Treading Lightly
Horse logging in the Berea College forest.

Treading Lightly

Treading Lightly

In February 2023, construction of a beautiful brand-new horse barn was completed near the Berea College Forest. It houses the College draft horses that work diligently alongside staff foresters to manage more than 9,000 acres of College-owned woodlands.

Instead of the repurposed and dilapidated former tobacco barn the horses once called home, Berea’s four magnificent (and endangered) Suffolk Punch draft horses—Willow, Holly, Lucy, and Theo—now rest their hooves in a modern stable with 10 white oak stalls and climate-controlled tack rooms. There’s also plenty of space for their human friends, as well.

“I love how wide we made the center lane and how high and grand the ceiling is,” says chief horse logging technician and recent Berea graduate, John Hite ’19. “This is a working barn, but it’s also an experiential classroom, so we wanted to have lots of room for students and visitors.”

In addition to practicing fundamental animal care and horsemanship, the students who fulfill their Labor Program hours at the horse barn also learn highly specialized skills, such as sustainable forestry, agribusiness, and land management by working in the College’s innovative horse logging program.

Together, the horses and foresters can access remote areas of the forest and then drag sustainably felled timber to access roads, minimizing the disturbance to the forest habitat along the way. This relatively light hoofprint is more sustainable than typical logging methods that require clear-cutting wide paths of otherwise-healthy trees to accommodate heavy mechanized equipment.

A picture of the inside of the new horse barn. The picture features the main entryway to the barn as well as several stable doors.
A picture of the new horse barn from the outside. The barn is red.
Berea College Forestry employee, John Hite '19 closing one of the horse stable doors.

Horse logging has deep historical roots in the forests of Appalachia, and it, together with “worst-first” tree harvest selection, enhances the health of the forest so that its recreational and ecological value increases over time.

This sustainable method of logging also ensures consistent economic productivity for the College Forest over the years, largely by earning funds through participation in the California Carbon Credit market. Allowing the College Forest’s trees and plant life to thrive through sustainable land management practices like horse logging will earn the College annual income from the carbon market, providing steady funding rather than the one-off payouts gleaned from selling felled timber.

These funds are invested right back into the environmental sustainability efforts of the College Forest, including the all-new horse barn, Forestry Outreach Center, and other educational opportunities for students and the nature-loving public. Just as horse logging sustains the College Forest, support from friends like you sustains Berea College’s mission.

“The real winners here are the students,” says Hite, who also supervises a team of Berea student foresters. “You can’t go wrong investing in people like them and programs that help them.”

The Presidential Perspective: How Lyle and Laurie Roelofs worked to bring horse logging to Berea College

Our interest in animal-powered logging in the College Forest goes back to before we started at Berea, when we learned of the use of a pair of mules, Fred and Dan, to harvest some of the wood used in constructing what was then known as Deep Green Residence Hall, now renamed in honor of Larry and Nancy Shinn. We were a little disappointed to find out after our arrival that Fred and Dan were not permanent College employees, but rather had been rented for that purpose, and that most of our logging was still being done by mechanized means. Right then, First Lady Laurie said that we should get our own horses. We found that there was an active community of horse loggers in Appalachia, and, after hosting meetings of loggers at Berea and attracting the support of noted Kentucky conservationist and writer Wendell Berry, we, together with our forestry staff, committed to animal-powered logging. Then-Trustee Nana Lampton (now Honorary Trustee) was also strongly in support of this initiative. She joined us on a trip to Germany to learn of community-supported forest management and horse-logging techniques that have been practiced there for much longer than in the United States. Honorary Trustee Lampton continues, even after retiring from the board, to generously support forest operations and management at Berea College. We learned that to keep up with the harvesting in our 9,000-acre forest, the College could eventually employ six teams of horses and loggers. When it came time to design the quarters for those horses, we built for that ambitious vision of the future of logging in the College Forest.

Lyle Roelofs
Portrait of Laurie Roelofs with a Berea College horse
The Suffolk Punch horse
About the Sufflolk Punch
  • The Suffolk Punch is an English breed of draught horse named for the county of Suffolk in England. “Punch” is an Old English word for a short, stout person.
  • Suffolk Punch horses have the strength and endurance of other breeds of draft horses, such as their better-known cousins, the Clydesdale and the Percheron, but are typically not quite as tall, which is an advantage in forested settings.
  • Suffolk Punches are always chestnut in color.
  • The Rare Breeds Survival Trust of Warwickshire County, England, lists the Suffolk Punch with “priority” status on its 2023-24 Watchlist. Priority breeds represent those breeds of most concern, being both rare and impacted by increased inbreeding.