Saturday, January 26, 2013

Winter Woes

The Frozen Challenge

Let's face it. On a good day, caring for the horses can be hard work. Lugging around 50 pound bags of feed, 40 pound bales of hay, and impossible to grasp bales of bedding is tough enough. Add to that the never ending chore of cleaning a stall and dumping the manure and used bedding somewhere, somehow.  And water? If you are lucky, you have some way to easily get water into buckets and troughs. If not, it's hauling it by heavy bucketfuls.

Not that I'm complaining. Horse care is also a rewarding endeavor. Not only does it help keep me fit, but the satisfaction of three horses safe, content, and happily munching hay in clean stalls is more than worth the effort. I'll admit, on some days, I wish I didn't have to do the work, but for the most part, I actually enjoy the effort.

But winter poses another picture and a new set of challenges, especially when the temperature drops well below freezing as it did this week.

First is the question of just how to dress. With the horses in my back yard, about 100 feet from the house, it makes it a lot easier than it was when I had to drive 15 miles to the barn and plan on being outside for several hours.  Now, if I get cold or wet, I can always run back inside to warm up. But then, I always had to make sure I was dressed for every event, with extra clothes in the car "just in case."  Insulated boots served well but most the the toastiest were always too fat to fit in the stirrups if I decided to ride. I used have oversized stirrups just for the winter, or I might even ride bareback if I was so inclined.

Long underwear? A must. Winter riding breeches? Yep. And even a pair of special insulated riding pants over top for the worst weather. I have some ski pants now, but they are slippery in the saddle. I'm allergic to wool, but a layer of long underwear and a cotton turtleneck would protect me from a wool sweater under an ski jacket of some sort. I never did worry too much about whether my ensemble was elegantly tailored or color coordinated--they way they do in all those catalogs--as long as it was warm.

On my head, I liked wearing a neck gaiter or balaclava made out of the same kind of material as my long underwear.  It would keep my head warm, my neck warm and it fit nicely under my safety helmet if I decided to ride. Gloves? Always, and always a spare pair or two because gloves can get wet.

I know people who gear up in snowmobile suits and I've worn then too, but a "unitard" has its drawbacks when you need to go to the bathroom and it does limit some of your freedom of movement. And, when you start the barn chores, sometimes you need to peel off a layer as you work up a sweat, so the one piece outfit does not lend itself well to that. They are cozy, though, and certainly do eliminate a lot of the "what to wear?" puzzle.

But it's not about the clothing. It's about the work.

It's about frozen poo. Forget about picking the paddock or cleaning under the run in shed. You might as well use a jackhammer on a concrete sidewalk as pick up the outdoor poo. It sits in neat piles, mocking your every effort to dislodge it. And it grins in utter triumph when you trip over it, or lock the wheelbarrow's tire guard against it on your way to the manure pile.

Speaking of, unless you've somehow made a flat path to the pile before the ground had frozen, you are in for a bumpy ride to the dump spot. Since my horses have access to the area I have to cross, there are always dozens of lumpy hoofprints along the way to catch the barrow, twist my ankle or just generally shake my whole body to the core when the load takes a healthy bounce.

And the loading of the barrow has even been a challenge in the stalls, for the poo there can freeze as well. I've broken a tine or two on my plastic manure fork more than once hitting the rock solid poo pile frozen the the rubber mats in one of the stalls. A nice layer of bedding keeps it from freezing to the floor, of course, but my horses seem to find ways to drop their manure on bare spots. And even when they don't, trying to find all the elusive chunks in the bedding is like panning for gold.  More often then not, I'll think the stall is pristine, only to find myself twisting my ankle when I step on a boulder of frozen poo when I go in to feed.

Water? Excuse me, ice. I have a hose hooked up that leads to the outside water trough, but on a day like today, it's frozen solid. Fortunately, I have a frost free tap, so I can still get water, but filling the trough is another story. I actually keep a spare hose on the back porch and drag it out to the barn when I need to really fill the trough. Once I'm done I make sure I drain it of water so it doesn't freeze up on me as well. Or, lacking the hose, I have to carry bucket after bucket of water from the faucet to the trough. Once again, I need to go through Toby's stall to get there, so the lurking manure balls are always ready to trip me up spilling water all over me and everywhere else.

Remember the spare gloves? There ya go.

I do have a water heater in the trough, so once there's water there I don't have to worry about ice. But more than once I've had to keep one of the Boys in his stall and then there is the challenge of trying to chip solid ice out of a plastic bucket without cracking anything more than just the ice.  I did find the solid, flexible rubber buckets a help here, though. You can bang them around a lot, crack the ice out, and sill have a useful bucket in the end.

The whole trick here is that tasks normally taking an hour or so can easily double in the winter. By the time you get yourself dressed for the cold, sledgehammer the poo, drag the hose to and fro, negotiate the dangerous terrain, and crack the ice, who even feels like riding?

Besides, it's too cold anyway.

I think I'll make a cup of hot chocolate.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Still Cold Here

But We Walked Anyhow 

I had on long underwear, an special blaze orange shirt and over that, my blaze orange hunter's jacket. Below, winter riding breeches covered by a pair of ski pants. On my feet, muck boots, an on my head an orange gaitor and a ski cap.

I needed every bit of the clothing on our hike. We were out for about 2 hours in the 20 or so degree temperatures with a rather brisk wind.  On the plus side, the sun was out and if we stopped in a spot sheltered from the wind, the warmth was noticeable.

Part of the hike was along the fields, where the wind did whip now and then, but the rest was in the woods where the trees kept the air still.

Here I am at the lake in the back, surveying the rather amazing sight of three large beaver lodges at water's edge.

No picture of the lodges. My hiking partner (Joe Sapia) sent these to me and I didn't have my camera. But is was fascinating to see the beavers's work along the edge of the woodland. They'd  cleared in impressive number of saplings to build their homes. But they'd also taken down some trees with trunks as wide as 8" diameter.  These guys are powerful lumberjacks.  Joe has some pictures of the trees stumps on his Twitter page.  There are also "drag trails" out there from the wooded area down to the water where the beavers pulled the logs they used to build.

I knew there was one lodge out there, but three? Quite unexpected. It is a manmade lake and the beavers are doing no harm to the waterway. All I can hope now is that the hunters, fishermen, random hikers and minibike/ATV riders leave them alone. I'd hate for a peaceful beaver habitat like this to be ruined my uncaring humans.

On the way back home, I lost the trail again. It's the same spot Chance and I got off course, but this time, I was far east of the proper trail. Fortunately, again, there's no real way to get lost and I knew exactly where my house was.  I guess the Boys heard is tramping through the woods on our way back because Tucker and Toby were at the gate, waiting for us.

Once again, the picture tells the story. Tucker was decidedly curious to see if I'd manage to bring something back for him.

He does look a bit disappointed, but Toby remained every hopeful.  There's just a dusting of snow visible behind them, but as you can see, the sun was brilliant.

All, in all, although my legs are feeling it today, it was a great hike.  Joe and I have some more exploring to do across the road from my house, and he has a park by his house to walk as well.

Level ground around here, with not too many challenging hills, so that's good news for me. My knees feel great when I'm moving, but they do get a bit stiff and sore when I sit for a while.  Hoping the walking will help some of that.

It was a great day out in the cold wind of Mother Nature.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Winter is A'comin' In

The Cold Arrives

It's snowing a bit now. We don't expect much, but even a few inches is impressive at this point after last winter.

Trouble is, whatever falls is not going to melt quickly with the dropping temperatures.

The Boys are now dressed in their winter blankets. I changed them over last night even though the real cold was not due until tonight. It will be in the low 20's F over the next few days. (20F= -6C)  with a low of 10F/-12C Saturday night.  Then it will warm back up to above freezing again.

It had to happen sooner of later. After all, it is winter.

Don't know about snow for sure but there may be some significant fall on Friday. I'm about as prepared as I can be. I have the new snowblower and will make sure the tractor is ready to go during the week. I hope I don't have to use either one very much, but I'm ready.

I do worry a bit about my hay supply. My hay guy brought over 20 some bales this week but they will not last much beyond next Tuesday or so. So if we get some serious snow, I'll be worrying again as I did during the aftermath of the hurricane.  I just may go pick up some spare bales myself to be safe.

It's important that the horses have plenty of hay and water as it gets colder. I did put the heater into the water tub yesterday, and despite the cold the entire tub was thawed this morning.  I'm glad because one time I bought a new heater and it didn't work. I still have the one from last year, but I tend to suspect that they really don't last more than a season. This is a submersible one and since I have a non-working element installed in the tub, I can kind of hook this heater to the stationary one and certain overly ambitious horses cannot pull the new one out.  (I can picture a rather interesting game of tether ball...or tether heater going on.)

I have a bit of a horseless hike planned tomorrow--taking someone for a walk in the woods. I think I can find all my proper winter finery to keep me warm.

I didn't need it last year.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Clowns on Four Legs

How A Ride Took Nearly Forever

It was another lovely day temperature-wise. It was still cloudy and damp, but in the upper 40's-low 50's F.

After another long job of cleaning the stalls--the Boys have been making quite a mess in the barn lately--and cleaning the west side run in shed, I was rather worn out, but game to ride at least one horse. In fact, I had it in mind to ride two horses.

The horses had a different agenda.

First, let me say that Tucker was a perfect gentleman from start to finish. He came to me when I called--bribed by some horse treats--stood nicely for saddling, and politely followed as I led him out to the arena.

And that's where the trouble started.

As you can see from my blog heading picture, the fence around the riding arena has suffered numerous dismantlings.  I have repeatedly repaired it, but to be honest, it has several sections with posts and rails down. Usually, when I take a horse inside and close the gate, whoever is left on the other side respects the fence line and stays out.  I have a few places where I can put the rails back up easily, but today, I thought it would be OK not to.


First Toby leapt a downed rail and came in.  After a rather vigorous chase, I managed to shoo him out, and then I put up the rails where I could, and closed the gate from the pasture as well.  All the while, Tucker walked quietly by my side as I moved barrels and hefted rails into place.


I led Tucker to the mounting table, was about to get on, when suddenly, both Toby and Chance came careening around the far end of the arena, out through the side paddock gate, around the run in shed at the west end of the arena, to leap at top speed over another downed rail at that end.  Now, the two of them were galloping madly around, trapped by closed gates and rails back up on three sides.

Of course, despite my chasing them, they would not go back out the way they had come in, so I had to put those rails back up, go to the other end of the arena, re-open the gate to the pasture, and once more chase them out that way.

Only then did I decide on the bright option of closing the second gate to the pasture so they could not get back into the paddock by the barn--the one adjacent to the riding arena.  I managed to shoo them out into the pasture, led Tucker back into the barn paddock, close the gate to the pasture and then go back into the arena through the main gate.

Peace, at last. Toby and Chance were none to pleased to have the game over, but I was.

I mounted up, and began to ride. I had no real plan in mind. The footing was a bit wet, so I wasn't intending on doing too much anyhow.

But Tucker dictated the ride. It was time to "listen to the horse" and ride the horse I was on today.

When I took up a little contact to put Tucker's walk together, he thought about not going forward. We worked on that for a few strides and then I asked for trot. Once again, he did not respond right away to the aid.  So I repeated it, a little stronger, and once we were in trot, went about half way around the arena to establish that indeed it was the gait I wanted, and then did a downward transition back to walk.  Once again, I had to remind him that I wanted a forward, straight walk and when we got it, I transitioned back up to trot.

Soon, it was clear that it was a day to simply work on transitions. My expectation was an upward transition at a light leg cue.   I didn't demand perfection on the downwards, mostly because I wasn't as worried about them as I was concerned about establishing a "forward" feel.  So, if the trot shortened into the walk, that was fine since I really didn't want him to lose his impulsion.  (I can almost always stop Tucker. Getting him to go is the larger issue.)

Gradually, he nicely in front of my leg, ready to trot off at the least whisper. Then, almost by accident, I cued a bit more strongly with my outside leg, and he did a lovely canter depart from the walk.  I praised him mightily and we moved on to walk-canter-walk transitions, then some trot-canter-trot transitions on both leads.  He was forward, responsive and a really good boy.

All in all, I rode, at most, for 15-20 minutes.

I think I chased naughty horses for another 15-20 minutes.

It was enough for one day.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Just a Little Lungeing

And a Bunch of Work

I stripped the last two stalls today and bedded them with fresh shavings. Either the bales of shavings are getting heavier, or I am getting weaker. Anyhow, I got the job done.

My hay guy came earlier in the day and we had a long chat about Christmas, his family, the ski season--his son runs a ski resort in Vermont--and the weather.  That had me outside in the sunshine for about an hour.

I'd let Calli--the mommycat dropped off during hurricane Sandy--outside and she was having a grand time exploring and being generally very friendly. I think she is one of those high energy cats that really does need to be outdoors. So I hope she can be in and out, off and on, at least when I am home and the weather is nice enough.

After I did the stalls, I poo picked the riding arena which was a rather exhausting effort, especially since Tucker "assisted" by toppling the half full wheelbarrow when my back was turned. He had the most innocent expression when I accused him, but since he was the only one there, it's pretty obvious who was guilty.

After the poo pick, I lunged Chance for a very short session. He was, as usual, a very good boy--a bit lazy at the canter, but responsive to my commands.

Then I lunged Tucker and he too was a good boy. I was pleased to see he had some nice forward energy on  his own without too much prompting and he never offered to buck.

Mind you the sessions were very short, but at least the two Boys got a little supervised exercise, and I got to see that both of them are sound and looking good.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Taking a Chance

Out on the Trail

After some serious stall stripping and cleaning of the west run in shed, I saddled up Chance and headed out to the trails.

He is the only horse I've ever had who goes faster on the way out than on the way in. He gave a bit of a leap over a small long across the trail, bouncing me in the saddle, but other than the eagerness to jog off every few strides he was a good boy.

Trouble is, I took the woods trail out and there are no places to trot safely at the moment. Too many trees and branches are blocking the pathway and the detours around the fallen trees are too tricky to navigate. If I go out with my saw and clippers I may be able to clear some of the places for good "go arounds," but I haven't tried that yet.

It looks as if the weather is going to hold for a few more days--sunshine off and on and in the upper 40's F, so I may get myself out there.  We'll see.

I took down most of the outdoor Christmas decorations tonight but I still have to put them all back down in the cellar. Since I'd ridden and done the extra barn work, I was a bit worn out, so I simply piled everything up on the front porch to put away some time tomorrow.

I also fielded an unexpected phone call from one of my friends. I'd called her Monday night only to find out that her horse had passes away a few days ago. She owned him for some twenty years or so and was very upset by the whole thing.  Today, I think she just needed to talk to someone who'd understand. She does hope to get a new horse in the future, but right now, her emotions are all over the place about the whole thing. Her boy was in his 20's and the theory is that he got an infection from a tick bite--anaplasmosis. It's similar to Lyme disease but requires some heavy duty antibiotic to cure it. With her horse's advanced age and probably a somewhat compromised immune system due to some chronic allergies, I guess he just couldn't fight it off. What she needs now is some time to grieve and heal.

People who don't have animals never quite understand the bond we have with these amazing creatures we take into our lives.

Those of us who do are blessed.

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Naughty Boy

Tucker Ride

It was a lovely day, so I decided to ride Tucker for a little school in the arena.

Mind you, he has not been ridden for several weeks, so expecting the perfect horse was not part of my agenda.  All I was hoping for was a bit of trot with a little contact and perhaps some canter, just for fun.

Well, we started out in "backwards" mode with Tucker not exactly going forward. Not that he didn't trot right off for me, but there was hardly any energy at all. However, I continued to make some large patterns of diagonal crosses of the arena and twenty meter circles just letting him get his muscles warmed up a bit.

All was well as, gradually, he began to gain some impulsion on his own.  But the key to warming up many a Thoroughbred is the canter. It's the gait these horses were bred to do, and Tucker is no exception. He has a a naturally balanced, cadenced canter.

So we cantered.  Again, all was well until, just before I was ready to transition back down to trot--he tried to take off with me, and, in the process offered to give me some ever increasing bucks.

Bless my reaction time, as I pulled up his head, gave him a strong shout, of, "No!! Stop it!"  and we managed to settle back into a controlled gait again.

Now, he may have spooked at something rustling in the woods, but I'm not so sure about that.  I only defend him slightly because the next time we reached that spot at the trot, he tried the same maneuver with a little less success.

I must admit, after the mini-"almost" explosion, his trot was well forward and full of energy. He was strong to my hand, but that's kind of OK, since I could control where we were going and in what shape.  I worked him with some shoulder-in, leg yield, and a bit of half pass. Then, to satisfy myself, we cantered a little more on each rein with no nonsense and then settled to a nice walk to finish the ride.

I suppose, on one hand, lungeing first in this kind of weather might be a good idea, but the fact is that lungeing has never actually settled Tucker down. If anything, it just encourages his energy.  And, if he does manage to get himself worked up, no amount of lungeing ever settles him down.

It was in the 40's today and sunny, but my no means a totally balmy day, so a little high spirits are to be expected, especially from my naughty boy. And, when you consider how little work he's had recently, he was actually amazingly well behaved.

I just wish he'd find a better way to express his excess energy than bucking. It is definitely my least favorite gait.