Digging Out

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Few sights are as lovely as a beautiful horse facility adorned with fresh snow. It’s the stuff Christmas cards are made of. Truth is, no matter how much you dislike the cold, it’s hard not to appreciate the splendor of such a picturesque scene.

Once you have finished admiring the view, it’s time to deal with the white stuff on a more practical basis. Operating a horse facility that is covered under a thick blanket of snow can be challenging. But with the right preparation, you’ll find snow days manageable and barely a hindrance.

Getting the Drift

Many barn managers and owners living in snow country have learned over the years how to best prepare for storms. While each climate is unique in how snow falls and behaves once it hits the ground, most horse professionals living in colder parts of the country basically have to contend with two common problems related to snow: drifting and ice.

Candace Brown owns Sapelo Appaloosas in Bristol, Indiana, where annual snowfall averages 70 inches.

“In 1999, it started snowing December 1 and snowed continuously through the month,” she says. “We ended up with blizzard-type snowfall amounts that required plenty of shoveling. Due to way the farm is set up, we had to wait until the snowfall stopped to do so. We had little snow after that for the season, but the drifts and packed snow stayed around for most of January and, in some places, through to March.”

The most challenging winter weather problems for Brown are ice and frozen-pocked paddocks that result from the thawing and subsequent freezing of the ground. “The footing can be treacherous for the horses,” she says. “The ice and pocked paddocks happen with even light snowfalls of one or two inches.”

Brown also has to deal with drifting. “My farm sits in the middle of three large, flat crop farms where the trees that would have served as natural windbreaks between fields have been removed. In winter, the winds take the snow from the fields and blow it onto my place. It is not unusual to have drifts two or three feet tall along the split-rail fence lines when we’ve had only two or three inches of snow.”

To deal with these issues, Brown prepares for snow as soon as precipitation is forecast. “Since we usually know when a big storm is headed in, we make sure we have a good, ready supply of hay on hand,” she says. “For those horses who get round bales in the pastures, I put out maybe two bales; in the sheds I may put one round bale so they can eat and get out of the wind at the same time, or use it for bedding if that’s their desire.”

Because power shortages are not uncommon in Brown’s area during large snowstorms, she has invested in a generator. “Last year I got a portable generator so if the power went out, I could crank it up and water the horses,” she says. “When the power is out, the tank heaters don’t work.”

After the storm, Brown determines what needs to be done to make the property functional again. This normally includes snow removal from drives, shoveling near doors and gates, and replenishing hay supplies. “We have a front-end loader tractor that does quite a bit of snow removal over winter as well as pull many cars out of the edges of the fields,” she says. “I hope to acquire a snow blower soon as I will be adding a pasture toward the back of the property and will need a pathway to get there.”

To get the snow away from barn doors and gates, Brown uses a snow shovel and the flat-nosed shovel. Her biggest problem with doors is the ice that accumulates from the melting snow. “The doors get frozen shut and are very hard to get open,” she says. “Over any given snowy winter it may require a couple hundred pounds of salt, a lot of labor, and almost always two people to get the big 16-foot-wide, 18-foot-tall slider doors open because they have to be lifted up at the same time they are slid. It also takes two people to get them closed again.”

Brown does not have issues with snow build-up, thanks to well-designed roofs on both of her barns. “My new barn was built with the rafters at 4-foot intervals, with the pitch at 4/12 or 5/12,” she says. “It’s shingled so the snow melts rather than slides off. It is rated for snow load the same as houses in this area.”

Brown’s old barn, which was built in the 1920s, has a pitch of 6/12 on the main section, and 4/12 on the lower attached shed. “It is roofed with metal, and the snow comes off in clumps as the sun causes it to melt,” she says. “This can be tremendously interesting when the snow slides off just as you are leading a horse in. This is why my new barn has shingles.”

Ice patches are a problem for Brown, along with ice under doors, on the concrete area behind the old barn, and anywhere she has accidentally spilled water or overrun a water bucket or tank. “I use a lot of salt,” she says. “Sand or kitty litter works if I only need some traction.”

Farther North

Indiana isn’t the only Midwestern state with serious snow issues. In Wisconsin, Arabian breeder Danielle Shaw of Desert Visions Ltd. in Hortonville, copes with about 47 inches of snow each year on her 12.62 acres.

“We don’t really have a problem handling the snow because we have the proper equipment to deal with it,” she says. “We have a skid loader with an attached snow blower for the big areas, a walk-behind snow blower for around buildings and doorways, and of course, snow shovels.”

Shaw keeps all working areas clear of snow and ice to keep the facility running, noting that as long as the area is cleared of snow, she doesn’t have any problems. “Before a storm, we move hay and fir pellet bedding into the main horse barn,” she says. “We make sure we have plenty of grain, and make sure the skid loader and snow blowers have fuel. The pasture horses have large run-in sheds, but in the event of ice storms and extremely heavy snow, we bring the pasture horses in.”

Shaw advises other facility owners to keep drifts cleared away from gates and doors. “Some facilities in our area put up snow fencing too, but our facility is set up so we don’t have a need for them,” she says. “We don’t have any real open areas on our facility except for the horse pastures, so we don’t have snow blowing across and banking all over the place.”

Smart Investments

In Minnesota, snowstorms can also be intense. Paint Horse breeder Lisa Repensky, owner of Little Bit of Color Ranch in Duluth, deals with an annual snowfall of 77 inches. “In 2003, we had 105 inches,” she says. “Unfortunately, most of our snowfall comes in February and March, just when we’re starting to get the horse bug again.”

For Repensky, managing snow is always a problem because the wind in her area is unpredictable. “Even if we get only a few inches, the wind will pick up and blow it into huge drifts around buildings and across recently plowed paths,” she says. “Then there are the blizzards that can dump 3 to 5 feet of snow, and when the wind picks that up, it can create drifts of 8 feet.”

Despite these challenges, Repensky keeps her facility functioning with the right equipment. “The best investment we ever made was to purchase a plow for the four wheeler,” she says. “We used to use the snowplow to create a path to the barn and to clear doorways and gate areas. The snowplow works but you can’t maneuver it like you can a four-wheeler.”

Preparation for a big storm is important and calls for common sense. “It’s best to make sure shovels, forks, etc., are stored inside so you don’t plow over them once they are covered in snow,” says Repensky. “We always make sure water tanks are full and hay is easily accessible so we don’t have to haul hay through snow drifts.”

To keep areas around gates and doors free of snow, Repensky recommends keeping horses inside barns until you have a chance to plow or snow-blow the areas in front of gates and doors. “The weight of the horses will pack the snow down and make it absolutely impossible to remove,” she says. “You can also strategically place snow fencing so the drifting starts before it gets to the building.”

When it comes to dealing with ice build up, Repensky recommends boiling water to dissolve the really tough stuff. “Just make sure to remove the slush with a shovel before it refreezes,” she says. “You can also use a hair dryer, but it takes longer.”

Repensky also suggests installing snow fencing in the fall before the ground freezes so you don’t have to do it the night before a big snowfall. “And buy a few plastic kid sleds with a string handle to haul hay to remote pastures,” she adds.

Once you’re done getting hay to the horses, you can use the sled yourself and remember why snow is not all that bad after all.