it’s -7ºF (-21.6ºC) right now with howling winds. the windchill at the closest NWS weather station is -25ºF (-31.6ºC). i’d like to think this will be the coldest night of the year, but the low forecast for tomorrow night is -23ºF (-30.5ºC) with windchill values as low as -41º (that’s the same in both fahrenheit and celcius). also, it’s only january. there’s lots more winter left.
i’m thawing out after a foray to the horses with the help of a fleece blanket and an obese miniature pinscher. i was bundled up pretty tightly, so the only part that really got cold was the two inches or so between the top of my fleece neck warmer, pulled up over my nose, and the brim of my hat. the condensation from my breath had frozen on my eyelashes, but they hadn’t started to stick together yet. that’s when you know it’s killing cold: winter takes even your eyes from you.
the horses have eaten at least two days worth of hay today. i gave them a full evening feeding at 17:00 and another at 23:00. that should get them through until morning no matter what the skies throw at them. they’ve got rugged blankets on and plenty of windbreak. horses are exceptionally hardy as a rule. my little band is hardier than most. i should say most of my little band is hardier than most.
the mare was a premarin mare, likely born in late winter or early spring on the open prairies of manitoba to a premarin mare. her father was a grade appaloosa stallion. that means that no one knows what the hell breed he was, but he had a lot of spots. i suspect her mother was a welsh pony cross. the mare is built like a tiny cart horse with an arabian butt, white with dark brown spots all over. she has big, round hooves that are hard as flint and legs like little tree trunks. her mane and tail are short and thick, the hair strong and wiry. i’ve never been to the prairies of manitoba, but if my imagination is somewhat accurate, she is the perfect distillation of the rugged fragility of the northern prairie and colored like the late winter she was born into.
these mares are bred to be pregnant through the fall and winter. they’re kept in narrow tie stalls with catheters that harvest their urine for hormone replacement therapy. when it’s time for them to foal, they’re turned out on the range in big bands. their lives are long stretches of veal-like confinement relieved by short windows of feral freedom. filly foals are mostly kept to replenish the productive herd. colt foals are a by-product. some become ranch horses, a few might be kept as breeding stallions, but most go to kill buyers and slaughter houses. some farms partner with rescue organizations in a strange, deceptive dance to get the colts and excess fillies adopted as rescue horses. which they are, but artificially so.
i didn’t start out with the mare. i started out with her spotted son, a weanling i’d only seen in a blurry jpg. he had good conformation and the loudest coloration i’d ever seen on a horse. like his mother, he’s white with spots from nose to toes to tail, but his spots are black and his mane and tail were jet black. he was a creep and a menace when he first came into my life. it took months of coaxing this wild baby into domestication, but we got there. he’s a shrimp, smaller than his mother, with a heavy quarter horse body and short, solid little legs. his winter coat is lush, his mane and tail thin and short and silky. he looks like a plushie, a super intelligent vaguely evil toy pony with his mother’s problem-solving mind and small ears.
these two were bred for this weather. they’re smart and squat and tough as nails.
the year after i adopted the gelding, the mare had a filly, a liver chestnut with a spotted white rump. the year after that, the mare was placed for adoption. i adored her son, so i had to bring her home. she had been exposed, as they say, to a stallion, but she hadn’t been checked for pregnancy.
after the trip from manitoba to long island, NY in a double-decker trailer and the trip from NY to VT in a stock trailer, i called the vet to come check her out. it wasn’t great news: she was definitely pregnant. worse, the vet was sure she’d miscarry. she was stressed out from the journey and underweight from raising a foal. her hooves were in bad shape. she was a wild animal with a poor coat. she was a mess. as much as i liked her first foal and baby horses in general, i half hoped that the vet was right. i didn’t really need the drama of a gravid mare, although i wasn’t keen on the drama of a miscarrying one, either.
with good food, though, and ready access to water and gentle handling, she got fat in a hurry and didn’t miscarry after all. the vet was astounded.
early the next spring, i started staying overnight in the barn, sleeping on a stack of hay bales in the unused stall next to the big foaling stall in the barn. it was cold. it was uncomfortable. day after day, she looked like tonight would surely be the night! and it never was. on the final night, she was perkier and wasn’t holding her tail to the side. i knew she wouldn’t foal that night, so i went home and went to bed. in the morning, of course, there was a baby: a perfectly bay colt without a white hair on him but with big donkey ears. the vet predicted he’d grey out and spot, but he never did. at around ten years old, he developed a roan stripe down one side of his nose and three “snowflakes” on his back. he remains otherwise stubbornly bay.
the bay gelding is a problem child, a beautiful red boy that looks like a highly bred morgan, with a fine, long nose and long, fragile legs, a thick, curly tail that drags on the ground and a thick, curly mane that knots up overnight. his red-gold coat is adequate, but half as lush as his brother’s in winter. in spring and summer, he’s a bug magnet. he still has big donkey ears that fill up with blackflies in may and ice crystals in january. when the snow starts to ball up in his hooves, he gives up the will to live and lies down in the snow to die. only no one dies of having cold feet, so he’s just really pitiful. the first time he did this, i though he was colicking. i picked the ice balls out of his hooves so that i could walk him (which is the olde tyme treatment for colic) and he was fine. no colic. just cold toes. when the sun goes down and i start to haul out the blankets, he dives under his, pushing me out of the way to get at his polyfill. he ought to go live down south where the biting bugs aren’t so fierce and the snow doesn’t clump up in his feet. his dainty self was not made for this place. the manitoba toughness, like the spots, didn’t breed true in this son of the prairie.