Old-Time Skills for the Modern Age
This article was commissioned by the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association.
At a time when the timber industry is in distress, at least one sector shows a glimmer of hope: the small-scale, highly specialized forestry services offered by teamsters, or loggers who work with horses and mules. “Log prices are starting to come back up because the mills can’t get enough logs,” said Tim Carroll, one of two full-time horse loggers in Minnesota. “There’s almost no one left in the woods. I see an opportunity here for horse loggers. We’ve survived partly because of the lack of overhead; we can afford to be lean and mean.”
Carroll runs Cedar River Horse Logging and Wood Products and is also president of the North American Horse and Mule Loggers Association. Taylor Johnson, a GLTPA member, runs Mule Skinner Horse Logging & Go Green Forest Products and, as far as he knows, is the only full-time horse logger in Wisconsin. Carroll and Taylor, and other teamsters like them, are living proof that “old-time” logging skills have a place in the modern world.
Their clients are usually landowners who want to do selective cutting or who have tracts of land that are too small to draw a bid from a mechanized logging operation. Both loggers stressed that they have nothing against mechanization. “People ask me if I’m anti-equipment and I say, ‘No, I just fill a different niche,’ Johnson said. “If somebody calls me up wanting to clear-cut 40 acres of aspen, I tell them they should hire a machine.”
Carroll agreed. “If you want to clear an area and develop it in a year or two, get a bulldozer. If you want to improve your forest and keep it for 20 years, we’re a pretty good choice.”
‘More of a lifestyle than a job’
Johnson is a fifth-generation teamster. His father had some teams but drifted toward a more mechanized approach in the 70s. Johnson decided to go into horse logging about ten years ago, mainly because he couldn’t afford to start up his own mechanized operation. “I decided I wanted to do specialty work,” he said. “I wanted to go for low-impact jobs on smaller acreages, but the cheapest machinery set-up I could find was $60,000 and you could go all the way up to $150,000.”
Horses provided a cost-effective way to get him out in the woods: he says a teamster with the necessary skills can set up a horse-logging outfit for around $10,000. In addition to two teams of horses, Johnson has a horse-drawn forwarder with a 24 horse-power Honda motor that he uses to sort logs at the deck.
Carroll took a different route into horse logging: “I married my wife and three horses,” he said. He didn’t have much experience with horses, but he used them for work on his land and he later helped a neighbor haul out some logs. “We’d work on the weekend, and every weekend a crowd would gather on the highway to watch. The crowd kept getting bigger and bigger, and soon I had signed my first contract. I got three more contracts before I finished with that.” Soon afterward – 19 years ago – he decided to go into horse logging full-time.
A modern teamster might spend a day in the woods cutting and hauling timber and the evening on the internet, promoting the business and lining up the next round of jobs. He might even have an eager apprentice along for the ride. Much of a teamster’s time is spent caring for the horses. “So many things you do revolve around your animals,” Johnson said. “I like that aspect: it’s more of a lifestyle than a job. It’s hard work, but it’s very peaceful. I like the quiet and I’ve always been better with animals than people.”
Aside from being pleasant working companions, horses are reliable and efficient. “Horses never break down,” Johnson said. “I’ve never had a horse off for soreness or injury.”
Easier on the land
Landowners see advantages to horse logging, too. Horses can work on steep terrain that’s unsuitable for machinery, and teamsters will take on jobs that are too small for mechanized loggers to bother with. Horse-drawn forwarders don’t need logging roads and they minimize impact on standing trees, undergrowth, and the soil. “The horses can fit in smaller spots and step around brush, which is good because some people are real sensitive to that,” Johnson said.
“I might not produce as much volume as I would if I were knocking trees down faster, but I can put them down exactly where I want them,” he said. “That’s important for my safety, and it’s important to my clients, too – every little tree matters to them.”
Carroll said he sees his business almost more as a tree service than a logging operation. “I provide a service to the landowner,” he said. “They pay me by the hour or by volume, and the landowner retains ownership and I help them market their timber. That increases the trust level because I’m working for the landowner, not the mill, and it doesn’t matter what I cut; I get paid the same.”
Horse care and training
When he works the smaller, more selective jobs that define his niche, Johnson either hauls the horses back and forth to the job if it’s within about 20 miles of his home, or he sets them up in the woods. “I have portable corrals and solar fencing, so it’s no big deal. I either camp with them or feed and water them before going home for the night.”
He has two teams, and he might take one or both teams to a job, depending on the conditions. “There are so many variables,” he said. “They’re just like us – if it’s a really heavy job I might switch teams at noon. They might need two days of rest instead of one. It all depends.”
Horse care has changed dramatically from the old days, he said. “In some old pictures you might see the horses look a little thin. They were pushed so hard to produce. Now they’re like athletes – we give them specialty feeds, and they never have to get sore. My horses are in better shape than many pet horses because I put more time and money into their care.”
Johnson said he prefers to train his horses himself, though he has purchased some farm horses that are already accustomed to pulling. Once a horse is used to the harness, the next step is to train it for forestry work. “The biggest thing is to condition them to get used those noises,” he said. He ties the new horses near the work site and simply lets them watch for a few days. That usually does the trick. “If you’re not afraid, they’re not afraid,” he said. “I’m very calm when I’m working with them.”
Safety is, of course, a huge concern. “An accident can happen at any time,” Johnson said. “Especially when you’ve got 4000 pounds of horse all hyped up to pull big timber.” He noted that all loggers face risks, and speculated that because of the small size of his operation and his relatively low overhead he might be able to operate at a safer pace. “If a guy’s pushing volume and he’s got big payments to make, he might be more likely to take risks. I use directional felling and all the safety techniques – it takes longer but I figure if I’m not laid up in the hospital for six months that’s actually a gain.”
“The older I get, the safer I want to be,” he added, noting that he is now married with three kids.
A new generation
Both men say they’ve seen increasing interest in horse logging in recent years, and both offer classes and apprenticeships to aspiring teamsters. “We’ve had quite an interest in students and apprenticeships,” Carroll said.
Johnson said logging is in his blood, and he’ll keep at it as long as he’s able. “I was building houses for a while, but every single day all I thought about was logging,” he said. “If they made it illegal I’d be an outlaw.”
Lori Compas is a freelance writer, photographer, and communications consultant based in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin.
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