Fuzzy horses mean it’s fall in horse country
Children grooming horses this time of year notice their hair becoming “fuzzy,” “furry” and “soft.”
Nature is wonderful in predicting that cold weather may be on its way, for when fall arrives, horses begin to grow a warm, winter coat. Come spring, they will shed it to reveal a short, glossy coat.
Fall also brings the end of haying season. In years gone by, farmers with livestock put up their own hay for winter feed. Today, most hay is grown and shipped to brokers by large-scale specialist farmers, then distributed to feed stores and dealers. The farther north one lives, the shorter the growing season and the greater the risk that crops may be spoiled by unexpected storms.
We used to grow our own grass-alfalfa hay. All the mowing, raking and hauling was done using a team of horses. It was a real job to cut it, rake it to dry, turn it again and transport it to our barn for safe-keeping.
Most domestic livestock will need extra hay to eat during the winter months, especially during wet, cold and windy weather. Native grasses may grow with warm, early rains, but most irrigated pastures look like putting greens this time of year as those grasses need summer heat to grow well.
Hay also helps keep horses warm. Horses in particular must have top quality hay or forage, and they’re fussy eaters. Poor quality hay usually is left uneaten or stepped on in the mud. Smart horse owners shop for the best feed available and buy it in bulk, at least a ton at a time.
It is a good idea to test just one bale before buying a lot, and make sure it is palatable. Should you purchase oat hay, make sure that it was cut and baled before the oats were too mature and actually fell out, leaving just the hull. Also, If hay, especially alfalfa, is not dried and cured in the field long enough, or if it has gotten wet, it may be hot inside the bale, risking fire or sickening the horses.
Give adequate shelter
A light rain will find horses grazing in pastures, but as the wind and rain increase, they lower their heads and turn their tails toward the storm. Horses usually seek shelter under trees and will bunch together for warmth. Areas without such shelter need buildings such as simple, three-sided shelters, with the open side facing away from prevailing winds.
Drainage is important, since it’s not good husbandry to keep a horse full time in a muddy arena. Ideally, give your horses a well-ventilated barn with stalls at least 10 feet by 10 feet, bedded down with straw, shavings or another absorbent and clean material.
If using stall mats, bed them down; otherwise, horses that lie down on them won’t be unable to get back on their feet on the slippery surface.
Water must be available at all times. Regular feeding schedules are important. Stalls need to be cleaned daily, and horses should be exercised.
Keep horses warm
Many horse owners put blankets on their equines during winter. Horses that are in training and in show condition are stabled, body clipped and must be blanketed.
Those that do not grow that good, thick winter coat may also have to be blanketed. This happens sometimes with the hotter breeds with naturally finer hair and to horses brought to the foothills from warmer climates.
Blankets also make owners feel that their horse must be warm and comfortable, and they do help a lot in keeping a horse that may like to lay down in the mud clean.
You need to monitor every day for temperature, sun or storm, and regulate how much protection, or lack of it, your horse may need. Blankets tear, get dirty and sometimes cause rubs on the horse if they do not fit properly.
Any horse needs three or four blankets just to adjust to the weather and to allow for laundering. Once you begin to protect the animal with a winter blanket, you should not stop until the weather is consistently warm in late spring.
Brisk and frisky
Winter riding can be wonderful. Horses enjoy being ridden in light rain or in the snow. In fact, they may have quite a sense of humor about it!
Cooler weather brings out a horse’s friskier nature. Serious training can be difficult, as most outdoor riding arenas need to dry out after a downpour. As our horse population grows, more indoor riding facilities have been built. Serious riders and trainers find them a necessity in Northern California.
Horse sports of all kinds require year-round good care of the horse, with adjustments to climate change. Nevada County does have definite seasons, and all horse owners need to adjust their care accordingly.
With winter well on its way, inventory your ability to care properly for your horses. And just as important, have you planned time for riding, accounting for the early darkness during the winter months? Maybe you are lucky and have a lighted, indoor arena!
Felicia Tracy is the owner of Emigrant Springs Horsemanship, co-founding instructor of Northern Mines Pony Club and a member of the Certified Horsemanship Association and the American Riding Instructors Association. Write her c/o The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley 95945.
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