Last week I had the great opportunity to go to the Ardennes area of Belgium to photograph a man who is one of the few horse loggers in Belgium.
When we arrived at Rene's farm it was breakfast for the horses. Nothing fancy here just the horses tied up in the barn and his son Vale'ry was throwing hay over the top of them. All the horses were so calm and content you could tell they had no concerns about a pitchfork swinging over their heads. The tack was basic, worn and simple. For Rene' this is a job and only what is necessary is what is used. Along with logging Rene' also raises cows for a living along side his son who is feeding the horses in the pictures below. I caught a great moment of one of the farm dogs sitting in the barn with the cows. I just love old farms and country people who live a rural lifestyle. It is all so real in my eyes and photographing horses and people who live and work with their animals is what I have a passion to photograph.
René uses the Ardennes breed of draft horse for logging because of their strength, size, durablilty and attitude. He also has a nice band of broodmares and raises the foals in the pastures of his farm in the Ardennes area of Belgium He trains and sells many of the his Ardennes draft horses to loggers in the area and in France and Germany. The Ardennes area is very forested and along with Germany and France they do not allow tractors to log in the forests. So horses are the only method to get the heavy logs that are selected out of the woods. They do not clear cut so the horses have to drag the fallen trees between the standing trees and this is no easy task. He also sells some of his horses for pleasure and show.
When we arrived at the forest I could see the monumental job ahead that Rene' and his horses had in front of them. . The large area of forest was scattered with selected fallen trees and it was Cocquins and Cognacs job to drag all the fallen trees to the logging road under the direction of René and form piles so the tractor could come by to pick them up.
To direct his horses René uses the one-line method along with voice commands in French. It is necessary and easier when moving between the standing trees. As he began to drag the downed trees I had a hard time trying to figure out where to stand to get the best shots. I thought they would just hook the logs on the chains and drag them straight to the road, but it is much more complicated than that and takes a well trained and skilled horse to do the work these horses are required to do.
As I watched Rene' hook a few logs on the chains and Cocquin would be asked to pull, many times a standing tree was in the horses way. This is why Rene' uses the one-line method to direct his horse around the standing trees. Rene' would then un-hook the tug and moved it to the other side of the tree and then hooked it back up to the log chains. Cocquin seemed to know which way to go from pure experience. He would stop and wait with great patience. I could see the value in this as I witnessed several incidents that if the horse did not stand quietly Rene's hand or fingers could have been damaged severally. Other times a log could have pinned his legs if the horse had moved and the chain was not held taut. One of the most impressive commands that these horses knew was to take "one step" (uné pas) on command and because of their experience they seem to know if it was one step forward or one step back. I was totally in awe of the training and knowledge these horses must for this job.
A simple command would instruct these horses to climb over the pile to drag more logs on top, as demonstrated in the images below.
After several hours of work it was time for a break. Rene' took the two horses to a small clearing beside the logging road and tied the tug end of the chains around a tree. He then gave each of the horses a feed bag full of oats. You could see they were very content and experienced eating their lunch this way. Then Rene' built a nice fire out of old brush on the forest floor. This of course amazed me coming from Colorado where you would not even light a match in the forest. But in the Ardennes the weather is damp and the moss grows thick so a fire is not a problem. It was so nice to sit on a log eating our lunch with the fresh smell of wood burning. René explained how many people have told him that all he does is work, but he says "this is not work, this is my life."
After lunch it was more work of dragging and piling logs along the logging road. After several hours it was now becoming late afternoon and a full day of work for Rene' and his amazing horses was coming to an end. I had also had a day of jumping over logs and trying hard to get the story of how René works with his horses and what a typical day of dragging logs is like. I truly enjoyed the experience of watching Rene' with his years of experience as a horse logger.
René started learning to drive horses on the farm when he was small, He then started working in the woods at the age of 16 and has been doing it ever since. He is quite a humble man but very proud of the work he and his horses do in the woods. Many others can only dream of having his experience and knowledge, but like any craft it takes years of practice to become a master.
More photos of these amazing horses at work.
Thank you to Hugo Machiels and his girlfriend Rose for helping me get in contact to Rene' Bodart. Thank you for subscribing to my newsletter and being respectable of my work.