A Future for Heavy Horses: Countryman Magazine, October 2013

For Countryman Magazine this month, Chris Wadsworth told me what it’s like to work with his heavy horses.

Chris Wadsworth enjoys a close working relationship with his horse, Blue

Chris Wadsworth enjoys a close working relationship with his horse, Blue

Chris Wadsworth is a ‘horse logger’ – a man who extracts timber from the forests with the help of a working horse. He began working with horses in 1990, and says, “I’ve done commercial forestry, conservation and quite a bit of urban work. For instance, Linthorpe cemetery, taking out trees between the graves etc. The Victorians had planted a tree on every grave, but the trees had got oversized and were pushing the gravestones over and shading out the ground vegetation.”

Chris learned about heavy horses from Geoff Morton, a noted breeder in East Yorkshire. Chris says, “I started with a shire mare on loan from Geoff Morton. Then I bought one from him, a Clydesdale. Then I had a Percheron for a while, I sold him on to another horse logger, and got a Cob, Blue.

Blue the horse has blue eyes

Blue the horse has blue eyes

Why did Chris sell his Percheron? “He was a lovely horse, and the best of him was brilliant,” he says, “But he was also somewhat nervous for a big horse. He had lived alone for many years, but last year, I was working with an apprentice, and she had an Ardennes mare. He found out that he was a herd animal, and he’d found his lead mare – he was a big daft boy. It upset him, he didn’t want to be separated from her. So if she left the wood, he dashed off after her. He wouldn’t go in the trailer without her.”

This made life difficult for Chris, who comments, “When you get objection from an animal weighing 900kgs, you can’t do a lot about it. So I sold him to my friend in Scotland who has other horses, so he’d be with other horses all the time.”

“Then I bought the Cob, Blue. She’s smaller, about 500kgs, but very, very strong. She’s not got the absolute power of the big draft horses, but she’s very strong for her size, and also very adaptable. And she fits into a smaller space, can go under low hanging branches etc.”

Blue is eager to work

Blue is eager to work

Chris explains some of Blue’s care: “She needs feed and water. She’s stabled at night in winter, but that’s mostly to preserve the grass in the paddock. Horses are remarkably tough. If you give them a field shelter, they rarely use it. If there’s wind and rain together, they’ll back against a hedge or something. When I ‘m working away, she’s kept out in the weather, using a portable electric fence. She has a rug for very bad weather.”

“She’s fed first thing in the morning, and brought to work. Then she’s fed a couple of times in the day. I have a pattern, of working sessions of about two and a half hours, then stop for a break. We work three sessions a day, with breaks of about three quarters of an hour for feed and rest between.”

“It works for both of us. It’s a very long day, typically around 11 hours work for 8 hours production – there’s mucking out, feeding, harnessing, grooming and transport to site. When we live on site, it’s a little better.”

“Living on site” is when Chris is working away from home, when he shares Blue’s trailer.

Blue waits patiently while Chris loads logs onto the trailer

Blue waits patiently while Chris loads logs onto the trailer

After decades of working in forestry, Chris now also offers a non-chemical treatment to control bracken. Bracken, a fern, can be invasive, smothering less vigorous plants. And when these are moorland heather and grass, the feed for sheep and grouse, this gives farmers a problem.

Bracken is often sprayed with weedkiller, but the EU wishes to ban the most popular herbicide, asulon, and therefore, Chris anticipates demand for his bracken treatment. He does it by rolling the growing bracken with a steel slatted roller, bruising the stems so that they bleed and weaken the plant. Repeated treatments eventually, he says, “Cause it to give up.”

If someone wanted to take up horse work as Chris has done, what would he advise? “Intitally,” he says, “Go and spend some time with someone like me, and see if it’s for them. It’s rewarding, but physically very demanding. If they wish to go further, our trade group, the Briisth Horse Loggers, has an apprenticeship scheme. Apprentices are passed round several operators, so they get a range of experience.”

“Then, they need capital to set up. The aim of the apprenticeships is to train them as self-employed contractors.”

Apprentices could be opening up a rewarding career. As well as specialist applications in farming, forestry, horticulture and viticulture, says Chris, “There’s a resurgence in horses for deliveries in towns, for instance rubbish collections and recycling. The advantage, like the old rag and bone man, is that horses are very good at stopping and starting. A lorry is efficient cruising at 30mph, but not at stopping and starting every few hundred metres. A horse is more efficient.”

For further information, see http://www.britishhorseloggers.org/

About Helen Johnson

Freelance Journalist specialising in features with a country flavour

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