Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Horse Care In The Frozen Canadian Climate

Because I'm Canadian, I need to discuss the weather. I NEED to. It's been a hard winter. It started snowing in November. We had one good thaw in January and a couple of little thaws, but we have at least a foot of snow on the ground. Last night we got our third storm in two weeks. Winters have been pretty wimpy for the last decade or so; one or two serious snowfalls and that's it. By now, with daily snow shoveling and truck fishtailing around town, I am just enduring.

This would be a lot easier if I had a tractor. I'm serious. I'd park it in my backyard and go up and down the street with it. Wouldn't that be awesome?

Winter, like most things, is more extreme out in the country. I haven't ridden my horses at all this winter because they are either up to their knees in snow, or the corral is half covered in ice, or the wind is too vicious. I got a taste of that horrible wind this past weekend when we visited the farm. During the night, I was pretty sure that my mother's rickety old house was fixing to detach itself from its foundation and hurtle across the east field.

This is what the yard looked like when we started off for church...

Taken from the doorway:

And from inside the car:

And yet I still want to live out there.

Caring for the horses is a challenge this time of year, just like getting the car out onto the road is a challenge, as well as getting the mail, crossing the lane, and keeping the house warm.

At our place, the barn takes the full brunt of the wind coming off the open field to the northwest across the road. It's a big old stone foundation though, and it's about two feet thick, and so stays surprisingly draft-free. The windows have been well insulated to keep jets of cold air out.

Only a small section of the barn is used for the horses (four stalls) and it's closed off from the rest of the barn. Their body heat keeps them warm enough. Heated barns are a very bad idea. The shock of going from warm to cold is not healthy for horses.

Ventilation is important too. If the barn is too tight, they're breathing in their own waste all night. Say it with me now...Ewwwww. The south wall of the barn is wooden planks, with tiny gaps between. It's just enough to get fresh air in there, but the south wind isn't as harsh as north.

We don't have a shelter for them other than the barn, which is why they must go into the barn every night, all winter. This means that every morning, their stalls need to be cleaned out. (In summer, they're outside 24/7. I think they're happier and healthier that way.) Phoenix came from a home with no barn, but just a big run in shed where the horses stayed during storms. Keep in mind that they have fur coats. That winter hair stands up on end and provides them with insulating warmth. When they get wet, though, the fur is flattened against the body and that's when they get cold.

Many people blanket their horses, but we don't. They go into the barn if it's wet and cold. If it's extremely cold, they're out long enough to clean the barn and get the stink off them, then they're back in for the day. Let me tell you, after a day or two in the barn, they are right happy to get outside and kick up their heels.

Horses do lie down at night. You rarely see them do it, but they do. I like the stalls bedded deep with pine shavings, and go through that bedding in the morning with a big manure fork and get all the wet patches and piles cleaned out. Shavings don't need to be scraped out every day, but they need to be sifted through. One bag lasts a few days. I don't like using straw for bedding. It's not as absorbent.

The worst thing about the place is the manure pile. The way everything's set up, there's nowhere else to put it except in the corral. For parasite control, it's better to get the pile far away from the horses. This is something I'd like to change! For now, we just have to make it a priority to remove the manure pile in the spring.

Our horses are off the pasture in the winter. They'd love to go digging through the snow like wild horses, but this winter the snow along the road broke down the fence, so they're in the corral til April.

We feed them hay in a big old cattle hay feeder. I'm not crazy about the feeder because they have to stick their heads under the top bar to get the hay, but it is safe (no sharp edges) and keeps the hay from blowing away. They also get a half scoop of grain each day. Grain is high energy feed, and they're not working, so they don't need much. But, the food energy helps to keep them warm. When it's extremely cold, they get extra hay too.

All this talk of extreme cold brings us to the most difficult part of winter barn maintenance: WATER. It's a constant struggle. We have a tap with an electrical warmer wrapped around it and plugged into the wall. This keeps the water running all winter. The problem then is keeping it from freezing once it's out of the tap.

Water is so important. Without it, horses can get colic, which is the worst belly ache in the world and can be fatal. I lost my best horse to colic in the middle of summer when he had lots of water, no parasite problems, and plenty of good pasture. I am paranoid about colic.

Each horse gets a big bucket of water overnight, which is usually gone by morning, with just a little layer of ice in the bottom. I take it outside and bash the ice out, and dump out any hay slobberings that are left over.

Water outside is a whole other issue. For years, we just waited til the trough thawed out, or went out to give them a pail of water in the middle of the day. It really is true that you can't make a horse drink. They'll eat snow, but that's really not enough to hydrate them.

Recently we got a wonderful invention: a trough de-icer. As much as I was nervous about the concept of combining water and electricity... this thing is a saviour.

The trough is close to the barn wall so that the horses can't get tangled up in the cord. It floats there, keeping the water from freezing solid. It warms my heart, too. Now I know that if they're thirsty, they can get a drink whenever they choose. I feel so much better about life now.

Since my horses are not working over winter, I let them keep their natural fuzzy winter hair. It is very hard to groom, and when they're working for a living I might consider blanketing them. The horses I ride during the week wear blankets. They stay cleaner, which is nice for riding.

Here are the grooming tools I use in winter.

The red brush is stiff bristled, but not too harsh. It works well when they're not too dirty. The black brush is the stiffest hardest brush I own and it's good for getting long winter hair clean. The green curry comb is the tough stuff. It's all wet in this picture because I'd just brought the horses in and given them a good going over. That blue hoof pick has a brush at one end, which is great for whisking away hard packed snow on their fuzzy fetlocks and heels before digging the packed snow out of the hoof.

Speaking of which... I haven't had my horses shod in years. It's expensive, and for me, unnecessary. We don't do strenuous sports with our horses and rarely ride on the road anymore. The hoof is amazing. Despite its hardness it flexes slightly with every step. I don't have much trouble with my barefoot horses collecting snowballs inside their hooves. I've found that they don't need to be trimmed as often in the winter, but Phoenix is an incredible hoof growing machine. We'll have to have our farrier out extra for his trim.

Well I don't know about you, but I'm exhausted. All that work. It's worth it though.

They are totally worth it.


Biddie said...

I wish that I had a tractor, too, some days.
Even in the harsh winter months, you still long for the quiet life on a farm.
You will get there one of these days. I know it. Then you can take care of your horses everyday, yourself. You will be so much happier, and they will be too.
Maybe I'll even go out to your place and muck out a stall.
Now that, my friend, is love :)

Heidi the Hick said...

No way, really? You'd do that? When horse manure is involved???? I should have said No shit. hahaha!

I appreciate the offer but you just know I'd never ask that of you!!!!

I'll let you drive my tractor though. That, too, is love!

dilling said...

I'd come help...in a heartbeat.
A very chilly heartbeat.

coffeypot said...

I'll stick to my dogs.

Biddie said...

I used to go to the horse barns every day after school, and muck out stalls. For FREE. I just needed to be around animals. I would bringthem apples and carrots, and if I were lucky, I would get to walk a horse around the corral.
Those were the days.
You know what I'm like. I NEED animals. I get along better with them then I do with most people.
You would let me drive your tractor?! That is love.

Tod said...

That was a really fascinating read, thanks Heidi!

CindyDianne said...

Ahhh, I feel better already.

terry said...

such gorgeous pictures, of the snow and especially the horses.

lexiloo said...

that sounds like a lot of work... but so worth it!

Lynn Sinclair said...

You're a very caring and thoughtful owner, Heidi, and I'll bet the horses appreciate it.

Anita said...

I so love your pictures...those barn pics rock!
I want to live in the country, too, and I love horses... I've just never been on one... maybe someday!


u love horses therefore u rock!!!!

Jax xxx

dad's watching footy so it's me instead

Heidi the Hick said...

hi Jax!

Balloon Pirate said...

my kids bith when I tell them to empy the litter box/

very cool. thanks for the slice of life.


Heidi the Hick said...

Yeah, it's really like a GIANT litterbox.

Only it smells much better. I'm serious.

chris said...

I have always had a love of horses. As a child I was always a cowboy or a horse. 12 years ago my grandson Ethan was born and as he grew he became very interested in horses. In the meantime, I became acquainted with Colleen Smith at the nursing home. Colleen leased a horse and then
became a horse owner.