Horse Logging

by Deborah Bragg

I have ploughed, harrowed, rolled and carted with horses and fondly laboured under the impression that, barring mishaps and foul weather, such work was a pleasant way of letting the horse take the strain. A day spent horse logging in the gloomy depths of the 60,000 hectare Kielder Forest has changed my mind ... by evening I was, to use Keith Martin's parlance, "cream-crackered"!

I joined horse logger Keith and 15.3hh, part Shire part Percheron Rocky on a typical working day, hauling ten tons of timber destined for pulp, out of the forest to the landing from where it will be collected by haulier.

Rocky in typical horse logging harness
Rocky in typical horse logging harness. Note the unusual collar and saddle and fastenings designed for quick release

Rocky's day starts at 6am with breakfast of soaked sugar beet pulp, mollychop and pasture mix, together with hay, before travelling to the forest ready to start work by 9am. Rocky is harnessed for work in a Scandinavian collar which, unlike the usual British one-piece collar, consists of two wooden hames fastened to light, narrow pads and joined at the top and bottom with leather straps, thus moving independently as the horse moves. Pulling power is transmitted by leather straps passing through slots in the hames back to a metal ring which carries the metal bars by which the harness is linked to the shafts. The rings link the main draught straps, the breeching and the belly band and are carried by leather straps from a saddle. The saddle too is not of the traditional design. Instead, it consists of two independent pads linked by a single arched bar. Keith uses a numnah under the saddle since he feels the pads are very hard on the horse's back. The whole harness is designed for quick release in the event that the horse stumbles and goes down. The bridle is open, again unusual in this country for a working horse, and although some loggers work in a snaffle, Keith prefers a Liverpool on the enthusiastic Rocky. The reins are made from rope that Keith has spliced himself for cheapness and lightness, and he prefers them as two, rather than a single line.

Rocky stands patiently
Rocky stands patiently while Keith loads the Kombi Drag with pulp

Today, we are extracting 2.2 metre length pulp so Rocky is hitched to a peculiar looking contraption called a Kombi Drag, another Scandinavian import. This is a kind of four wheeled skid cart with free pivoting front wheels mounted directly on the shafts, thus giving full lock and excellent manoeuvrability. But apart from the horse's breeching, there are no brakes!

If we had been extracting 3.7 metre green straight logs, Keith would have used the arch which allows for four logs to be winched into position. It runs on two wheels so that the timber is dragged which is, presumably, harder work for the horse. There are two main kinds of arch, the Ulvins and the Bergan. Keith personally objects to the Bergan because of its winding handle which has an unnerving tendency to whip round, but it does offer a straighter line of draught from the horse's shoulder to the point of resistance of the load. There are many variations in logging equipment which have their supporters and critics but they are too numerous to go into here.

Instead of backing Rocky between the shafts, Keith leads him in from the side, stepping over them, which I find so breathtakingly simple that I wonder why I spent so many hours patiently teaching my Shire to back between shafts!

We set off at a good pace down the rough road and then turn into the forest itself. The Kombi Drag tips and swivels behind Rocky but he seems not the least bit bothered by it. Nor does he worry when his back legs sink hock-deep into bog. We come to the first pile of logs that Hilary Burke, Keith's chain saw operator, has cut ready. Keith tells Rocky to 'whoa', flicks the reins to the side he is working from and then loads approximately half a ton of Norway spruce, using pulp tongs to position them on the Kombi. The maximum Rocky has pulled was one three-quarter ton log. Keith checks the diameter of each log with a scale to ascertain the weight: if any are under the specified size they will be rejected and both Keith and Hilary will be out of pocket. The timber is held in position by chains which are tightened with a belt strap. As the strap tightens, Rocky tosses his head: Keith is not sure whether it's because he knows that he will soon be moving off or because he can't bear the noise of the ratchet!

Rocky extracts approximately half a ton of pulp
Rocky extracts approximately half a ton of pulp from the depths of the forest

Despite half a ton on board, Rocky moves off at a cracking pace. Keith prefers working him to his other slower horse, Queenie, because they have often moved a day's load by 2.30pm. But it's no easy task keeping up with the rapid Rocky; the ground is wet and uneven with all kinds of stumps and stones to trip the unwary novice, she says, speaking from experience.

It's back to the landing and unloading before setting off again...and again. I point out to Keith that he and I seem to be doing all the hard work with the lifting of heavy timber while Rocky simply has to pull, with plenty of time to doze and meditate! We continue, backwards and forwards, with Rocky never slowing, until lunch time when he has an hour long break for water and a similar feed to breakfast. Afterwards the work continues until around 5pm. But then of course, the day is still not over for Keith who has to feed and water him again before turning him out in the field. Never mind nostalgic, romantic views of horse logging: this is seriously tough, physically exhausting work. Definitely not for the faint hearted - or slack muscled.

Depending on the weather, Keith tries to work a five day week. He is happy to work in snow - providing he can get to the site - but if it is raining at the start of the day he prefers to work an extra day later in the week to avoid the unpleasant sensation of wet harness for the horses. In the summer, his biggest problem is the midges which plague Kielder but he has found the perfect solution with the Avon lady's Triple S bath oil, diluted half and half. "I spray once in the morning and again in the afternoon and the midges and horse flies don't go near them - or me," he says.

The nature of the work demands a unparalleled confidence between man and horse. The man must trust the horse not to move off until he is told to and then to pull steadily through what is often rough and wet underfoot. The horse, in turn, trusts the man that it is safe and sensible to go where he has been asked and that it is actually possible to pull the load. It's a solitary life: man and horse spend the day alone in each other's company, only the sound of Hilary's chain saw disturbing the silence.

Keith bought six year old Rocky two years ago when he had been used for pulling a few lengths of timber in a small copse. "At first we just long-reined round the forest, building him up gradually. He found it difficult to settle because the ground here is so different to what he'd been used to down south. The other horse Queenie is very different because she had been used to pulling a gypsy caravan," explained Keith.

Rocky's pace never slows
Rocky's pace never slows as he returns for yet another load

A forestry horse obviously must be a draught type but cannot be as tall as breeds such as today's Shire and Clydesdale because of overhanging branches. Rocky has the feathers of his Shire forbears which are a disadvantage when working in muddy conditions because of the tendency to mud fever. (Keith uses paraffin oil mixed with flowers of sulphur as a preventative measure and the feathers are hosed down at the end of each day). The horse must have a calm temperament to work in such a confined location; it must also be prepared to pull hard one minute and stand still the next (creeping forward to snatch a bit of grass is not acceptable), and to be able to find its way through narrow paths up and down difficult terrain. Two horses are essential so that one can take over in the event of lameness or sickness. Ideally, Keith would take both horses to work so that he could work one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, but he worries that a fully laden horse trailer will be too much for his elderly Land Rover.

The presentation of the area is all-important. Sub-contractor Hilary knows exactly what is needed: clear routes in and out in a kind of looping herringbone pattern, eye level branches removed, tree stumps left low, timber stacked for easy retrieval and any awkward dips or trenches filled with branches. Hilary averages only five tons a day which means that frequently Keith has to join him on the chain saw to get ahead.

Despite the public interest in horse logging (the British Championships attracted over 40,000 visitors), it is estimated that there are only about 30 contractors working throughout the country. The British Horse Loggers Association has merged with the Forestry Contracting Association and their intention is to continue the commercialisation of draught horses in forestry.

Training new horse loggers is a vital part of their aims and it is now possible to gain a NVQ in timber extraction with horses. But one major deterrent to youngsters taking up the challenge may be the substantial investment required: a suitable working horse will cost in the region of 3,000; the same again for the equipment, around 1,000 for the harness and some form of transport is also needed. Then there are the running costs: around 40 a week to feed a working horse, about 80 for a set of shoes (Keith hopes to make a set last for eight weeks), plus vet's bills, grazing and stabling. In addition, the logger must pay his chain saw operator.

Time for a well earned rest
Time for a well earned rest

Horses can be used for first and second thinnings, taking out seed and wind blown trees, transportation of seedlings and harvesting on historical sites and nature conservation/sensitive areas. The advantage of horses over machines are clear: thinning machines damage trees by nicking them some six feet up from the ground and once scored, rot quickly sets in. Machines also cause long term damage to the land which is evident years later. The biggest factor against the horse is cost: approximately 25% more than mechanical means. A horse is at its most competitive in the first 200 metres from the road; as it moves further away so it becomes less and less of an economic proposition. And the influx of cheap imported timber is making the equation even less attractive.

The immediate future looks bleak for 43 year old Keith. An ex-Royal Fleet Auxiliary man from Plymouth, he took voluntary redundancy so that he could spend more time with his wife and two daughters and start a new life while he was still young enough. He started full time as a logger in 1996 when there seemed to be plenty of work available but his contract for 1997/98 was 1800 tons, the following year down to 1100 tons. This year his contract will not be renewed. Michael Shuttleworth, District Forester Harvesting for Kielder District explained why: "We use horse logging concerns for working in sensitive areas but we have now thinned in all those areas. We can't keep the horses going entirely - we have to be realistic - and so they need to look for work on private estates as well as with us. We work on a five year cycle of thinning - any less and we have a problem with wind blow - and in the last few years we've got ahead of the programme. So although there is no work for the horses at the moment, there will be when the cycle comes round again. We definitely will not be using machines on those sensitive areas."

Perhaps the key to the future of horse logging in this country is to view the horse as a part - albeit an integral part -of the whole extraction process so that horses are used where it is economically and environmentally viable and machines for longer extraction. Unfortunately amateurs who "do a bit of logging" with lots of publicity but not a lot of knowledge of timber harvesting do not help the professionals' case. For the horse to continue, contractors must take a broad view of the business and offer a wide range of skills if they are to convince those in the industry who are machine-minded of the value of the horse as a high quality forestry tool.

Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association

The aims of Southern Counties Heavy Horse Association are: -

  • To promote and encourage the art of horse ploughing
  • To promote horse ploughing matches and workings
  • To encourage more men and women to compete in horse ploughing and showing
  • To foster interest in the work of the heavy horse and encourage young people to understand and possibly work with heavy horses
  • To cooperate with other societies of similar interests

Membership fees -

  • Single annual 12.00 (under 16 1.00)
  • Family (2 adults plus children under 16) 20.00
  • Single Life Membership 120.00

Membership Secretary:

Wendy Withers
Old Lodge
Hinton Manor Lane



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