Being a mobile veterinarian for the past 17 years has taught me an awful lot about about the variation in husbandry practices in our region. We really do see it all down our country roads from beloved but rarely haltered ponies to the very elite expensive performance horse. When I first started practicing in this county I would say more than half of my clients with horses had little to no shelter provided other than trees. Many of those horses were turned out with round bales and given the majority of the winter off while their owners pursued the other leisure activities common in the 7B; skiing and outdoor sports, hunting and ice fishing. Horses, for many, were a summer activity and other than making sure they had food and water through the winter there was little else provided. Blankets were as rare as barns for many of these clients and on the occasion when I would be called to treat an ill horse in sub zero weather, my requests for a sheltered spot or warm blanket were often met with blank stares. In the spring, both the vets and the farriers would be summoned to get the horses ready for the summer riding season. I can remember so many of those spring appointments being the first time the horses had been handled since the end of elk season last fall. To say they were a little bit exuberant would be an understatement. It was at those times I was especially glad to be the vet and not the farrier!
Times change, populations change, society changes. Husbandry practices and what is widely accepted as "normal" change as well. Over the past 2 decades I have seen more warm barns, more supplements, more blankets and more horses that are fussed over rather than turned out for the winter. We still see the horses that spend the majority of the winter surviving our temps with all the god given defenses that they were born with while others spend the winter cozied up in a wardrobe Victoria Beckham would be proud of and sampling a buffet of carefully prepared food.
As our days get shorter and our nights become interminable here in the northwest social media experts began to share loads of articles, blogs and "scientific evidence" about how horses don't need all of the human trappings to survive. There are jokes about how humans clothe their horses when they are cold, not when the horses are cold. As with everything on the internet there are vehement experts on either side of the argument often stating how the opposing views are not only ignorant but damaging to the horse and if they would only read this article or watch this informational you tube video they would see the errors of their ways and change their husbandry practices forever!
This is one of the reason why I am leery of animal abuse laws and husbandry requirements for livestock. The variation in husbandry practices and beliefs about what is right, prudent and safe for animals varies so much. We can all agree that water, food and shelter are necessary but what forms those three things take can vary from a stand of cedar trees, a round bale, and a creek to a 5 star equine facility with heated automatic waters, deeply bedded stalls and carefully prepared individually tailored meal plans. With experts shouting on both sides of the argument it's hard to make an informed decision and it comes down to what each person feels is the best for their animals, their property and their abilities to take care of their own horses.
We have quite a bit of variation in husbandry just within our own herd of horses. We have horses that live outside with only the shelter of trees through the winter. We also have horses that sleep in a barn overnight but spend their days outside. We also have one horse that has a complete wardrobe, special diet and a warm barn at night. We try to meet the individual needs of each horse and I will admit, pamper the horses that tolerate and seem to enjoy our pampering while the ones that feel overly confined and restless inside stay out, even in the coldest, nastiest weather. There is not one right answer for managing this particular herd of horses.
I think it's also important to address the concept of thriving vs surviving. Horses are incredibly well adapted for survival. In the right conditions with the right diet and the ability to move around at will they can survive some awful conditions in the wild. It's also important to realize that in those conditions survival may include significant weight loss over the winter months. For older or weaker horses it may mean succumbing to conditions that fat healthy 8 year old horse is able to quite contentedly endure. If you believe your horses are better off surviving with only the tools that mother nature has given them than you also have to be accepting of the mortality rate and life expectancy that mother nature dictates as well. Surviving isn't always thriving and for many owners, survival isn't quite enough when they are pursing performance goals with their horses.
So if you are looking for me to take sides on the debate about blankets vs no blankets or barn vs no barn and which is better for the health of the horse, I am going to defer to that rarest of qualities known as common sense. I know what keeps my horses thriving. I would hate to see the day that someone who doesn't know my horses or my husbandry practices were to dictate either me leaving my "pampered" stallion outside or bringing my claustrophobic gelding inside.
So to those of you proudly touting the toughness of your horses standing with tails to the wind in the blizzard and to those of you reaching for the heavy weight blanket to put over the medium blanket before turning your horses out for an hour, I say bless you. Give your horse's a kiss, whether their muzzles are covered with icicles or free from even a trace of a misplaced whisker. I know from experience that both camps love their horses equally no matter what they might say about the other!