HORSEPLAY: A few thoughts on horses, weather and training

BRR! THE WEATHER outside is frightful, but the warm fire from my wood stove is just so delightful. The other day, as I was sitting near that warm stove, I saw out my living room window my two horses, Lacey and Sunny, standing in the far side of the pasture, heads down, butts facing the wind, in the pouring rain. A few cars drove slowly by and almost stopped completely next to the horses. It was then I started imagining the conversations the occupants were having with each other, like, “Why doesn’t she bring those poor horses in from the rain?” and “They look so cold and miserable.”

Were they really miserable though? Because, unlike us almost hairless humans, horses are created hairy and are blessed to have two different types of hair growing over their bodies: 1) a shorter hair close to the skin to protect and warm the body much like a sweater does for us; and 2) a thicker, fluffier longer-haired top coat that serves as an insulator, much like a good winter coat insulates our bodies and keeps us warm.

They can get cold though, like when a wind chill below 32 degrees Fahrenheit with rain that flattens a horse’s outer coat, thus preventing the undercoat’s ability to provide that layer of warm air. That’s when you’ll see a horse run around a bit to warm up.

There is a limit to how much cold the body can tolerate. Neither of our species can tolerate a freezing cold wind and rain for any length of time. The same could be said of any animal with an undercoat that’s accustomed to living outdoors. And we know when temperatures dip low in our region — especially in the mountains or on the water — frostbite, hypothermia and even death can occur. That’s when all creatures great and small need a place to take shelter.

I think they’d prefer to have good weather all the time, with the temperature fluctuating between 55 and 75, but even during the worst of storms, my horses will choose to stand outside in the pasture rather than under cover in either one of their two shelters.

Outdoors or in?

The majority of horses that are metabolically healthy and have received enough calories to put fuel in their gut will prefer living outdoors no matter what the weather. Personally, I feel it’s extremely important to provide them with a shelter to stand under, for there will be times they will prefer, and dare I say, even need it.

There are some horses who prefer the security of being locked in a sturdy four-sided barn during inclement weather as long as they are well-cared for. Meaning they have adequate feed, access to fresh water in a clean bucket and aren’t standing in a filthy stall full of wet, stinky urine and piles of their own poop.

Then, there are those horses that won’t tolerate living in an enclosed four-sided box stall at all. They’ll often show their anger by kicking at the sides of the stall, pacing around and neighing. A few become so frustrated they will even resort to lunging at and trying to bite anyone they see. On the flip, side I’ve seen some become listless and depressed living within the confines of a box stall.

There’s really nothing wrong with keeping a horse in a box stall as long as it has good ventilation, is kept clean and the horse is taken out and exercised daily. I think the ideal box stalls have an outdoor run or paddock attached that allows the horse to go outside at will.

Now that we’re in mid-December, I’m certain most of us living on the North Olympic Peninsula have noticed a drop in temperature, and who hasn’t noticed the heavy rainfalls and wind gusts we’ve been experiencing? The day I wrote this column, it rained most of the day. When I went to feed my horses their dinner, not only were their coats wet, but they were muddy from lying on the ground. Most of the time, horses sleep standing up, but their bodies do require them to get off their feet and lie down about four hours in a 48-hour period.

Cleaning up

The spot Lacey has chosen to lie down and roll in pretty much year-round is currently a muddy mess. When I was feeding them, I noticed she had dried mud caked on her belly, and experience has taught me how much that irritates her skin.

So while they were eating, I brought a bucket of warm water mixed with a dollop of horse shampoo. Next, I slowly and gently took a wet rag from the bucket to apply water to the dried mud, giving it time to loosen up. I talked sweet nothings to her as I then dipped a brush into warm water and softly brushed the loosened mud away. As she continued contentedly munching on her hay, I brushed out the rest of her coat.

Finished, I turned my attention to Sunny, who was eating hay on the other side of the shelter. From what I know of Sunny, her life hasn’t been filled with the same gentle hands and loving care as Lacey. With that in mind, I know unless I approach her with a bucket of pellets, she will quickly turn and walk out of the shelter she’s in, in effect telling me, “I’m outta here.”

Consequently, when I want to put a halter on Sunny, I’ll throw a little hay inside the shelter first and then close the paddock gate. In general, she tries to avoid human contact. Occasionally, she’ll let me brush her without her halter on — just for a wee bit — while she’s eating.

So it was no surprise Sunny immediately walked out of the shelter when she saw me approach her with a brush in hand. Instead of hightailing it out to the pasture, she hesitated. I could tell she was torn. She still had more hay to eat, and I think she’d become a bit envious of Lacey getting brushed out. I responded by turning my back to her, leaning over the railing and pretending to enjoy the view. In other words, I ignored her.

Slowly, cautiously, she walked past me and back to her food. In response, I turned to face her side and slowly brought my hand up to brush her.

“Naw, I’m leaving,” is what her body language told me, and she stepped outside the shelter again. Then, she stopped, lowered her head and looked sideways at me. Again, I turned my back to her and leaned on the fence.

Comin’ round

She came back and resumed eating. This time when she walked back, I walked toward Lacey. She stood as far away from me as she could get and still eat, which placed her next to a wall. As I approached her again, she could have pushed past me, but thankfully, this time she continued eating and even relaxed as I brushed her entire body.

Not only did she relax, but a couple of times, I think she actually looked back at me with her big browns eyes as if to say, “Hey, thanks. I’m really enjoying this.”

When I saw that, my heart leapt with joy, and I thought, “Yes! A real breakthrough!” because she has never looked at me with kind, appreciative eyes before. She’s only appeared to tolerate me. So, yes, there I stood, silently rejoicing.

When Sunny purposely walks away from me, sometimes I do just let it go, unless I’m putting the halter on her. That’s when, as her owner, hence her trainer — the two go hand-in-hand — I know it’s reinforcing a bad behavior. So then I know I need to use it as a training opportunity, an earning-her-trust and asserting-myself-as-leader session.

When she first came to live here two years ago, she showed me little respect, even using her body in an attempt to forcefully push me away as she stepped past. That behavior I couldn’t allow. I knew a change in her attitude would not happen overnight, and that I’d gain little trust from her by fighting her and forcing her to obey me. So I began having training sessions in the paddock.

Training practices

Through the years, I’ve learned my most successful training sessions for a horse that walks away from me is to get them in an enclosure, stall, round pen or arena and calmly as them to keep moving until I ask the horse to stop. A lunge line works well for this method, too. I keep them moving at whatever pace they choose — run, trot or walk — in a circle until they tire and show me signs they are ready to stop, like lowering the head and licking lips. If they start walking away again when I approach, I just calmly urge the horse on again. When the horse is finally willing to stand still, I give them praise, perhaps pull a treat from my pocket as a reward as I put the halter on.

Granted, some horses will run around and become a sweaty mess before they are ready to stand and let me put the halter on. It could take a long time. No matter what, a calm, assertive demeanor is key. Anger begets anger. Each time he, or she, submits to doing as I’ve asked is an important step in gaining the animal’s trust, respect and obedience. It makes it easier when asked for them to do something that they generally balk at, like crossing a stream for the first time.

I feel it’s important for horses, and other pets, to recognize us as the leader of the herd or pack, so they obey out of trust and not fear. After reading this, I’m certain my close friends will remind me I need to have more small and consistent training sessions with my dogs, too, especially my 1-year-old pup.

You see, I don’t mind if my dogs lie on the couch, stand on the coffee table or even up on their hind legs, paws on my shoulders, to greet me when I return after going out. Yet, I can see why doing so, especially jumping up to greet them, may irritate my friends. It wasn’t an issue during the pandemic when we weren’t seeing each other.

Now we’re all vaccinated and seeing each other more frequently. I do now, my friends, solemnly promise to teach my dogs not to jump on you or the furniture in your presence. However, as soon as you leave, me and my dogs are throwing a couch party! I may even invite the horses. Yee-haw!

Karen Griffiths’ column, Peninsula Horseplay, appears the second and fourth Sunday of each month.

If you have a horse event, clinic or seminar you would like listed, please email Griffiths at [email protected] at least two weeks in advance. You can also call her at 360-460-6299.

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