November in Northern California--green fields, fog and rain.
Yes, this is one more blog about the dread of winter and taking care of horses in it. (You can insert the
Game of Thrones
meme about “Winter Is Coming” here.) I can already hear you saying, while you’re dealing with the arctic cold and blizzard conditions gripping much of the country right now, “But you live in California. How can you complain about winter? You don’t even have winter.”
Well, you’re half-right. I’m a New Jersey native, and then I lived for almost 30 years in Pennsylvania and Northern Virginia. So I’m intimately familiar with the joys of trying to ride on frozen ground, chipping the ice out of water buckets, shoveling a path to get to the barn, getting stuck in snow or ice on the way to or from work, being snowed in for days by blizzards, having no electricity because an ice storm has torn down the power lines.
My wife, Heather, is a native Californian, and when we met on the East Coast, I confess I found her extreme reaction to winter a bit out of proportion. And she tells me that I met her after the worst of it was over—she’d already gone through her first winter, where she’d had to learn from scratch how to dress and how to function in a winter wonderland.
She never really adapted to what I thought of as just the way the seasons worked. And when we discussed moving back to her homeland, her hatred of winter weather was a primary reason for wanting to return.
I was a bit more ambivalent. I mean, seasons are seasons—how do you move through the year without them?
As it turns out, I’ve done just fine without seasons as I knew them. I don’t miss the ice and snow at all, and when I see footage of my old stomping grounds covered in the white stuff, I remember how much I don’t mind not living in fear of frozen pipes, chipping ice out of tanks and waterers, or schlepping hay through deep snow.
But contrary to popular belief, we do have seasons here in Northern California, even if they are very different than what I grew up with. Our winter is usually mid-November to mid-March, and it usually consists of 45-degree temps and rain, interspersed with spikes of 25- or 30-degree nights with 65- or 70-degree days.
(In December and January our pipes can freeze at night, but by 9:00 a.m. the morning sun has almost always melted the ice in them. And in the winter we can see snow on the mountain tops about 25 miles to the east—the best way to experience snow!)
Once it stops raining in March or April, we don’t see the rain again until October or November. Spring strikes with a blast of warmth and green. Some years it’s a lovely slow climb of progressively warmer days, and some years it goes straight to the 80s, but either way spring is generally short, because pretty much from May to October, we have summer.
Our fall is usually just a short prelude to the rain of winter, and while we don’t have a lot trees that change color, we do live in wine country, so we do get to watch all the grape leaves turn in the wineries across the county.
Horses, being creatures of habit and nature, tend to all behave as though the seasons are occurring, even when they aren’t. So we often have to clip their coats as early as early October, as many of them grow coat for Maine or Wisconsin, and we often experience 80-plus-degree days. The change from seasons can be a bit abrupt also, so we often talk about “colic weather” and “abscess weather,” so we keep a close watch when the temperature and moisture levels start yo-yoing in the spring and fall.
The final, and biggest difference, is hay season—when I lived in the East, we fed lots of hay in the winter but usually drastically reduced hay feeding in the spring and summer, as thunderstorms made the grass long and lush.
But it’s the opposite in California. As I’m sitting here in Mid-November, and I’ve just seeded my pastures, and I’m watching green grass fight its way to the surface after our first strong rain. If this is a good rain year (which we haven’t had since the winter of 2011-2012) we’ll nearly stop feeding hay in another few weeks, as our grass grows lush though the winter and in to spring. Then, in late April or May, hay consumption will increase again, as the grass dries out and becomes dormant.
While we do avoid the snow of winter, we do spend several months fighting mud—scraping it off the horses, ourselves and everything else. We do get tired of the mud, and it sometimes feels like your horses will never be properly clean again.
But spring will come, and the mud will dry, the horses will get a bath, and we’ll remember why we live here. And even before that, as we scrape the mud from their coats, we’ll think to ourselves, “At least it isn’t snowing.”