Dave Carty
Dave Carty
HEARTLAND USA  |  July/August 2006
 
Ready, Set, Skid

In some parts of the west, logging is done the old fashioned way.

Sidney would like you to scratch his butt. Sidney – a huge Belgium draft horse – has a rear end the size of the space shuttle, and by the time he points it at Jeff Knudsen, there’s not much left of the view. One of Sidney’s platter-sized hoofs comes down inches from Knudsen’s foot, but Knudsen – tall and thin as a flag pole – nimbly hops out of the way.

"Sid is the most friendly of the four (draft horses they own)," he says. "He’d be most comfortable if he could sit in your lap. My guys are a little more standoffish."

Sid and Bonnie belong to Kirk Knudsen, Jeff’s younger brother. Pat and Major, Jeff’s "standoffish guys", stand staring at us from the corral, looking like a pair of giant blond puppies. They seem to be smiling. According to Kirk, all four horses love their work, which consists of skidding saw logs out of the mountains. For this they’re paid in hay and water; no extra wages for overtime.

Sidney and his huge equine buddies are kinder, gentler versions of the heavy machinery Kirk has been working around for most of his life. Kirk’s job as a timber faller took him all over the northwest, but the travel left him missing his kids, so when big brother Jeff – also a timber faller -- hatched the notion of small-scale, low-impact logging with horses rather than heavy equipment, he took a shine to the idea. As it turned out, it was a niche whose time had not yet come.

The elder Knudsen placed ads in local papers, hoping to line up logging contracts with local landowners, with little response. Then, an area rancher with plans to return her ranch to its ponderosa/savanna ecotype heard of them, and hired them to thin out the dense stands of ponderosa pine that had sprung up on her place after years of aggressive fire prevention. Today, the Knudsens cut trees in the winter, skid them out on horseback whenever the weather allows, and do controlled burns to manage the understory. They’ve had steady employment for eight years, no small thing in Montana’s boom and bust rural economy. Jeff’s niche has evolved into a smooth operation, but it wasn’t always that way.

"My first day, they wanted all the Doug fir removed from the forest," Jeff recalls." So, I was on this skinny skid trail, and I had to make a 90 degree turn around this tree. But the horses got hung up. I was totally green, so I told them to go. That tree came down a few feet from me. The horses ran off, and I had to get out of the way or I would have been pinched. The horses ended up straddling a tree and broke all the lines between them." He grins through his gray beard. "That was the third drag of my career."

Neither of the Knudsens had much previous experience with draft horses. When Jeff decided to go into the horse logging business, he first had to find a team. But finding someone who would sell him a team of the increasingly rare draft animals wasn’t easy. After "a couple of months" of calling all over the west, he finally located Montanan Charlie Yerian. Yerian agreed to sell him a team and give him lessons driving it. He spent the first hour every day fine tuning Knudsen’s technique, then turned him loose to figure out the details on his own. After a week, he gave him a thumbs up. "Jeff," he said, "you’re boring these horses to death. You’ve got to get them into the woods."

The horses act like they were born to the work. In harness, they shiver with excitement, straining impatiently, waiting for the soft "c’mon" from either man that is their signal to go. Then they lunge down the trail, necks arched, massive hooves prancing.

Both men frequently talk about their relationship with their teams and the horse’s light footprint on the earth. Back when Kirk was a timber faller for a helicopter logging operation, he says he spent all day "running from tree to tree."

"But here (with the horses), we’re geared to doing it right rather than doing it for production," he says. "We’re on a day wage, so we can do it right, rather than slash and crash." Although both men are quick to point out that they have nothing against conventional logging, the slower pace of logging with draft teams seems to suit them.

The horses, of course, are the biggest part of the equation. For animals so utterly massive, they’re surprisingly beautiful and have the delicate, expressive faces of children. And in contrast to caterpillar tractors, skidders, and other heavy machinery, they’re easy on the ecosystem.

"Soil compaction can be a bit of a problem (with machinery)," Jeff says. "The feeder roots on trees are pretty close to the surface. Heavy equipment can compact the soil and make it a little less efficient for the roots to get their moisture. Horses don’t compact the soil. Also, when you corner around a tree, a log dragged by a skidder will scab off some of the bark. That’s called a cat face, but a horse isn’t strong enough to do that. So we plan our drags to go around trees to avoid that."

Although the horses are eager to work, they aren’t above playing a game of catch-me-if-you-can from time to time.

"It is amazing," Jeff says. "My guys are hard to catch if they’re out in the open, and a lot of times I can’t. I’ve got to catch Kirk’s horses and hook them up to the truck and pull them into the corral, and then mine will follow. So you’d think they’d be wild when we put the harnesses on them. But even if we don’t use them for three or four months during the winter when they’re running free, well, when I finally do catch them and put a harness on them, they’re yours. They’ll do anything we ask them to.

"I think they enjoy skidding," Kirk adds. "They really do."

Neither of the men figure’s he’s going to get rich doing this. But the job has its perks.

"See that brown metal gate down there?" Jeff points downhill, where the ponderosas have been thinned out and are giving way to a thick carpet of native grass. Ten miles to the south is Helena, the state capital, but this ranch is as far from the noise of the city as it is from the cars and machinery that go with it. "I heard an elk bugle from right there, then saw two or three cows and calves. Then, just like that, three or four bull elk ran across. So I went and got my binoculars, and that’s when I saw more cows and calves and a really nice six-point."

Kirk lifts his hard hat and runs his calloused fingers through his hair. "There’s no hoopla going on up here," he says. "Just me and my brother working together, quietly. It’s kind of neat. He smiles again. "There’s nothing about this job I don’t like," he says. "I love it. It’s the best job I’ve ever had."

Skid Skid Skid

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