The Horses of Madison County

Dan and Dolly came down from Madison County early this month to help out with some selective logging at The Asheville School. They came in their Sunday-best work clothes: brass-studded, well-worn leather harness, brass hames and steel shoes. The brother-and-sister duo are 4-to-5-year-old Percherons, whose combined weight totals just over a ton.

They came to log parts of a 250-acre block of wooded land on the school campus, and to demonstrate to students and interested members of the public how logging used to be done — and still is today, by folks who favor what’s called “sustainable forestry.”

Harvesting logs with draft animals predates written history. Oxen were some of the first animals used; however horses are somewhat more nimble, learn faster, and, like dogs, have long had a friendship with humans. In addition, they’re better for dragging downed logs (called skidding) up or down slopes, which helped make them the most common beast of burden in the Appalachians. Mules, while strong, are not quite as “sociable” as horses.

Dan, slightly older and more seasoned, is the lead horse. Even though the pair appear to be neck and neck when pulling, Dan is the teamster’s focus of attention. A harness links Dan to his sister, Dolly, by their inside-front shoulders. The pair follow the teamster’s directions, with the younger Dolly also taking cues from Dan.

The owner and driver, Wayne Boone, follows to the left and rear of the team, keeping an eye on the trail ahead of them, and on the logs that are just to the right of his feet. On a left turn, he must stay well outside the path of the logs, leaning slightly back to keep light tension on the long reins; he issues curt commands, sometimes with, sometimes withoug names: “Hup hup hup Dolly, Here Dan, DAN! here, hep.” The only other sounds are the slithering of the logs; the faintly clicking harness and chain; the soft, rhythmic whoose of the horses’ breath; and the regular, gentle thudding of the horses’ hooves. A beautiful sight set to music on a fall day.

The logging project at The Asheville School is a demonstration of timber-stand improvement (called TSI) says David Wheeler, who’s helping coordinate the project on behalf of the Western North Carolina Alliance. TSI consists chiefly of removing dead, damaged or “cull” trees selectively, while leaving healthy trees behind to create an improved stand. The trees that will be removed have been selected ahead of time — in this case, by forester Rachel Wood.

A helper drops each tree, removes limbs and tops, chains several tree-length logs together, and the horses are backed up to the load. Though they’ve done this many times, their blinders and harness only let them see straight ahead, so they seem to back up nervously, uncertainly — their minds on the pull to which they will, in a moment, apply all their power. The chain is hooked, the reins flick lightly over their backs — and, with a clicking sound from Wayne, they seem to bow for an instant as they lunge forward, their massive hindquarters and hooves pushing them into the pull of a burden nearly equal to their own weight.

The logs are hauled out full-length to the road, to reduce the number of trips in and out of the forest — and besides, long logs are often preferred at the mill. The logs in the demonstration were yellow poplar — about 20 ft. long, and averaging about 12 inches in diameter at their base. The team could also manage somewhat larger logs, says Boone.

Dragging downed logs through the woods without harming other trees along the way requires a skilled driver and well-trained horses. Sometimes, only narrow openings are available through the woods, but a skilled team can work and still not damage nearby trees.

One object of logging with horses is to reduce the heavy impact that commonly occurs with industrial forestry methods, says Wheeler. Skidding logs with draft animals reduces soil compaction and damage to tree roots, he says.

Mechanized logging is somewhat less expensive on a daily basis, but when the work is finished, a site logged with horses is left looking much less devastated, Wheeler maintains. And horses offer a relatively cheap way to get into the logging business, as compared to the purchase price of a commercial skidder.

While The Asheville School benefits directly from this approach, students are also being exposed to environmentally sensitive techniques, says Ed Maggart, the school’s environmental-studies teacher: “We now have a place for hands-on teaching of some basic environmental ideas. Students have already performed water-and-soil sampling, plant-and-tree identification, and have shown lots of interest and curiosity.”

You could even try this at home, with some training and a bit of practice, Wheeler points out: Many people did, a century or more ago. You’ll need some woods, a sturdy draft animal, a harness and some chain, and the patience for working with an obedient, intelligent animal servant.

The public is invited see Dan and Dolly at work on Thursday, Nov. 18, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information about the logging demonstration, contact The Asheville School (254-6345) or the WNC Alliance (258-8737). For more information about horse-drawn logging, check the following Web site:

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