Horse Keeping: East vs. West, North vs. South

My friend Cindy Foley?s editorial “Winter Cleaning” in the February issue of the Horse Journal provides me with a very good example of how the methods of horse keeping can vary across the country. Cindy?s thoughts about horse management, particularly in the winter, have been shaped by living for the last 20 years near Syracuse, N.Y., near where she grew up. My thoughts about horse management have been shaped by living about 60 miles north of San Francisco for the last seven years, and for the previous 24 years living in Northern Virginia.

I’m not criticizing any of Cindy?s practices or suggestions, but my immediate reaction to her editorial was this: If anyone tells you tHere’s only one way to keep or manage horses, they’re simply wrong.

Cindy writes, ?In the spring, daytime turnout hours are limited by the lush, fast-growing grass.? that’s only very rarely a problem here in California. We celebrate when the grass grows, and ours isn?t lush enough or sugar-filled enough to cause founder or obesity in any but the rarest case. But even in Virginia, the richness of the grass was only a minor concern for me?perhaps because I almost always had Thoroughbreds I was working to keep weight on. I can see how grass would be a problem in large fields with only a few horses, but I don’t remember friends worrying about lush grass there. I think lush grass is most often a Northern concern.

In the next paragraph, Cindy writes, ?In the summer, We’ve never brought them in due to heat, as tHere’s enough shade and the barn is hot too.?

I’ve used a far different management plan. During Virginia winters, we turned our horses out during the day but brought them in for the night. But during Virginia summers, we kept them in during the day and turned them out at night. That was because summer in Virginia is often dreadful?95 degrees, with 95% humidity, meaning the shade of a tree isn?t much cooler than the sunlight. But the bugs were far fewer in the barn. In the spring and fall, the horses just stayed out night and day. In fact, we planned our barn and fields so that we could leave the doors open and allow the horses to use the barn as a shed during those seasons.

But I know people in Virginia (professionals, not lazy bums) who turn working horses out at night throughout the year, and the horses live just fine. They do have sheds, and the horses are fully blanketed, though.

Here in California, there is no time of day or time of year that horses can’t be outside. The only limitations are that you need to have good drainage so that they aren?t constantly standing in deep mud during the winter, while in the summer horses with white muzzles often need fly masks or sunscreen to protect them from the intense afternoon sun. But the daylight summer hours aren?t as hard on the horses as in Virginia because our summer humidity is about 15% (I’m not making that up), so it is MUCH cooler in the shade. ?Our fields have sheds to protect the horses from the rain or the sun (but many of them rarely use them for either).

Mother Nature designed horses to live in the cold: She gave them thick fur, thick skin, a long trachea, and the ability to shunt blood flow from their legs to keep the core warm. She didn’t design them to cool well, though?those adaptations are of no use when they’re hot, and they don’t have enough surface area to efficiently cool their mass with sweat. But so often we encounter people who whine about their horses being out at night (especially in the rainy winter months), but that’s when they’re the happiest?because it’s cool. they’re the least happy on buggy, hot summer days?the weather that most people prefer.

And darkness isn?t an issue for horses. They see just fine in the dark. (don’t believe me’ Ride your horse in the dark. I’ve ridden endurance rides through the deep night, and I’ve taken jumping lessons in the dark. Both teach you to trust your partner!) We’re the ones with the night-vision problem, not the horses.

Cindy also warns about the effects of keeping the barn closed during the winter. We’ve recently run articles in the Horse Journal about the dangers of closing the barn too tightly in the winter (and I wrote a blog about in on Dec. 27), and remember that the main reason for closing the barn doors and windows is to keep the pipes from freezing so that the horses have water to drink.

The bottom line (as we like to say in the Horse Journal) is that Cindy?s editorial is a reminder that tHere’s no one ?right? way to keep horses. There are better (and worse) ways, but your barn?s management plan should accommodate the local climate, the design of the facility and the number of horses who live there, what you’re doing with your horse(s), and the time you have to ride and care for them.

But however you do it, I’d suggest that you keep in mind one of my firmly held beliefs: Barns are really for our convenience, not the horses? comfort.

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