It was 78 degrees yesterday. It’s late October so the sun is lower in the sky. There was a slight breeze that would have been perfect for riding but I was testing the tank heaters. Then the winds came howling, tearing the last leaves free. The sky turned a sweet apricot color, tinted by a grass fire to the north. Temperatures tonight will drop to 18 degrees with blowing snow. Like they say, ’tis a privilege to live in Colorado.
It’s a dry cold here on the high desert prairie but everyone has shelter. Winter coats have grown in dappled and thick. I throw more hay on nights like this to keep their internal heaters working but I don’t blanket the horses in my barn as a rule.
Except for this ancient one. Lilith. She came to rescue a couple of years back, not eating or drinking, and so thin that we worried she was dying. But she’s a longear. She outsmarted us.
Last year I bought her a blanket for the wet spring snows that left her shivering. She has expired teeth, so feeding more hay doesn’t work. The mush she gets several times a day usually freezes before she finishes it.
To be clear, there is no reason for elders to grow thin in the winter.
This year, she’s even more wobbly when she gets stiff, so the blanket came out early. Still, I’m not foolish enough to try blanketing her on my own. I know what you’re thinking. She’s barely bigger than a goat. Perhaps after you trim that goat’s hooves you’ll have a better idea about how this all works. So, because I wasn’t born yesterday either, I held off blanketing until help arrived. By midmorning, the temps had dropped ten degrees and the wind was getting stronger. And yes, Lilith may be nearly blind now but not so much as to not see what our plan was.
I stood still while my barn manager did a stilted two-step with Lilith. We go slow, we breathe. We both preach this stuff every day. Then Lilith drags my barn manager, in limping slow-motion, the length of the run as I slowly introduce the blanket. To be clear, the two of us humans outweigh Lilith but she has a kind of lateral gravity to her lean. She’s unstoppable. I’m hoping we’ll grind to a halt by the end of the run.
Meanwhile, I’ve managed to get one of the front buckles done on the blanket. That’s the easy part. Hooking the belly straps are harder and I’m not wearing a helmet. I try to strike that balance of quickness without jerking, coordination without dawdling. I almost manage it, the blanket is on, and we let her go.
Lilith dodders away indignantly. We can tell because she kicks at each of us as she goes. Sure, we smile but both of us has had hoof contact from this old donkey. More than once.
A few feet away she turns and glares us. She wears her blanket like a house dress. Like a bright turquoise muu-muu, huge on top with her tiny ankles dangling out below. Just when I am trying to remember which of my mother’s sisters she reminds me of, Lilith marches quickly toward me, flopping her ears back to the angle of a jet wing.
She’s demanding a forehead rub with the obligatory cleaning of her eye snot. I oblige, being careful to not touch her ears. She’s made it clear that they were twitched sometime in the last forty years and I had better pay attention. I just do as I’m told. No hearts and flowers.
She abruptly turns and leaves again with a smaller kick this time. Only marginally dangerous. Another pause with a withering stare before she marches herself over to my barn manager and demands the same homage. Again, given as required and without hesitation.
There is never a shred of doubt what Lilith means. Even if some of her feelings contradict each other, she has an undeniable clarity. Our other longear, Edgar Rice Burro, is just as plain. One more time, I recite my fervent wish that people would express themselves as honestly. We bite our tongues until we explode. Donkeys have it right. Bluntness is a virtue.
Spring and fall are rough seasons for elders. Extreme weather changes create problems for equine digestive systems that were poorly designed in the first place. Dare I call it by its name? This is colic weather. Beware.
This year I read a scientific article that debunked all the anecdotal things we think we know about colic. Anecdotal evidence is frowned on in the science world, even if they haven’t figured out a cure.
Colic is still the number one killer of horses. Treatment hasn’t changed much in the last decades. Drugs are better but the condition is still extremely dangerous. The article said colic wasn’t tied to heat cycles or getting new hay or changes in barometric pressure (coming storms). Maybe I’m turning into Lilith but I’m cranky and skeptical. I’ve been schooled by seasons in the barn. If weather change is only superstition and not fact-based, why is the vet always out on a series of colic calls on nights like this?
Do you dread these dark blustering months as much as I do? It’s become a habit to make sure horses are doing more than just sniffing their hay, while at the same time casually counting manure piles in their runs.
Because the equine truth lies somewhere between old wives’ tales and hard science.
So, I stay up late for one more feeding. I’ve got my heavy barn coat and muck boots, and a head light strapped on my wool hat. Leaning into the wind, I drag one more feeding of hay to all the shelters. The old chestnut gelding is struggling with his arthritic knee but the new horse has settled in well. The rest of the herd looks okay for the night.
The Haloween wind howls at my back as I return to the house. There isn’t much good to say about the haunted dark and cold months. My Grandfather Horse won’t have to fight the north wind this winter. In a bittersweet way, I’ll be glad of that small blessing.