Chapter Twelve: Grass and Snow and Twenty Below, and Why You Should Never Drink Alone...

Lately Lynx has been doing what young Thoroughbreds are really good at–running up a feed bill. His portion of our winter cost is fat; he is not. When I first got into TB’s this sort of thing used to worry me a lot more than it does now (I mean the weight loss, the feed bills still do…), but I have since learned that this often happens with young horses that are built to look like Greyhounds. In my experience their three year old year is the worst and it goes away completely by the time they are five or six. Over the years I’ve developed an ability to maintain a bit of equanimity regarding it. 

I remember one of the first young TBs we bought. I think he took ten years off my life from the stress. We bought him sight unseen off the internet and had him shipped here from the Oregon coast. He arrived pretty much wrapped in cotton (but with the unfortunate name of “Stewie”) and lost twenty-five pounds stepping off the trailer. This was a fairly serious concern for although Stewie came with some extra baggage, none of it was in the form of fat. We fed him extra grain, extra hay, corn oil…extra everything. We had him wormed and vetted and his teeth floated. Soon we were ordering special feed in from Iowa and he had his very own round bale—always. Nothing helped and throughout his first winter with us I lived in mortal fear of being reported to the Humane Society.

Coincidentally he arrived late in the fall when the leaves are gone and the grass gets stemmy. This apparently triggers a genetic response in some young TBs that I had been previously unaware of. Something in their DNA screams, “Hey, it’s time to make Chris look bad!” and the pounds drop like rocks off a cliff. I am well aware that the nutrient availability in grasses decreases as the cell walls of the plants thicken with maturity but most horses are incredible foragers and do quite well here when turned out, especially when left alone and allowed to just be a natural horse for a while. Stewie gave me a good lesson in those who are genetically predisposed not to.

It used to be customary in this part of the world for most ranch horses to be turned out for the winter. A few trusted steeds were usually kept in to do the necessary cold weather riding, as were the draft horse teams for feeding. These of course, were fed hay but most of the cavvy got its shoes pulled and kicked out into some big back pasture and not seen much until spring. This sounds harsh—the winters out here can be brutal--but as a young fella I witnessed how well it could work. The horses that came in from winter pasture the following spring were usually in better shape than those that were kept in. In fact a lot of the old timers believed it was bad for those horses to even check on them, thinking that it disrupted their natural state and kept them expecting help from humans.

Perhaps it was the time off that gave them a mental break or maybe it was just being allowed to roam freely over a lot of country, but those horses that were turned out remained extremely low maintenance all year long. I don’t recall colic, strained ligaments, or respiratory troubles etc. ever being much of a problem. Horses that were wintered out tended to last a long time, too. It was common to be riding a good, strong ranch horse that was in his mid-twenties. I also think the time spent barefoot and moving around took care of most foot problems. Perhaps survival of the fittest just weeded out the weak. I’m really not trying to wax overly nostalgic here because sometimes it backfired; horses that were not native to the area or that had a more sheltered upbringing tended to not do so well with this treatment. But I do remember that back in my younger days that I pretty much assumed horses were indestructible and it was always a great shock to me when something bad happened to one.

Times have changed. Very few ranches still turn out for the winter. Modern, intensively managed ranching programs don’t appreciate the value of setting aside some pasture for horses that aren’t being ridden, especially when modern, intensive managers spend more time in four-wheelers than saddles. The horses themselves have changed too. Today’s ranch horse tends to be better bred with an eye toward resale and much, much gentler. Those same horses from days gone by that were tough enough to get fat on grass and snow and twenty below were also tough enough to drive your head into the ground deeper than a corral post when you first crawled on them in the spring. This is not necessarily a good thing these days when ranch crews are an average size of about one guy, nor does it go over well when you are trying to sell one of those horses to a little girl from town.

Which leads us back to Lynx’s feed bill and why I pay it. I have changed too. Do I still think most of today’s horses are way too confined, over-fed and under-used? Absolutely! But Lynx would have been one of those horses for whom winter turn-out might have ended badly. If his previous human (Go, Brendon!) hadn’t been so diligent in checking on him his eye injury would not have been detected. Likewise, if it had not been for the good care he received that eye could easily have become infected and Lynx would have ended up as bones beneath the snow. So these days my saddle horses still winter out but in pastures that are hundreds of acres, not thousands. They are seen every day and get supplemental feed. Horses like Lynx get whatever it takes to keep them strong and healthy.

Lynx’s weight troubles began with a freak blizzard that came early in October and hit this country hard. Snows that measured in feet not inches piled up. To the east of us in the Black Hills of South Dakota, this snow was preceded by twelve hours of soaking rain which weakened livestock and wildlife and seriously undermined their ability to weather the storm. There, according to the sale barn gossip I heard a couple of weeks later, 90 horses died on one ranch alone and there were many other tales of loss. In light of that, Lynx’s feed bill seems like a bargain. Okay, that’s a stretch but it is worth it. Stewie turned into one of my best horse friends ever. I have no doubts Lynx will be someone’s great friend as well. He, like every horse, is worthy of this blend of old and new.

What does this have to do with not drinking alone? Nothing, really. It is just a new discovery I made about Lynx and how he deals with his half-sightedness. One day when I turned him back out to pasture after his haute cuisine breakfast I happened to stop and re-chop the ice in the Horse Pasture water tank. Lynx saw me and came running up to drink. He went after that water so hard it looked like he was filling up his inner camel for a trip across the desert. Odd, since the pen where I feed him separately from the others has its own water tank…but he was most definitely a thirsty horse. I pondered this for a while but came up with no answer. I thought maybe he didn’t want to drink out of the tank in his pen because it was under a roof but I remembered standing next to him while he drank out of it the day before. As Lynx seemed perfectly fine I did what any good ranch hand does when he gets confused; I went on to the next chore on my list.

The next day when I came to turn him out, I first checked his tank under the shed to see how it was doing ice-wise. He came right up, stood beside me, and drank his fill. The picture started clearing up for me then. It wasn’t the water tank that was the problem; it was the company or lack thereof. To be sure I experimented over the next few days. There are three other water tanks in our corrals and I got the same result every time I stood by one after feeding time. Lynx came up and drank his fill and he wouldn’t drink until I was standing by the tank. I’m assuming it’s because he can’t swivel his head enough while drinking to see danger in every direction but that’s just a guess. I’m flattered that he thinks I’m a good enough watch dog but my conscience gets a twinge thinking he probably missed a few good drinks before I figured it out. It wasn’t a problem until we started pulling him out to feed him his extra groceries. Now I either leave another horse in the next pen over or I stand there like a Great Pyrenees until he drinks. May the old-timers forgive me…. 

Dining on haute cuisine

Lynx’s Favorite Recipe:

Grass and snow


Complete feed mix designed for weight gain by a large, well-known commercial feed company

Alfalfa/timothy cubes

Ground rice bran

Clean water

Horse cookies (best part)