Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Winter Horse Care, The Frostfire Way

People often ask about my winter horse-care routine. Since we spent some time last week digging out from back-to-back blizzards, filling stock tanks and moving the horses out of the barn and back into their outdoor digs, the subject was on my mind and I thought I'd share some of my ideas in regard to it.

Horses were first domesticated on the Eurasian Steppes in what is present day Kazakhstan.  The place is not known for its tropical climate... quite the contrary, the winters there are frigid and somewhat similar to those here in Minnesota.  While the ancestors of the horses I raise trace back to the deserts of the Middle East, and when we think "desert" what comes to mind is "heat"... the nights there get very, very cold, and its a brutal climate in its own right.

Horses evolved, and were selectively bred, not only for their ability to look pretty and tote humans from points A to B... but to survive, and even thrive, in less-than-ideal conditions.  It is my opinion that keeping them swathed in blankets and in a heated barn is usually unnecessary (if not detrimental for some).  Obviously if one has a sick or elderly horse which requires that level of care, or even has high hopes of showing a slick show-pony at an early spring event, the barn and blankets are wonderful help in that regard.  But for a breeding or pleasure horse, I've found that a much more simple routine yields healthy horses with sound minds who thrive in all but the nastiest of weather during our Minnesota winters.

Care, and not fine stables, makes a good horse.                        - Danish Proverb 

During the winter months I keep my horses in small groups of three to five animals, and put those groups together giving consideration to age, nutritional requirements and temperament.  They are provided with good-quality hay, fresh water and salt, free-choice; the young stock are fed small amounts of concentrate as necessary to promote adequate growth and condition.   Each horse has a stall in the barn, but unless the weather is particularly nasty or we are awaiting a visit from our friendly farrier, they normally live, and are happiest, outdoors.  They do have shelter from the wind, which is important.  Horses' coats get quite thick in winter and are good insulation, provided they can get out of the wind and are not soaked through with rain.

Having been at this more years now than I care to admit, I've experimented with just about every winter horse-care routine out there.  Stabling with daily turn-out, stabling and blanketing with turnout, blanketing with full-time turnout... you get the idea.  (I've also used every bedding system out there... deep litter, straw, sunflower hulls, pelleted bedding... but that's a post for another day.)  My experience (and I'm just sharing my experience and opinion, not judging anyone else's system or making any recommendations!) has been that my horses are healthier, happier, and make it to springtime in much better shape when allowed to live in a herd situation, with hay available at all times (the digestion of roughage is what keeps horses warm) and free access to fresh water and salt... along with fresh air.

No matter how nice the barn, how immaculately its kept or what bedding system used, the air quality in a barn simply cannot match that of the outdoors.  I've experienced far fewer vet bills with horses living outdoors; they seem to avoid the respiratory ailments associated with stall-dwelling, as well as other injuries and mishaps such as stable vices and getting cast in their stalls.  There is also the added bonus of reduced bedding costs and far less time spent mucking stalls.

In Minnesota, water is the most difficult to provide in the winter, but it can (and must) be made available.  A few years ago I purchased a heavy-duty hose reel on wheels and it has been a God-send.  It allows me to keep the hoses in the garage, which stays above freezing on all but the most frigid of days.  When it does get cold enough that the hoses are in danger of freezing up in the garage, I roll the hose reel into the foyer to warm up before taking it out to fill the stock tanks.  Not a practice which would earn me "Homemaker of the Year", but it works... and, well, this is a farm and the well-being of the animals is the priority.  By next winter, I plan to have my tack/feed room insulated and heated in order to store the hoses out there and thus avoid dragging them to the house; what a joy that will be!  But this works, for now... and actually quite well.

Each little band of horses has a large water tank with an electric de-icer which keeps the water from freezing. I've found the drain-plug de-icers work the best, as the animals cannot flip the heating element out of the tank and the cord stays out of harm's way.  One day I will own automatic, heated waterers and my days of dragging hoses and filling tanks will be a thing of the past, but for now I just consider it part of my fitness routine!

Its good to have helpers!
A caveat... if the weather truly is bad and the horses look uncomfortable, I do stable them and am happy to do so.  One of my favorite simple pleasures is tucking all the horses into the snug barn and feeding them while Ol' Man Winter kicks it up outside.  They enjoy the reprieve as well, though by the time the storm has passed they all are more than ready to get back outdoors and into the fresh air and sunshine.

Horses can't talk,  but they can speak if you listen. 

I believe the most important aspect of horse care, not just in winter but year-round, is observation.  One must know your horses, their personalities, idiosyncrasies and habits... that way, when one is a bit "off" you may intervene quickly to discern and remedy the problem.  Of course, this observation requires presence, and so just kicking the horses outdoors does not absolve one from the responsibility of checking on them regularly.

Second to observation would be innovation.  While the magazines and trade shows would have us believe that all horses must live in some sort of climate-controlled, horse-proofed and hazard-free Nirvana, that's not practical nor is it reality for most of us.  I would garner that even the most successful among horsemen started their careers in fairly simple and humble surroundings.... those giant indoor arenas and climate-controlled barns (and the employees required to clean and maintain them) came later, after they'd established themselves.

So, how does one provide good care without breaking the bank (or your back)?  You get creative. It does not take a big, expensive barn to keep a horse out of the bitter wind... a simple, homemade three-sided shed will suffice.  Barring that, a windbreak can be constructed from big straw or hay bales, or even discarded pallets.  Same goes for providing water; even if your horses are a mile from an open water source or a spigot, water can be hauled in (and, many years ago, I spent a winter doing just that.  Not the ideal situation, but it worked.).  I don't recommend any of these methods over having a barn with running water, and one should give thought to how adequate winter care will be provided before ever bringing a horse home.  On occasion, however, situations and circumstances change (loss of a job, a poorly-timed relocation, etc.), and a committed horse owner will do whatever it takes to provide the basics of necessary care.  If you own horses long enough, there will be times when innovation will make the all the difference in providing good care.

That, and a positive attitude.

When its fifteen below zero and the brass coupler snaps off the hose after you finally got the whole works thawed out and pulled into place... or the tractor won't start and you must resort to pitching (lots and lots of) hay over the fence by hand... or the tank heater mysteriously got unplugged and the brand-new water tank froze so solid it burst a seam... those are the days which test your attitude, your innovation... and your dedication. And, quite frankly, make you question your own good sense.  Its important to remember, however, that spring always comes.The good news is that as long as the basics are provided and regular, attentive care given, horses actually do quite well living outdoors in winter.  

Even in Minnesota.

In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.  ~Albert Camus


Donna Boucher said...

Oh my goodness!!! Look at your gorgeous horses!!!

Amy M. Dagen said...

Thank you, Donna... I take great pleasure in them. :)