Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Adapting Equine and Human Routines to Survive a Cold Stretch

We all rely on habits. Repeating patterns of behavior allow us to function efficiently. Knowing what to expect minimizes anxiety about unknowns. As with all things, we need to have balance though, so flexibility is also important. Understanding behavior can help us change behavioral patterns when necessary. Having many well practiced behaviors gives us tools to work with when life throws us curve balls. And it's always important to know your individuals. 

Like much of the United States, we have been enduring a record-breaking stretch of record-breaking cold weather. In the past ten days we've had days when it did not get above zero degrees F. Thankfully the winds have not been bad because even the slight breezes we've had have given us wind chills in the thirties below zero. In weather like this, my routine changes as I try to manage in the bitter cold and keep the horses and ponies comfortable and safe. Part of that is keeping myself comfortable and safe so that I can continue to take care of them.

My morning routine is different from most winter days as soon as I step out the door. Normally I set a bale of hay out the night before so that I can spread it (pulling a sled while wearing snowshoes (in the field for the horses to eat. In temperatures well below zero first thing in the morning, I have to keep myself warm because I will be outdoors for two hours, so I skip my usual snowshoe with hay sled. They keep warning us that "in these temperatures frostbite can occur in ten minutes". Point taken. I go directly to the barn. 

Thankfully, my barn is insulated enough to ward off the worst of the cold. The water buckets are frozen by morning, but not solid. I give everyone hot water at late-night chores so it's only when it's below zero that the water buckets even freezes). It's a comfortable working temperature inside. I start by  giving each horse a flake of hay in his or her stall. This is a change to their routine since they normally get turned out immediately. They like to go out so keeping them in caused some upset the first morning or two. I needed to make some blanketing accommodations for the cold and I knew that if I tried to keep them in while changing blankets, they would be very restless. Using classical conditioning, I can pair an unpleasant event (being kept in stalls for blanketing), with the potent stimulus of desired hay, and emotions calmed. Common sense, backed by science. Over the past ten days, this has become the new normal and all begin eating contentedly with no stirring. 

I do have two ponies living outside with access to a three-sided shed. I've been watching them carefully and so far, they have given no indication of ill effects from the cold. Shivering is a big red flag to me. If I see shivering, I know that's a cold animal and I need to remedy the situation. It's a little hard to see if those two are shivery first thing as they are cavorting about in their paddock with heels high. Eyelashes and whiskers are white with frost. I throw them twice the amount of hay they usually get and hustle myself back to the (relatively) warm barn. That is the only time I open those doors until I am done with chores. I need to keep that heat inside to keep myself warm enough to work!

Blankets: I generally don't blanket my horses. There are a few studies and numerous anecdotes about horses and blanket choice. Until you can show me they can understand a forecast, I will continue to be the one to decide what they wear. This is where knowing your individuals is important. Part of my blanketing decisions are based on what each can handle, as well as their preferences. 

I spent all summer putting weight on my Walter horse, who arrived at Bookends Farm in June. I changed his diet to a heavily forage-based one, taking him off most of the grain he had been on. As a result, I decided to blanket him this winter, rather than risk losing the gains we had made. I know he wore blankets previous winters and he was very calm when I put them on, so I took that to mean he was ok wearing them. I have him in a quilted blanket liner and an insulated outer layer in this cold. At night I can take off the outer layer, leaving him with the quilted one inside the barn, and then put the other layer over top in the morning which offers more warmth as well as a wind break for outside. 

On the other end of the spectrum is my Kizzy pony.  She HATES blankets, evidenced by throwing herself agains anything solid when I put one on and throughout the duration. She rolls on the ground, throws herself against walls, and rubs on her water bucket. I wish I didn't feel I needed to blanket her but she does shiver if there is any wind. She has an incredible coat (I think she's a hand taller this time of year) so if it is a still day, she goes out naked and is fine. I know she needs a very heavy weight blanket to make up for the loft I squash in her coat when I put it on. When she comes in at night, the blanket comes off (the bucket rubbing happens in the moments between blanketing and turnout!). 

Percy also dislikes blankets and also does a lot of rolling and rubbing when one is put on. But he seems to adjust to them in time and only has fits when one is first put on OR taken off.  So I put his heavyweight one on when it's very cold and it stays on, indoors and out, until we see decent temperatures again (like above zero?). 

Stowaway, true to form, does not react. He just Eeyores his way through life so if it's windy, I put one on to protect him from the chill but if it's still, he's fine without. 

The two ponies living out are not blanketed. They have less variation in temperatures being out full time and they have hay in front of them almost all the time. Again, I watch closely and will change things if I see discomfort. So far, so good. They also have 24 hour access to warm(ish) water as they have a heated tank in their paddock. (note: studies have shown horses will avoid drinking if the water is lower than 40 degrees. As horses need lots of hay to stay warm in this weather, they also need additional water to digest it. Readily available warm water is critical to ward off colic).

Back to the barn where I have changed my own routine. Since the horses are contentedly eating their hay, I begin to muck stalls while they are still in them. This certainly isn't my preference but I've gotten used to it recently and it means they get to stay in a little longer and they have a jump start on their digestive heating systems before they even get turned out. It takes two wheelbarrow loads to clean all four stalls but I am not opening those doors again until necessary. I have two muck buckets so when the wheelbarrow is full, I fill muck buckets. They all get lined up by the door when full. 

I don't have a heated tank for the paddock the barn horses go in. I neglected to install an outdoor outlet for it and while we've talked about adding one, the big issue is how to prevent the horses from dumping it. So they have their usual black tub which I fill by carrying buckets of hot water out through the barn. It makes a fine tug toy for Walter and Percy when the hay is gone since it has no electrical components with which to be concerned.

wheelbarrow, muck tubs, buckets of ice and
hay, ready to go out in one trip
In order to fill two buckets with hot water ready to go out, I need to empty two buckets. Most mornings I am able to consolidate what's left in four buckets into two...lining them up with the muck tubs and wheelbarrow to be ferried out when the door is open. 

When I clean Percy's stall, he wants to play. If I don't play with him, he picks up the muck tub and swings it around, not only making it difficult to fill but also dumping what might have already been in it. Play at this time, for him, is more reinforcing than eating. I don't want to get suckered into having to reinforce him for standing still (YOU pull your hands out of mittens to feed treats to a frosty nosed horse at frigid temps.) I spent a long time teaching that horse that I could be around him without needing to interact and I know he'd slip back into that in no time if I fell for it. Instead, I make sure his is one that I clean into the wheelbarrow and I wedge that into his stall door so he can't tip it over. When I need to go in or out of his stall with the wheelbarrow, there is a target conveniently located on the blanket rack on the outside of his door. He pokes his head out and stations his nose on the target rather than escaping into the aisle to explore.  For that, I'll fish out a treat when I'm done...ONE.

With stalls cleaned and buckets ready to be filled (I wait until last minute to fill them so they are piping hot when I dump them), the last thing to do before turnout is fill hay bags. I reviewed several different types last winter which you can read here. I will add that I have discovered that I can stuff a lot more hay into the large hole Busy Horse feeders. They are the same size as the others but I think the larger holes mean less webbing which makes them more flexible for stuffing. That works well because in this weather when I'm trying to get a lot in them, I use the large hole ones for easier access and they also hold more. When it's not this cold, I'll use the smaller holed ones so that less hay lasts longer, serving as enrichment. 

Time to open doors for turnout. Know your individuals. Percy wants to go out. I go through Stowaway's stall and hang two nets on the furthest posts. Percy is more than ready when I open his door but years of practice at leaving politely keep him in check. No treats. Being outdoors and hay nets to go to are sufficient reinforcers for going out. Stowaway is next and I have to guide him out with a hand on his cheek. Otherwise he'd be happy to stay inside. Next is Walter who has the least experience with liberty leading so he gets a rope thrown over his neck since I have to lead him across the aisle and through the other stalls to get out. Last is Kizzy who happily walks with me and waits at the door to be sure the coast is clear before I open it (she won't go out if others are in the way...which is why the only two hay nets out are the ones furthest away). 

two of three latches, coated with frost (don't touch with bare hands!) and old blankets stuffed in the crack at the bottom.
Then I take the water buckets out and stand guard to prevent Percy from splashing in them with his front feet (seriously...) until he's had a drink. With stall buckets frozen and the hay in the barn, they are each happy to come get a drink of piping hot water. Finally I hang or place the last two hay bags and close the doors up. All that's left is to sweep the aisle, which I won't do if horses are inside due to the dust it raises. Then the aisle end doors can be opened once again so I can ferry out the wheelbarrow, muck buckets, water buckets and two more nets for the ponies. By this time, they have finished their first loose hay and are dozing happily in the sun (if it's out). Close the doors and then the real cold begins. It's when my thighs start to burn from the cold in just the time it takes for me to dump manure and water that makes me realize how much warmer it was inside the barn. I seal up the doors again, knowing the cold will creep in without the horses to heat it, but at least it keeps the snow and wind out.