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Jessie Veeder, Published December 28 2013

Coming Home: Horses weather winter better than their human counterparts

I miss my summer horses. I miss the way their coats lather up under the saddle after an evening ride to the east pasture.

I miss the way that smells and the way it feels to see them grazing on the green grass of the season – admiration, beauty, peace and home all wrapped up in their breathing, munching, snorting and fly-swatting.

I even miss those burrs I pull out of their mangled manes every evening.

I miss my summer horses because they have turned into winter horses, wild and free in the big pastures chewing on hay bales and hiding from the wind in the coulees at night.

We don’t ride much in the winters; the ground’s too hard, the wind too bitter, the hills too slick, so we give our working animals a much-needed break during the coldest months, and in no time they turn into a sort of wild and wooly that always amazes me.

On the coldest days they find their way to the barnyard and I bury my face in their thick coats where they keep the summer, feed them grain from the buckets in the tack room and watch as they argue over the first and last bites.

You have to respect animals that bear the burden of this extreme weather on their backs. I know the white-tail deer that bed down on frozen hillsides or in a bullberry patch, the grouse roosting in treetops and the wild elk competing for the same domestic feed as our horses are built for endurance with instincts that save them, but I still wonder if their noses get cold.

On frozen days like this, I go looking for them, as if catching a glimpse of how they’re surviving this season might help shed some light on how I might do the same.

When the snow is fresh, the wind blows it in sparkly swirls around the barnyard where it lands on the horses’ long eyelashes and thick manes. I stand in my layers – long underwear, under a sweater and jeans, under a thick jacket, my mane tucked up tight under a cap – and I’m reminded how far away humans can remove themselves from the elements of the world.

In cold like this, my cheeks go numb, my fingertips ache and that wind that swirls the snowflakes around finds its way through my layers of clothing and freezes my skin.

We are never as prepared as the animals.

Bison live on the land next to ours. I catch a glimpse of them when I’m next to the highway, stopping to watch as the young ones run and the old ones nuzzle the ground for grass. Frost forms on their muzzles where they breathe in the cold air, and on days the ice settles in on our world those creatures wear it, unassuming, as just one more layer of their being.

I wish I had fur on my ears, tufts on my feet, whiskers to catch the snow and my own herd to lean against, to protect me from that wind.

I wear my sweaters like the bison wear the weather. I cannot grow a wooly coat, so I wrap a scarf around my neck and lean into the cold.

I wonder if those bison miss the summer grass? I wonder if those deer bedded down in the oaks behind this house notice the lights in my bedroom and dream of coming in from the cold.

I wonder if they know I would let them if I could. I would let them all in to warm by the fire if animals were meant for houses.

But houses are for people, people with fingers meant to knit sweaters and build fires, arms to wrap around one another and minds to make spicy soup, hot coffee and buttery buns.

And out there, on the other side of our windows, is this big wide world, one that is meant for deer in the bullberry brush, grouse in the treetops, elk in the hay bales and horses in their wool coats waiting for a girl who’s waiting on summer to come and drop them some grain.

Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.