June 29, 2017

Blow Hard

            As winter begins its usual course here in Southern California I am always asked how weather affects the horses. The cold days will cause our horses to kick up their heels some, but our winters are mild, no snow or freezing temperatures. Rain can be a problem, causing muddy stalls and wet arenas. Rain will cause us to cancel our riding plans for a few days but usually nothing more than that. Our stalls are all fully covered, so the horses don’t get wet. Our arena was carefully engineered so it drains well. It also has excellent footing that doesn’t get muddy. We are usually back to our normal riding schedule within 24 hours after the rain stops so not much of a problem there.  However; we do get some wind…
            Now when I say wind, I’m not talking about a little breeze here or there. We get winds that are so strong they have a name. The Santa Ana or Santana Winds. These winds are famous. They have caused wildfires so widespread they can be seen from space. They have many references in song, movies and television. The National Weather Service defines Santa Ana winds as:

“Strong down slope winds that blow through the mountain passes in southern California. These winds, which can easily exceed 40 mph, are warm and dry and can severely exacerbate brush or forest fires, especially under drought conditions.”

            These winds can and do affect the horses in a very negative way. It is the policy of CRK Training Stable to cancel all riding lessons during Santa Ana Wind conditions. While everyone understands why lessons are cancelled during the rain, wind is another matter. I often have clients show up for lessons while the wind howls around us. They just don’t understand what the wind does to the horses. Perhaps this will help you understand why the wind affects the horses in such a negative way.
            In the wild, horses are flight prey animals. Simply stated that means they run away so they don’t get eaten. Horses don’t hunt other animals, they get hunted. In order to survive they run or flee. Horses will only fight when they have no other choice. Flight or running away is always their first choice for survival. Horses depend on their senses to tell them when to run. Let’s start with vision or eyesight first. In the wild, if a horse sees a bush or tree moving, a predator might be hiding inside it preparing to pounce. Or let’s say some brown object is moving quickly toward a horse. In the wild, it’s probably some animal that wants to catch and eat the horse. In both cases the horse runs away to save its life. Now, you take your kind, gentle trail horse “Scooter” out on a windy day. What does Scooter see? Bushes and trees moving all the time. Brown tumble weeds are running at him. Or (horror of horrors!) plastic grocery bags.  Does Scooter understand that it’s only the wind causing these things? NO! Scooter sees a threat and runs away. If you’ve got a great seat and are lucky, you get to go along. If not, well… Scooter is long gone and you’re walking home with hopefully only a bruised pride.
            Now we all know that horses have more than one sense, just like we do. So how about hearing? Horses depend very heavily on their hearing to access danger. Horses listen for threatening sounds. Their ears can swivel around to pinpoint where a sound is coming from. Often the first clue a rider gets that a horse’s attention has drifted is from the ears. I teach my students to watch horse’s ears as the first sign of what the horse is thinking about.
          Horses spend their whole lives learning sounds just like we do. At my barn, they all know the sound of the feed tractor being started. Or the sound of carrots being poured into a bucket. Some of my boarded horses can even identify the sound of their owner’s car pulling into the parking lot. These sounds are good and not scary. During Santa Ana Winds, the horses can’t pinpoint the source or type of the sounds caused by the wind. It’s all around them. If the horse can’t identify the sound as friendly then Noise = Danger.  The scary sounds are all around them so the horse no longer knows which way to run.  Remember when they can’t run away, they fight. A horse that feels surrounded by danger may fight. They will fight you, the hose, the dog, a chicken, your child, or anything they deem to be a threat. Also during strong winds, Scooter might not be able to hear your verbal cues.  You can cluck, kiss and say whoa to your heart’s content and that sound may never get into those lovely, expressive ears. It’s carried away by the wind. My students can’t hear my instructions either. It is really difficult to teach when you have to keep stopping the lesson to give instructions and corrections. If I can get them to stop at all.
            What can you do for your horse when the winds start to howl? Put on a fly mask to keep blowing debris out of their eyes. Check the water buckets often and remove leaves and other refuse you may find. Keep an eye out for anything blown into the stall that your horse might eat. Horses have been poisoned by plants that were blown into the stall and ingested. Check him over carefully for cuts, especially on the lower legs. Horses may run and spin in their stalls causing them to cut themselves with their own hooves or the stall walls. If possible, move him inside. Just make sure it is safe to move him at all.  
Remember- When the wind comes around, stay on the ground. When Santa Ana’s are here, put away your gear. If the winds attack, put your tack back.  Stay safe. It is never worth getting hurt for a ride. Keep that in mind the next time the winds kick up.
Cheryl Rohnke Kronsberg is a Certified Horsemanship Association Master Instructor and Clinic Instructor. She is also a registered AQHA Professional Horseman. Cheryl has been teaching riding and horsemanship for over 30 years. Currently she and her husband own and operate CRK Training Stable in Yorba Linda, CA. We welcome your comments and questions. Please feel free to share this article with your friends, but all rights to this article are restricted.

 

 

 

 

           

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