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  • The Horse Lady

In the Deep Dark Winter time

As we have followers all over North and Central America (that is so cool, isn't it?) I receive a lot of questions about how we keep our horses warm in the winter. It's a valid question. Our location outside of Ottawa means that we have temperatures over 90F or 30C in the summer, and in the winter the extreme is more like -40 for both Celsius and Fahrenheit.

The first thing to remember is that our temperatures are usually at neither extreme. And generally speaking they gradually move toward one or the other. Then the horses' bodies acclimatize to the season at hand. In the summer, Shannon's white coat is so thin and see-through you can see her skin through her white hair, especially when she is bathed. Duke and Suzy also sport sleek summer coats over their black skin.

Shannon after a summer rain.

By the time December rolls around, they have braved a few cycles of pleasant weather changing to a little colder each time. And this year, as usual we got the Christmas blast of arctic air, and with windchill the temperatures dropped to -40C or -40F each night.

Before I go any further I need to address the issue of Blankets. Driving through any region rich with horses, and you will see thousands of horses out in paddocks in the warmest part of the day, every single one of whom wears a blanket. Some wear snoods to protect their ears. Why do these horses have blankets and ours do not? The simple answer is that many horses live in closed barns that are at least nominally heated. They spend the afternoon on the grass, and then return to their box stalls and rest until the next morning. As such, their bodies never adjust to the outdoor ambient temperature. This situation is exacerbated by the use of the blanket itself. The winter coat is diminished because of the warmth of the blanket, and the coat that does exist does not reach its full insulating potential because of the weight of the cloth and insulation laying on top of it.

When I was doing my research, before we even bought this property, before we had bought horses yet, I talked to as many people as I possibly could about how I would care for my horses. We have a heated building on the property that would have served. When I combined all the advice I got, it boiled down to one simple instructive. Let horses be horses. You don't need to control every aspect of their lives to keep them healthy, so don't. Let them tell you when they are cold. Give them good quality feed and hay, and give them shelter they can seek out if they wish it.

Having said all that, I do have two big blankets in the barn. Suzy wore hers when she was sick in the fall. We can and do blanket in the winter if the conditions and the body temperatures of the horses merit it. What does that mean? Well, obviously we look for behaviours. If they won't leave the barn to go the field and eat, that's a big one. Shaking is the worst. Only saw it in my horses once and a blanket and warm water to drink sorted it out And every evening I take my glove off and thrust my hand into their groin. If it's warm there, the body is doing a good job of staying warm. If not, out comes a blanket.

Which isn't to say we don't take other measures to allow them to keep warm. In doing so we are trying to combat the two biggest evils of the Canadian winter, wind and freezing rain. Either one can drain a horse very quickly of warmth, and they know it. They will shelter from the wind in the bush if they have to, but obviously they would prefer the more effective screening of a barn or shelter. And freezing rain is misery for them, even though they are protected to some extent by their thick coats, because it trickles down between the hairs to the skin. So it's better if they have a place to escape.

So let's talk about those winter coats. Our three horses grow long coats, but the longest is Shannon's. This is because she sleeps closest to the door. She eats her hay outside. And she usually doesn't get the benefit of the cuddling with other two to keep warm. So she has less protection. So this is what her body has given her.

From a distance, it just looks fuzzy. Warm enough sure, but not like a parka or anything. Or is it?

This close up of Shannon's coat gives a much better idea of its quality. Each of those hairs is about two inches long. There are enough of them to make the coat extremely dense. And they lay in such a way as to provide a barrier. Note also that there is snow in her coat. There is so little of her body heat escaping that it does not melt the snow.

In comparison, Duke's coat, although it does not have the density, is very long. Key places to look are along the line of his belly and the backs of his legs.

All three horses have a prodigious beard, the envy of the average hockey fan during the playoffs. The beard keeps key blood vessels warm and prevents body heat from escaping where they run closest to the surface of the body.

But there are a few days each year where the the coat just may not be enough. That's where the barn comes in. Despite the fact that it is an open barn, it is extremely sheltering, and with enough bedding they can stay very warm. And of course, if enough calories are provided they are available to be burned in the cause of warmth.

So here is a better than usual view of our barn during what Canadians call "the deep freeze". Note that there are two box stalls and a wall that crosses halfway along the barn. The ground in front of that wall is a favourite. The Clydesdales will regularly lay there together, because the wall adds additional shelter from any wind that may be coming in to the barn. SHannon is able to sleep in the barn and sometimes does, still guarding the door against our foxes, weasel or the occasional visit from our neighbour's dog. But sometimes she will go lay in the manure pile (yep, that's my white horse), allowing the energy escaping from decomposition to keep her warm. It wouldn't be my choice of bed, but she does have the barn if she wishes. The filth, you say? Curry comb, cornstarch and elbow grease.

And finally note the piles of hay. Over the deep freeze we allowed uneaten hay to accumulate on the floor by providing much more than they could eat. This bedding provided additional warmth, and because it was frozen, only urine spots had to be removed. Now that we are in the January thaw, all of the hay has been disposed of and the floor is once again clean.

So that's it, that's how we keep the horses warm. I'm sure we are not unique, and there are many others like us.

Coming up: Medieval photography, Sleigh rides, and much fun is had by all!

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