VOLANT, Pa. — The snow- and ice-laden trees ring with the jangle of harnesses, the sodden clomping of heavy hooves and the slushing of a log sliding along slick ground.
Then, a pause, as the three Brabant draft horses, two blue roan and one chestnut, jostle to a stop. A large stone has snagged on the log and is adding weight.
Dehan Courtney, 33, assesses the snag, and leans back on the reins, guiding the horses back in the traces with clipped commands. His wife, Rebecca, 30, steps in to help, as he maneuvers the rock out of the way.
Rebecca Courtney laughs as the team moves forward, finally, and continues down a winding path through the trees.
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“One of the joys of horse logging is your equipment’s a lot more complicated than just hop in, turn the key and start driving.”
For the Courtneys, who run Logging with Horses in Mercer, Pennsylvania, their niche is to do selective cutting, not clear cutting or heavy harvesting.
“The big draw really is low impact … With the horses, he can kind of navigate the natural paths that are already there with minimal damage,” Rebecca Courtney said. “It doesn’t tear it up as much.”
This winter, the Courtneys will be out in the woods a lot. They started in late fall and are booked until around March. Next winter is already filling up, too.
This project, an 80-acre plot of mostly red oak and poplar, is a large area to cover for a horse-logging outfit, Dehan Courtney said. The owner, Betty Gerber, wanted it done that way — she feels horse logging has minimal impact and she enjoys having the horses there.
The property has been logged numerous times over the decades, according to her son, David.
“It’s just like a field of corn,” he said. “When it’s ripe, it’s time to harvest.”
Lifetime of learning
Dehan Courtney grew up in Mercer, and his father owned a private sawmill.
“I’ve always been around the woods,” he said.
He did his first construction project at age 8 and never thought he would do anything else. He bought his first draft horse in 2011. Then, someone approached his friend, offering to log his woods.
Dehan Courtney told his friend he could make more than what was offered. His friend countered: “Why don’t you do it?”
“So, I bought another horse …” Dehan said.
To learn the business, he has shadowed other horse loggers and wants to learn more about grading logs to help landowners get the best prices.
A few years in, the Courtneys are starting to see the rewards.
“This year, I’ve got enough woods that I probably won’t get it all done,” Dehan Courtney said, “which is ideal.”
He recently purchased a second, two-horse cart. With the help of another team pulling logs out, he will be able to move faster.
Anecdotally, the Courtneys say horse logging is growing in popularity, as are Brabants, their draft breed of choice.
There is no clear data on horse logging growth, though. According to Brad Perkins, executive director of the Ohio Forestry Association, out of 600 members, none are horse loggers.
“It is definitely a niche industry,” Perkins said. “It’s more that they’re in the horse business, and logging is a good way to use them.”
In the Courtneys’ case, there are about six horse logging outfits in the area, mostly Amish. Some of their friends who live elsewhere are the only ones in the business for 200 miles.
Interest in Brabants
The American Brabant Association established a registry in just the past year because of increasing demand. (Dehan Courtney is on the board of directors.) Rebecca Courtney estimates there are around 100 registered Brabants in the U.S.
Originating in Europe, Brabant draft horses are the foundation for the American Belgian draft horse, among others. After World War II, Brabants in Europe were bred to be thicker and stockier, while Belgians in the U.S. were bred to be taller, lighter bodied and free of feathering on the legs, according to the association’s website.
“They’re popular because they’re gorgeous. They’re flashier than a lot of the draft horses,” Rebecca Courtney said. “They’re also shorter and stockier. If I’m somebody who wants to homestead and to plow my garden or something … I don’t want to be harnessing a 17-hand Percheron.”
Logging is good way to make use of the horses, Dehan Courtney said. Since they’re heavier animals, putting them to work keeps them healthier.
Love and horses
Even the couple, tall, lean and dark-haired, have a story that revolves around horses. Rebecca Courtney grew up on 30 acres just north of Pittsburgh. She and her siblings were introduced to country life and livestock, through 4-H. They showed hogs and steers at Hookstown Fair, in Beaver County.
Around 2009, her family bought 160 acres in the Harrisville area. When she returned in 2010, after graduating with a degree in animal science from Michigan State University, she started running the farm. Currently, she manages a herd of 20 beef cattle for custom private treaty sales.
The farm is also where she and Dehan keep their growing herd of horses. In addition to nine Brabant mares and a stallion, they own four Gypsy mares and a stallion.
The couple met when Rebecca Courtney returned from college. He was friends with her sister, and came to the farm to go riding. The way Rebecca Courtney tells it, she really wanted a draft horse — her sister wouldn’t let her get one because she felt they ate too much — and, then, Dehan went out and bought one.
They became fast friends and first dated not long after he bought the horse. They were married in September 2017 when the logging business was just getting off the ground, as was the draft horse herd.
The young couple lives frugally, Dehan Courtney said, which is good, because logging pay is based on how much a logger gets in bids from mills. He fills the rest of his time working with a tree-pruning company in Grove City, and managing rental properties.
They hope to expand their Brabant business. Their first foal will go to Georgia after weaning and they plan to have several more foals for sale next year.
It’s really not about the money for them though. For Rebecca Courtney, the love of farming was instilled in those early years in 4-H, through the encouragement of a dedicated adviser. It has grown as she’s studied agriculture and now works in it, full-time.
For Dehan Courtney, it’s not a path he envisioned, but he’s enjoying being able to combine his passion for the outdoors, horses and sustainability.
“You’re not going to get rich horse logging. That’s not why you horse log,” he said. “If you’re going to be doing horse logging, you’re doing it because you like your horses and you like being outside.”
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