Working Horses in Forestry

In Europe horses were used extensively to extract timber until the 1960s-70s. The size and weight of the timber governed the number of horses used. They wore trace harness and were hitched to choker chains round the but of a tree. The timber was simply dragged (snigged, tushed) to remove it from the forest. Any exceptionally large piece of timber was slung under a pole arch which raised the tree off the ground, allowing the horses to extract greater weights. In the snowy and icy conditions of Scandinavia, horses wore light shaft harness to pull sledges and timber arches.

The introduction of machines saw the demise of the horse as a source of draught power in forestry. Inevitably this led to a loss of horsemanship skills among forestry workers, and less awareness of the horse as a working system among foresters and managers.

Since 1980 environmental considerations have put a different complexion on some parts of the forestry industry. The Scandinavians have led the way in developing modern equipment for extraction with horses. A variety of implements is being produced, and some are well suited to the very different British forestry conditions. In some circumstances the traditional method of ground-skidding used in the UK remains highly effective. There is an urgent need for a remarriage of the disciplines of horsemanship and forestry skills.

Basic Systems of Timber Extraction

Mechanised Extraction

In this system the majority of the work is done using mechanised equipment such as the following:

Agricultural or forestry tractors with winches – Produce is skidded to the stacking area (landing) or to the ride side, using tractors with winches. From the ride side it is ready for forwarding to the landing on trailers.

Skylines/cable cranes – Used on steep upland or difficult sites. Wide racks are necessary in order to maximize operating efficiency. Skylines and cable cranes can only operate in straight lines, and require extensive set-up and take-down time. Generally they are only used in large-scale operations.

Horse Extraction

In this system some of the processes involved are done using horse power – mechanised methods are often used for parts of the work such as forwarding produce from the rack side to the road side. Horse extraction uses horse with either chains or specialist equipment (sledges, arches or trailers) to extract timber to the rack side or landing.

The following processes take place within both systems:

Snigging or Tushing – Extracting timber by dragging it along the ground, usually from stump to ride (compartment) side, where it can be converted and forwarded to the road side.

Skidding – Extracting timber by lifting one end and dragging it along the ground, usually from stump to ride (compartment) side, where it can be converted and forwarded to the road side.

Forwarding – Extracting the felled produce and taking it to the road side/landing.

Specialised equipment such as the following can be used for forwarding.

Forwarding trailers – Carry bulk loads of timber clear of the ground on wheeled trailer units, usually incorporating a hydraulic grapple for self-load.

Purpose-built forwarder – Combined tractor and trailer unit with loader/grab which can operate in the stand if the racks are wide enough and extract to the landing. They are very expensive.

Situations for Working a Horse

Situations which are particularly suitable for working with horses are listed below:

  1. Horses can be used economically for short hauls (generally around 100 metres) to extract timber to the rack side or landing. They can complement machinery on certain sites.
  2. The horse can work selectively in a stand of trees and reduce the need to line-thin in order to make room for mechanised extraction equipment. This factor can reduce wind-blow in certain stands of trees.
  3. First and second thinnings, often extracted in full pole length (using chain harness), or in bunches cross-cut to 3-6 metres size (using a shafted implement).
  4. Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and other environmentally sensitive sites where the impact on flora and fauna must be kept to a minimum.
  5. Publicly sensitive sites such as way-marked walks, recreational areas etc.
  6. Where minimal ground disturbance is essential, where large machinery and skylines are environmentally intrusive, where noise must be kept to a minimum, or for appearance.
  7. In small parcels of woodland where the transportation of heavy machinery to and from the site is uneconomic.
  8. For wind-blow sites or timber which is difficult to reach.

Selection and Training of Horses for Forest Work

Consideration of the general terrain in the district to be worked should be the deciding factor as to the size of the horse chosen, bearing in mind that weight is needed to pull weight. In very steep conditions a Cob is more agile than a heavyweight cart horse.

Temperament is of prime importance. A mature, well trained horse, quiet in all gears, is essential for forestry work. It should not have erratic behaviour or snatch at loads. A good mouth makes the task so much easier, for frequent precise manoeuvres are vital to position the horse. The training should work towards the horse being capable of working to voice command.

An agricultural work background is ideal for teaching a horse to stand still for long periods. However, even an experienced draught horse will need to be introduced gradually to the woodland environment. It should be driven and manoeuvred in the stand of trees in tight limited spaces and on steep slopes. At first, horses are often nervous of backing in these situations. The noise of chain saws should be introduced carefully. Given patience this should not present a problem, but care should be taken that sawdust does not hit the horse.

Always be aware that the horse is an instinctive animal. Care should be taken when trees are being felled. As a minimum, horse and the operator must be at least two tree lengths away from any tree being felled.

Care of the Horse

Grooming – Normal grooming and foot care procedures should be followed.

Foot care – Shoes should be well studded for additional traction in slippery conditions. Caulkins should be fitted for extreme conditions.

Fitness – Work up the fitness of the horse before embarking on hard work. This can be achieved gradually by walking and pulling lighter loads over a period of 4 to 6 weeks. At the start of a working day, loads should be lighter.

Transportation – If the work is away from the horse’s home base suitable transportation for horse and equipment is necessary. Vehicles should be suitable for off-road conditions and for carriage of all the equipment needed for the task and for the welfare of the horse. Weight and load legislation should be adhered to.

Overnight accommodation – Either grazing or stabling near to the work site should be arranged. Electric fencing is useful to define an area for grazing. Temporary shelter strung between trees or fixed to the trailer is often suitable.

Rests and breaks – 2 to 3 hour stints of work should be interspersed with 1-hour breaks for feeding and drinking. Care should be taken to rug-up a hot horse in cold/windy conditions while at rest. A normal working day is 6 to 7 hours. It is worth noting that steep conditions demand more effort in getting up banks without a load than in extracting timber downhill.

Feeding – Each horse has a different metabolism. He should be fed according to the work expected. This can be adjusted to suit the behaviour of the horse.


Harness – This needs to be appropriate for the work to be undertaken.

Long gears – This is either plough harness with a whipple tree, or trace harness with a spreader bar. The heavier trace chains are essential for larger timber.

Scandinavian-design harness – This is used with shafted equipment. In a forestry situation, it is essential for the horse to have the freedom of movement which is allowed with this harness. Variations of this design can be used as long as the principles of freedom of movement and the horse’s welfare are adhered to.

Implements – All implements should be light but strong for easy manoeuvrability, and to enable maximum loads to be carried. A choker chain should be used with long gears.

Training and experience – The chainsaw operator must have the relevant certificates and have completed the appropriate NVQ in forestry. All necessary protective equipment should be worn.

Considerations when Planning a Timber-harvesting Operation

When planning a timber-harvesting operation the physical impact on a site of using various extraction systems must always be considered, as well as the following details:

  • Weather
  • Soil conditions
  • Damage to standing trees
  • The width of the racks
  • Terrain
  • Rocks and boulders
  • Stumps
  • Steepness
  • Extraction routes
  • Extraction distance
  • Landings
  • The size of the timber
  • Volume plus weight
  • Felling and presentation of the timber
  • Owners/managers’ objectives
  • Timescale

Planning and Basic Work Practices

Using your working knowledge of harvesting systems, work out the felling plan, the layouts of the racks, and the landings and extraction routes to ensure the maximum efficiency in the use of the horse.

It is necessary to work closely with the cutters to achieve optimum efficiency. Cutters must keep stumps low, and it is vital to have good-quality snedding (de-branching) to avoid sprags that will hinder extraction. Felled timber should be at 45 degrees to the extraction rack to avoid tight corners when extracting. Different types of produce can be marked with different sprays to help the logger place it in the correct stacks. This also helps loggers identify valuable produce which must be treated carefully. Serious economic loss can result if different specifications become mixed. Butts should face out towards the rack unless the extraction method will be skidding on a steep downhill track using long gears.

The site should be thoroughly surveyed and the extraction racks planned preferably before felling starts. Protective bunks should be placed on corners to prevent scarring of standing trees. Wet patches, ditches and holes should be avoided or made negotiable by filling them with wood and branches or stone, as applicable.

Safety ropes should be used in areas of public access. Always warm up the horse by extracting light loads at the beginning of the day’s work. It is important for the horse to take up any slack before moving off. In really soft conditions, take the horse out of draught and allow him to move off at an angle to help start the load. The initial movement is the most difficult. If the horse cannot cope, reduce the load. Once a horse has a full load it will need to work with greater effort, and care must be exercised for both horses and man.

Safe Lifting and Handling Techniques

It is when lifting and handling that the logger is at most risk of injury. Top-quality equipment must be used, in particular forestry boots. If using a chain saw, safety trousers, chains, helmet and gloves must be used. The logger will also need a pulp hook, bill hook, tongs, breaking bar and loading aids, for all of which there are several designs.

It is important to warm up when starting work. Never use brute force to handle wood. Either move equipment or roll/pivot produce rather than lifting it. The following rules should be remembered at all times:

Correct stance – legs hip-width apart, one foot forward.

Correct position – get down to work, bend your knees, not your back.

Correct grip – with the palms of the hands, draw the object towards the body.

Correct lift – back straight, lift with your leg muscles, do not jerk but lift smoothly, use your knee as an aid when stacking.

Use stacking tools – to avoid bending your back. Check that all tools are sharp and capable of holding produce to avoid stretching and jarring injuries.

Use a simple yoke or jack for pivoting logs onto equipment (12.2). A breaking bar and tongs can be used in conjunction with the jack for loading onto forwarders. Use a levering technique on the stanchions that hold the loads, or use side-skids to load. Always chock the wheels of a forwarder when loading/unloading.

Good handling skills avoid accidents.

Procedures and Use of Equipment

Stacking at Landing

Stack produce on clean ground on bearers with their ends flush, either parallel to or at right angles to the road. Ditches can be used if bearers are placed across them to support the timber out of the water. Mechanical grapple loaders must be able to pick up produce without hassle, so it must be within easy reach and have a level face.

Use both sides of the track if it is possible to load from both sides without the truck moving. Accurate driving can help with unloading at the landing bay. Drive close to the stack so that smaller produce can be off-loaded on top of the stack. Roll larger logs off to form the base. Sufficient room should be left between stacks of differing specifications. If unloading parallel to the road use several stacks in order to avoid one pile becoming too high and thus making it difficult to reach the other stacks. To help stack, it is possible to roll the produce up two stakes set at right angles against the stack. If necessary to help pull the produce into place, the horse can be used at right angles on the other side of the stack, using a chain to draw the produce up onto the stack.

Long Gears (Skidding and Tushing)

The maximum load size depends on the size of the horse and the optimum type of terrain for extraction. As a benchmark, a Shire-type horse can skid half a ton on the level. Shorten the hip straps to give the horse more traction and help lift the front of the load. Check that the produce has been well snedded to facilitate a smooth pull.

Attach the choker chain round the tree about 10-15 inches from the end, with the ring or hook near the ground so that the maximum tightening of the choker is achieved when the horse is in draught. The placing of the choker ring/hook can help to turn poles trapped behind stumps. When extracting downhill, attach the chain to the top end of the log as the butt acts as a brake. On the level, the butt end can face forward since it is the heaviest end and is thus lifted slightly by the traction of the horse (there is some controversy on this point).

Always drive uphill of the load or corner, and watch the log for any unexpected movements in transit. When leading, the horse logger should be on the outside of any corners and should never bring the horse towards themselves. When a horse can be trusted to work to voice command, it can extract the timber to the rack side without driving if the route is clear of obstacles such as people or stumps. The logger should be in full view of the horse at all times.

Always make sure the horse has taken up the strain of the load before allowing it to extract timber to avoid snatching. Clear timber from the front of the felled area first, then work back into the stand. If skidding full-length poles, beware of the ends becoming trapped against standing trees or other felled trees. They can act as a catapult when released.

Skid Tongs

Skid tongs are used for pulling single logs using long gear harness. Depending on the design, either the tong jaws grab the load directly, or a choker chain passes through the tongs and tightens as the horse moves forward. Loads are deflected off obstacles, resulting in less jarring. Follow the driving procedures for long gears.

Shafted Implements

Scandinavian-design harness must be used with shafted implements to allow maximum freedom of movement for the horse. Loads are partially raised off the ground – this allows one horse to pull greater loads owing to the reduced drag. Shafted systems also allow the load to be braked via the use of breeching. Smaller produce can be bunched with a single choker chain.

Shaft Skidder

Several designs of shaft skidder are available. Note that these can have considerable side draught on sidling ground (working across a bank). Some bunkheads drop down for ease of loading if the produce has been stacked on bearers. The skidder is backed under the raised end of the produce stack and then secured; the bunkhead then rises as the horse moves forward. These are ideal for small-specification timber on level ground. For mixed-size timber, load the largest timber onto the bunkhead first, with the smaller timber on top. Secure the load with a chain which tightens when driving forward, or with a chain/belt strap with a bear trap. Re-adjust the load after 10 metres as the initial movements will loosed the load. One shaft skidder is designed so that the horse tightens the chains when in draught.

Skid Arch

Various designs of skid arch are available. Simple arches with flanges to carry the timber chains are restricted to produce that can be lifted manually. Others are fitted with ratchets to lift one end of the timber clear of the ground. The loading must be carefully planned with regard to cornering manoeuvres. Arches are suitable for use in a variety of terrains, such as extracting down fairly steep slopes, on the level and uphill, although uphill work should be approached with care. It is usually more efficient to cross-cut produce at the stump to 11ft, 12ft 4 inch, or 15 ft depending on the produce specification required. This results in less drag and facilitates greater loads, allowing for more mobility in thinning work.

The Ulvins arch is fitted with ratchets to raise the timber, and is designed to carry two tons. Choker the produce individually or in bunches, and thread the chain under the ratchet and over the top and ratchet handle. Travel with the handles facing backwards, and push the handles sharply forward to release the load. In the event of getting stuck, release the load, dismantle to arch from the shafts, move the horse and shafts forward, reassemble the arch and reload. The wheels can be removed in snow, but they help manoeuvrability and alleviate side draught in steep conditions. Choker chains can be joined together to reach awkward timber, and dragged into position using the flanges on the arch.

Drive from the side or behind the arch according to the space available when empty or loaded. The logger should be on the upper side on sliding ground and on the outside of any bends. Arches are designed to travel over rough terrain and allow the horse to remain stable.

For economic reasons aim to emerge from the rack with a full load and with one produce specification to assist with unloading onto the correct stacks. The Ulvins arch has an adaptation kit to replace the arch component with a bunkhead, so that it can be converted into a forwarder to carry 30-cwt loads over greater distances on flatter terrain.


Sledges are ideal for use in snow and ice on reasonably flat terrain. Check that the produce is not frozen to the ground, and if it is, release it with a bar. The horse needs caulkins and wedges on its shoes when working in these conditions. An adequate braking system must be adopted, such as reinforced shaft ends designed to dig into the ground when the load overruns. Brake chains can be attached to the runner tips and allowed to run under the runners, but then the load cannot be backed satisfactorily. A maximum 15-20 degrees slide articulation is advised.

Care in loading is essential, and the heaviest produce should be on the base of the sledge. Secure the load with chains which bite into the timber and a bear trap or belt strap, and adjust after moving 10 metres. Using a mat, it is possible to sit on top of the load to drive the horse when extracting. In snowy conditions, loads of up to 3 tons can be extracted on gentle downhill gradients by one large horse.

Bogie Wagons/Trailers

Various designs of bogie wagons/trailers are available. Timber can be loaded by hand using loading aids, by a cable crane, or with a small engine driving a grab. Stanchions and chains secure the load. For use in normal weather conditions, the wheels must be blocked when loading and unloading.

Pole Arch

Use long gears harness with a pole arch, which is designed for extracting large single trees. Raise the pole in the air, place the chain round the tree approximately halfway along the trunk and attach it to the arch. Pull the pole down with the chain attached to the spreader bar. Check that the tree is balanced. Extract with horse/horses in line. In good level ground conditions it is possible for one fit cart horse of considerable weight to pull 3 tons if the tree is balanced. The disadvantage is the lack of a braking system.

Working and Marketing Systems

A basic working knowledge of how timber is bought and sold, and how conventional contractors operate is essential. Forestry managers usually require a complete package, i.e. felling and extraction. The owner or forester.forest manager may require a fell and extract operation or a simple extraction job.

Different types of timber are bought and sold in different ways. Valuable hard and softwood thinnings are often sold standing, to be felled and extracted by the purchaser or his contractors. This allows the quality to be assessed. The horse-logging contractor should be very clear about what his is contracting to do. It may be difficult to arrange effective felling if he is new to the business and does not have reliable contacts. No felling should be attempted unless the logger is suitably trained and experienced. He should be adequately equipped, and will usually be required to have substantial insurance cover.

Before beginning work, all parties should understand who is responsible for the various stages of the operation (i.e. felling, extraction, conversion, and stacking). Contracts should be negotiated and signed. The logger should establish how payment is to be made (i.e. by the cubic metre or by the ton). A system of measurement should be agreed )e.g. stack measure at the road-side or wagon tickets from a weighbridge).

Shortwood is felled, snedded, converted and stacked in the wood. It is extracted to the stacking bay using forwarding equipment. The advantages are clean produce, waste left in eco-piles in the wood, and produce which is presented well for easy extraction. The disadvantage is a more demanding specification for the cutters.

Pole lengths are felled, snedded and extracted along the ground to the conversion bay. The advantages are that it is a quick and simple method. The disadvantages are ‘dirty’ timber (which can damage the saws at the mill), brash piles up in front of the timber and snags on rocks and stumps, and the load is much smaller.


The horse can be regarded as an economically viable alternative system for extracting timber on a wide range of site types. A sound knowledge of the following elements of forestry procedures is necessary:

  • Presentation of timber
  • Planning and preparation
  • Drawing up an agreement covering prices, work details etc
  • Choice of systems
  • Economics
  • Horsemanship
  • Care of the horse
  • The capabilities of the horse
  • Working in partnership with the horse

Training is advisable in the two disciplines of forestry and horsemanship.

Glossary Of Common Forestry Terms

BearerPole laid on the ground before stacking to keep timber off the ground and assist drying out.
BrashWaste branches from poles and timber trees (also lop and top).
BunkheadCrosspiece of metal on top of implement on which timber is placed for extraction. Used in conjunction with chains to tighten the load.
ButtThe stump end rather than top end of the stem of a tree.
CutterA timber-cutting contractor or feller.
LandingTimber stacking area (bing in Scotland).
Line-thinStraight line of trees felled to enable machines to enter and exit for extraction purposes.
Lop and topWaste branches from poles and timber trees (also brash).
RackA route for extraction in a stand of trees, which is formed by cutting out a line of trees.
RideUn-metalled woodland road/track, suitable for extraction at certain times of the year if soft, or all year round if well drained,
Saw-logTimber which is to be converted into planks.
SneddingDe-branching a tree by cutting branches off flush with the main stem (also dressing out).
Snigging/tushingPulling timber along the ground with long gears.
StandA compartment or parcel of trees between rides.
Wind-blowArea where strong wind has blown down trees, usually a funnel into a stand and circular area where whirlwind has occurred.


Heavy horse ploughing information & history


Heavy horses for forestry & logging


Harness for the working horse


Farriery for the working horse


Training your heavy horse for work.

Shire Horse

Shire horse information and breed guide.


Clydesdale information and breed guide.


Suffolk information and breed guide.


Percheron information and breed guide.


Ardennes information and breed guide.


Native and working crosses information and breed guide.