Yesterday's high was 45 degrees, which was perfectly respectable, but as evening fell, the wind picked up and we got a Blitzkrieg of winter with a 30 minute blizzard and than gusts of wind up to 50 mph. Apparently the winds were blowing from North Dakota (I'm being sarcastic - I don't know where they came from - maybe hell?, but my memories of winter in North Dakota basically scarred me for life and I compare all winters to those memories), and they brought single digit temperatures overnight.
I was left with quite the conundrum. You may remember that I've been keeping Nimo out almost 24/7. He just comes in to the barn to eat in the morning and the evening, but is otherwise in a 3-plus acre paddock with a 24x36 run-in shed. During the day, he has 4 pasture-mates, but at night he is by himself. This system has been working out pretty well all winter. Until yesterday.
Yesterday I rode out at Phelps Wildlife Management Area. My original intent was to ride about 10 miles in as close to 2 hours as we could manage. But, I realized pretty quickly into the ride that Nimo was going to work up quite a sweat at that pace. I haven't clipped him because I discovered that he was totally fine without a blanket at all, even during the crappiest, wettest, coldest weather we've had, and I have to admit that the freedom I feel about not having to worry about which blanket to use is intoxicating. Nimo can just be a horse and I don't have to spend several hundred dollars on a new wardrobe for him because he trashed all his sheets and blankets.
The problem comes into play when he works up a sweat and the temperature is cold. For the most part, the work we've been doing has been slow enough this winter that he hasn't sweated much. What little sweat he does generate is dry by the time we get back to the barn from wherever we've been riding (I put a fleece cooler on for the trailer trip home to wick the moisture and keep him warm). But last weekend, when I rode with Saiph, Nimo was damp all over and absolutely not dry by the time we got back to the barn, despite almost 2 hours in the trailer. I think I made a mistake by putting his regular sheet on instead of a fleece cooler and the sheet either didn't allow for enough evaporation or it made him too hot, so he kept sweating. So I ended up spending all this time getting him dry once we got back to the barn.
But back to yesterday. I knew we were expecting some kind of Arctic blast overnight, so I absolutely did not want Nimo to get very sweaty. Even if I could get him dry, I've found that it can take a couple of days for the hair to "fluff" back up and regain its full insulation properties, even with lots of brushing. Because we were expecting the coldest weather of the winter, I wanted to make sure he would be able to stay warm.
After my ride, Nimo was dry everywhere except under the saddle pad. I put his cooler on him, but after the 25 minute ride back to the barn, he was still wet. So, I left the cooler on while I chatted with people and unloaded the trailer and parked it. But I felt like Nimo's back was still damp as was the girth area. The temperature was at 45 degrees, and I had sworn to my husband that I would be home for the special Valentine's Day dinner he was going through a lot of trouble to make, so I decided to go ahead and turn Nimo out, go home for dinner, and then come back later that night after the temperature had cooled to reassess the blanketing and turnout situation.
After a lovely steak dinner with green beans, mashed potatoes, dinner rolls, and apple pie, I grumpily headed back out to the barn to figure out what to do with my horse. (I should note that my husband was remarkably understanding about the whole thing - I'm not sure how many husbands would appreciate an eat-and-run approach to a special dinner.) Meanwhile, I debated various options in my head:
- Bring Nimo in for the night. Pro: He would be warm enough without a blanket no matter how cold it got because the barn would stay at least 10 degrees warmer than the outside temperature. Con: Nimo would be unhappy being cooped up all night.
- Put a blanket on Nimo for the night. Pro: He could stay outside and be happy. Con: I wasn't sure what weight of blanket to use. Having not needed to blanket this winter, I hadn't developed a feel for how much of a blanket he would need. Nimo has historically sweated under blankets, even sheets, and I worried that if I put a heavy blanket on, he would sweat, get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning. On the other hand, if I used too light of a blanket, and it suppressed his ability to use piloerection to warm himself, he could get chilled, and die of hypothermia by morning.
- Do nothing. Pro: Nimo could stay outside and be happy. Con: If Nimo didn't use the run-in shed, the wind combined with the predicted snow could cause him to get chilled and die of hypothermia by morning. (If you haven't noticed, dying of hypothermia is something I worry about - this is because I grew up in North Dakota, where your skin can literally freeze in seconds if not covered and dying from exposure is not out of the question if you get stranded or dress inappropriately.)
So, I ended up bringing Nimo into the barn for the night. He was seriously unhappy, but I couldn't blanket at that point, because his back was wet from the brief blizzard we'd already gotten (he apparently didn't go into the run-in shed right away) and I was still struggling with which blanket to use anyway. The actual temperature was still 30 degrees at that point, but projected to drop at least 20 degrees overnight. That meant that a blanket that would be warm enough for 10 degrees might be too much at 30 degrees (see the sweating, getting chilled, dying of hypothermia problem above). My head kind of hurt, and I admit to being completely exhausted, so feeling a little guilty, I dumped a bunch of hay in Nimo's stall, made sure the heated water bucket was working, and headed home.
This morning, I got up at 6:30 to go out into the death trap Mother Nature had set to check on Nimo. Typically, the barn staff doesn't come out until 8 am on Sunday mornings, and in my opinion, that is too late for horses that have been in since 5 the day before. It starts getting light at 6:30, so I wanted to be out at the barn shortly after 7 to re-assess the blanketing/turnout situation. So, I fished my real winter parka out of the back of the closet and headed out to the barn. (I don't think I've worn it since Snowmageddon 4 or 5 years ago, when we once had 36 inches of snow on the ground, low temperatures, and 60-70 mph winds. I felt compelled to check on Nimo that day and had to hike in the last half-mile to the barn because the barn crew couldn't keep up with plowing the driveway with the wind constantly blowing. My truck is pretty good in snow, but I would rather walk a bit than get stuck. I remember having our dog, a German Shepherd who considers 40 degrees too warm, with me, and at one point, she crawled into a snow drift and wouldn't budge - it was too miserable even for her. That is the only day in the 14 years I've lived in northern Virginia that I decided Nimo didn't need to be turned out...)
Nimo was looking fit and healthy (and definitely not hypothermic!), but he clearly was unhappy being in. I had brought his mid-weight Rambo blanket (amazing how getting sleep improved my decision-making abilities) and put it on him after he finished his breakfast. He was thrilled to get outside even when he discovered the crazy wind and seemed perfectly happy being out.
I decided to clean his stall because it looked like 16 horses had spent the night in it, and I felt bad inflicting that on the barn staff when they were going to have to be out in terrible weather all day (expected high 23 degrees with continuation of crazy wind). Plus, that would give Nimo time to be out in his blanket for a bit, so I could check to see if he was getting too hot or shivering before I left. I had other blankets out at the barn that I could use if I needed to.
So about the time that my legs felt like they were going to freeze right off my body, I had the stall cleaned and had determined that the blanket seemed like it would work. Nimo was happily eating hay out in the paddock and the wind didn't seem to bother him at all. I left just as the barn staff were getting there and I wished them luck staying warm because even working in the barn with all the doors and windows closed was challenging.
Anyway, I'm writing this post because I wanted to document my frustration with trying to condition Nimo through the winter to prepare for an April ride (Foxcatcher 25 in Fair Hill, Maryland on April 11). I feel torn between body clipping so that we can condition at a faster pace without having all the sweat to deal with and letting Nimo keep his coat so he doesn't have to wear a blanket. In the past, when I've body clipped him for the winter, I did enjoy Nimo not being covered in mud all the time and the shorter cool-down times. But, I haven't found a brand of blanket yet that doesn't start causing shoulder and mane rubs about 6 weeks into the process. One compromise that I've tried is body-clipping at the beginning of February. By then, we usually don't have too much real winter left, and I can expect to spend about 2 months worrying about blanketing before spring arrives and we often have nice warm days, especially in March.
This winter seems different, though. We just aren't getting the warmer days and the forecast for the next 10 days shows even the high temperatures not getting above freezing for almost all the days. Nimo hasn't started shedding at all yet, even though he frequently starts in January, which leads me to believe he senses that he needs his winter coat for a little longer.
And this year is different because I'm not normally trying to condition for a 25-30 mile ride. I feel like I need to start ramping up our ride miles and pace, but I worry about all the sweating if I don't clip. I'm curious to know what other people do for the winter in terms of keeping their horses fit as well as blanketing, clipping, and turnout. So, please feel free to leave a comment with how you handle conditioning in the winter:)