Living as we do on a farm in Missouri, we don't normally have the kind of take-no-prisoners winters that people like my sister Klondike Kate, way up in Alaska gets. Or my ole rodeo pal, Lindy does in Canada. But on the other hand San Diego it ain't!
All winter long I get snippets of news that makes me relatively glad to be living where I do. -60º in Alaska, six feet of snow in Buffalo with a blizzard to come. We only had one ice storm this year and it only brought us to our knees for two days. All the same, it's still mighty chilly here in the Don't Show Me State.
Our ole stable hand, Jake Ring, who like most people born hereabout and brought up around horse farms, was pretty much as inured to cold as a ditch digger. He used to put on his long johns and insulated bib overalls on the day after Thanksgiving and didn't take them off for good until around Easter, and worked a solid eight to 12 hours a day outdoors whatever the weather, admittedly dressed like an Eskimo, his face the color of a beet, apart from the places that had turned blue. When it got down to -10, he might blow on his fingers and opine, "Might get a mite chilly tonight, think we should put the blanket's on the ponies?" But that was about it.
This may help to explain the desperation with which I start looking for signs of spring, however small and treacherous- after a winter of feeding the horses every morning dressed head to foot in layers of polar fleece and goose down, with icicles hanging from the horses mouth and nose. Lesson time, while we clutch the reins with fingers cramped and bloodless from the cold, searching, horse and rider alike, for places where ice hasn't make the ground a skating rink when we ride outside.
The sight of a bud on a tree, however premature, must have the same effect on us as the sight of shorebirds and the scent of land breezes did on a 16th-century sailor. We have learned over the years not to trust the melting of the snow, since freakier chit can replace it overnight as late as Easter, catching the country just as the road crews have run out of salt and sand and unlucky optimists have already removed their snow tires. Instead, we rely on the signs that don't lie, and just wait for them.
First there are the migrating birds that stop by our 1 acre lake, right out my back door- a good sign that Mother Nature is getting ready to relent. The vast numbers of little yellow and black birds and larger Red-Breast Robins who presumably been spending the winter in Florida or South America. We are not what you can call bird watchers, so we don't know their names, but my two-year-old grandson meets them with whoops of joy, and together he and I scatter birdseed in their honor. There are also some male wild turkeys doing their mating dace (at least we assume that it's about mating) on our lawn, stately shuffle for which they puff themselves up to huge size, none of which seems to impress the females much, and the Canadian Geese. I always ask them if they wintered with my ole pal Lindy, and they sometimes answer back. They too have stories to tell.
Above all, we watch the horses. During the winter they grow a thick coat, ranging from the very modest and sleek one of my dressage horse, Tango, to that of the Paint, Hula Girl. Skipper W. Spring, who resembles a bear, if you can imagine a bear with kind eyes and hooves. The horses can't read the calendar in the barn, but they don't need to: All of a sudden they start to shed, producing huge piles of hair with every brushing, as if their normal selves were re-emerging day by day. They move more briskly, too, and paw impatiently at he sheets of ice that still sometimes cover their paddocks in early spring. They realize it will very soon be green with delicious grass. The farrier, always a good judge of weather, thinks it will soon be time to take off their snowball pads (these prevent the buildup of snow in their hooves, which can leave a horse teetering around dangerously, like a woman in her first pair of Joan Crawford high heels) and forego the borium studs they wear on their shoes to prevent slipping on the ice.
In the barn and the tack room, preparations are in hand for a new season- checklists are used to make sure everything's ready for the new foals, the horse trailer is ready just in case we make it to a Team Penning. Or as we had to last spring, a late night trip to the University Vet Hospital when one of our mares almost died while delivering a huge foal.
Show boots that have not been worn since last fall are unzipped from boot bags and polished. Layer by layer the winter clothing comes off, to be carefully bundled and sent off for cleaning and repair.
Of course, we all know that there's going to be a period of what the Russians call "rasputitsa," the thick mud of the thaw, which can pull the horses' shoes off and lame them badly as they try to pull their feet out of it, but after which, all of a sudden, everything starts to turn green and the ground firms up enough for them to canter and jump again.
One morning we're riding out and hear the confused noise of the frogs- a sure sign that warm weather is coming, and the horses recognize it too.
They are putting on muscle again, their coats are beginning to resume a glossy sheen. Tango seems to be half the size he was in midwinter now that the thick coat is gone and in the morning their nostrils quiver eagerly, taking in the smell of new grass and scents long suppressed by the cold. They glance at the little birds perched on the fence rails of their paddocks with approval, and relish a mild day in the sun without their blankets and winter coats.
I am lucky enough to have an indoor riding arena, so the horses get a chance to trot and canter through the winter, but it isn't the same as being outdoors, for them or for us. Most of them don't mind the ring, but Skipper dislikes it deeply, which he signifies by an ill-tempered, grumpy attitude, rare for him, and a occasional sideway kick with which he apparently hopes to bring the whole barn down. Now as the ground begins to soften, Skipper cheers up considerably, no more exercising in the ring, and his step becomes light and springy again. Little flowers are beginning to push their way through the crust of snow. Skipper likes the feel of being outdoors, the stretch of a good, uphill gallop, and the sight of our resident pair of hawks, with whom he has a nodding relationship, as one aristocrat to another.
For the horses, as for us, every spring is a miracle, a kind of rebirth. But we won't be in Church come Sunday morning. For us, it's take off the storm windows, put up the screens; say goodbye to the sweaters and insulated boots and gloves and hello to summer clothing and sunblock and bring out the fly spray. With the horses, it's goodbye to slipping and sliding over rutted, hard ground. Goodbye to frozen paddocks and end-of-winter hay, hello to fresh green grass; goodbye to growing stiff in the cold, and hello again to the adventure of getting into the trailer and going off on a trail ride or to compete at big events, with lots of new horses to meet, and excitement in the air......
You can tell all that by the expression in their eyes, by the way they swing their heads to look at all the wonders around them after the monochrome dreariness of winter, by the occasional good-natured buck and the eagerness to get out onto the land and go, hooves thundering, nostrils snorting, ears flickering at every sound. Even Jake, old as he is (at 30 a horse is the equivalent of a 100-year-old human), seems to have dropped 10 years. I know how he feels.
Two new souls have now joined us since I began this post- A filly and a horse colt. Both decided to make their way into this world on the same night. I can see them both now from my office, with Mom's close by. The little filly is running circles around the little guy, and playing a mock game of tag. They weren't even here a week ago and now they both fly around like Smarty Jones on the way to the finish line. Haven't got around to naming them yet, so any suggestion? I'll consider them.
No I won't go to church on Sunday morning. I have my own, thank you very much.