It's that time of the year. COLD! I've been getting links and shares and such on my facebook page, about "expert advice" on how to take care of our horses in South Dakota this winter. okay, number one, let's make sure we know this: horse care in winter South Dakota is different from horse care in winter Texas. Some of the articles I read really surprise me. South Dakotans trying to decide if their horses need blankets or not. With no mention of putting them in a barn.
Dear everyone: it is okay, it is highly recommended, it is first-choice, to have a barn for your horses in South Dakota. Even if your barn is not heated, it is way warmer in there than it is outside. And you can still blanket your horses when they are in the barn.
Now, if you don't have a barn for your horses, which still is hard for me to understand in South Dakota, yes, of course you should put blankets on your horses. Good grief! Freezing is still freezing, even if they are horses. And this morning was minus double digits, withOUT figuring in windchill. And it was windy.
I don't have much problem with the articles that are written. There is some good info. in there about feeding extra when it's cold, making sure your water doesn't freeze, different weights of blankets, etc. I just wish it would be clearly stated that "this article is for horses that don't have barns." If the article has a title something like "how to take care of your horses in a South Dakota winter," shouldn't there at least be an option for putting them in the barn? Actually it shouldn't be an option when it's this cold. It should be common sense, automatic, understood, that the horses are going in the barn when it's this cold and windy. Certainly, the barn is the best option when it's this cold.
However, there are still a lot of South Dakotans who don't have a barn for their horses. Why? hmmmmm. why do you think?
When we started our rescue 20 years ago, we spent a lot of time talking to other rescues throughout the nation, and to veterinarians, barn managers, etc. When we wrote our "adoption application and contract" and our "care requirements," it was always our intention to set an example with very high standards of horse care. To be better than the average. I mean, anyone can go buy a little skinny horse for a few bucks and throw it out in a field with some hay and say they "rescued" it. But we have always wanted to be better than average for sure, and mostly with very high care standards.
And so, when we were doing a lot of rescuing, rehabbing, and adopting out, we never adopted out a horse to anyone who could not provide proper shelter for that horse. We knew there were a lot of South Dakotans without barns. But we have always promoted the common sense idea that it would be better to have a barn than to have no barn, if you have horses in South Dakota. And so that has always been written in our care requirements. No, not everyone could adopt a horse from us. We have always had strong principles regarding proper shelter for horses, and we have not backed down on that , even though we know we could do more adoptions with weaker care requirements. That's not the point. At all.. Even if it's not a real "barn," a building with an open door that the horses can go in and out of is great; at least the horses can stay dry and stay out of the wind. We do not consider your standard "3-sided shed" to be adequate shelter. What happens when it's open to the south, and the wind is from the south? Not much protection then. The forecast for tomorrow, for example, is well below zero in the a.m. with winds 15-20 mph from the SSE. So our little 3-sided shed that opens to the South isn't going to do much good.
I know there are a lot of horses living in South Dakota without a barn. I know that. I don't understand it, but I know it is true.
So, the articles written about how to blanket and feed, etc., for horses that don't have barns, are good for those horse owners. But we still hope they have a plan for how, someday soon, they will be able to build a barn for their horses. Because that's better than not having a barn for horses in a South Dakota winter.
What are reasons for not having a barn? Well, the expense of building one for sure. But also, many people don't want to clean stalls. They don't want to buy bedding. So why would they build a barn? Feeding horses inside does involve more time. And more bedding, and more cleaning up that bedding. And then there's the discussion about whether horses should be locked up in stalls. And the answer is probably not any more than they have to be. But sometimes some horses should be.
I will say that people who build stall barns these days are, for the most part, building the stalls bigger than we used to. So that allows the horses to move around more and keep their stalls cleaner, if they want to. Bigger stalls are better, that is for sure. But if you just don't lock them up any more than you have to, that's better than no barn at all. Some horses have to be fed in a separate area in order for them to get the food they need. Others will do fine with the general population. Until they get older. Or get injured. Then, they will probably get kicked out of the main herd and will need to be moved to a smaller group or to a stall of their own. Horses do that (kick others out of the herd) in the wild, and they do that in the not-wild.
For those of you who have barns/buildings for your horses, that's a good thing. Here's how we took care of our horses today. Keep in mind, this is a group of horses who all have barns/buildings/stalls. So except for one who came here from OK, none of them are blanketed (though that would be ok too). If we didn't have barns, they would all be blanketed. But we would not have horses here if we did not have proper shelter for them all. That's just the way we are. No barn? No horses.
Here's how we took care of them today.
8 a.m. 2 chore people begin the day
Six horses spent the night in oversized stalls in the small barn. The original part of the small barn is over 120 years old. I swear they built those things like a thermos. Warm in the winter, cool in the summer. Then there is an add-on but right now we have it all opened up together. It is always warmer in the small barn than the big barn. (this a.m. it was minus 12 outside without windchill; it was 20-25 above in the small barn and about 10-15 above in the big barn.) The big barn is really big though because it includes a 120X75 area that doubles as a riding arena and shelter for the main herd at night, so it's really big and always colder than the small barn. Anyway, five of the horses in the small barn each got a 10-pound bag of grass hay in their stalls. These bags were made up the night before, pulled off of a giant square bale that is kept inside the hay shed. We can easily stuff 10 pounds of this hay in an empty bedding bag, so this is a normal every-day chore: making hay bags. We have a little "fish scale" that will weigh up to 50 lbs. It's hanging in the hay shed. We can easily weigh hay nets, hay bags, or bigger tarps of hay that we then would put on a trailer hooked up to a tractor/Mule to put out in the hay feeders in the horse yard or pasture. The five horses in the small barn who each got a 10-lb. bag of hay are Roman, Lily, Spirit, Butterscotch, and Prince, all rescued as babies. Except for Roman, they were all rescued from severe starvation. In 2 of the cases, there were charges, trials, and "guilty" verdicts. Yes, way back then, 15-20 years ago, yes in South Dakota, we worked with law enforcement in neglect/starvation cases. Roman was not starving. He just needed to be rescued from going to the loose (slaughter) horse sale. The sixth horse in the small barn is Star. She is not really a rescue horse, though she has more health issues than most. She is about 24 years old and lived here before the rescues started coming. She has arthritis , really big knees, one year she had a mysterious hole in her tongue, she has a deformed epiglotis, an airway about as big (small) as a tiny straw, and for the last month we have been treating an eye ulcer. She mostly has to eat soaked alfalfa cubes and pelleted food. She can eat a little bit of clean (non-dusty) hay but not too much. But she is as sweet as can be, still likes to trot around and has great quality of life. These 6 horses spend the night in stalls every night. Lily and Roman because they are kind of social outcasts. They often get chased away from feeders and kicked out of the shelters that are available, so they just stay in at night so they get enough to eat and don't get stuck out in a storm. Their stalls are large and they have outside pens hooked on to their stalls. So, except when it is really really cold they can go outside whenever they want. And during the day they go out with the herd. It's just at night that they come in. Star and Prince also have in/out pens/stalls. Prince was severely malnourished when he came here as a yearling about 20 years ago. He has arthritis in his hocks and navicular-area lameness (wears special shoes) in front. But he too still likes to run and play and has excellent quality of life.
So, at 8 a.m., those horses all got a 10-lb. bag of hay (except Star, who got some pelleted feed with warm water and some soaked alfalfa pellets). We write down how much we feed her. We know how much a scoop of feed weighs, how much a small mixing bucket weighs, etc. We don't want Star to eat much more than 15 lbs of food a day. She is very small. maybe 14.1 hands, and with her arthritis she doesn't need to carry any extra weight. She is warm in her stall so doesn't need a lot of extra feed.
So those 6 horses in the small barn got food, we made sure they were all ok, no colic symptoms etc., and they all had plenty of clean water. We use the electric/heated buckets so the waters do not freeze.
In the big barn there are 10 horses.
Up until a few months ago we had 18 horses here (14 rescues). Late in 2021 We lost Princess and HotShot. Princess was 20ish but had a lifetime of lameness issues, surgeries, injections, special shoes and pads, etc., and we just could not keep her comfortable anymore. HotShot was almost 32! He did have Cushings and a few other things but, in the end, his liver was not functioning anymore and he was not eating anything. This is when you think about "quality of life." This is when it is selfish to try to keep them going. Because, they simply cannot. But, he was almost 32! He had a great life! And so did Princess, just not as long.
So, in the big barn are 10 horses. 7 of them (all rescues, 5 from severe starvation as babies) are the general population, the "in crowd," the 7 who can all eat together and be in a small space together without anyone getting kicked out or chased around. When it's cold like this, these 7 spend the night in the large arena. They are not locked up in stalls and do not have to be outside in the cold/wind. There is an auto/heated waterer in the arena, and they can and do all huddle together to stay warm. Often if you go out there later at night you will find many of them lying down comfortably sleeping. So, in the a.m., these 7 all go in to their separate stalls to eat hay. The stall barn for them is hooked up to the arena, so it's handy. It's right there without going outside. The other 3 horses in the big barn are not rescues. Flicka and Baylee have lived here most of their lives. Flicka is 27; Baylee is 24. They are pretty easy keepers, though Baylee has had episodes of founder and white line disease, which is why she stays up around the barns where the ground is soft and she doesn't go out in the pasture to eat green grass during the spring/summer. Flicka is your "perfect horse." She has been here since she was a yearling. She is now 27 and has had very few health issues in her entire life. She is as sweet as can be but does get chased around by the younger herd, so we keep her safe in the barn area. Flicka & Baylee are really good friends and get to "wander" around in the stall area at night (after the 7 have been let out into the arena after supper). The only one who is locked in a stall at night in the big barn is Melody. She is not a rescue. She came here from Oklahoma last year and is used to living in a stall. She is blanketed, even though she is in the barn. Oklahoma certainly wasn't this cold.
So, 8 a.m. in the big barn. The 7 are locked in their stalls (they were not at night) with 8-10 lbs of grass hay. Flicka & Baylee in their stalls too (they too got to walk around all night.) And Melody gets to wander the barn all morning, as she was locked in her stall at night.
There is some stall cleaning that goes on in the big barn in the a.m., since Flicka and Baylee were wandering all night. We just do a quick clean before we put the hay & horses in. And some of the stalls were cleaned the night before, after the 7 were let out from eating supper in their stalls.
Once all 16 horses have food and water in the a.m., we do other chores.
We start cleaning the 6 stalls in the little barn. There were horses in them all night, and there are still horses in them eating hay when it's cold like this. But they are used to us being in there, so we just go in there with a manure fork and pile up the poop/wet sawdust in a corner. We don't have to take a wheelbarrow in there. We don't have to disturb them from eating. We just clean around them. Then, when we do let them out later, it only takes a couple of minutes to scoop all the dirty sawdust/manure out of the corner pile we made.
Meanwhile, in the big barn, there is a lot of poop out in the arena from the 7 horses spending the night out there. So someone goes out there and cleans that up. When it's below zero outside, it does get kind of cold in the arena so things do start to freeze. It can be hard at first to tell the difference between a frozen turd and just frozen wet dirt. but you learn.
Anyway, around 10:30 things are pretty well cleaned up but the horses are still in their stalls if it's a really cold day. If it's not so cold they will go out earlier. But this morning was really cold. So, yesterday we had already made a feeding plan. We pay close attention to the weather forecast. We knew it would be horribly cold but sunny. And really windy, like 20-25 mph from the NW. But our horse yard is pretty protected from the NW. Lots of trees and buildings. So even though the air is still really cold from the NW, at least they don't feel the extra blowing wind, and the sun was strong. So all things considered we decided it was definitely really really cold and we fed them their full daytime 10 lbs of hay inside. But we also put out about 60 lbs of hay outside in the horse yard, at enough different feeding stations for 11 horses to be able to eat at without being too crowded. We decided all of this last night. And Kyrstin put the morning hay out in the horseyard last night. We try to think ahead and prepare for the next day a lot. So when we are doing chores and stuff, we are always thinking about how things need to be for the next morning.
And even though it was still really cold and windy, at about 11 a.m. we let 11 horses outside to eat the 60 lbs we had put out the night before. This would be about 5 lbs per horse. Plus they had already each had about 10 lbs in their stalls. The 11 horses that went out in the horseyard to eat are Roman, Lily, Spirit, Butterscotch (these 4 get chased away if we don't have enough feeding stations, so we always make sure we have enough feeding stations. These 4 also are 4 of them that spend the night in their stalls in the small barn, so they don't get chased out of shelter, etc.). And the 7 "in crowd" horses, the ones who spend the night in the arena when it's this cold. Those 11 all went outside into the horseyard from about 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. They were ready to go back inside after 3 hours. Sometimes they don't even want to be out that long, if it's even colder and windier. Remember, we don't blanket these horses. Instead, we put them in the barns. If we didn't have the barns we would definitely blanket them all. But then again, if we didn't have barns, we would not have horses in South Dakota in the winter. Just sayin'.
While the 11 horses were outside, we had lots of stuff to do. We scooped all of dirty bedding we had piled up into the wheelbarrows and dumped it out in the big pile. (We spread it out in the cornfield twice a year). We added about 1/2 bag of bedding to each of those stalls. Changed out any water buckets that we needed to. We keep track, and we make sure that each bucket is dumped at least 3 times a week. This winter. Every day in the summer though. We have a certain place that we dump the dirty water. It's in the ditch, so it doesn't create ice where any horses or humans walk.
We like to make sure that every horse gets a big area to run in every day, and gets some sunshine. Most days this happens. Star is the only horse that doesn't really care to run a lot anymore. But we still take her over to the big barn and let her wander around. Remember, we are talking about severe winter here. We aren't talking about summer, when it's easy to give them all outside time. So, while the 11 horses were out in the horseyard eating hay, there were 5 others that were not. Flicka, Baylee, and Melody spent a couple of hours in the arena. We brought Prince and Star over to the big barn too, so they could have some more room. They cannot go out with the big herd. And we wanted to keep the doors shut to the small barn to keep the warmth in there. Prince and Star both have noticeable arthritis and they get chased away from the food. It would be great if Prince could go out in the arena with the 3 divas, but Baylee will not permit that. So, after a while, we put Flicka and Baylee back in their stalls to eat some more hay, and Melody & Prince get to be together in the arena. This is an exciting time! Barrels, balls, other objects to push around and jump over. Mostly it is just nice to see them run and hear them squeal in glee. Especially with Prince's arthritis problems, he still really loves his play/run time.
Another thing we keep track of during the day (we have lots of check lists, etc) is how many times we give Star her eye ointment for her eye ulcer. We usually do it 4 times a day but 6 times would not be too much. So we write it down. Star is the best patient in the world, but even the best horse patient will move her head if you come near her eye. Everyone agrees that putting eye ointment in a horse eye is a very hard thing to do if you are alone. Sometimes we have 2 people here, so one can hold her head still. And today 3 of us kind of practiced how to do it if we are alone. We like to be consistent for the horses, so we like to try to do things the same .
So, at about 1 or 2 p.m. we have all 16 stalls cleaned, the riding arena cleaned from 7 horses spending the night out there, all the horses have had 8-15 lbs of food (that's how much it varies from horse to horse), all of the horses have had some sunshine and turnout time (unless it's like a horrible blizzard like Atlas a few years ago when many horses died only because they didn't have a barn to go into), if it's a storm like Atlas our horses would not go outside but they would all get some arena/turnout time. But if Atlas happens again, a lot of horses will die again, only because they won't have a barn/building to go into. You want to say, this will never happen again? Well, I'm pretty sure that wasn't the first time and I'm also pretty sure it will happen again. And all of the people who have horses outside during an "Atlas" type storm will say "well, that is extreme." Well maybe, but this is South Dakota folks. Every winter is extreme. Always has been. Always will be. Can we please just build some more barns!
Also by 1 or 2 p.m. we might have all of the hay weighed out for the night/next day.
and if it's not too bad out we might have gone out and cleaned up the horse yard too. We believe in keeping the manure picked up.
At about 1 or 2pm we have a shift change. The end-of-the-day person usually stays until 8 or 9ish p.m. On days like today when it's super cold and windy, our horses are ready to go back in their stalls and eat some more early. So they all go in their stalls usually by 3 p.m. and get some grain and supplements (all individual, some get joint supplements, some get gastric care, etc.) . At about 4 p.m all of the horses get supper in their individual stalls. They each get another 8-10 lbs of grass hay) and a few get a few lbs of alfalfa. Star gets her soaked alfalfa cubes and Sr. feed. Remember, this is winter feeding. They wouldn't all be in at other times of the year, just when it's so cold, I would say 30 degrees or colder.
If we feed them their hay at about 4 pm, they are mostly done by 7 p.m.. So then the 7 gen. pop. horses are turned out into the arena to cuddle/huddle at night. Flicka and Baylee wander the stall barn. Melody is in her stall cuz that's how it's been her whole life. In the small barn, 6 horses are in their large stalls. Everyone has access to water and a soft, warm place to lie down. And everyone has had 15-25 lbs. of food for the 24-hour period, depending on the individual horse. If they were having to stay outside all of the time, if they didn't have barns, etc., they would need more hay on a day like today. At night, the end-of-day chore person cleans up the stalls again, checks waters, and gates and doors and lights and a whole bunch of other end-of-day checklist items. This time of year, it's often 8 or 9 p.m. before that person is done and the lights are out for the night. There are 3 of us who take turns with this shift, so we each only do it 2 or 3 times a week.
Remember, this is winter time care. This is winter time care with barns available.
Remember, in the Atlas storm, those horses would not have died if they would have had a barn/building to go into.
Remember, the only people who say you don't need a barn for your horses in South Dakota, are the people who don't have barns. (or who don't want to spend hours cleaning stalls, because it's a big job, it really is)
Will your young healthy horse survive this winter without shelter? Maybe. Probably. But will that horse be comfortable? happy? Will he live to be 30? Or will the winter hardship take the years away? Some people don't care, I know. I have had people say to me, "I dont want to take care of an old horse; I just want to have him while he's young and healthy and then I'll get a new one." There are lots of people who feel that way. okay. just sayin'
When you are a rescue, a sanctuary, when you are a 501c3, whenever you think that you can take better care of horses better than the average person in South Dakota (and if you are a horse rescue/sanctuary you had better have that intention), you have to set your standards high. You can't think the best is a heavy blanket instead of a medium blanket. You have to think the best is a barn / building. and maybe a blanket too.
I often have people call me and ask me how to start a horse rescue. I tell them it's easy. Just say you are a horse rescue and you will be full in a week. But, if you really want to be a good horse rescue that makes a point and makes a difference, here's what you need. Minimum. You need at least 3 full-time volunteers. These are not people who can come after they get off their job at 5. These are people who can be there all of the time and also do the out-of-the-barn work that nobody ever thinks about. And the money. Well, I would say you need to have about $4,000 per horse per year, depending on how many horses you want to rescue. This does not include a facility or vehicles or anything like that. $4,000 seems like a lot. But, if you have a facility, vehicles, employees, etc., you will understand. Long story short, I wouldn't recommend you do horse rescue in South Dakota unless you already have a facility with barns, vehicles, at least 3 full-time volunteers, and at least $50,000 guaranteed income every year. This would probably get you 10-20 horses at your place at any given time.
It's not easy folks. But at the very minimum, you have to be able to provide proper shelter for the horses in the winter in South Dakota. Like I said, anyone can throw a bale of hay out in the field. That's not proper shelter. And that is not what rescue/sanctuary should be. Rescue/sanctuary should be above average. It should be encouraging our state to do better. You can't do winter care for horses in South Dakota like you can for horses in Texas. ok? it's different here. It's harder. It's really hard some days in the winter. But, barns make it better. For horses and humans.