Monday, January 31, 2011

January's Chill

A January storm settles in and delicate flakes fall silently hour after hour. I, too, settle in and wait as a dark chocolate pumpernickel bread rises slowly on the stove. After experiencing the sustainable rural way of life in the Andes region (on a recent horseback riding adventure) I couldn’t help but reclaim my old commitment to baking our bread upon my return. I was reminded on that trip how food made from scratch added a certain satisfaction that couldn’t be found any other way. And so, this morning I wait to put the dark loaf in the oven and return to a lost, but familiar rhythm of kneading, rising, and baking.

With bread rising, I watch Lena, Candy, Barbie, Daddy’s Girl, and Allie make their way slowly to the feeder in the meadow, single file, their heads low, their steps deliberate. Lena and Candy, their bellies round and lower than the rest will be the only mothers this spring. By the hay shed, the yearlings, Katie, Snickers, Flirtina, and Hustler repeat the same coming and going, their pace the same along the single track to the feeder. Occasionally, they rattle January’s stillness and kick up their heels when the wind blows in or they trot toward Pete when he feeds in the morning or they greet meet me when I snowshoe through their meadow. But their daily mid-winter rhythm remains simple: eat, walk to water, perhaps nap and then back again.

Each year, when we’re deep into January’s winter chill, Pete and I ask ourselves, “How do they survive, how do they stand the cold?” We know a hand beneath their manes feels comfortable and warm, just like a horse blanket over a passenger’s legs in a horse buggy years ago. But how do they really survive? A search for a scientific answer led me to Paard Naturlijk, a Dutch horseman, who says horses are better acclimated to cool weather than humans. According to Paard, a horse’s energy neutral range is 15-60 degrees. A human’s is 50-85 degrees. Both ranges indicate the temperatures in which humans and horses are able to sustain their core temperatures without additional changes in their basic metabolic rates. He says the horse is created to produce and maintain heat, while humans are built to dissipate heat.

When colder weather does settle in, a horse’s metabolism adapts by increasing. This increase means greater caloric demand. In order to meet this demand, it’s necessary to increase their feed from 20-25 lbs. to 35-40 lbs. of hay a day. Their natural digestive and metabolic processes actually contribute to the total heat generating capability of their bodies. The extremities are an interesting exception. They have less muscle mass, require less blood circulation, lose less heat and therefore have less metabolic demand. The horse’s coat also insulates from the animal from the cold. The horse’s hair coat straightens as the weather chills, creating a pocket of insulation between the skin and the outside air.

So, when the temperatures dip again, the snow falls outside the window, I won’t feel the need to ask Pete this perennial question when overnight temperatures reach 20 degrees below zero. I will watch the girls meander, graze, and water. I will watch the foals keep each other company for a long winter’s night and know that they are in their element. Then I will return to a comfortable mid-winter retreat, sated by the rhythm of baking and January’s seasonal chill.

*First posted 1/31/09

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