Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Wintering Well

Sovina's Zorita, feeling good on a sunny afternoon with the temperature reading -2°F

Sovina's Zorita, the Sorraia/Sulphur Mustang cross mare who came to live with us last September is wintering well here at Ravenseyrie, despite our persistent deep freeze temperatures of the past week (getting as low as -37°F one morning!).

Prior to her Canadian immigration, Zorita lived her life in the more temperate regions of Oregon and her former owner, Bonnie, has been worried that the harshness of this island winter might be too much for Zorita to cope with. I took a series of photos during yesterday's late afternoon hay meal, which I hope will allay Bonnie's concerns. Zorita has adapted splendidly, which doesn't surprise me at all, given her genetic make up predisposes her to thriving even in harsh environments.

This is our fourth winter here on Manitoulin Island and keeping horses in a semi-wild setting up on a rugged, windswept bluff, has been as educational as it has been challenging. To read most of the literature discussing how to keep horses in winter, one realizes how far removed from the natural world most horses' situations are. It has become apparent to me that the vast majority of information provided on winter horse maintenance is designed for the convenience of humans and the whims of usage they subject their horses to, as well as being heavily influenced by our own culturally shaped aversion to the cold. From this, an entire industry of stabling supplies and horse clothing has evolved over hundreds of years, with the modern horse being outfitted "against the cold" in ever more highly technological ways.

"Against the cold" is a phrase that strikes me as worthy of our contemplation.

We know that exposure to cold can be a thing that is life draining when ill-outfitted and poorly prepared. What we don't realize in these modern times is that the technology which has liberated us from the potential harm of the cold, leaves us poorly outfitted and ill-prepared when the infrastructure of technology malfunctions. We have become totally dependent on expensive living arrangements which keep us at a medium range of acceptable temperatures we consider necessary for our comfort. I think of us now as being much more vulnerable to the vicissitudes of the weather than our pre-industrial ancestors were with their warm fires and animal skins. We have separated and isolated ourselves from Nature, whereas our ancestors lived "with" the rhythms of Nature in ways that provided them simple means of shelter and sustenance.
Zeus, a thin-skinned, hot-blooded Thoroughbred has adapted marvelously well to our Canadian winters. Shown here nibbling afternoon hay with five month old, Interessado.

We have been conditioned to believe that early humans spent every waking moment quaking in fear of impending death from predators and harsh environmental conditions while constantly concerning themselves about their next meal. We imagine this is the same situation for animals living in the wild. Many humans go as far as to say that Nature is flawed and ours is an unending struggle against a hostile world, whether one is a city dweller or a rural landowner. My observations here at Ravenseyrie of our equine herd as well as the natural fauna we share this environment with suggest to me that it is our cultural conditioning that is flawed not Nature. If there are troubles in Nature, it is more likely an imbalance caused by the actions of humans. And aren't we modern humans toiling madly for our livelihoods, stressed by financial concerns, living in fear of terrorist attacks and constantly complaining that we never have enough time to do the things we most desire to do--the very things we thought our modern lifestyles liberated us from?
Eight month old, Fada

Because we have become intolerant of the cold, we feel that all life dwelling out in the cold suffers. If this were so, how is it possible that so many living things not only survive winter, but depend upon it for survival? Some plants and creatures will only thrive in climates where harsh winter seasons are part of the yearly cycle. The glorious equine evolved in such climates--how could we imagine that horses cannot find some enjoyment out of winter conditions?

Some days are stressful for creatures living in the wilderness, but we should also keep in mind that even as much as we insulate ourselves from the harshness of nature, we find ourselves experiencing stressful times and times of suffering and handle it not nearly so gracefully as do our wilderness animals. I've come to appreciate that struggling a bit from time to time (like those strenuous hauls to bring hay out to the horses in the forest) is much healthier than remaining slumped in an easy chair watching television. I've no doubt it is the same for the animals. The easy life is not necessarily the best life overall.

Years ago, when I was showing dressage with Mistral, I spared no expense for his comfort and was convinced he had the best possible care I could provide. A blanketed horse locked in a stable, knee-deep in fragrant wood shavings, shielded from the weather, with a belly full of rich alfalfa hay and sweetened grains and a warmed bucket of water always available tends to give us humans a sense of comfort...our beloved equines then share some of our luxuriant living and we need not feel guilty as we rush back into our overly heated homes.

Years have passed and I've come to realize that such a comfortable situation comes with a price, however, as our best intentions to provide our horse with an environment that insulates him from the weather are at the expense of our horse's autonomy and ability to regulate his own situation. If the temperature rises overnight and he becomes too warm he remains trapped in his blanket and stable until the human comes out to help him out of his discomfort. Likewise such comforts are proven now to be responsible for a long list of troubles stabled horses suffer: hoof disorders, allergies, digestive ailments and under-appreciated mental disturbances, just to name a few.
Animado, Fada and Interessado, enjoying late afternoon hay.

Horses that are allowed to live "with" the rhythms of Nature develop exceptional thermal regulatory capacities allowing them to cope with the changeable weather and extremes in temperatures (actually handling cold better than heat). When provided a truly natural environment which contains variations in the landscape, wooded areas, higher and lower ground, etc., horses are constantly flowing with the mood of the day, choosing for themselves the best location to be depending on weather conditions. I can tell you from experience that there is a huge difference in the feeling of blizzard conditions inside a man-made, wood-sided structure versus the sensation one experiences when walking in the middle of a Cedar forest or even in the open but down the slope of the bluff.
Mistral is definitely lost in the moment and savoring his hay meal.

It continues to be a wondrous thing watching the way the horses and mules and wilderness creatures adapt themselves to whatever the day's weather might be, and I find myself more and more emulating their graceful behavior and sharing in their capacity to find comfort where they find it. I'm learning from them that winter is best experienced by being in the moment and acting accordingly.

An erudite Japanese fellow, Masanobu Fukuoka sums it up in this way, "What I am talking about here definitely is not a return to the past. I suppose one could call it a return to the present. It involves neither attachment to the past nor expectations for the future, but simply living in the nature of the today. All that is required is that we surrender ourselves to the current of nature."

Totally in the moment, the next morning the horses nap contentedly, with the sun on their faces and the temperature a balmy 11°F on the thermometer. Gracefully, they live in "the nature of today".


Annemiek said...

Dear Lynne,

Thank you for this wonderful topic. You know we had some pretty extreme weather here in the Netherlands and our horses did so much better than we humans. It really humbled me. I felt like a spoiled brat whining about the cold.

I think you and Kevin are masters at seeing something positive in the “obstacles” you encounter, be it the weather, or something else. On top of that, you love and respect nature with a better understanding than most. The way you write about it will surely have a positive effect on people.

The day I read this item I spoke with a woman at our barn. She told me she has 12 different blankets for her horse. I told her about your horses in Canada, but I am not sure she understood. I am afraid there is no reasoning with a 12 blanket person, but one can always hope………………….

Kris McCormack said...

Annemiek wrote: "I am afraid there is no reasoning with a 12 blanket person,..."

Well, I don't know about that, Annemiek. When my horses were shod and boarded at a stable, I had quite a blanket wardrobe for them.... turnout blankets, heavier and lighter weight, stable blankets, heavier and lighter weight, rain sheets, stable sheets, fly sheets, etc. Then I read Dr. Strasser's book about the ill effects, not just of shoeing, but also of the "unnatural" lifestyle to which many of us subject our horses -- restricting movement by keeping them in stalls, denying them herd life, and, yes, blanketing them.

The greatest priority for me was getting the shoes off their feet. Then I worked to get them as much movement and time outdoors as possible. However, as long as they had to be confined to stalls a good part of the 24-hour day, I kept them blanketed. If a horse cannot move around to stay warm (because he is in a stall, for example), and if he is wearing shoes -- which restrict his circulation -- then blankets *may* be necessary to help keep him comfortable... at least, that was my reasoning at the time.

However, as soon as I was able to move my horses to a place where they had 24-hour freedom of movement, the blankets were gone for good. At first I was full of doubt that that the horses would be able to get along without their warm "clothes," but seeing is believing. They were fine... even my eldest, who was 17 when his lifestyle changed so drastically.

I know many ex blanket collectors, -- people who have liberated their horses from stalls and blankets just because they first learned of the harmful effects of shoeing, and then, having taken their horses barefoot, continued to learn about other elements of "traditional" horse-keeping that are detrimental to a horse's physical and emotional well-being.

So... don't give up talking to people caught up in traditional ways. You never which bit of information may prove to be a life-altering path. Or perhaps it may be the cumulative effect of many conversations.... :-)

Lynne Gerard said...

Kris makes a good point...
if the situation we keep our horses in restricts their ability to find the best situation for themselves dictated by the changes in weather, we are absolutely obliged to make up for the choices we withhold from them. In such cases blankets may be a necessity.

The difficulty arises when we humans are not "johnny on the spot" to take care of the horses needs when we've denied him the option to take care of his own needs.

Back in the days when I used to board Mistral at a private stable. I had earned finally enough money to buy for him a "New Zealand Rug"--which made me so happy because I thought he would be impervious to the weather in this stalwart blanket.

Who would have imagined I managed to buy a faulty blanket! It wasn't treated with whatever they usually put on it to make it waterproof.

I got a call from the husband of the stable owner (who wasn't able to convince Mistral to be caught and brought inside)--heavy rain had come and Mistral was soaked and trapped in that heavy wet blanket.

When I finally got there to rescue him, he was shivering uncontrollably and highly agitated as you might imagine.

I brought him inside, rubbed him dry, provided him with hay and treats and a thousand "I'm sorrys".

The next day I returned the blanket for a replacement. The replacement worked as it should and later helped us save a cow...but that's another story for another time...