Lumberjack Math Introduction


This lesson introduces your students to math calculations required when working in a logging camp’s horse barn. They will need to apply a formula to find the weight of their horses, consult a calendar to determine the amount of oats needed for the season, and make informed decisions about purchasing supplies.

Essential Questions

  1. How can a horse’s weight be calculated to determine the amount of oats it needs per day to stay healthy?
  2. How can the amount of oats a logging camp needs to feed its horses be calculated?
  3. What factors should be considered when ordering oats for a logging camp?


  1. Upon successful completion of this lesson, students will be able to:
  2. Apply a formula to calculate the weight of horses, and the amount of oats they will need to stay healthy.
  3. Calculate the amount of oats a logging camp will need to keep their horses fed for the entire season.
  4. Analyze the price, distance, and shipping costs of oats to determine the most economical place to purchase oats.
  5. Justify historic real-world decisions regarding oat supply in a logging camp.

Time Needed

Two class periods


Barn Boss videos

Helping the Barn Boss (optional extension)


Horses were an integral part of the logging camp operation in the early twentieth century, because they were the primary power source for the lumberjacks. Not only did the horses transport logs, they also transported supplies and people to and from camp and town. While the camps your students will work with have just sixteen horses, many early twentieth century camps needed more than that. A typical camp might own some of their horses, but would likely rent most of them from farmers, lumberjacks, or other companies.

Horses were a big investment for the logging camps. In 1900, the Midway Horse Market in Saint Paul auctioned logging camp horses for between $100 and $175 each, while the going rate for a pair of rented horses was usually between $15 and $25 per month. In today’s prices, that would be between $2800 and $4800 to buy a horse, and between $400 and $700 per month to rent a horse.

In addition to the cost of buying or renting a horse, feeding and caring for the horses was a significant, on-going expense. Always money conscious, it was important for the logging camps to keep their horses well fed and healthy, while trying to keep expenses down. The job of feeding and caring for the horses in the most economical way fell to the barn boss. The barn boss played a crucial role in the camp, and earned about $20 per month. To avoid under or over feeding his horses, the barn boss needed to know the weight of each horse. Because camps did not waste money on scales, each horse’s weight needed to be calculated from its measurements. Here is just one place that math becomes important in the horse barn.

While the average working horse ate about a half bale of hay per day, the rest of their diet was mostly comprised of oats. It is the supply of oats that your students will use their math skills to calculate for the 1900-1901 season. Though measuring a horse to figure its weight has not changed much over the last century, the use of horses has. Horses shifted from work animals to hobby or sport animals, causing a shift in diet as well. Today, an average horse usually eats a half bale of hay per day, and about a half quart of oats per 100 pounds of body weight.


Burning daylight: Wasting time

Bushel of oats: Unit of measurement for oats

Feeder: Barn boss

Hayburner: Horse

Heart girth: Circumference of the horse’s chest


Before class, have the worksheets divided by camp for each group of students to complete. Be sure to have enough copies for each student so everyone will have a chance to write out their answers. The solutions students find will not be in whole numbers, so decide ahead of time how you want your students to round their work. Make note that rounding up and/or down can affect how much you feed a horse, and you do not want to underfeed or overfeed the horses.

1. Divide students into “camps” of three to four students. The worksheets for each camp have different horse weights, so each camp will have different conclusions. With students organized into their camps, have them take notes as they watch the first video, Horse Weight. This video segment introduces the first worksheet. Lead a discussion about the video segment, and answer any questions students may have about their task. Reiterate what the barn boss said in the video regarding the weights and formula. The formula is on their worksheet, but it may be helpful to write it on the board.

Transcript | Watch video Horse Weight on YouTube

2. Have students in each camp review the worksheet data, and guess which horse will weigh the most. After noting their choice, have them complete their Horse Weights worksheet.

Possible approaches:

  • If you need to move faster, divide the horses among camp members, so each student is responsible for calculating the weight of two or three horses. Students can then share their answers within the camp to complete the worksheet.
  • If you have more time, have each student calculate all of the horse weights separately. Students can check their answers with their campmates to ensure they have done the calculations correctly.
  • Have students complete the first calculation by hand to see how it works, then they can use calculators. Estimating answers before using a calculator will help to avoid errors made by accidently pressing the wrong keys.

3. After all students have completed the worksheet, lead a discussion about the following questions:

  • Why do some horses weigh much less than others? Remember, they weren’t baby horses; they were riding horses. They wouldn’t have pulled the big log sleighs, like the workhorses, but they would have been used to transport people to and from town when the tote sleigh was unavailable.
  • Before completing the worksheet, which horse did you think would be the heaviest? (See step 2 above.) Did that turn out to be true? Why or why not?

4. If time permits, have students:

  • Find the mean (average), median, and mode of the horses’ weights.
  • Find the average length and average heart girth to calculate the average amount being fed to the horses.
  • Using a tape measure and a plastic model of a horse, such as a model made by Breyer, calculate how much the model horse would be fed in oats.

5. As a class, watch the second video, Bushels of Oats.

Transcript | Watch video Bushels of Oats on YouTube

6. Working in their camps, have students complete the second worksheet, Oat Supply.

  • Remind students to use the “total quarts of oats per day” answers from the Horse Weight worksheet to do the calculations in the Oat Supply worksheet. Students will also need to figure out how many days there were between December 1, 1900, and March 31, 1901. Tell them that 1901 was not a leap year.
  • Remind your students to label their answers with correct units. Are you measuring quarts? Days? Dollars? Bushels? Discuss why labels are important for the barn boss to do his job well.
  • Discuss how to round decimal answers, and why you might choose to round to a certain level of accuracy.
  • Different (but equally correct) calculation methods may give slightly different results in some cases for the final answer of how many more bushels of oats to order. Rounding also affects the results slightly.

7. Working in their camps, have students complete the third worksheet, Buying Oats.

  • Remind students to use the answers from the Oat Supply worksheet to do their calculations for the Buying Oats worksheet.
  • Be sure that students understand that 25 cents can be written as 25¢ or as $0.25 but not as .25¢. To calculate the cost of buying 650 bushels at 25¢ per bushel, they can multiply 650 x 25¢ to get 16,250¢ and then rewrite it as $162.50, or they can multiply 650 x $0.25 to get $162.50 directly.
  • The answer key uses the greater number of bushels that can result from different calculation methods on the Oat Supply worksheet. If there is time, let groups who calculated a lesser number of bushels calculate the costs, and see if there is any difference in which city gives the best overall price.

8. Once your students have decided where it is cheapest to purchase their oats, students must write a brief justification for that purchase explaining the way they calculated the prices and distances.

9. As indicated on the map in the Buying Oats worksheet, the camps are in different locations, and each camp needs a different amount of oats. Therefore, having students share their conclusions with the lumber baron (teacher) and the rest of the camps (the other students in class) can bring up good conversation about the time schedule, and how each camp was run differently.

10. Conclude the lesson by viewing the third video, Good Recommendations.

Transcript | Watch video Good Recommendations on YouTube

Lesson Extensions

(see student worksheet, Helping the Barn Boss):

Students who finish early can pick one of the activities on the Helping the Barn Boss worksheet. Encourage them to work with one or two other students to prepare a short presentation for the class.

Choices include:

  • Round decimal numbers that end in 0 or 9, such as rounding $9.89 to the nearest dollar.
  • Find the mean, median, and mode for the horse weights in one of the camps.
  • Research formulas to estimate horse weights today, and to estimate weights of other animals.
  • Use an online inflation calculator to find the cost today for a logging horse and other common items.
  • Identify appropriate metric units and convert pounds to kilograms and miles to kilometers.