By Betsy Kelleher
December has arrived, and the serious countdown until Christmas has begun! I’m never ready for cold weather, and this year is no exception. I did get plastic coverings over our stall windows, and we have plenty of dry bedding and a generous stack of hay. Our horses have winter coats and good weight and they’ve been wormed. I still plan to go through the tack room and horse trailer, remove all sprays and liquids that might freeze and put them in a big pail in a closet until spring.
Now is the time to decorate with Christmas cheer. If you DO put Christmas decorations on a stall door, please be sure it’s safe for horses to chew on, because they probably WILL chew on it! And though it’s pretty, I’ve heard fresh evergreen is poison to horses.
Do horses care that December 25th is Christmas day? Probably not. Maybe they wonder what our excitement is all about. I’m sure they care more about being fed on time and feeling comfortable and safe in a warm stall, or being able to run and play in the field. Just like us, they seem to enjoy little gifts (only they like apples, carrots, mints or other horse treats) and they do love attention!
In cold weather, animals need special care. If you have questions, try a computer search for “winter care of horses.” It’s amazing how much you’ll find. And if you have issue #337 of Equus magazine (Nov. ’05), look up “Get Ready for Winter!” Basically, horses need plenty of water, shelter from cold wind, snow and drafts, lots of hay to eat, plus grooming and exercise, just like the rest of the year. Closing a barn up tight for warmth may actually trap ammonia odors that can lead to respiratory problems. Good ventilation is necessary. Clean dry stalls and regular cleaning of the hooves help prevent thrush. Even when horses aren’t ridden regularly, they still need regular maintenance!
I’ve never used heated buckets in the winter, but it’s a great idea. On cold days, I bring a couple gallons of hot water to the barn, to thaw ice and warm up the fresh supply. It is very important that horses have plenty of clean fresh water in the winter, and they drink more if the water is 60 degrees or above. Winter colic is often caused by inadequate water.
Shoes are usually removed during the winter, to give the hoof a chance to relax without restriction and to help prevent snow and ice from forming a hard ball that makes walking difficult. Try spraying the sole of the hoof with nonstick cooking spray, or coat it with Vaseline, to prevent balls from forming. Always keep a hoof pick handy, especially when riding in snow, to clean out the build up.
If a horse is ridden or worked regularly or vigorously in cold weather, a thick hair coat can cause uncomfortable heat. Such horses might benefit from early blanketing to prevent heavy hair growth, or from body clipping; but will then need to be blanketed all winter except during possible warmer temperatures. For horses with a winter hair coat, it is very important to take the time for proper cooling out after exercise. Brushing after a ride helps to stand the hair up again, making it fluffy instead of plastered down, which helps to keep the horse warm. Plastered or wet hair lets body heat escape and can cause chills.
It’s also important to warm up a horse’s muscles and joints before any hard work in cold weather. Walking the first and last ten or fifteen minutes will usually be adequate when you’re working a horse for an extended period. The older the horse, the more important that warm up and cool down period is.
Years ago, when I lived further north, I didn’t ride all winter long. Spring meant cleaning off a thick coating of dirty hair and manure, starting over in April with a headstrong mare full of pent up energy and worse than green broke!
I’m thankful that our stable has an indoor arena. It’s so much easier to keep our horses exercised during the winter! Since exercising is my job, my wonderful husband often cleans all three stalls while I have fun (I could let him help exercise, but then I’d have to clean the stalls). I read an article that recommended riding an hour at a walk and trot three times a week to maintain physical fitness. I’ve actually been riding more in the last few months than in previous years at this time, but with three horses I’m not meeting that article’s recommendations yet!
A friend and I have been taking weekly riding lessons. In addition to exercise for the horses, I have appreciated a reminder of basic riding posture and the need to relax and feel the horse under me again. Our fears make us tense and block awareness. These lessons help rebuild confidence and sensitivity. Last summer, when daytime heat made riding the trails uncomfortable, I often rode early mornings around the barn and down the road. I wanted to get Lady over her fear of traffic, and I built up my own fear by pushing it. She’s an almost perfect partner in the arena now, and I sometimes ride a short distance down the road or on the path behind the pasture. I can feel our mutual dependence and trust growing.
Old Traveller is doing better than ever, with supplements including immune booster, joint products and his special tea. He still has a bad day now and then, but I appreciate what I have with him. Daily exercise on the lunge line seems to help more than riding, and I try to include trotting over poles and backing up, to strengthen his hindquarters.
Rocky hasn’t sold yet, and we may choose to keep him. I’ve ridden him and done lots of ground work. Plastic bags don’t scare him anymore, and he usually walks by tarps without spooking. My confidence in him is growing again. He hasn’t done anything scary, and my fear of riding him is slowly diminishing. He seems to be trying very hard to do what I ask. I’m teaching him to stop on a word command, and to supple and tuck his head a little more than before. There are lots of things one can do with horses in the colder months, even when we’re not out riding the trails (be aware that horses have more energy in cold weather, especially if you have a big open area to ride in, so lunge before riding and don’t ask for more speed than you can handle!).
Thanks to eBay, I have plenty of DVDs and videos to watch this winter. I particularly want to work on the lunging for respect and exercising for control exercises, by Clinton Anderson. Suppling and ground work is so great for wintertime projects in the indoor arena! It really is true that each small step in the training program counts! If we don’t have hours to work with a horse, or miles of trail to ride, we can work for at least ten or fifteen minutes. It’s the quality of the work that counts, and results will come in time, if we stay with it. Just use that time to do something you can do, with a specific goal in mind, even if the goal is an easy one. Build gradually on your work, and do take another small step forward when possible, instead of doing the same thing over and over. Horses get bored easily, and we need to keep their attention and challenge their minds as we exercise their bodies.
I find myself wondering what horses know about their Creator. Do they have any awareness of God’s love for them? Could that awareness come through us, their owners? I’ve heard it said that we are as gods to our horses. We are their caretakers, masters, leaders, providers. As we clean stalls and dump endless muck buckets of compost ingredients, and shovel wheelbarrow loads of fresh clean sawdust or load hay, Russ and I often look at each other and remark that we work harder than our horses do! I certainly don’t feel like a god! I can appreciate God’s perspective, only He doesn’t have to worry about being good enough, or wise enough, or strong enough. He just IS!
When God put Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and told them not to eat the fruit, He knew they would. He had a plan, and He took care of it in His own time and way. If we accept His Son’s sacrifice, then we are accepted by Him. Our salvation does not come from our worthiness, but from His grace and love.
“Christmas comes but once a year!” Let’s celebrate the birth of God’s Son, and do what we can to spread God’s message of cheer and good will, and to truly allow His Spirit to enter our private busy worlds and make a difference. In Matthew 1:23, the writer tells us that one name for Jesus is Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” Even His name is a comforting message.
If you don’t feel good about this Christmas, for any reason, and if you don’t have the happiness and peace you want, don’t be discouraged. We can’t fix things by ourselves! But if we turn to God, if we let His Holy Spirit take the reins and direct our lives, He can work miracles. Let the Spirit of Christmas be born in your heart today! He said to ask and receive, and He promised to hear!
(Originally published in the December 2006 issue of the Illinois Horse Network)