Saturday, December 11, 2010

December, Dandelions.

This morning I looked out my kitchen window, and this was the view that greeted me:
There is something about seeing a Gypsy Horse in your back yard that just puts you in a good mood.

Days are short. I go out to the barn in my pajamas, work clogs, and my husband's hunting jacket. The air is crisp and cool and my feet are cold. I'm grateful for the chill in the air. It's a welcome relief from the long hot summer. It gets so dry and dusty here that sometimes you feel coated in grime, like the layer of dust on everything in the garage has settled onto you, too. On those searing August days, I long for a place where things are damp and green and growing wild.

But now that winter is near, the air conditioning is off and we drape ourselves in too-dormant sweaters, thankful for the nip in the air, however slight, and wait for the tourists to show up in their shorts and tank tops, reveling in the "warm" winter.

Chroicoragh and Keira's hair is growing in thick and shaggy. It gives them a nice wooly plump appearance, especially Chroi, in her eighth month of gestation. I talk to her belly when I'm out in the stall, and try to get the baby to kick my hand. Not super fat yet, she is in the stage of the healthy pregnancy glow. And hungry! She chases Keira into her own stall at feeding time so they won't have to share.

Most people think that an animal's coat gets thicker in winter due to the change in weather. It actually has to do with the hours of daylight. As the days get shorter, even when the weather is still warm, the winter coat starts to grow in. The length of the day is the biological sign to the horse (bear, caribou, whatever) that winter is nearing, and since it takes a while to grow all that hair, they get a jump start after the summer solstice. That's the longest day of the year. The days following get progressively shorter and shorter in hours of daylight until the winter solstice (which is the shortest day of the year).

This phenomenon also effects when an animal will come into estrous. After the winter solstice, when the days start getting longer again, the mare will realize that spring is on the way (even though it's is still cold), and that the coming weather will permit the safe care of her foal -- warm air and plenty of fresh forage, packed with nutrients. So she will start to cycle, producing eggs and just waiting around for some stud to show her a good time...

But back to the daylight.

Awww. New babies are so much fun!
A practice that is well known among horse breeders and trainers, but probably unknown to most others, is the use of artificial light to manipulate the onset of estrous. The first time I planned to breed my horses, the vet said to make sure I put the mares "under lights" starting in mid-January. Keeping the horse in a stall at night with the lights on, tricks her body into thinking that the days are getting longer,  and she will start her cycle. The reason for this, in our case anyway, is that a horse's natural time of year to get pregnant and have babies is in the spring, and they will be very young in the nice calm summer months.

Well that's all fine and good if your summer months are mild and balmy, but in the desert our summer months are more like the inside of a kiln. We don't like our babies baked, so we tweak our breeding season to the earlier months. Putting a mare under lights in January will prompt her into becoming fertile earlier, thus foaling earlier in the year so the baby will be good and strong by the time the heat hits in June. The gestation cycle for horses is eleven months, so breeding in April gets you a foal by the next March. March is Arizona is gorgeous. (So if you are planning a trip here, and are tempted by the lower "off-season" rates in June-September, skip it. Go to Alaska in the summer. Come to AZ in the winter; you will be so glad you did.)

Another reason people put their horse under lights is to keep their coat short and glossy for showing. Show horses don't want to be shaggy, so they spend the nights under lights to get fooled into thinking it's summer, and get to wear jackets to keep warm.

But if the sight of bright yellow dandelions in my yard in December is any kind of a clue, we won't have to worry too much about that. :)

I think I felt a kick today.

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