About a week ago, I read a minor horror story on an Internet bulletin board about improper winter horse care and a serious lack of barn ventilation. A woman in Oregon described how the inexperienced owners of the barn where she boards her horse have been shutting up the barn nearly as tightly as their house and heating it. They even boasted that nighttime temperature inside the barn was 80 degrees!
The woman said that she has to remove her horse’s turn-out blanket at night to keep him from breaking out in a sweat like other horses in the barn. People, let’s remember that we humans started building barns centuries ago for our convenience, not for horses’ health. Horses stay far healthier living outside than in a barn.
For our December Issue of the Horse Journal, associate editor Margaret Freeman wrote a commentary called “Open Barn=Healthy Barn,” in which she related her similar observations and warned readers about the dangers of shutting a barn up too tightly in the winter. And, having read the account I’ve just mentioned, this week I’m going to second Margaret’s point about keeping your barn well ventilated in the winter.
In the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic or the northern Midwest, winter horse care presents numerous challenges that we who live in the South, Southwest or California don’t have. I know, because for the first 46 years of my life I lived in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Virginia. In states like those, your primary concern is making sure your horses have sufficient water to drink, which means keeping their water buckets and water troughs as ice-free as possible. It also means trying to keep your pipes from freezing so you can put water in the buckets and troughs. Oregon doesn’t have a big freezing problem. Just like us in Northern California, it doesn’t snow in the winter. It rains, and on a couple of clear nights each winter the temperature might dip to 30 degrees just before dawn.
So the pipes and buckets are the main reason you shut the barn doors and windows at night, if you live in freezing climates. Your goal is to keep the barn temperature just above 32 degrees, to keep the ice away. But often it’s not possible. I recall many nights of defrosting the buckets at 10:00 or 11:00 at night and then de-icing them again at 6:00 a.m.—and hauling fresh water from the house because the barn’s pipes were frozen solid and would be frozen for days or more.
Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned the fire danger caused by whatever you use to heat a barn.
The Oregon woman’s horrifying experience is an all-too-vivid example what can happen when well-meaning but inexperienced people try to take care of horses. These people are usually bestowing upon horses their own human sensitivities and needs.
They think, “I like to be in my warm and dry house in the winter, when it’s [choose one or more: snowing, rainy, windy or cold], so I need to treat my barn like my house.”
But horses are not humans. They have thick skin and thick fur coats that are major adaptations Mother Nature long ago gave them to live in cold weather. They’re actually more comfortable in the winter than in the summer. Why? Well, for one thing, winter doesn’t have flies. But, more importantly, their skin and fur mean they’re poorly adapted for cooling off. So when it’s hot, and especially when the humidity is high too, they struggle to stay cool and comfortable. You’ll rarely find a horse struggling g to stay warm in the winter, unless he’s also soaking wet or very old or young.
I encountered an even more dangerous misunderstanding of the needs of humans vs. the needs of horses when a potential boarder came to see our farm last week. We explained to her the vaccinations (and proof thereof) we require for new horses and how all horses here are routinely vaccinated twice a year for encephalitis, tetanus, rabies and more. She said that she was glad to hear our policy, because she’d just visited two or three barns where the owners either discouraged or did not allow vaccinations.
I was amazed, until I remembered that this is Sonoma County, Calif., a very “crunchy” place. I remembered that three years ago, when Heather was pregnant, we went through a class for first-time parents run by our medical provider, Kaiser Permanente. One of the points one of the physicians who taught the class made was the importance of vaccinations for our children, especially because hospitals and schools were encountering a growing number of children who were not vaccinated against the usual illnesses. And that was endangering everyone else, especially as decades of vaccinations have basically eradicated polio from the United States.
I’m not sure whether that was a mostly Sonoma County issue or a problem throughout the country, but now it seems to have spilled over into horses.
Talk about horrifying! People not vaccinating their horses makes shutting the barn out like a house almost a laughable problem.