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3 Things Horse People Love About Winter

3 Things Horse People Love About Winter

Snowy horse pasture

I know, after the winter most of us have been having this year, it’s tough to use the words “love” and “winter” in the same sentence. But in an effort to be positive, I thought it helpful to count our blessings and try to enjoy the good…any good…during what I’d guess most people feel is their least favorite season. You’ll note this isn’t a top ten list.

  1. No bugs! Once the temps go below comfortable, bugs die or move south leaving us with no swarms of no-see-ems to accidentally breath in, no itchy mosquito bumps and no surprise knife stabs from wasps (or “waspers” as they say around here). Oh, and no barn destroying carpenter bees and leg attacking fire ants. See, that’s a positive.
  2. Poopscicles. We’ve been below freezing for a ridiculously long time and all moisturize filled equine manure has turned to hockey pucks. This is a positive because they don’t smell as much and are easy to rake, as long as they aren’t frozen to the ground. And they make a satisfying clunk when they hit the wheelbarrow.
  3. Tree maintenance. Since most of our trees and their life-sucking vines are void of leaves this time of year, it’s easier to see the fence line and do some preventative trimming. Plus we don’t have to worry about snakes in the trees or on the ground while we’re doing this, which I suppose could technically be a fourth thing we love but I’m not willing to concede more to winter.

Having said that, I’m ready for bugs, smelly horse manure, and overgrown trees again! But not snakes…never snakes.

Ice Storm and water management

Ice Storm and water management

We knew to be suspicious of the forecast of up to 12 inches of snow that was expected to fall this week. The weather in east Tennessee is apparently extremely difficult to predict. The forecast changed yesterday from snow to only rain and then hours before it hit, the forecast changed again – this time to ice. That’s the one we want the least, because it creates insane road conditions and threatens our electric service. Our horses are of course dry in the barn, munching on yummy square bales of hay. It’s tricky keeping their buckets full and unfrozen; we hope to be able to have heated buckets in the stalls in the coming weeks.

Ice buildup on trailer

We have a supposedly freeze-free faucet now and although it helps, it’s hasn’t been fool-proof. There have been several times where we haven’t been able to get it to work at 5 degrees below freezing. I eventually figure out it worked best when you close the faucet value but open the hose shut-off valves. This allows the water to drain inside the pipe so it doesn’t freeze. Still, I plan filling the trough carefully. Four equines can go through 100 gallons of water, the capacity of our trough, in about 4 days in the winter. On long cold stretches, like we’re accustomed to seeing in east Tennessee, we are in danger of running out of flowing water and having to carry buckets from our house. So in the AM when I let the horses out (if it isn’t precipitating), I take the ice from the buckets (if clean) and dump it back into the heated trough.

First, I put the buckets into the trough. I dip them below the water line and then slosh the buckets back and forth and side to side.

Iced bucket in heated trough

After a couple of minutes, I turn the buckets upside down and usually the solid chunk of ice slides out into the water.

Bucket ice in heated trough

Part of our routine in the winter. Can’t wait until spring!

Winter Blues

Winter Blues

Rusty horse welcome signOkay, I admit it. We are fair-weather horse people. When the temperature gets below seventy or so, we have no interest in riding.

There. Now you know the truth.

I don’t know about where you live, but here in east Tennessee, winter is just plain ugly. It doesn’t snow much, so you don’t have the icy but beautiful snow-covered landscape. It’s not warm like Arizona or Florida, so you don’t feel the urge to saddle up a horse and ride across the sand with the sun on your back. Tennessee winter can be summed up in one word: “muddy.”

Although it really doesn’t get very cold (although Bill would disagree with that assessment),  and in fact there are occasional warm days (in the 60’s), riding in winter here is just too much of hassle unless you’re really serious. Or if your horses, unlike ours, stay clean all winter. Because here is the number one reason why we don’t ride in the winter: two of our three horses (and the mule) stay covered in mud all winter long. To ride, you would first have to clean a horse. That is enough of a chore if the mud is dry – you could spend a good half-hour or more just brushing off the dirt where the saddle and cinch would go. But more often than not, the mud is still wet, because apparently Romeo and Cash think they are elephants. Or hippos. Or maybe just plain pigs. After a night in the barn, drying off (and flaking off), the first thing those two do when they hit the pasture is find a mud hole to roll in. (And, by the way, it’s not just mud.) Warmer than Minnesota it may be, but it’s still not warm enough to bathe a muddy horse. So, no riding.

Nothing else having to do with horses is much fun in the winter, either. To tell you the truth, we kind of just want to hibernate until spring, so going outside to do anything is really unappealing. Like I told Bill the other day, there is no joy in horse ownership in the winter. So our poor horses are given the most basic care we can get away with all winter long.

Here’s the thing though: we will pay the price come spring. When it finally does warm up and green up and dry out, we will want to brush off all that winter mud and slap our saddles on those now-gorgeous horses and head down a trail. But after spending all winter eating hay, rolling in the mud, and generally acting like a wild herd with no interference from the humans, our horses will be far from ride-worthy. So instead of spending those first glorious days of spring on the trail, we will be riding in circles in the round pen.

That is, after we put the round pen back up, that is. Because the other thing we don’t like to do in the winter is fence building. So when it first warms up, we will be finishing the fence where the round pen panels have been serving as “temporary” fence (long story), so we can reassemble our round pen.

So right now, we’re warm and toasty in the house and only feeling only slightly guilty for neglecting our poor horses in favor of staying as warm as possible, but I know we’re in for many weekends where we stare wistfully at trucks pulling horse trailers, heading off for adventure while we are spending all our time just catching up.

I sure hope we can catch up in time to have a few weeks of good riding before it gets cold and muddy again. Sigh…I hate winter.

We’re Still Here – And It’s Still Cold.

We’re Still Here – And It’s Still Cold.

Frozen fountain 20 mi from our house, 4 days ago

I know we haven’t been writing, but frankly, there’s not much to write about around here. It’s all about trying to keep the water buckets thawed and the stalls clean enough for horses without spending any more time mucking them out than absolutely necessary. We’re certainly not riding, because it’s too darn cold. Although our horses have pretty good winter coats, they don’t seem to be enjoying this weather much either. Even Sinbad, who purportedly does not like to be in a stall, spends a lot of time in his stall voluntarily (albeit with the door open). We hurriedly do our chores in the afternoon at peak temperature, then later in the evening let the horses in to feed them oats as quickly as possible. Right now it’s 10:00 am and the horses are still in the barn. We need to go up there and let them out, but it takes soooo long because they really don’t want to come out. We have to coax them out, sometimes with a halter. Then they stand around the barn gate looking like they want to go back inside. I really don’t blame them; nice, warm, dry stall or barren, muddy pasture? (There are round bales of hay out there, though, I assure you.) It’s kind of a depressing time of year.

C’mon, spring.

Too Cold to Ride?

Too Cold to Ride?

It’s that time of year again when you have to wear three layers of clothes and a goofy hat to go outside. I don’t like winter! Here we are, all excited about riding, with three horses to ride now – and it’s in the 30’s. In the daytime. And windy, too. We’re so disappointed. It’s not actually snowing (the picture is from last winter), so maybe we should just suck it up, bundle up and ride. But it’s just so cold!

I spent a lot of time outside yesterday, actually, cleaning out the spare stall, seeing as how it’s not actually a spare stall anymore – we now have three of each (horses and stalls). It was supposed to be 15 last night, so we thought Sinbad should have a stall too, whether he wanted one or not (his owner says if he’s locked in a stall, he’ll knock the walls down to get out). So we shifted everybody down and gave Sinbad the stall closest to the pasture and left his door open. As it turned out, we had an overnight low of 12, so I’m glad we did it. Sinbad didn’t seem to mind either, once he confirmed – 7 or 8 times – that the stall door was still open.

Tonight it’s supposed to be 18, so everyone will be inside again, but tomorrow it’s supposed to start warming up again, with highs in the 50’s this weekend. Yay! We’re getting 100 square bales of hay on Saturday, and then we’re going to ride. I can’t wait. I haven’t gotten to use my beautiful new Henry Miller bridle yet. If all goes well, I’ll post pictures soon of Valentine in all his fancy tack.

So how’s the weather where you are? And when do you think it’s too cold to ride?

This week at OFH

This week at OFH

It’s been a few days since I’ve posted anything, for which I apologize. It was time to upgrade my PC and let’s just say it didn’t go well. 600 miles of driving (we live in the middle of nowhere and have to drive to Atlanta for computer parts) and 30 or so hours later, I’m finally up and running again. But it’s not like our little horse farm has been neglected this whole time, so let me catch up.

I (Bill) am a cold-weather sissy, I’ll admit it. I have been complaining for weeks at all the 30 degree days (Fahrenheit) and 18 degree nights, frozen hoses, frozen buckets, poopsicles, and multi-layer clothing. I’m tired of it. It seems global warming hasn’t quite made it to east Tennessee because the last month, in particular, has been very cold. But then a ray of hope appeared in the way of a weather forecast for relatively warm weather for at least the next week. In fact, sitting here I can see the thermometer and it shows the outside temperature at 73 degrees. We did barn work late last night without all the extra coats. This is nice! Come on spring!

East Tennessee Temperature Trends

We’re out of pasture hay. Those round bales I mentioned are long gone and I’m afraid the horses are considering eating the moldy parts they bypassed the first time. We’re tossing out square bales for them to eat, which is dwindling our supply. I’m looking forward to the grass growing again. Someone pointed out that horses are supposed to roam and forage for food and not eat as much in winter. Someone else suggested that the opposite is true, that horses need lots of food in winter to store as heat-generating fat (stored in their rump, I hear). Both make sense to me but we’re probably going to look for another round bale or two to hold us over until the grass starts to grow again.

I briefly saddled Moonshine up and hopped on, mostly to test my new saddle. But it’s been too cold to ride and train until now. If the weather is decent this weekend, perhaps we’ll take our horses for a walk.

As we move ahead towards Spring, we’re starting to make a list of things we need to do to get ready for warmer weather and projects we need to get working on. Our list includes:

  • Replace barbed wire fence near the barn with a wooden fence. We have the wood for this but we’re going to need a hole digger, preferably powered. This Tennessee clay is very difficult to shovel by hand.
  • Come up with a manure management system. I’ve been talking about it for a while and would like to try the aerated compost approach. More on that soon.
  • Bring in a truckload of sand for the pasture barn entrance. It’s a clay and mud mess back there. In the comments of our post “Turning out two horses by yourself“, Becky and Ryan suggested crushed limestone or sand, claiming good results.
  • Eradicate thorn bushes in the pasture.
  • Test orchard grass in a small section of pasture. I want to temporarily fence off a small section of pasture (about 1/4 acre) to plant some orchard grass. It’ll be a nice treat for the horses when the grass has grown in.
  • Treat the wood on the barn. Our barn is mostly wood and I’m guessing we need to occasionally treat it for protection against the weather.
  • Fix up the old barn. We’re going to purchase 8-10 round bales at the end of summer and this is where we want to store them. I’d rather fix it up now before the snakes wake up.
  • Install more lights in the barn.

I’m sure there will be more projects but that’s a pretty good list for now. What’s on your list? So that’s what’s going on around here this week. More soon!

Poopsicles; or, the Hazards of Winter Horsekeeping

Poopsicles; or, the Hazards of Winter Horsekeeping

Thermometer in winterI know ya’ll up north are probably getting tired of us complaining about the “cold” weather, but you have to understand that we are desert people. We have only been in the Southeast for a little over a year, and it was not this cold here last year. It got pretty cold on a couple of nights, but we have had unrelenting below-freezing weather at night for weeks now. (In case you doubt our idea of cold, please note the photo to the right that shows the current time, date, inside temp of 56.3 and outside temp of 17.6. Ack!!) Yeah, yeah, we don’t have to shovel snow – yet – but the rest of it is getting to be a little old. Scraping ice off the windshield every morning, bundling up to go up to the barn (have you seen A Christmas Story? “I can’t put my arms down!” Ha ha ha!), leaving the water running at night so the pipes don’t freeze, picking ice from all the buckets…and poopsicles. When you pick up a shovelful of poo and drop it in the wheelbarrow and it goes CLUNK! and you’re afraid it’s going to knock a hole in the side of the wheelbarrow. That’s just plain weird. It is kind of pretty, though, with all those ice sparkles on it. (Okay, that’s even more weird.)

Anyway, suffice it to say that we are not used to this kind of weather, and still not equipped for it. Here are some tricks we’ve used to help us (and the horses) survive until spring:

  • Get the stall cleaning done early. It’s so much more pleasant to muck out stalls at noon when it’s 40 degrees out than to wait until after dark when it’s 28 or so.
  • Dress warm. Even if you feel silly wearing long underwear, two pairs of socks, three shirts and a dorky hat, this is one time when function should take precedence over style. Heck, we even have ski masks for when it’s really cold – you can’t get much goofier than that.
  • Good gloves are a must. I personally hate to wear gloves, and my fingers are kind of short, so there’s a little extra glove past the end of my fingers that gets caught in gate latches, but warm fingers are happy fingers!
  • If you don’t have bucket warmers, improvise. We often put the “barn buckets” out in the sun when we let the horses out, so the ice will be melted by the time we let them back in. Also, we sometimes fill the buckets with warm water from out bathtub right before we let them in, so they’ll have a few minutes, anyway, of water at a reasonable temp. Alternately, we’ll boil water on the stove and pour some into the cold water to warm it up a bit. It doesn’t keep it from freezing, of course, but it holds it off for a while. Bill discussed some other ideas in Horses and the Frozen Tundra of the South.

So those are some ideas. Just remember, no matter how tempting, do not set anything on fire near your barn or use any sort of radiant heat device in or near the barn. I know it’s cold, but it’s not worth the risk of burning your barn down. Oh, and one more suggestion: think back to what it was like in August when you were mucking out the stall, pouring with sweat and wishing for fall. Remember what that feeling was like and know that those days are coming again.

I can’t wait.

Frozen Hoses

Frozen Hoses

Frozen hose with wrapWe’ve had a few days where the weather has been freezing much of the time and we’re having trouble getting water through our hoses now. When we know the temperature will dip below freezing, we open the nozzle end and turn the water supply off at the spigot so when ice forms inside the hose and expands the water, it has a place to go. We also cover the spigot end with some fabric and a bucket. The pipes are already insulated. Now we don’t normally need water in the morning because we fill all the horse buckets when we clean stalls. The hoses sit out in the sun all day but lately don’t always thaw before we need to use them for water. What seems to work is not only opening the nozzle end when we’re done but also disconnecting the hose end at the spigot. It helps that our property slopes where the hose lays; the water mostly drains on it’s own. The reason this is a pain is because the spigot end always has lots of water in it so my hands/gloves always get wet and I don’t like being wet AND cold. I don’t mean to whine. I know you guys up north have it WAY colder than we do in the south. I’m just so looking forward to spring. Come on spring!

I did try one thing that helps, though. I had some pipe insulation (Home Depot or Lowes for around $2 for 6 feet) collecting dust so I wrapped it around the nozzle end of the hose (see picture above). I don’t know if it helps keep the ice away but it’s so much nicer holding onto the pipe foam than our ratty old garden hose.

Do you have any tips on dealing with garden hoses in the winter? For us, they are a necessity since we don’t have faucets everywhere we need water each day.

Horses and the frozen tundra of the South

Horses and the frozen tundra of the South

Today was the coldest day yet in east Tennessee. Actually, there have been colder days since we’ve lived here but not since we’ve had horses. Lows at night are in the lower 20’s and we’ve had some wind. Although my Arizona butt hasn’t quite acclimated to winters that are actually cold, our horses seem to have adapted nicely. Both Moonshine and Valentine have thick fuzzy winter coats and despite our attempts to shelter them from the cold, they seem to prefer it to being stuck in the barn.

Iced bucket

One thing I’m not familiar with is frozen water buckets. Yesterday and today both I’ve gone out to discover all of our animal water buckets had almost an inch of ice on top. I was expecting this but I’m not yet sure what to do about it. Most of the buckets aren’t near any power source so a bucket heater or bucket de-icer doesn’t seem like it would work for us. We could use an extension cord but that increases the possibility of a barn fire. I’m also concerned with our horses nibbling on the wires, though it seems like the heated buckets use steel wire wrapped cords to prevent nibbling. I saw a product called Thermo Bucket that uses a simple insulated float but it looks too thin to drink from. Maybe it’s just a bad picture. So we’re looking for a solution, mostly for in the barn stalls. The ice in the outside bucket I can break up effectively and it sits in the sun most of the day.

Outside ice bucket

Because we baby our horses, the subject of horse blankets has come up, too. Mikki is interested in trying them but I’m skeptical. Besides yet another horse expense, I wonder if the blanket would stay on for very long. I can see Moonshine rolling in the dirt to get it off. Plus I wonder if it’s even needed. Here comes the old “horses in the wild don’t need that” argument. But it’s true. How many horse blankets do you see in those pictures of wild horses running in the Montana snow? None. Of course, horses in the wild probably don’t live as long as our pampered domesticated horses. But even when it was 26 degrees (F) outside, neither horse shivered or showed any signs of wanting to seek shelter. I did see Valentine galloping around more than usual. Maybe it was to warm up, maybe he just felt frisky. But no blankets for now.

In our barn, the outside stall windows are now closed for cold weather, though the ends of the barn remain open as we have no doors. We’re considering adding doors but it won’t be anytime soon.

Let me take a minute to say that I do realize 26 degrees isn’t that cold. Many, if not most of you live somewhere that has harsher winters than we experience in Tennessee. That whole “frozen tundra of the South” thing was a stretch, to be sure. It doesn’t get much colder than this except in the mountains.

Getting Ready for Winter with Horses

Getting Ready for Winter with Horses

We’ve almost come full circle here with the weather and our horses. Bill brought Valentine home in the dead of winter (28 degrees the night of February 13! Brrr!), experienced a gorgeous spring, survived a hot, relatively dry summer, and now it’s fall. Today, however, already feels like winter – we had our first frost last night and it’s supposed to be below freezing again tonight. So I guess it’s time to winterize around here.

What you need to do depends upon where you live. If we still lived in Arizona, we’d be celebrating right now, because it would finally be cool enough to ride! But around here, we’re dreading the cold and even more so, the MUD. We thought we were making progress with the mud pit outside the barn this summer, but as soon as it cooled off again, the mud came back. Yuck.

So here’s what we need to do, and what we probably actually will do:

It doesn’t get so very cold here. It’s often in the twenties and thirties at night but usually warms up to the fifties during the day. Our horses are already doing the most important part of getting themselves ready: they are growing the most gorgeous, thick winter coats. They just look stunning, I have to say. All the sunburned summer hair has fallen out, and thick, velvety new hair has come in. They’re also very fortunate to both be all black, it attracts the heat very nicely. Lucky them! If your horse doesn’t grow a good winter coat, or if it’s really cold where you live, you should purchase a good blanket. I’m not sure why they call it a blanket, because it looks more like a coat, but that’s what it’s called. Good luck with this – I’m told that most horses hate them and do everything they can to get them off, from pulling on them with their teeth to rolling in the mud to having their horse friends help them pull them off. But in some climates, they really should be wearing one. Please, though, try to preserve their dignity by choosing one that doesn’t look too goofy.

Goofy horse blanket

For our part, the most important consideration for winter is the food supply. The grass in the pasture actually sticks around all winter, but becomes shorter and scarcer and not a good thing to rely on for winter forage. Our ultimate goal is to seed the entire pasture with cold-weather grass in the winter, but you need a tractor for that and we don’t have one yet. Hay also becomes harder and harder to come by as winter drags on. Last year, we had a panicky moment when we actually could not find any more hay (after paying $4.50 a bale for the hay we had last found). Luckily, we mentioned our dilemma to a friend whose mother had a barn full of “old” hay that she sold to us for $1.00 a bale. This year, we are planning ahead. We built a loft in our barn so we could store more hay, and have begun to fill it up. (A note on hay storage here: the biggest risk with stored hay is that it will develop mold. As you dispense hay to your horses every day, check each flake for signs of mold. The easiest method is with your nose – moldy hay smells bad. Never feed moldy hay. You should be checking hay for other stuff anyway – I’ve heard of everything from plastic bags to dead snakes being found in baled hay. Maybe you should be wearing gloves as you’re checking.)

We have also supplemented the hay supply with a round bale of hay, which is in the pasture for the horses to munch on whenever they want. Since they spend most of their time in the pasture, that’s a good place for a supply of hay. Ideally, any hay in the pasture should be protected from the weather. A “run-in shed” is a good thing for this purpose. It’s a three-sided shed that protects your hay – and your horses – from rain, wind, snow, whatever. We have an old barn in our pasture that we intend to use for this purpose, but it needs some serious maintenance right now. So the hay is parked beneath a large evergreen tree.

Another important note about winter feeding is that your horses will need to eat more to keep their weight up. Keeping a body warm in cold weather takes a lot of energy. We give our horses more oats in the winter – they’re higher in calories than hay.

Although your horse won’t need as much water in the winter as in the summer, a supply of clean, fresh water is still just as important. If you live somewhere where water might freeze, you need to invest in a bucket or trough de-icer. You might consider one even if it doesn’t freeze – horses don’t like to drink icy cold water and may avoid drinking if they don’t find the water to their liking.

As for protection from the elements, most of our horse friends laugh at us because we don’t just leave our horses out in the pasture all the time. They say that horses are just fine out in the cold, and I’m sure they’re at least partly right. But we have a nice barn with lots of room, so every night we bring them in to sleep in their stalls, and if it’s cold and/or windy, we close the exterior windows to keep the drafts out. But that’s up to you.

The biggest winter problem for us, though, is the mud. We battled it with straw this summer, piling it on and mixing it in (in Arizona, we’d have adobe by now). The next step is a large load of sand, to help the clay drain better. The best thing to do would be to shovel out the mud, lay down a layer of stone, then gravel, then sand and put the original soil back, but again we’d need a tractor. So we’ll try out the sand and see if it helps.

You’ll be hearing a lot about mud again this winter, I’m sure.