One December day a few years ago, a blistering cold day just after Christmas, I took my daughter to the stable to clean her horse’s stall. I thought it a terrible time to be there, doing that. For whatever reason, the inside of an unheated barn always feels ten degrees colder than it is outside–even outside in a strong wind. But when we got to the stable we found that Rachel, who owns the stables, was there with a woman we had not met before. She was a new boarder, bringing in three horses, here on this day in December.
It drove home to me a fact that of course I knew, though the instance was instructive: having horses is a lifestyle, not a hobby. When you are taking care of large animals, you can’t choose to take a few days off here and there; you don’t put them away for a while. They are, if not part of your family, at least a part of your life. Horse people worry more about the horses than themselves. They brave all kinds of elements to make sure their horses aren’t having to brave the elements–wrapping them in blankets, holding long debates with themselves about whether the horse needs one or two blankets tonight, or maybe just his light flysheet. Seriously, many of these horses have more and more varied foul weather gear than I have.
And here’s the irony of the whole thing: horses like cold weather. Horses are one of the last of the large Ice Age mammals, a species that would have courted extinction long ago except that for the past several thousand years, humans have found them useful. Horses thrive on open, frozen, windswept plains. They are one of the only grazing animals that will dig through snow to find the sparse grass beneath and continue grazing–other animals will stand there dumbly wondering where the grass went until starvation overtakes them. Horses are uniquely and excellently adapted to cold weather.
What horses don’t like is hot weather: summer’s heat, which brings flies, the bane of any horse’s life, and of the people who choose to be around them. A horse ridden for an hour in summer needs to be walked about for a bit to cool down, then bathed in cool water before going back to a shady stall to rest.
Horses evolved to live on the breezy savannahs and the icy plains of Ice Age Eurasia. But humans found them useful, and took them into every environment where human habitations developed. They bred different kinds of horses for different environments–the hardy Fjord and Icelandic breeds for way up north, the Arabian and Andalusian breeds with large nostrils and capacious lungs for hot desert environments. It’s these latter breeds which, due to their ability to breathe so well, were the basic stock for the racing Thoroughbred. So a horse type which was bred for the Arabian Peninsula was brought to England and Kentucky, USA, where their thin legs and short coats are not well-suited to damp, cold weather.
Like horses, humans evolved largely on the plains and river valleys of Ice Age Eurasia. Horses have been our companions and stock animals for so long that we think of them as being like ourselves, and thus we do things like decking them out in blankets when the weather gets a little nippy. It’s very likely that if asked, a horse would prefer to feel the cold weather. But I have never known a horse that seemed to mind the blanket. As long as there’s a salt lick, a pail of water and a heap of straw, a horse is happy, no matter the season.