Farming Magazine - December, 2009

COLUMNS

Working Horses: Winter Weathering for Drafts

Considerations for the colder season
By Vicki Schmidt

Hunkering down for winter isn’t much of a concern for those of us who look forward to winter activities with our horses. There’s no better time for logging with drafts, and the best days to come are ones spent deep in the woods, sheltered from the wind, secure on frozen ground with light snow and no bugs around.

Life for the modern working draft offers many advantages over the lives of working drafts decades ago. While ethical teamsters have always valued their horses, economies and conditions did not always ensure the ability to secure safe and bountiful winter care and comfort for working drafts. Cold winds, icy footing, meager feed and limited water were common conditions faced by working drafts and their owners in earlier times. While negative instances can still be found today, most owners have the ability to plan and prepare for their working drafts’ winter comfort.

Remember that clean fresh water is important for working drafts any time of year. Research has shown that horses drink more water in the winter if the chill is removed; something to consider for any horse, but especially for a draft that sweats a lot and is eating extra hay to keep warm. Other tactics to help determine your drafts winter working strategy include planning ahead for icy conditions, heavy snow and keeping your draft dry and comfortable.

To shoe or not to shoe?

As with any type of farrier care for your draft, the terrain and working conditions, combined with affordability, determine the answer to this question. If your draft will be used on tarred roads for holiday rides and Christmas caroling, then traction shoes are almost a necessity. It is also a good idea to apply traction shoes if sleigh rallies are a passion or the possibility of unknown terrain is probable. Winds can whip melted snow into ice shields that are easily hidden by a dusting of snow; under-melting from warm ground, pooling areas and surface springs also hide treacherous conditions.

If your working terrain is known or light firewood logging is your limit, then conditions might allow your draft to go barefoot most of the winter. However, if certain conditions exist and hoof “snowballs” form, these irritating and often dangerous nuisances are best addressed with light traction shoes and snowball pads. The added benefit of snowball pads, especially in unknown terrain, is that the sole of the hoof is well protected. In winter logging operations, a coating of snow easily hides sharp penetrating objects such as old rusty metals, small protruding branches, stumps and other hostile items.

To clip or not to clip?

Another dilemma for working draft horse owners is whether to clip their drafts’ winter coat, or at least the heavy sweat areas. There are pros and cons to either answer, and as with shoes. It all goes back to asking, “Under what conditions will I be asking my draft to work?” If your draft will be working fairly heavily on a regular basis, then I would certainly consider clipping. This choice will require you to invest in a draft-sized blanket in order to keep your draft warm at night, as well as protected from the wind on days he’s not working. A clipped horse that is stabled will get chilly on cold nights if not blanketed. Remember, too, that if your clipped draft is left un-blanketed and needs extra time to consume more calories in order to stay warm, he may not rest enough to give you a full day of his most efficient work.

If you’ll only be working your draft lightly or on an occasional basis, then not clipping might be the best answer. Keep a stack of good towels handy, and dry your draft as much as possible after removing his harness. A wool blanket under a light cooler is a good idea for a few hours after a workout as this allows your draft to dry without getting a chill. A nice sun-filled and sheltered shed on a day without any wind will also dry your draft to cozy comfort. One final note: always check your draft after a few hours, and make sure he’s dry and comfortable before dark and your final nights feeding and watering.

To work or not to work?

One nice fact about this modern age is that the need to work our drafts is often at our discretion. While the economic viability of our farm is quite dependent on the productivity of our horses; a few lost days due to harsh winds, cold temperatures or deep snow is not going to throw us into the poor house.

Here at Troika Drafts, we tend to follow the Rule of 10. If the temperature outside is 10 degrees Fahrenheit or less, we usually opt not to work the horses. Harsh cold air can be inhospitable to a horse’s lungs, and as with all animals that were designed with speed as a survival trait, damage to the respiratory system is not conducive to long-term health and viability. On a very cold but sunny day with no wind, we might go for one twitch, but as a general rule, the horses get a day off. The other part of the Rule of 10 is that we rarely work the horses in a winter wind of 10 mph or greater, or any wind that puts the wind chill below 10 degrees. This is probably for our own comfort and safety more than the horses, as we’re also ones that believe our comfort and safety is as important as that of our working companions.

Snow conditions also often delegate the decision to work our drafts. Deep snow can hide tripping and trapping hazards as well as icy conditions. It can also work to stress muscles and tendons, especially on young or out-of-condition working horses. Keeping the trails and logging roads packed is fairly easy when snowstorms come a few days apart and only a few inches at a time. However, back-to-back large storms, or repeated inches of fluffy snow that doesn’t pack well, can raise havoc with the best of trails. In times of intense winter trail maintenance, we opt for using combined technologies and have no problem bringing out the snowmobile to help pack and maintain safe and enjoyable logging roads and trails.

Vicki Schmidt is owner and manager of Troika Drafts, a 100-acre working draft horse farm in Hebron, Maine. The farm also features the training and farrier services of Frank Walker and The Shoeing Shop. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.