Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Walking the Walk

It was still north of 100 degrees in Phoenix on September 14th when we loaded up the animals and headed for Montana. I was to teach an intensive college course in Dillon and Diana was looking forward to a month of focusing on her own studies without the usual distractions.

With Angus the cat, we set up housekeeping in our Featherlite a block from the university. The horses had even better accommodations: fifteen acres of natural terrain just outside town, all the grass hay they wanted (a local blend with just a hint of alfalfa) and a herd of horses and mules to share it with.

Two weeks later the mercury plummeted to single digits and snow covered everything, including our horses. It was decision time. Should I try to protect my horses from the elements or just leave them alone?

Let me back up for a moment and explain something. I have taught – okay, preached – the evils of micromanaging horses for many years. I’ve advocated setting them up in as natural a setting as possible, giving them the right kind of high-forage feed, letting them find their place in a larger herd, and then getting out of the way. As a theory, it’s hard to beat. But when you are standing in the snow and can no longer feel your own toes or fingers, it’s hard to believe your horses don’t share your discomfort. That was my moment of truth.

Our Icelandic mare, Fidla, was not the problem. She thought she’d died and gone to horsey Heaven. But my Quarter Horse mare, Candy, was thin-coated from years in the desert, and although she didn’t seem the least bit distressed, I could see her shiver now and then. What should I do?

I knew what I would tell others: provide free choice grass hay to warm the horses from the inside, give them full contact with the rest of the herd, and make sure they had a windbreak available to them. Check, check, check. It was too cold for rain, which was actually a good thing. Candy’s coat needed to fluff up and trap air to insulate her from the cold. Rain would impede that.

The local vet, Lane Carlson, concurred. So, with expert advice and my own observations to bolster my confidence, I decided to do what I always told other horse owners to do: get out of the way. I had talked the talk for long enough. It was time to walk the walk.

Know what happened? Nothing. We kept a close watch on the horses, made sure they were eating and drinking plenty, and just let the storm pass. Within a few days, temperatures had shot back up, most of the snow had melted, and our horses were none the worse for wear.

What I learned from this is that there are times to think with my brain and times to listen to my heart. It probably would not have hurt my horses to move them to a barn somewhere or blanket them – the horse is one of the most adaptable creatures on the planet – but it really wasn’t necessary. Horses adapt to the natural world and the challenges in it just fine without us running interference for them. In fact, they become stronger and more able to cope when we let them face such challenges.

I’m reminded of a slide in one of my PowerPoint lectures: often the kindest thing you can do for a horse is to simply leave him alone.

By the way, special thanks to Lanie and Cecil Jones for their hospitality and friendship during our Montana venture. They have created the most perfect horsekeeping setup I’ve seen.


TJ said...

Yup, they can take care of themselves. When hurricane Rita was threatening the Houston area, my wife wanted to take 7 horses (we only had room for 4 at a time) to Austin. The roads were jammed long before we got home, so we took our chances... nothing bothered them. We had lots of wind and a nice amount of rain, but nothing serious. She is learning to let them just be horses.

L. Kelly said...

I lived through that storm in fear and trembling for my horses. They stay on our ranch which is located about 40 miles north of Dillon and the storm you described had me heart-in-throat for a few days, but the horses did just fine. My husband and I did get inspired to get snow fence up and their shelter ready in case it gets too brutal for ME to bear again. Haha. Thank you for all your tips. Wish I'd known you were in Dillon; I would have loved to sit in on your classes. Happy trails.

IceRyder said...

We lived in Arizona for about ten years or so with our Icelandic Horses (high desert, so we had some "winters"), and now live in So CA where there is not much winter.

We need to clip the horses at this time of year or they are sweating and uncomfortable.


cheryl said...

As heart wrenching as it is to see a 1200 pound animal shivering, my horses have always done fantastic when left to their own devices. Even in northern Montana with -40degrees, blowing and drifting snow, my horses sometimes choose, on their own, to stay out in the weather rather than go in the barn.
It's funny to me to see transplants to Montana who will blanket their horses when the thermometer hits that frigid 40 degrees! And these aren't show animals!

eliduc said...

Where I lived in southwestern Oregon the winters are cold and damp. We had seven or eight horses out on 17 acres of pasture. All of them did fine except for Mama, the 18 year old thoroughbred broodmare. When we got a cold rain she would stand in one place and shiver. Thoroughbreds are thin skinned with light coats and not a lot of body fat so one shouldn't generalize. When I shod horses in southern California ever so often I would run across a horse from Montana that had had the tips of it's ears frozen off. Aside from being a little short eared they were fine. I now live where it goes down to 20 below and have a Fjord. He would be happy at the North Pole....but Mama would probably become an ice sculpture. We put her in a barn stall or blanketed her when the weather got rank. It's a matter of being humane and having horse sense. Every horse has different needs. The same goes for "natural" trimming. You cannot generalize and promote that all horses do fine without shoes. There are too many factors. Many do....some don't.

bev said...

We've retired and moved from Southern California to the high mountian valley (6700 ft)community of Panguitch Utah, where we used to live and brought my 26 year old Arabian mare with us. She's got Cushing's and some arthritus in her joints. We are having the first real snow storm of the season and the north wind is howling, currently 19 degrees (feels colder because of the wind). I'm not done building her box stall and turnout here at the house, but close. She's being stabled at our local Rodeo Arena in a pipe stall with a roof and I put up tarps for wind breaks. She's blanketed and well fed and seems to be doing well despite the cold, wind and snow. I keep forgetting she's a horse, a good 5 score on the body condition scale and can handle this cold weather!