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April 2006 - The Logging and Sawmilling Journal



HORSE LOGGING pays dividends

Tolko Industries is reaching back in time in terms of logging methods, finding there are environmental and incremental fibre growth dividends to using horse loggers in niche situations.

By Tony Kryzanowski

After a highly successful introductory year in 2004, the horse loggers working for Tolko Industries Ltd in High Level, Alberta were champing at the bit to get back to work this past fall.

This commercial horse logging operation in northern Alberta represents a visual demonstration of the inherent differences between forest management practices in Canada and the United States. Working with a public resource, Canadian companies like Tolko feel obligated to deliver this type of social and cultural dividend to the community in exchange for the right to harvest the forest resource. No such expectation exists on the largely privately owned wood lots in the United States. It’s an intangible management expense frequently and conveniently ignored by US trade negotiators.

There is a significant amount of preplanning required to organize horse logging activities and—like mechanical harvesting contractors—the four teams of horse loggers need supervision by a Tolko woodlands supervisor. They harvest about 100 cubic metres per day and about 60 hectares of forest per season.

While this represents only a fraction of Tolko’s annual harvest, there are many intangible benefits to the company supporting this activity from a community relations standpoint. For example, the public has shown a lot of interest in watching the horse loggers at work. Tolko organizes popular guided tours to the site for the public and school children. Those who take the tour are treated to the experience of watching a hand faller drop and delimb a tree, followed by a horse logger choking the log. Then the muscles strain on a team of horses as they skid the log to roadside.

It’s often something the children’s parents or grandparents talked about over Sunday dinner. Yet the sights and sounds of an actual horse logging operation imprints a much richer memory, largely because it is so unusual to watch a commercial activity in today’s forest without hearing the drone of a motorized piece of equipment working somewhere in the cutblock.

Horse logger Milton Friesen says a lot of this type of logging was done in the High Level area during the early days of the development of the forest industry in northern Alberta. Horses were commonly used by sawmills and to clear farmland.

“I’m really impressed that Tolko has made the effort to make this thing work,” he says. “It’s kind of a heritage thing so that our children and the public can come out and see what it was like. Hopefully this knowledge will be passed on to the next generation. I think it’s good to keep this activity alive for the community.”

Three of the four horse loggers are members of the local Christian Mennonite community and their emphasis on family values is evident in how they manage their businesses.

Friesen has a brother and sister team working for him as hand fallers, and fellow horse logger Wally Toews has his teenage son and daughter working with him.

The two other horse logging contractors are Frank Unrau and George Wall. All four horse logging contractors farm, so the extra income they make in winter is a much appreciated additional revenue source.


Horse logger Wally Toews.

Tolko woodlands field supervisor Colin Hanusz says the idea of horse logging was brought up at a Public Advisory Committee meeting about five years ago. Tolko established the committee as part of its detailed forest management plan, which called for more local values and employment.

Many people in the area were horse owners, and when approached to see if they were interested in working as horse logging contractors, they responded enthusiastically. That level of enthusiasm continues to this day.

“The loggers who we have working for us enjoy working with their horses,” says Hanusz. “You can tell that they like their job because they work hard all day and have smiles on their faces. The work is very physically demanding.”

Hanusz says that it has been a learning experience for the horse loggers—and for him since he had no experience with horse logging.

While some of the horse owners had previous hand falling and horse logging experience from a program that used to operate on the nearby Paddle Prairie Métis Settlement, most had to learn the ropes from scratch. The program evolved on its own because there were no other existing horse logging operations to use as a model.

The learning curve was steep, even with something as simple as finding a supplier for the horse harnesses and choke rigging. One horse logger found a supplier in Ontario on the Internet who was selling horse logging equipment based on designs developed by the Pennsylvania Amish community.

Hanusz says when planning the logging season, it is important to place the horse loggers in smaller cutblocks that don’t require a lot of road building and without a lot of slope. That’s because the horses are only able to efficiently skid the trees about 75 metres from the access road and need a safe environment with minimal slope.

That 75 metres is about half the distance that a typical conventional skidder will travel into a cutblock.

However, there are environmental and incremental fibre growth dividends to using horse loggers in niche applications such as in stands with different ages of trees and where commercial thinning is appropriate. The horses do less damage to smaller trees left in the cutblock.

“Because they are so small, they can wiggle in and out and leave a lot of the understorey behind,” says Hanusz. “Basically when a single horse is used to skid logs, it will go anywhere that a person can walk. In theory, we’ll be able to come back and harvest what is retained here in 30 to 40 years.”

Another potential use for horse logging in a commercial thinning application is in sensitive bird nesting areas or in creek buffers. Wood harvested from these areas would be a bonus for Tolko. “Horse logging in creek buffers would be especially useful in areas where we have had spruce budworm damage,” says Hanusz. “We have a heavy budworm infestation here. We can harvest the infected trees and remove the food source for the insect.”

The horse loggers are paid on a per cubic metre delivered to roadside basis. Tolko contracts the services of picker trucks to pick up and deliver the wood to its sawmill in High Level. The trucks pick up about two loads per day.

Friesen says heavier horse breeds, ranging from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds are best suited for this type of work. These include Clydesdales, Belgians and Percherons. The selection of horses usually depends on the personal preference of the horse logger. It is important to inspect the feet of the horses to see if they are capable of handling an environment where there is a lot of debris laying around. The most productive age for horses engaged in this activity is between four and 17 years.

The horses really enjoy the challenge of pulling the logs, Friesen says.

Each team of horses will put in about six hours of work per day. Because of the physically demanding nature of the activity, Friesen says both the horses and the logger need to take a break for meals and a drink of water. If a team of horses has just finished pulling a particularly large log, it is wise to give them a chance to catch their breath.

After getting a good workout in the morning, the horses get a break of between an hour and an hour and a half for lunch. Like the logger, the horses are fed three times a day, usually on a high protein diet that includes mixed grain, oats, dry molasses, canola oil, vitamins, minerals and hay. The horses also have access to salt blocks and are watered three times a day.

Weather is an issue with horse logging. The crew usually calls it a day if the weather hits minus 30 degrees Celsius. They have a camp situated near the cutblock that includes homemade, portable horse barns. The horses live in the bush camp as long as there is horse logging activity.

Wally Toews (right, centre in photo) employs his children Cade and Lacey in his horse logging operation. Horse logging is an enjoyable family activity, says Toews.

Friesen says it is definitely easier to horse log in the wintertime because the logs slide with less resistance in snow. Also, because tree branches are frozen, a lot more break off when the tree falls or on a skid. The horses work equally well in softwoods and hardwoods, although for the moment, they are skidding strictly softwood.

Horse logging is also feasible in summertime, Friesen says, especially because of the low impact this form of logging has on the environment in soft ground conditions.

Hanusz says there are special safety issues related to horse logging. The hand fallers have to be properly trained and the horse logging crew has designed working areas where they don’t interfere with each other’s activities. “The horse loggers are still our contractors and they need to be up to speed on health and safety as well as our environmental management goals and commitments,” he says. A considerable amount of time was spent initially to ensure that the horse loggers were properly prepared for this work environment.

Hanusz concludes that other companies may also want to consider horse logging if there is local support for it and they have sensitive environments where low impact logging is required.

“Horse logging may actually open up areas that wouldn’t otherwise be logged,” Hanusz says. “So it might actually increase a company’s land base in certain situations.”


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