This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!). Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work. Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.
Winter is here in New England. A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing. Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep. This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.
Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping. All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know. If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots. But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter. The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year. Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor. One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing. No athlete can maintain peak performance year round. Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge. After all, nature is doing it, right?
Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty. As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me! With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.
In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned. I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky. I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil. Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.
Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers. We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends. Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.
Songbirds return. At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy. The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.
But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups. Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs. Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area). Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies. And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.
Summers in New England are short and intense. There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it. I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible. I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day. My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.
This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought. I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.
The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual. I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated. On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back. But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll. Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil. I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.
Fall here is simply stunning. There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten. Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color. Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed. The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction. The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer. Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.
Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter. The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300). Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water. And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves. I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!
As fall winds down, winter begins again. And the cycle continues.
Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change. Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.
So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.
Happy New Year.