Caring for horses in winter conditions can be challenging!
Growing up in Canada then moving to the snow belt of western New York, I thought I knew winter. I thought I knew snow. I thought I understood lake effect. Snow season 2014 decided to prove me wrong.
It started with the blizzard in November, which dropped seven feet of snow in two days, earning it the nickname of Snowvember. Even though the snow quickly melted, once winter itself arrived it was unusually cold. Even though the snow fell at a normal rate, temperatures stayed so low that no snow melted — it just kept piling higher and higher. Caring for a barn full of horses in those conditions taught me so much more than I already knew about winter woes.
The absolute first rule of winter horse care is to watch the weather. During the blizzard, so many people said they were surprised by it. The reality is that the snowstorm had been predicted. The problem is that local meteorologists usually predict more snow then what we actually get, so people don’t react when they hear that a storm is on the way. Mother Nature is a mystery sometimes, but it’s better to be prepared for four feet of snow and get four inches than the other way around.
Watering in the winter is by far my least favorite chore. During a blizzard, there is no way to drag the hose up to the house so it doesn’t freeze. It had to stay in the barn. And I am not a fan of hauling buckets back and forth from the water pump. Simple solution: build a cabinet to store the hose and equip the cabinet with a heat lamp. Nothing fancy, just a box to keep the hose in. I built one right around the hose’s normal hanging spot, used a few nails to hang the lamp then ran the cord out of the box to the nearest electrical outlet. When I was done filling buckets, all I had to do was wind up the hose, unscrew from the water pump and close the door on the box. No more frozen hoses, and no more dragging hoses to the house. If you connect multiple hoses to fill water troughs out in the pasture, you can build multiple boxes. Heat lamps are fairly cheap and don’t use much energy.
Frozen buckets are another water challenge. Since I cared for horses at a therapeutic riding center, there wasn’t room in the budget for heated water buckets and the price to upgrade the electrical wiring to use them. This is where I realized the need for waterproof gloves. I use thick neoprene ones designed for ice fishing. After using a rubber mallet to bang on the frozen buckets, I simply stuck my hand in to remove large chunks of ice. Once the big bits of ice are out of the way, I use a cat litter scoop to take all the little pieces out. I carry an empty water bucket with me to put the ice and simply dump it out when it is full.
Outdoor troughs are not normally a problem. There are so many different heaters available for them. It is VERY unpleasant, however, if one stops working. When ice is too thick to break with a mallet, I resort to stomping on it until it finally breaks. This is when I am grateful for my waterproof boots. I wear the Arctic Sport Hi from The Original Muck Boot Company.
The problem with such wonderful waterproof boots is that after vigorous work, my feet get sweaty. There is nothing good about sticking your feet back into boots that are not completely dry. They are cold and damp. Thoroughly unpleasant, and let’s face it, the idea of going out in the snow is unpleasant enough. A boot dryer is essential.
Socks and insoles also play a role in the happiness of your feet. I swear by alpaca. All the warmth of wool, without any of the itch that can be found in some wool products. Alpaca socks and insoles are both available. I only use the insoles when I’m doing less strenuous chores like feeding. I find they are too warm when I’m mucking stalls. If the socks are 100% alpaca, they naturally wick away moisture, so they are always a good choice.
Now that our hands and feet are happy, let’s tend to the rest of the body.
Your head is probably the most important part to keep warm. My frigid weather go-to hats are my wool Stormy Kromer and my fur-lined Mad Bomber. Both are super warm with the choice to cover up your ears.
Depending on the amount of snow you need to trudge through will determine what else to wear. When you’re more worried about the cold than the snow, I find flannel-lined jeans are toasty. Simply pair with a winter jacket and you are good to go. If you have snow to wade through, I like a one-piece snowsuit. It keeps you warmer than separates because your body heat circulates through the whole outfit.
Two special notes about a one-piece suit:
1. A one-piece can become uncomfortably warm while mucking stalls, so I wear a light shirt and cotton yoga pants underneath. Use the zippers to ventilate, if you find yourself getting too warm. Besides the front zipper, there should be a zipper on each leg that goes all the way up to your thigh.
2. The biggest downside to a one piece is when Mother Nature calls. Try to go before you head out into the cold, and if you must go out of the house, I find that being undressed for a few minutes while using a stall isn’t too bad — especially if you’ve warmed up first by mucking!
Whatever you decided to wear, your dryer can be your best friend. Quickly heating up your clothing before you head out can make it a little more pleasant.
Of course, you will probably only be happy once you return to the warm of your home. Tea and hot chocolate (with or without alcohol) will certainly help warm you back up. Changing into cozy pajamas warmed by your dryer will also be a great comfort. Then, finally, you can enjoy the beauty of winter while gazing out the window.
Rita Brown is the mother of three horses. She is currently a vet tech student and a former therapeutic riding center barn manager.
Is it “Your Turn”? We love publishing reader essays — send yours to [email protected]!