Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Deep Sigh in Winter

I’m wondering if I’m projecting when I sense a contentment in our barn that has reached a new level.   My sense is the mares are feeling that they have what they need.  They may not have everything they WANT, such as loads of green grass and sugary treats, but I definitely have not been getting those stress messages I have felt in past winters.  
Hudson, yes, too fat, at the bale with Starlight behind.

Before, I would sense their stress when hay was low and temps were cold, with the north wind whirling through the open barn.  I would feel it when the top horse, Hudson, led the herd up the hill to stand with their unblanketed backs to the weather, instead of staying in the barn where they were sheltered, because, for some reason, Hudson thought staying in was more threatening than being out.

The main changes that have brought the sense of contentment have all come together this year, although they have underway from the time we moved here a few years ago, as I constantly strive for the best possible living circumstances for the horses, given the location we have and the amount of cashola we can devote.

Here are the main, satisfaction factors:

1. An area that is always dry underfoot, even during mud season.  This was one of the first things we did, hired a contractor to build a dry pad under and around the existing pole barn, which would also be the foundation of a new hay and equipment barn to come, the next year.  Moving from a super-muddy location before this, I had a mud-induced hissy fit and declared to the heavens that I would NOT be walking through four inches of mud to take care of these beasts, and they would NOT be standing in mud any longer.

DeCato stays near the open end, to escape Hudson if needed.
2. A larger run-in shelter. It's large enough so the lower horses (Starlight and DeCato) aren’t afraid to be in there with Hudson.  This has been in the works for a while. 

The existing pole barn had one side when we moved here (that sounds so strange, but it was the case).  The one side blocked the west wind, and helped with the northwest wind if the horses could get inside far enough, but they couldn’t, because we had to use the majority of the barn for hay our first year.  Storing hay necessitated adding walls to the barn, of course.  The first new wall was the long one on the east side, which we sided with hemlock board and batten.  We also built a permanent wall on the north side, where the horses enter the run-in, so their gate area was smaller, but they had a critically important, north wind block.   This had the unfortunate side-effect of making the DeCato afraid to be inside, since she worried that Hudson would trap her.

Starlight in the expansion.  Excuse the mess -- we  had just finished.
Because Hudson seemed most afraid to stay in when the weather was at its worst, we added a gate to close them in during bad weather, along with waterproof blankets so when they did go out, they were protected from sleet and wind.

I believe the reason Hudson was afraid was because the south side was still open, so when the wind would blow, gusts caused its canvas tarp cover to flap unpredictably, sometimes blowing things over in the barn.  This caused Hudson to perceive the barn itself as scary during the worst weather.  But by closing them in, I could tell the lower mares were relieved that they didn’t have to follow Hudson out into the worst weather and huddle together (with Hudson taking the best spot, leaving the other two more exposed).

Recently, we solved the last housing concerns by adding square footage to run-in area, moving the inside fence line back about 12 feet, and building a south wall.  We also changed out the electric tape fencing in the barn with tube gates, so the lower horses don’t fear the threat of Hudson on one side and the zap on the other. 

Now, not only am I happy with the barn, but Hudson does not seem to be as afraid of it in bad weather.  She is getting used to the idea that it’s a safe place, not a scary, blowing, rattling, flapping place.

Finally: 3. Free-choice hay.  I can do this with the large bales our neighbor baled up for us.  We were going to sell these for cow hay, since the hay had been POURED on while down.  But we were so successful in drying it (with the tedder) before baling that it actually has provided that steady stream of low-quality roughage that is so critical for horses.  The rain decreased the sugar content, so it’s safer for them to munch on in larger quantities.   I don’t know that I would try for this again in the future (too nerve wracking to see a downed hay field being rained on, not to mention that weather conditions have to be just right for it to dry out again), but I’m happy with it this year.

That’s not to say that my mares aren’t too fat.  They are not getting exercise right now, since something I’m still lacking for MY personal contentment is a riding arena that I can use when the world is covered with ice, mud and darkness (Hey, Santa!).  So, there is still work to do for my horses’ optimum winter health, but we have come a long way.  And that feels good!

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