A horse loggers tale

As I sit here today looking out the window at the snow swirling around in the gusting winds, I am reminded of a similar January day several years ago. It was in the early days of Wood EN Horse Logging. My logging partner at that time, Mike and I were honing our logging and horsemanship skills.

Wood EN Horse Logging is an enterprise established to utilize draft horses in custom logging ventures. Or, something useful for the horses to do in the winter time.

The logging industry is driven by technology and economics. The goal is to produce as much wood at the least possible cost. Horse logging predates the highly mechanized logging of modern times. For one hundred years, beginning with the first commercial logging in Minnesota in the 1830’s, animals provided the necessary power. Early on, oxen skidded the big pine to nearby rivers. Oxen were common on farms and more affordable than horses. Oxen can live quite well on hay, even if it is poor quality.

Horses, on the other hand, moved faster than the ponderous ox but required more expensive grain. By 1900, draft horses, had supplanted the ox. Highball logging, being able to move large loads of
over greater distances with horses, was a major technological and economic advance for the industry. As what happened in agriculture, the day of the horse began to wane in the 1920’s . By the end of WW II, farming and logging had become much more mechanized. Tractors pulled the plows. Cats and cable skidders moved the wood.

The numbers of horses in rural America dropped dramatically in the 20th century. The ones that survived lived much different lives. Where there once hundreds of thousands of “good broke teams”, modern draft horses could be classified as “hitch” horses, nostalgic farm teams, or pasture pets. Agriculture and logging evolved and changed in ways that worked against the resurgence of the draft horse. Farms became larger. Logging production based. To be economically viable, farmers and loggers needed to produce more with less. Horses where too slow and inefficient.

Wood EN Horse Logging set out to change all that. Mike and I were determined to show people horses still had a place in the woods. Horse logging, we said, is “light on the land, low impact, precision forest management”. We were providing a service to improve the forest environment,. Volume of production was secondary. We were very proud of the fact that the plantations we thinned looked much better after we did our work.

My entry into the horse logging business began with a foray into Mike’s world. Mike had been logging with his horse Spunk. Spunk was a big Belgian mare. Mike had raised and broke her to log. She lived up to her name. There wasn’t anything she didn’t think she could pull and she did it with the speed and zest of a bronco.

Rollie Miller and I went up to help Mike with a pine plantation thinning. It was a winter of big snow. Mike had spent a few weeks felling trees before the first blizzard hit. By the time we got there the second and third snows had completely submerged the downed logs, Mike and his mighty mare were exhausted. I brought Patsy and Kate, my mares to the rescue.

“So how many trees are there”? Rollie asked. “About twenty”, replied Mike. We shuffled through the drifts, we shoveled down to the stumps, chained up the trees and skidded them to the landing. Twenty trees later we took a break. “So Mike, how many tress are left?” Rollie asked “About twenty” Mike replied. This was repeated about four more times. We laughed about that for many years to come.

Back to my memory prompted by today’s swirling snow. A few years later, Mike and I were logging poplar here. We were using Mike’s horse and one of mine. Unfortunately Spunk was gone, having died giving birth. We were using her son who had been broke that summer by the Amish in Iowa. Mike raised Dumb Ass, yes, that was the horses name as a bottle fed orphan. DA lived up to his name.

Orphan horses often have personality issues later in their lives. Foals that grow up under their mother’s tutelage learn to respect other horses and their place in the pecking order. Orphans get their identity from their handler. Humans are able to exhibit kindness much better than brood mares. Unfortunately this can backfire as the youngster grows to adulthood. Full grown orphans, accustomed to getting their own way, are difficult to break to work. They are more likely to challenge the teamster and to throw temper tantrums if they don’t get their way.

The morning went ok. I worked DA single, skidding trees from the woods to the landing in a nearby field. Unfortunately from this vantage point, DA could see the other horses up by the barn. By 11 a.m. DA grew restless. Each time I came out of the woods, he got a little more biligerant, fighting me to go back in the woods. Frustrated, I went to Mike. “DA is starting to irritate me” (I was a little more direct). Mike took the lines. I am not sure what happened next but DA, lines flying out behind him, made a beeline to the barn.

By this time the weather had deteriorated. The wind had come up, blowing snow in all directions. Mike and I looked at each other. “We can’t end like this” we agreed, “if we do DA will have won”. Between the two of us we decided on the “running w”. The running w is a rope restraint system that trains a run away horse to stop on command. We figured if we could drop DA to his knees a couple times, he’d quit trying to get away. There was a lot of snow so we weren’t concerned about hurting him.

I went to get the rope. Mike caught DA. By the time we got back to the field the blizzard was in full force. Mike and I had to shout to each other as we rigged up the ropes. DA stood quietly. In hindsight, I think he was crafting his plan.

I took the lines, Mike the trip rope. Mike nodded. “Get up” I shouted to the horse as the blizzard’s intensity increased. As expected, DA turned and headed toward the barn. I laid on the lines and shouted “WHOA!” Mike braced himself. DA, in the spirit of his mother, powered ahead. I hollered at Mike “I can”t hold him”? Mike shouted back “What”? It was clear verbal communication was not going to work. I saw Mike struggling, about to be tipped from a backward brace to a front face slide. I threw the lines and bolted to Mike’s side. I grabbed the rope. For a second or two, the scales seemed to be tipping in our favor. We could feel the the horse stumble. “I think we got him” I shouted” “What”? Mike shouted back.

The struggle continued, the advantage first to the horse, then to two, slightly out of shape, horse loggers. Back and forth, back and forth. The wind whipped with an unforgiving fury. I looked at Mike’s snow crusted face. His jaw set in a “win at all cost ” poise. His gloved hands clutching the rope with a grip of steel. At that point we both looked in the direction of our adversary. The weather had turned to a whiteout.

“I think he’s out there someplace” Mike shouted. At that point we knew we couldn’t hold it anymore. Falling over laughing, we watched as the rope and the horse it was attached to disappeared into the whiteness. DA’s lesson for the day would have to wait.

Mike, a horse logging legend in his own mind, and a good friend

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