Draft horses assist with ecological restoration

posted Dec. 11, 2017 9:15 a.m. (CDT)
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by / Pat McKnight | Correspondent

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    Anna Healy drove her two American Suffolk mares, Duchess and Rosebud, to pull logs out of a wooded area as part of a land restoration project. Healy uses the draft horses in small timber operations in woodlands where logging machines could damage the terrain.

Draft horses can play an invaluable role in restoring ecological systems. This is especially true in small logging operations conducted as part of an environment renewal project.

Anna Healy of Mount Horeb uses her two American Suffolk mares, Coon Rock Duchess and Read’s Imperial Rosebud, to assist with the work she and her husband, Mike, do to restore endangered ecosystems.

The couple own and operate Adaptive Restoration. The business is an ecological restoration and land management company offering consulting services, botanical surveys, restorative forestry, invasive species management, prescribed burning, and outreach and education.

Healy has an undergraduate degree in environmental science and a master’s degree in forestry. Her husband has a bachelor’s degree in biology and environmental science and a master’s degree in environment and land resources. She got into logging with horses after the couple hired Luke Saunders as the forester for their company. Saunders grew up logging with horses and mentored Healy in working with draft horses, building on Healy’s previous experience with her family’s horses.

She has learned the importance of knowing how to work with the horses to prevent injury to herself or the horses.

Healy became a teamster after buying a team from a Suffolk owner in Arena. She knew of Suffolk breeder Rod Anding, and she and Saunders decided to attend the breeder’s sale in 2012.

“We went to the auction not really knowing what to expect and ended up buying our first team, Duchess and Major,” Healy said. “While Major is a great horse, he would rather plow than log, so I sold him and purchased Rosebud.”

Healy is now using her horses in a forest restoration project at the Holy Wisdom Monastery near Lake Mendota. The monastery is restoring about 30 acres of its woodland to an oak savanna.

Healy says the Suffolks are especially suited to working in logging because they have the ability to pull heavy logs through tight places in woodlands while causing minimal damage to the land.

“Oak savannas are sensitive ecosystems,” Healy said. “Since fire has mostly been removed from the landscape, many oak savannas have been overgrown with fast-growing early succession tree species and invasive brush. It is not cost-effective to remove these trees and shrubs with traditional logging equipment. The horses are a great fit because they can remove the undesirable trees without damaging the oak trees.”

She has found her equine partners also bring other special qualities to the work that machines do not.

“The reason people like Suffolks for logging is because of their heart,” Healy said. “They pull to the best of their ability every time you ask them to move a log and they never give up. They know the job and they consistently love to do it to the best of their abilities. Every pull they give their best effort despite difficult footing and thick brush.”

Healy uses her team for a couple restoration projects a year and tries to keep projects local so the mares don’t get hauled long distances.

“We have the horses working in the woods when conditions are good, usually from October to March,” Healy said. “We are typically able to complete a couple of projects a season.”

She also uses the horses around the couple’s farm and occasionally will hop on one for a ride.

Generally standing around 16 to 17 hands, Healy values the horses’ shorter stature for handling and harnessing. The compact horses are easy keepers with adults weighing in at around 1,800 pounds. Their coat color is strictly chestnut, but the copper color can come in a variety of shades from gold to liver.

Developed for their strength and stamina in pulling plows through heavy soils along with a strong work ethic and gentle disposition, the breed, initially known as the Suffolk Punch, was first developed about 500 years ago in the Suffolk and Norfolk regions of eastern England.

The Suffolk Horse Society was founded in 1877 with all horses in the studbook tracing their lineage to the foundation stallion Crisp’s Horse of Ufford, foaled in 1768.

Suffolks came to the U.S. in 1880 and were popular in New England and the Midwest. However, the breed didn’t reach the level of popularity as the taller draft breeds of Belgian, Clydesdale and Percheron.

As farms became mechanized, Suffolk numbers declined and became nearly extinct in the 1950s. The breed is now listed on the Livestock Conservancy as a critical species with only about 600 Suffolks in the U.S. and 200 left in England.

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