Benjamin Harris. For the past five years, Harris has been teaching Marrale about sustainable forestry with the old-time power of draft horses.
A native of Craig County, Virginia, Harris began the business 13 years ago, turning work he learned on the farm as a youth into a skill by which he makes a living today.
After an eight-week apprenticeship with another horse logger, Harris struck out on his own, looking to acquire business from rural landowners interested in low-impact logging. "Initially, it was just me, the horses and a chain saw," he says, pulling his leather hat lower over a suntanned face. "Now I have my own truck and loader."
He also has a substantial backlog of work lined up for the coming year. That's not surprising if you consider the impact on the forest of conventional logging equipment. Even with more selective logging practices, the big machinery injures trees, compacts the soil and takes up a lot more space in the woods. Once Harris leaves a forest plot, the landowner will hardly know he's been there.
"The horses are really good at certain types of logging," he explains. "They are really maneuverable, so you can be much lower impact." The horses, which can weigh 1,600 pounds, only cause spot compaction of the soil as opposed to the continuous tracking (and often even road-building) required by skidders, feller bunchers and forwarders. "Plants won't grow again where the wheels have gone," Harris says. A skidder drags materials from the woods to a landing and can weigh 10,000 pounds. A feller buncher is a self-propelled machine with a cutting head that is capable of holding more than one stem (tree) at a time. Forwarders are basically tractors pulling a wagonload of wood.
Harris occasionally uses a forwarder himself, but only for distances of more than 700 feet or where horses would have to pull logs uphill. In those two cases, their efficiency drops. But otherwise, the horses can do just about any job conventional logging equipment can do. Harris adds he hasn't yet run into a tree his two teams can't handle.
Harris serves timber farmers, row-crop and livestock farmers with timber stands, as well as non-farming rural landowners with small stands of trees. He says people who hire Sinking Creek do so because of the "kind of forestry it allows them to do."
Typically, Harris recommends a release cut for clients. That means he goes into the woods with the owner and often a state forester to identify high-value trees. Those are the trees he will cut around to give them space to grow. "The horses allow me to prevent damage to the high-value trees," he explains. Harris takes out the "worst first," generally advising landowners to bring him back in five to 10 years to harvest the bigger, better trees.
"Clear-cutting looks like a bomb went off, and everybody hates it," Harris remarks. "And then you can't log again for 100 years."
But for Harris' clients, they can look to regular timber harvests every decade or so based on sustainable forest management. "This type of logging works best for the landowner who values the look and quality of the woods," Harris says.
And it's rarely more expensive than conventional logging, despite the extra labor involved. "In the long-term, you come out ahead because of the reduced damage to high-value trees," Harris explains, adding that the horses themselves give him low overhead, a cost savings he can pass on to customers.
"For the cost-to-power ratio, horses are extremely cheap," he says. "You can't buy a machine that will last 20 years and cost $1,500 that has the power of a horse. They're also self-reproducing." One of Harris' current horses is the progeny of a horse-logging mother.
"You also have reduced maintenance costs because horses fix themselves. If they're injured," Harris notes, "you just let them out to pasture until they heal." Harris adds, with a laugh, "Plus, my maintenance costs are about $10 a week in feed."
Harris once worked pretty far afield, including horse-logging in Minnesota and Wyoming. These days, he has enough business to stay local and says most of his jobs are within 60 miles of home. With the help of a two-wheeled cart and a two-horse team or, for smaller trees, a single horse without a cart, Harris has his horses putting in six to eight hours of continuous labor a day. "On an average day, they can drag out over 20 tons of wood and typically skid about 2,000 pounds at a time," he says.
Harris and Marrale are also careful about where the trees they cut fall. They use one or more variations of the open-face latch and hinge technique to control both the direction of the felling and when it will occur. "If we can't make a tree fall where it won't damage other trees, it defeats the purpose of using horses," he explains.
Harris says horse-logging is in demand not only because of sustainable forestry but also because of the increasing subdivision of rural land. Most timber owners manage 60 acres or less. It is there, he says, where "people who care about what the woods look like when we're done" are hiring loggers like him to promote responsible forestry and an income stream for the future.
TO LEARN MORE:
If you'd like to see horse-powered logging in action, check out the annual Biological Woodsmen's Week event, hosted each fall by the Healing Harvest Forest Foundation. The educational event features the skills of horse loggers from multiple states.
For more information on the next event, visit www.healingharvestforestfoundation.org/events.html.
For more information about Sinking Creek Horse Logging, visit www.sinkingcreekhorselogging.com.
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