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Changing Seasons Affects Horses—No Matter What Your Weather

THIS is what I don't miss about winter, says John Strassburger.

Our friends at Horse Journal are always on their toes when it comes to those subtle little things that might make a difference in our lives as horse people. So we weren’t surprised when Performance Editor John Strassburger wrote a blog about the changing seasons and how it affects our horses and ourselves. Read on:

As horse people, we spend a significantly larger portion of our time outside than the average American, and, thus, we’re more sensitive to the weather. And this week’s “Superstorm Sandy” has made me glad we no longer live in northern Virginia. I hope everyone and their animals have weathered the storm safely.

I’ve often wondered what it would be like to live the type of life where the weather and seasons only make minor impacts on your daily activities. Freezing cold? So what? You’re only out in it on between your car, your office and your house. Snow, rain, burning heat? Whatever! You just stay inside until it’s nicer outside. We horse people don’t have that option.

When I moved to California with my wife in 2006, the most common question I was asked in the first year by my former East Coast compatriots was, “Don’t you miss the seasons?”

At first, my answer was, “Yes, sort of.” But in time, I’ve come to see that we have distinct seasons too, just very different ones than I grew up with in the East. Primarily we have two seasons here in Northern California, which we call “Spummer” and “Finter.”

Spummer starts about March, but it can be as early as February or as late as April. In a fairly short period of time, the rain dries up, the grass and flowers grow like crazy, and the temperature rises rapidly. Within the span of a week or so, you go from turtlenecks and raincoats to short sleeves and sunscreen. The horses transition from winter mudballs to molting leprosy victims as their winter coats fall our in clumps, and they get fat and shiny. The horses who live out get virtually no additional feed as the grass turns them to blimps, and some of the easy keeper types start getting brought in to keep the obesity to a minimum.

Quickly, our area settles into seven to nine months of 80s during the day, 50s and 60s at night. By July, the seasonal creeks are dry, and the grass has all turned brown (“California gold,” my mother-in-law likes to say).  It can hit the 90s or low 100s in the summer, but the humidity stays down around 12 percent (I’m not kidding), so even if you sweat, you don’t really sweat.

In October/November, we start transitioning to Finter. The leaves on the grape vines change color post-harvest, and we usually have our first rain of the season. This is a welcome event and a miraculous one (we had it last week—1.75 inches of rain in three days). It’s almost always followed by several days of sun and warmth, and this causes California grass and soil, truly an amazing substance, to kick it in to high gear. Within 48 hours, even the barest dry lot will be sporting green peach fuzz. If you haven’t seen it, you can’t believe it.

The temps will stay in the 70s during the day (other than rainy ones) until the end of November, but the nights will start to get colder as the days get shorter. This presents a challenge to the horse’s biology, as they’re usually in full coat by the end of October, and we can still be encountering 80-degree days. We usually trace clip, and for the yaks of the farm, we clip early and often.

Usually by December the rains have become more frequent and steadier (although in recent years, I’ve noticed it seems more like January) and once they come, they stay. If you aren’t blessed with a covered ring, you need excellent drainage (which we’re blessed to have). It will rain for more or less three months straight, (sometimes as much as five months) with occasional breaks. But 25 days of rain out of 30 isn’t unknown. Flooding isn’t uncommon, and you just get used to gray days and wet.

The horses celebrate this blessed event by getting as much mud ground in to their coats as possible. I’ve often believed they hold secret runway-style contests at night to compare mud coats.

It becomes a constant challenge to keep feet and coats healthy as Finter drags on. However, because we don’t have to blanket too heavily (not at all, if the horse isn’t clipped), we don’t have to deal with body soreness and rubs to the same degree as our cold-weather counterparts. The temps fall to the 40s and 50s, but they generally stay above freezing.

As I write this blog, I’m watching Sandy creep closer to our old home in Winchester, Va. It’s almost 80 degrees here today, with bright blue skies and sun. Although we’re praying for all those in Sandy’s path, I can’t help but think having only Finter and Spummer seasons to deal with is just fine.

In addition to no longer dodging hurricanes and snow or ice storms, here’s a list of other things I haven’t had to do in six years:

  •   Spread salt or cat litter to make it possible to walk from the house to the barn.
  •  Use a sledgehammer to make water troughs drinkable.
  •  Shoveled snow drifts burying my car or blocking the door to the barn.
  •  Found my clothes soaked through with sweat after walking from my house to the car due to 2 billion percent humidity in the summer.

Yes, I’ve adapted.

Best wishes to all of you caught in the storm.

Categories: Horse Journal Magazine.

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