Winter with Horses ‘O Canada!’ Style: 20 tips to help you survive the Big Freeze
A bit nippy out there, eh? HN’s resident Canuck Kat O’Riley offers a sampling of wintry wisdom.
One can’t claim to have any sort of winter expertise merely by virtue of ‘being Canadian.’ Sure, it helps if you frolic on snow shoes every Christmas at a genuine log cabin nine hours north of Toronto (a nearby train to Moosonee is dubbed ‘The Polar Bear Express’). Additional points are awarded for sleeping in an igloo at -20 F° while winter camping, and teaching XC skiing [November-March] for a decade. But the experience that made me a bona fide winter warrior involved operating a small boarding stable on the prairies for six years.
Land that ripples cheerily with golden canola and purple flax all summer can be seized by the grim fist of winter as early as October. The earth freezes fast and hard, while snow arrives in stormy torrents of vicious wind. It’s the sort of weather that clearly calls for hibernation behind triple glazed windows and R40 insulation, preferably cozied up to the fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate in hand… but wait, there’s a barn full of horses out there — depending on some intrepid soul to feed, water, and muck them out.
‘Sayonara’ warm core temperature, and ‘hellooo’ brutal wind chill! Hurling oneself out into the punishing cold of a prairie winter from a comfy indoor environment is not for the faint of heart (or frankly, for those for a sensible respect for frostbite, and a corresponding wish to retain feeling in their fingers and toes). Such rash action is counter intuitive but doable if one is possessed of true north Canuck pluckiness. Feel free to learn from my many years of Trial by Ice; the following is a miscellaneous sampler of winter wisdom, from a horse keeping perspective.
#1: Do not weep upon waking and finding the temperature has plunged 20° overnight. Tears freeze, and only make your face colder — pull your toque down and your scarf up, eh!
#2: Layer, layer, layer your clothes! It’s better to start off resembling the Michelin Man, and remove a layer or two, than to err on the skimpy side and shiver. (Long underwear has evolved from droopy to sleek, yay.)
#3: When the horses teeter into the barn looking like they’re sporting Laboutain heels, caused by snow balling up in their hooves, use a hammer to [carefully] tap the stuff out (sure, use a hoof pick, hahahaha!).
#4: The type of brush sold for cleaning snow off cars/windshields is also ideal for brushing snow off horses, blanketed or not (remember to sweep away from yourself).
#5: Do not snicker at folks with icicle eyelashes and nostrils that stick together momentarily (I’m not kidding!) when they ‘sniff’… at -20° you look exactly the same.
#6: A ‘coffin’ made of wood and insulation is just the ticket to enclose a stock tank (which should also have an immersion heater) for winter. Bonus: you can always be buried in it should you, ahem, not make it through till spring.
#7: It’s best if your barn isn’t airtight. Generally aim for a temperature just above freezing… hey, if you’re comfy, it’s likely too warm for horses (vexing, but true).
#8: Complete all possible chores in daylight hours; -20° feels like -40° when darkness has fallen. Trust me.
#9: A molded plastic toboggan makes an ideal winter substitute for a wheelbarrow; just make sure to power wash it before your sledding par-tay.
#10: Consider your snow shovel a winter accessory. You never know when you’ll need to dig out to the stable… and sometimes right back, if you’re really lucky! (In a pinch, a shavings fork will move light snow.)
#11: In colder weather, wear thinner gloves under heavy mitts for delicate tasks like buckling blankets, doing up halters, and texting the house for a hot [chocolate?!] drink.
#12: Instant single use ‘hot packs’ that slip into mitts or boots are your new best friend. (Even better, reusable heated gel packs.)
#13: If your boarders invite you to go for a hack, just say “NO!” Especially if crossing a [supposedly] frozen creek is involved.
#14: The bottom strand of electric tape/braid must be clear of snow for an effective charge; for a zesty pick-me-up, grasp strand and squeeze.
#15: ‘To blanket, or not to blanket’ is an individual choice, involving many factors. If you enter Blanketworld, remember it is not a contest or fashion show… should you end up with enough different weights/types to tarp a stadium, you have probably gone too far.
#16: Carry mini sleighbells in your pockets; you’ll always have a festive soundtrack for chores. (Plus, if you fall into a snowbank and can’t move in your Michelin Man attire, you may be able to attract help by rolling slightly and jingling.)
#17: When possible, indulge in long hot showers, channel your inner ‘Don Ho,’ and repeat the soothing mantra: I am under a Hawaiian waterfall….
#18: There’s a reason kids way back when used horse turds as hockey pucks; frozen horse poop is seriously hard. Like iron. I’m just sayin…
#19: A surprising percentage of heat is lost through a [bare] noggin. I take no joy in covering my flowing locks, but consider my toque a ‘helmet for the cold.’ And don’t forget the clunky warm boots; no need for a gym workout, wearing those suckers!
#20: Winter is a fabulous excuse to balloon a pound or two. Cold weather clothes camouflage added bulk beautifully, and that extra insulation is actually an advantage! This alone almost makes the frigid weather worth it.
If you follow these handy hints, any snow novice should be able to negotiate their way through a cold and icy winter of horsecare, without losing a grey horse in a ‘whiteout,’ or being driven absolutely bonkers by that dreaded Cabin Fever. Just keep your eye on the [spring] prize, and know that like the clumsy caterpillar, one day you too will blossom into a glorious butterfly… free of your thick wool toque and heavy feltpack boots!!
GO SKI JORING!
About Kat: I’ve heard that fortunate people have one great passion in life; aside from dark chocolate and my husband–not necessarily in that order!–mine has been “everything equine.” Beginning with lessons as a kid, I’ve been lucky enough to break a variety of bones riding a wide selection of breeds, in a number of disciplines–from TB racehorse (clavicle) to eventing Appaloosa (tibia) to endurance Arabian (ribs). It’s also been my privilege to play Ponybutler to my own hooved beasties on a succession of scarily rustic farms, over the past 20 [very] odd years. The dream continues!
Kat and her ex-hunter pony partner of 14 years (Provincial Velvet a/k/a the Amazing Velveeta a/k/a “Velvet, NO!!”).
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