Chapter Thirteen: Really Big Ice Cubes

The New Year rang itself in with a couple inches of beautiful snow; wet and ethereal, it painted sage and willows a pure, soft white. It gave the land and everything on it a warm glow and made one think of cozy gatherings and Currier and Ives lithographs. 

But underneath this lovely topcoat lurked the December Ice. Any account of the terrible winter of 1886-87—known as The Big Die Off out here—will almost certainly include a description of the ice that covered the ground prior to the deep snows that buried it. A warm spell in December melted the early snows and the resulting melt water could not penetrate the frozen ground. When the cold returned all that standing water froze, locking away what little grass remained and making even a slow walk treacherous. Many historians make it sound as if this ice was something out of the ordinary, the first great shock in a long chain of fatal events that could not possibly have been foreseen but in truth this is fairly normal. As a matter of fact it happens almost every year, usually in well...December. 

This year has been no exception. Plenty of bitter cold, sub-zero arctic weather has the ground frozen solid; intermingled warm spells have melted some of the snow and we now have a good case of the December Ice. We probably won’t get over it until spring either. That’s just life on the Northern Range.

Horses tend to fall into one of three main categories relating to how they deal with it. One of these categories is scramblers. It is not desirable to be a scrambler. When this type of horse slips a little they jamb down on the panic accelerator and legs go everywhere. They end up looking like a spider getting Tasered on a plate of hot grease. Things get out of control for scramblers in a hurry and don’t get back under control until they reach the far side of the ice patch or spring hits, whichever comes first.

Another type of winter horse is the plain, old klutz. These guys fall on the ice just as often as scramblers but aren’t bothered by it. They get up calmly so they can fall down again. So long as they fall in the right direction this will eventually get them across a patch of ice which is a plus, however, as a rider, having both of your ankles shattered in the process tends to cancel this positive out.

In the third category are horses who are dear to a northern ranch hand’s heart. Calm and sure, these fellas (I’ll call them tread kinda carefullyers), will get you over the ice. Sometimes they will overrule your wishes and choose another course or speed. Let them; they’re the ones with feet on the ground and if you’re a northern ranch hand they are most likely smarter than you anyway.

So far Lynx has put himself into this third category. Uphill, downhill and sidehill, he has yet to slip with me. I know from experience that I must tread kinda carefully for a while too. It is easy enough to force a horse into a scramble and once there, scramblers tend to self-perpetuate. Younger, less sure horses are especially vulnerable. So for now I keep things slow and weave my way around the worst of the December Ice. When we can’t avoid it I give him his head. He uses it and that’s something I don’t want to train out of him!

December Ice

One way to deal with it, an old draft horse shoe

Really big ice cubes. In the old days your chore was only half done when you chopped a drink hole in the ice for the livestock. After feeding, you loaded this ice onto the hay wagon and took it to the root cellar. In the summer you put these blocks in your ice box for refrigeration. If you look closely at this picture you’ll see why ice cubes made from pond water should never go into your drinking glass…