Severe Weather Warning

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.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
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64 thoughts on “Severe Weather Warning

  1. Barbara Cohen

    I can relate!!! Just a tip…..My Quarter Horse never liked his belly messed with. He kicked at me the first time I blanketed him. After that I used a polo mallet I had, to grab the straps under the belly…so I did not have to get my head down there. Worked quite well. Just a thought.

    1. Thanks, Barbara. Their bellies are vulnerable, they’re right to be shy. And I do work with her, she’s just a few decades ahead of me. She is nervous about muck forks so I’m dubious, but thanks for the suggestion.

  2. Exquisite. I love Lilith. I love her blanket. I love putting on her blanket. I love the prairie weather, even though I live in Georgia, where an inch of snow causes the closing of courts, schools and highways.

  3. JKS

    Every fall I watch my elder gentleman put on his winter coat, and use it as a gauge of his overall health- he’s the stoic type, so I have to watch for other signs that there’s a problem, because he sure as heck won’t be obvious about it. And every year so far, it’s come in thick and shiny. Still, though, there’s a blanket in my tack trunk, just in case. And he still works, at least once a week, and we all cheer when he stops to poop. And the trainer examines it as she scoops it up, and proclaims it “good poop”.

    We watch them all for colic…but the older ones most of all.

  4. Maggie Frazier

    Love the Lilith blanketing story! Bless her peapicking (kicking) heart. How amazing is it that this tough little creature has survived all these years – to finally find what I guess we all call now a “forever” home. Really tickled me reading this. And I agree with you – there IS something about the seasonal changes that appear to bring on colic. Especially when horses (& others) get some years on them. Had to chuckle also about the good poop. I remember that! BIG difference from the other kind.

  5. Sandy Adams

    lovely article. the “old ones” are to be cherishe. On Oct 27, 2017 6:36 AM, “Relaxed & Forward: AnnaBlakeBlog” wrote:

    > Anna Blake posted: ” 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” >

  6. Love Lilith in her blanket-she’s very cute. Thanks for the reminder to beware of colic this time of year. My vet recommends we salt our horses’ hay to get them to drink more water-seems to be working as we haven’t had any more colic episodes.

  7. I am very touched by this story today. Clarity of need is obviously frequently lacking in humans, along with respect for those creatures who do know what they need, and what they do not want. This is our first northwest Texas winter without Rio, and truthfully, I am grateful he will not need to face it.

  8. Lillith is a cute handful – I love the order to scratch her head without any ear touching and that she kicks at you even when you did just what she asked. I love the old cranky ones I guess.

  9. Laurie

    Hi Anna, here in Vermont we are waiting for the winter to roll in after another round of seventy-degree days so your reminder is very welcome; I still have some winterizing to do. But the blankets are ready! Just wanted to pass along a good set-up my veterinarian suggested for the thirty-something year old Morgan who’s teeth had also “expired.” A heated water bucket on a timer won’t keep a mash hot, but it will prevent it from freezing. Kept him going for a long time! Best wishes for a colic-free transition to winter.

  10. We’ve just finished our first winter(ish) storm of the season too.
    Thankfully, my daughter’s Palomino, who is the most amazing weather barometer, came through with flying colours.
    When we first got her home (in November, 4 years ago) she colicked on a regular basis. Our vet had all these plans and treatments and ideas on how to avoid it, and yet, once more, she’d colic.
    And then, I mentioned it to the stable master where my Kid takes lessons, and he filled me in on the barometric pressure thing.
    I started watching the weather, and watching the mare, and sure enough…rapid pressure changes meant the poor darling had tummy issues.
    Now, I know to watch for it, and if I can get ahead of it, we can ease her through with minimal fuss.
    And everybody gets a little extra salt in their beet pulp, to make sure they keep drinking. So far, so good!

  11. Julie

    Yes the bittersweetness Anna. This’ll be our first winter without our jenny. The dark and wind of this season really does bring on a bit of melancholy about the ones we’ve lost. Thanks for making us smile with the tale of Lilith and her hard-earned opinions.

  12. Three degrees and snow last week. Now wind, forty degrees, and rain. Ugh. NOT my favorite season either. Let it snow – the horses look like teddy bears. They’re ready too. (Love the stories about Lillith!

  13. “The plural of anecdote is not data…” Maybe not, but I believe it is often wisdom. This weekend we’re expecting a massive drop in barometric pressure with temps falling thirty degrees + big winds. I will be pulling out the rain sheet, mixing up a warm mash and cramming extra hay in the bag. I do not care what the data say. 😀

    1. Boy, did I read that first sentence with attitude in my voice; it made me laugh. Indeed. We know what we know. They can prove it true later. Great comment.

  14. I’m all in favor of bluntness, and being direct. Thank you for sharing a glimpse of your life and your heart. These rituals of care – blanketing, cleaning, scratching on demand, and for me doing bodywork – weave together moments of equine-scented connection that are somehow perfect. I can’t find a better word than that. And in writing about it and reading about it we get to experience it again, almost. Stay warm!

  15. Chaz

    The dark months are much worse for you than the rest of us. Sometimes I’m not sure how you even handle it.

    Good luck in the upcoming times. And give Lillith a good pat for me.

  16. Lilith, She is adorable. I hope this winter is kind at your place. I am so glad she landed somewhere soft.
    Chick is 34. My old man heart horse. So– Weather, I am always watching the weather. Poop too. Did he eat his feed? Or just throw it on the ground for the chickens to peck. 42 different kinds of feed (slight exaggeration)No teeth left, can’t have hay. Decided not to eat beet pulp anymore, or anything I make into mush. He has cushings, and some kind of vague unidentifiable cancer. But maybe we can make it through one more winter. He is sort of cantankerous at this point. Maybe it’s senility. Or stoicism. Still he is always watching to see where I am. He walks up to me and sticks his head right there, my heart.

  17. I hope it’s not a hard winter for you, Lilith or any of the others in your care. I’ve got a 14 year old dog who does not like leaving the “warm wall” (baseboard radiators) except for dinner, absolutely refuses a sweater or coat and gets impatient when I insist on getting bundled up myself. I always know how the weather is going to be, just have to see how Smoky is acting or where he’s sleeping (something old dogs do a lot of). I got a very sour look when we went for his late afternoon trip outside, don’t know if I was too slow with the jacket or if it was the sudden gust of cold air when the door opened, but he was annoyed, can’t say I was all that happy myself, never much liked the cold.

  18. eremophila

    The first winter my Sal was gone I was glad she didn’t have to endure the hated wind and rain. Feeling for you and the crew as the season changes. Reading the chapter in your book about your first winter still gives me the chills!

  19. I love the Lilith Way: Resist. Be concise. Find something to be grateful about.

    Why just last night I was walking my mini around—looking more buffalo than horse—trying to beat off a colicky episode at 2 am! May have been the weather or it may have been the vaccinations earlier in the afternoon. The cold, damp fog surrounded us on our rounds and I worried the spooky elk and bear would surprise us. They didn’t. Fortunately, the walk, the warmish mash and a little bit of Banamine did the trick. Thank God.

    Never, before horses, did I think counting poop piles would become a pastime.

  20. Sherry Walter

    Anecdotal is right, I lost a 23 yr old appy to colic the day after an ice storm in 1990, a 23 yr old half arab mare 2 years later, again after an ice storm and 16 yrs later a half arab gelding, son to aforementioned mare the night of a blizzard, all had immediate vet attention but I couldn’t subject the older ones to a long trailer ride and surgery. No choice really but to ease their pain and let them go. It still hurts.

    1. Sadly, I think you use the right tone of sarcasm on “anecdotal”. So sorry for the experiences that back that up. We know what we know, alright. Thanks, Sherry.

  21. Laurie

    Up here in Longmont, we went from 82 to 22 in about 12 hours, and I was holding my breath even though I’d done everything I could to make the transition easier for the herd. My oldest gentleman, 29 and toothless (that’s not his name), gave me “the look”. It was the same look he gave me last October after losing a younger herd mate. The look said “stop waiting for me to die just because I’m old”. So I went inside and gave it up to Mother Nature. Happily, she left my herd intact. It’s not easy loving horses….or anyone for that matter.

  22. Nancy Sorensen

    This post is exactly why I hate winter. My heart doesn’t rest until Spring. I laughed out loud at your adorable Lilith. I’m so happy you have each other.

  23. Annette

    Anna, after hearing first hand the tales of your equine family I could picture vividly your conversation with Lilith 🙂 Your creatures are blessed to share their lives with someone so patient and understanding of their individual idiosyncrasies. And I breathe a sigh of relief after every stormy night when I haven’t been called out for a colic!

    1. Amen to escaping colic… and I know a few stories from your family as well… an especially soft landing at your home, too. I left a corner of my heart up there with all of you. Thanks again for the wonderful visit, Annette.

  24. Wives tales or not, I have eyes and a brain. Fall especially, when temperatures are dropping, animals are adjusting and water is less appealing, colics are more common. I’ve worked for a horse veterinarian for 18 years now, and it’s like clockwork. Time to be especially vigilant.

  25. Lyn

    Ah Anna, how I have missed you. I’ve been a bit distracted of late and have not made it over here. I am happy I did. This was just what I needed. Thank you as always.

  26. Candi Russell

    Many years ago, in a career as an army wife, we spent time in Colorado. I’m a northeastern born, cold weather hater, so the news of moving to CoSprings made me cry (cried harder when we left, but another story). The dryness made shoveling easier and I thought it wasn’t so bad until I got caught in a whiteout one night. Terrifying. The brutal weather was bad enough as I hustled two little toddlers around some days, but I could stay inside. To try to manage elders in a herd in those gloom months entitles you to sainthood. I’ve been learning to count poop piles, judge watered down poop in plastic gloves, wet down hay for our tooth-challenged elder-all integral barn training, but to share these endeavors at home leaves me feeling like I have three heads… It’s nice to know there are comrades. Here’s hoping for a gentler season.

    1. Here’s my secret weapon: soaked pellets (hay, alfalfa, or a combination) Small particles=good gut bacteria=better nutritional absorption. Wishing an easy winter your way, too.

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