July 1, 2011, a ferocious windstorm attacked northern Wisconsin, killing one person, injuring dozens of others, and destroying trees on some 130,000 acres of land. In addition to mountainous piles of brush, the storm left an estimated two million cords of wood on the ground. Volunteers, the National Guard and loggers from the entire region assisted in the cleanup–which still continues.
Among those workers is Taylor Johnson of rural Washburn County. He’s a fifth generation logger–the fifth generation to rely on logging as his main source of household income. In the aftermath of the July storm, he removed nine semi-trailers of brush and a couple of truckloads of logs from just one rural residential lot.
The difference between Taylor and many of the others working in the region, however, is that he completed that work assisted by a team of Belgians, rather than modern mechanized equipment.
“I enjoy working with the horses. I have since I was a kid,” he said.
After the storm that hit the region this July, he believes even more strongly that in many situations the horses have an advantage over mechanized crews.
“I was working with the horses alongside a crew that was using skid steers to pull out brush,” he remembers. “We weren’t in a hurry. We were just working along steady.”
He hitched the horses to piles of brush bigger than a pick-up truck and asked them to pull the load to a clearing, one brush pile after another, the routine broken only by the occasional rest break. By the end of the day, the loggers using mechanized equipment had a new appreciation for old-fashioned horsepower.
“We smoked ‘em,” Taylor says, still grinning at the memory. “We moved a lot more brush than they did.”
Horse loggers also fill a need for landowners with smaller parcels of land that they wish to carefully manage, Taylor believes.
“It costs the mechanized crews so much to move into a 40-acre piece, they have to cut large volumes to be profitable,” he explained. “They have to move a lot of equipment on site, and that costs money.”
Some horse loggers are critical of the mechanized approach; Taylor has only respect for how hard those crews work and the risks they take. After all, he has plenty of experience with that form of logging.
Through the 1990s, he worked with his father and uncles in a logging business with nine crews. Most of the work was done with machinery, although he and his father always maintained a few horses or mules.
“It was a huge operation,” he said. “You handle a lot of money but it all goes for expenses. Most loggers work so hard for their living it’s crazy. It’s such a tight business. I knew that wasn’t the direction I wanted to go.”
Two life-changing events helped him make the transition from that successful, mechanized logging business to working with the horses. First, his father’s health began to decline. Second, his brother was killed in an automobile accident. His brother’s death, he says, was especially difficult because the two of them had been close.
“I thought–why not go into something else? And I knew I wanted to go into low-impact logging,” Taylor remembers. So he and a Belgian named Sam took to the woods.
Although he had success with mechanized logging, Taylor knew he had a lot to learn about making a living with horses and a chain- saw. He credits Tim Carroll of Lyle, Minnesota, for teaching him and helping him grow his business to its present level.
Ironically, Tim never intended to become a horse logger.
“I married my wife and three horses,” he explained. “It didn’t take me long to realize I wasn’t going to win the battle.”
She had riding horses; he purchased a draft team. He used the team to plow the garden and haul firewood out of the forest, then expanded to asking the horses to pull logs out of the woods. He landed a contract for horse logging and had two more jobs waiting before he finished the first one.
“It just took off,” he said.
That was 20 years ago. Since then he’s developed a thriving horse logging business, created his own programs on RFD-TV, and trained many people in the art and science of horse logging. Taylor’s first “course” with Tim was a two-day marathon pulling walnut trees out of a grove near Cannon Falls, Minnesota. Tim said it didn’t take him long to realize that Taylor was far more advanced than most of his students. He already had a knowledge of logging and a good working relationship with the horses.
It was also clear that he and Taylor shared many of the same philosophies.
“Horse logging isn’t a job; it’s a way of life,” Tim says. “Your day starts out caring for the animals and it ends that way.
"It’s not a nine-to-five job, but it allows opportunities to enjoy a rich family life," Tim said. It can be a dangerous job, but carries rewards beyond the paycheck.
“I’ve taught a lot of people and the ones who have had the most success are the ones who care the least about money,” he said. “Taylor and I are on the same track. It’s very seldom that something comes out of his mouth that I don’t agree with.”
When Taylor decided to make horse logging his career, he and his wife Annie had a serious discussion about how it would affect their lifestyle.
“I’ve seen guys start and stop this work because they can’t make the big money,” Taylor said. “But we have a different lifestyle than most folks. We save money.”
They’ve remained true to their plan to live simply, put their three children at the center of their lives and tuck away funds for emergencies.
And there have been emergencies. A few years ago, Taylor suffered a bad case of Lyme's disease for several months. More frightening was the accident with an axe that left him with a severely cut right arm. Working alone and bleeding profusely, he had to make sure the horses were secure and then drive the truck–a stick shift–home so that Annie could transport him to the hospital.
“You start out the day just fine and in the afternoon Taylor shows up covered with blood,” Annie said. “That brought it home that it’s good to have that money set aside.”
While he was recovering from his injury and Lyme's disease, Taylor tried his hand at several different short-term jobs, including carpentry work. He was miserable, Annie remembers, and as soon as he could, he returned to working with his horses in the forest.
Taylor has worked with several horses since his apprenticeship with Tim. He toyed with the idea of breeding his own animals, but decided he was not a horse breeder who does some logging; he is a logger who uses horses. He prefers to buy horses and train them to work in the woods.
“I like a confident horse. I like a curious horse. I look for something that has brains and is confident,” he said. “Sure, they should be put together pretty well. But so much of pulling and working is mental. If they’re willing, you can get a lot done.”
Most of the draft horses he looks at have been trained to work in fields. They’re not used to the comparatively claustrophobic conditions in a forest. Shadows from moving branches, the sound of a falling tree limb or the rustle of leaves are all things the horses must learn to accept.
“You have to get them used to chain saws and trees falling, and they’re going to be in all kinds of terrain,” Taylor said. “I tie them up and let them watch me. They’re far enough away so they can’t even feel the wind from the falling trees. In a couple of days they get used to it.”
By the time he’s worked with horses for a season, they know when they’re going to have an easy time pulling out a log and when they’re really going to have to work. Smaller logs–they’ll nibble on available vegetation while Taylor sets the chain in place. Larger logs–they’re a little tense, waiting for his voice command. “They know it’s time to pay attention and work,” he said.
The July 1 storm destroyed so many trees that some property owners want to save any that are still standing–and that poses the kind of challenge Taylor and his horses welcome. In one case, he had to move several large logs from behind a standing tree and a stump–while not damaging a nearby small birch tree.
Taylor and the horse began a highly choreographed dance: On voice commands, the horses move one step, then stop; they back up, turn, move forward, stop. They repeat the process slowly until the downed log is free and the birch tree is out of danger. The whole process takes less than five minutes.
“That’s what my customers pay me for–that kind of attention,” Taylor said.
When he sees that his horses are not pulling together, he’ll ask them to stop and let them stand for a moment to get their minds back on the job. He’ll then ask them to pull again, and encourage them in his best cheerleader voice when they’re pulling strong.
“People are always surprised that you can get that much work out of a horse. We cleared this whole country with horses,” he remarked. “These guys work all the time so they’re in incredible shape. They can outwork me.”
At this point, Taylor and his horses have enough logging work to keep them busy for some time. Like Tim, Taylor has taken on several apprentices over the years–but both men say there is room for more professional horse loggers in the industry.
At one time, Tim said, he knew of 18 professional horse loggers in Minnesota–people who claim the work as their sole source of income. Today he knows of two in the state, including himself.
It’s hard work, Tim explained. Many people leave the career field or take other jobs and work their horses only on weekends or as a hobby.
Taylor is 37 now and says he hopes to continue working his horses in the woods until he’s in his 80s. There is no other career he would find as satisfying.
“I live for animals; I get along better with animals than with most people,” he said. “I really enjoy working with the horses.”
Often when Taylor is on a job, Annie will bring the children to the site–daughters Nettie Sue and Gloriana, and son Sullivan. They climb on the forecart, pet the horses, play on the logs, and generally show the kind of energy healthy kids enjoy.
Will there be a sixth generation of loggers in the Johnson family?
“I don’t know,” Taylor reflected. “My father and uncles tried to talk me out of it. That didn’t work.”
He looked at the horses.
“This is my passion.”