Harnessing the power of gentle equine giants Logging: Draft horses, with their nimble feet and brute strength, are among the last animals toiling in Maryland forests.

October 15, 1998|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN STAFF

If Rambo, Tom and Buster weren't such macho horses, they could be the equine equivalent of tap dancers, clopping regally through parades, showing off their fancy steps and pausing only to acknowledge the oohs and ahs of the suitably impressed.

Unlike most of their breed, though, Rambo, Tom and Buster toil for a living.

They are 1-ton, blue-collar draft horses, among the last animals logging in Maryland, every bit as nimble as their showy counterparts but dedicated to dragging 800-pound hunks of wood all day.

Rarely have they had so much work. From Maryland's mountains to its Eastern Shore, they are sought by environmentalists and small-property owners who want to remove mature oaks and poplars without disturbing younger trees.

"Once a landowner sees what a horse can do and what it can save environmentally, they hop on board," says Raymon Morgan, who has ridden his horses to a successful business, Horse Power Wood Products, based at his sawmill in Orbisonia, Pa., about two hours north of Westminster. "You don't have to do no more talking to sell them once [the landowners] get a look."

Morgan and his business partner, Clyde Cisney, are among a small group of loggers across the nation who make their living with the draft horses, the muscular but gentle giants that city folks typically see strutting in parades or pulling carriages.

Morgan, 50, and Cisney, 49, own 13 draft horses, which include Belgians and Percherons. Along with some of their employees' horses, they travel around Maryland, removing trees one at a time, then hauling the lumber back to their sawmill. If the job is distant enough and big enough, they'll build a barn on site to house Rambo and the rest of the team.

"People here're a little more sensitive about their land than in Pennsylvania," Morgan says of Maryland. "Here's where the work is, so here's where we work."

Until 1900, logging was done by horses, mules and bulls. Then came the "steam donkey," a steam-powered winch, and later Caterpillar Inc.'s crawler tractors, which drastically reduced the number of animals used in logging. Nationwide, only a few thousand loggers use horses, most of them part time, says Glenn French, president of the North American Horse and Mule Loggers Association in Lincoln City, Ore.

"Essentially, people find it easier to turn a key than to work with animals," French says. "It's a pretty narrow market now because we're competing with high-volume businesses."

Large-scale logging typically takes place with giant skidders -- large, heavy, wide machines that, when it comes to short-term quantity, are more efficient than horses or mules in clear-cutting, because they can drag more trees in less time.

But the horses can more than pull their weight when they're thinning woods and clearing environmentally sensitive grounds. A skidder's deep-tread tractor tires can damage the root systems of young trees. Also, a skidder entering woods needs a path up to 8 feet wide, meaning trees that might otherwise remain in the ground are felled.

The horses require only a 3-foot-wide path. When they leave a site, scarce evidence remains that logging occurred.

"These guys, that's how you do that," says Alvie May, 45, a Wood Products handler, patting Buster on the rump as horse and man take a break from removing trees near Westminster. "They're big horses, but they can walk a thin trail."

"Gee! Haw!" he yells from behind the horse as they work -- "gee" to tell the horse to go right, "haw" to the left. They listen.

Horses are not considered the brightest animals on earth; they are not as smart as elephants, apes or dogs. But draft horses have the perfect temperament for such work, docile and strong as can be.

They can work from about ages 4 to 20. Then Morgan sends them out to pasture for retirement. They cost about $2,500 each plus $3 a day for food, while a skidder runs more than $100,000.

With Wood Products, as with most horse-logging operations, a team of as many as six drafts is brought into the woods. After the workers fell trees, they cut the trunks into 8-foot sections. They hammer spikelike "grippers" into the logs and attach the grippers to a chain connected to a harness system worn by the horse.

Some horses haul singly, some in teams. They pull the logs through the woods, in paths that they create, to a clearing where the trunks are loaded onto trucks.

Rex Penick, who shoes the horses for Wood Products and helps drive them through the woods, has been around drafts his entire life. He and his wife, Terri, own 10 draft horses, some that they show, some that work for Wood Products or on the family farm.

Penick would never consider switching to a tractor.

"You can talk to a horse, and he'll listen," he says, laughing. "You talk to a machine, and it don't listen."

Pub Date: 10/15/98

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