Last winter a friend and her husband happened to drop by Dunrovin Ranch in the late afternoon just I was about to begin the evening feeding. They readily offered a hand and were soon involved in the process of spreading hay and moving horses. We went down to the riparian area along the river to open the gate to let the main herd into the south pasture where we had scattered their evening meal. Several of the horses stopped to greet us as they quietly walked up the hill and meandered over to various hay piles, distributing themselves throughout the pasture without any sort of contention.
My guests were surprised by the calm and peaceful atmosphere that seemed to prevail over the entire ranch. They had done this chore with me before, but always during the hectic summer season when both horses and people were hard at work to keep the place humming, and when expectations were high and nerves easily frayed. During summer months, the horses hurriedly bound up the hill for their feed, jostling each other for the prime feeding spots. Standing in the snow watching the herd contentedly enjoying their hay, my friends remarked, “Wow. The horses are like an entirely different herd now than they were last summer.”
Indeed, the herd’s entire demeanor seems to change with the passing of the busy season and with the slowness that winter and cold and snow demand. After a winter storm, you may see them running and kicking up the fresh snow with an exuberance you rarely see in summer. On cold, blustery days, you will find them huddled together with their backs to the wind. So well-insulated are they by their woolly coats, their body heat does not escape to melt the frost that forms on their backs and whiskers. On unusually warm, sunny winter afternoons, you may find them rolling in the snow and snoozing while lying on the ground, protected by their herd mates who stand guard. Small bands of friends form to mutually groom one another and graze together. They are free to choose nearly every aspect of their daily lives.
Their winter days are dictated by the weather, the sun rising and setting, being with their friends, and their own inner thoughts. Gone are the requirements from their human companions, the long days of work carrying guests up and down the mountain trails, and the nearly constant commotion of people coming and going at the ranch. One winter day flows into the next without interruption, punctuated only by the feed truck delivering fresh hay and pellets.
My friend’s comment caused me to reflect on how important the winter season is for our horses. Winter snows lay a thick white blanket on the ranch that is both calming and quieting for all. And, unlike wild animals that face possible winter food deprivation and harm from predators, our horses are safe and well kept. They always have plenty to eat, open water to drink, and shelter when necessary. They are free to snuggle under that blanket of snow and enjoy a much-deserved rest. Released from summer's demands to please people, they can settle into the joy of just being a horse.
During the holidays, Dunrovin sometimes interrupts their winter rest with Christmas parties that bring them together with their human handlers and riders. Their human friends come out to groom them, give them treats, and decorate them with all manner of Christmas trinkets and tinsel—and the truth is, they seem to enjoy this. Our focus is not on training them or riding them or asking them to perform any sort of work. We really don’t expect anything from them or ourselves other than taking the time to shower them—and each other—with kindness and good cheer, and to thank them for being the wonderful animals they are.
In reality, I think that for humans, too, winter, rather than summer, is the season for rest, replenishment, and rejuvenation. In these northern climes, where summer days seem to stretch on forever and our bodies and souls keep us active from dawn till dusk, winter gives us a chance to let go. We can enjoy the short winter days outside and then retreat indoors to huddle with our friends and family, to sit quietly with our thoughts, and to get a long winter’s night’s sleep.
Oh, that everyone, everywhere, could experience the hush of winter in the same way our horses do—to be safe and free from want, to be released for a short period from the demands of our overly busy lives, to recharge and play with our friends, and to just be ourselves.
Cover Photo by Tamar Kadberg
SuzAnne Miller is the owner of Dunrovin Ranch. A fourth-generation Montanan, SuzAnne grew up roaming the mountains and fishing the streams of western Montana. Her love of nature, animals, science, and education prompted her to create the world’s first cyber ranch where live web cameras bring Dunrovin’s wildlife and ranch life to internet users across the globe.
Visit SuzAnne live at www.DaysAtDunrovin.com!