Monday, March 4, 2013

Winter Survival Tips

A cozy Biskit.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder!

Here in Virginia, we are preparing for a winter "weather event" this week. In honor of this, I thought I would share some tips to make life in the “winter wonderland” trifecta of cold, ice and snow a little easier. Yes, a little late in the season, but, better late than never? Horses generally cope with cold better than they do with heat and seem to handle our relatively mild Virginia winters with ease as long as they are provided with food, unfrozen water and shelter or a weatherproof blanket in extreme weather conditions.
Zoe and Torch at the water cooler.
Bad boyz stirring up trouble.

I have found that my horses will drink more if I provide slightly warm water – ice cold water may deter them from drinking as much as they should, which, in turn, can lead to problems such as dehydration and colic. I keep an extra trough in the barn during the winter months and keep it full in case my hoses freeze, despite my best efforts. Usually, just draining the hoses (I have a gentle hillside leading down to the barn and just lay them out so they drain completely) works. I have seen people coil their hoses in the barn and direct a heat lamp on them, but I'm concerned that one of my cats might knock the heat lamp down, possibly causing a fire.

A good quality hay will provide the fiber horses need to keep themselves warm. I feed round bales as well as square bales and sometimes have to unload them by myself. My favorite method for doing so is what my friends refer to as the “redneck unloading” technique. Step one is to either remove any horses, dogs or other living beings from the area where you want the hay bale. Distracting them with feed a safe distance away also works. Step two, back your truck up to the gate and open it up. Step three, confirm that there is nothing important behind you. Step four, accelerate backward at a good pace. Step five, slam on your brakes. Presto – the hay bale rolls off. Beware that, if unloading on a hillside, the hay bale may roll quite a distance. I have had success making a barrier of wood pallets where I want the bale to stop. Having someone on the ground “catch” the bale is very dangerous. Be aware that some dogs view this operation as a game and may chase the hay bale as it falls and rolls – also a potentially ugly situation.

I have been told that another method of unloading round bales solo is to back up to a tree in the general area of where you want the bale, tie a rope around the bale, tie the other end to the tree, and just drive your truck out from under the bale. I have not tried this method myself, but would advise caution in choosing a large, healthy tree – or you may just pull the tree over on top of your truck!

Ice and snow are other winter evils that require some ingenuity to deal with. Wheelbarrows don’t roll well through thick snow, so I use a cheap plastic sled to haul square bales of hay and feed down to the barn. This works pretty well, but one must heed the principles of physics; momentum is not your friend. Do not walk ahead of the sled if going downhill – it will knock you over. I let the sled slide down backwards and hold on to the rope handle. I also try to aim the sled in a safe direction in case it starts taking off with me and I have to let go to save myself from a fall.

Do not cover ice patches with bedding – this just provides an insulating layer and allows the ice to last longer. Break it up or use an animal-friendly ice melting product. I have these neat rubber straps with metal nubs on the bottom that fit over my boots and greatly improve my traction on icy ground. They are available at sporting goods stores.

Keep extra hay and grain on hand in case you do get snowed in. I once ran out of hay after one of our rare heavy blizzards and had to walk several miles to my "neighborhood" hay dealer’s farm, in the snow, lugging a tarp and rope. I thought I would have to stack the hay on the tarp and pull it home, but the kind farmer gave me a ride back on his 4 wheel drive tractor, with the hay stacked in the bucket of the tractor.

Unlike my horses, I do not handle cold very well. Granted, I don’t have much of an insulating fat layer or a nice coat of hair but, more than anything, winter seems to bring a lot of extra work, which means more time outside in the bitter elements. I have a one-piece insulated work suit which keeps me toasty warm – it’s not very fashionable (my friends refer to it as my "serial killer" look), but I highly recommend them for outdoor winter wear. Layering clothing and keeping your feet dry are the best ways to stay warm. If you have to spend a lot of time walking through snow and your boots turn out not to be quite as weatherproof as the salesperson promised, put a few plastic grocery bags on over your socks. Looks stupid, but works.

Or orange hoodie...

This is also the time of year when hunters are lurking in the woods. I’ve had a bullet whiz past me once, on a trail ride through some woods. I don’t think I was being targeted – I think the shooter was just careless, but it certainly got my attention and made me aware of the need to make my presence in the woods known to all in the vicinity. I live in a rural area surrounded by farms that are hunted, and, if I should have occasion to walk down through the woods or pasture, I try to talk loudly or sing (that alone is likely to drive the hunters away – I am no future “American Idol”). I am also careful to sport my “don’t shoot me” hat, so dubbed by my students. My blaze orange cap makes me visible at vast distances. Again, not a color that generally complements most skin tones, but…


Perhaps the four most miserable consecutive days of my life were during "Snowpocalypse 2010," when I lost power for four days of nonstop blowing snow and daytime highs in the low 20s. Yes, I have a generator. No, I failed to periodically start it and make sure it was in working order. Therefore, when I desperately needed it, it would not start. Apparently, water had gotten into the fuel, then frozen, causing parts of the carburetor to crack. A hard lesson learned. Yes, I had a stockpile of hay on hand. I kept all thirty horses in their stalls and carried bales of hay on my shoulders, plowing through snow drifts (falling and cursing frequently) to keep them fed. Yes, I had troughs fairly full of water. I had to carry water to all thirty stalls by bucket from the (progressively farther away) troughs. Then, when that had all been consumed, I loaded a water trough into the back of my truck and drove over to a lucky neighbor's house, borrowing their electricity and well to fill my trough up.
Incidentally, this experience also taught me a valuable lesson about siphoning.... I didn't really think about it, just hooked up several 100 foot hoses and ran them from the trough down to another trough in the barn, then thought it was a simple matter of sucking on the end of the hose to get the water started. You can stop laughing now. I think my brains were already paralyzed with cold at that point. I'm sure any reasonable person can figure out that you want to get the water moving with a short hose. The best Hoover couldn't pull water through 300 feet of hose! I now have a nice 250 gallon portable water tank with a lid and spout which has come in handy. The saving grace to my four days of misery was my woodstove... I had enough firewood to keep it cranked up on high, and the house stayed pretty warm.

I can't wait!
There are a few good things about winter. No flies, for one. Algae doesn’t flourish in the water troughs, which means less frequent scrubbing. Weeds stop growing. No extreme heat or humidity, which is really tough on horses, especially if you have one like I do who suffers from anhydrosis – he doesn’t sweat, and is prone to overheating, necessitating frequent cold hosing and sponging. Best of all, winter means that spring is just around the corner.