Voices of Forestry presents analysis and insight from people working all across the forestry sector. This issue, offering her perspective on current challenges and opportunities facing the forestry world from a more traditional end of the industry, is Steffi Schaffler of Teamwork Horse Logging, based in south-west Scotland.

WORKING with horses in forestry has become something of a novelty – even if it was the norm a little while ago. We often get asked at shows what we do as a real job. Well, this is it. And it’s not just the general public, but people in the industry who ask that question.

The other day, a car pulled over where we were working and spat out a very excited man. He came in and saw what we were doing. He had never heard of horse logging and it turned out he happened to manage a lot of estate woodlands in our area … 

Working as horse loggers in the UK, we often find ourselves in the position of the odd one out. I don’t really mind, but I think it is telling of an ‘industry’ that has become stuck, in some ways. Forestry was once an art, a culture, a way of life. Much like agri-‘culture’, silviculture was a long-term ambition. Now it has been pressed into the form of an industry. Felling 28-year-old Sitka and having half the logs oversized for the mill made me wonder. There are some rules in forestry that make it an industry now.

And the longer I am in it (which isn’t that long, really), the more I think we are not helping ourselves by putting up boundaries where there shouldn’t be any. Visiting my home country Germany and it’s Black Forest a few years ago, I saw trees laid out at roadside for transport. Full-size fir and spruce, grown over a hundred years by a few generations of woodsmen. A skill that is rare and a product of immense value, which would be standardised over here and the best bits chipped. 

To fit our horse work within the given parameters of our industry, we have to work hard.

In a time when speed and volume is everything, horses pose a challenge to the system.

They are great at extracting, and fast, but only over short distances. And then there is the stacking of lorry loads. It can all be done – and it used to be. But after years of hand stacking, we have now got a forwarding trailer. We are not quite as tough, but a lot of things we do compare similarly to forwarders. For every log I take out, I need to walk in and out of the woods, however far this is. My step counter is impressed. The beauty of it, at least for me, is the human scale, and the skill. I love my job and the things we achieve. A working day for me is always a learning day. Working is always achieving. Working is leaving the wood in a better state. 

READ MORE: Voices of Forestry: Stanley Hirsch, CEO of FuturaGene, on industry's future

Approaches to learning have changed through history. Learning has become a thing we do when we are young, and even a practical job gets taught in a short period of time. Colleges turn out students with all the right tickets, but very little skill. 

Teaching people horse logging isn’t an easy task. The basics are really simple, but the skill takes decades to develop. I keep looking back over the last few years and can’t believe how much I have learned in every year. How much better the horses get (because I know more), how much more I understand woodlands (because I have seen them change). When teaching, I try to make sure people understand this is only the beginning. And after the initial training one has to keep going and try to learn everything there is, make mistakes and learn from them, and keep going some more.

There is a Japanese way of thinking which suggests it takes 10,000 hours for someone to become a master of a craft. This is about 10 years in normal working hours, and that would be doing only one thing. I don’t think I will achieve this level, but there is no harm in trying to get there. 


A couple of years ago, I went on a course on ‘Irregular Silviculture’. I absolutely loved it, even if (as so often) I was asked how our horses would like to pull out 80 ft Douglas stems. But I met foresters that cared about the whole process, every little seedling and the way the forest as a whole was treated. To me, the forests I saw were the ideal of a healthy, balanced environment. They were a work site to a fulfilled woodsman and the products were of extremely high value. The people running the course told how they started this in the 1980s, bringing the method over from the continent, where it was deemed to work, but were told it would never work in England. Well it does, and it’s beautiful and more profitable than most things I have seen. Coming back to the south-west of Scotland, I mentioned this to people and guess what they said: “That might work in England, but never up here.”

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Why is it we are so worried about trying something different? The system we work within has its problems and, looking ahead, they might become a bit worse. Different methods of management and growing and harvesting trees might have some of the answers for the future. Horses and big trees might be things that remind us of the past, but they might be part of the solution for the future. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t really believe we will soon be seeing horses in all the woods again. But it is good to see some serious interest coming from the right places. And looking around the circle of horse loggers in this country, I feel hopeful we are managing to be part of the industry and the future. 

DISCLAIMER: Our columns are a platform for writers to express their personal opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of the writers’ own organisations or of Forestry Journal.