The View from Mattie’s Pillow

Twenty-plus below

Deep cold sets in once again.  I am back in Ed’s chair, blanket and laptop on my lap, listening to the hiss of the teakettle on the woodstove.  Outside, it’s twenty-five below under a flat black sky, glittering with stars.  To the south, Orion hangs drunkenly from his belt, leaning precariously over the river and the flats beyond.

When I started this blog, it was January, the heart of winter.  Ever so slightly the days were getting longer, and I had the luxury of a semester’s sabbatical to watch its progress and write it here.  Now, it’s fall, and we are sliding deeper into winter.   Earlier in fall, when we had an unusually long run of warm sunny weather, I kept meaning to dig out my winter boots and mittens.  Somehow, each  time the temperature dropped a bit more, I would run across just the item I needed—my warm fleece mittens from Apocalypse Design, my fleece-lined boots, the down liner for my coat, the flat, circular fleece hat made for me years ago by my friend Kelly, who traced the pattern from a pie plate.   I’m ready.  I plug the car in at night and when I get to the university, and it runs faithfully.   I haul water to the horses to keep the water level in their tank above the heating element in the bottom, so it doesn’t freeze.  I soak their beet pellets and some extra brome pellets in warm water for a warming mash at night.

Last night, around eleven, I decided that the temperature was really going to drop, as predicted, and I went out to blanket the horses.  Mattie and Sam grow thick warm coats in winter.  Sam’s gets nearly four inches long by late spring and grows in dense like a caribou’s.  Mattie’s coat develops longer guard hairs like a dog’s, with a fluff of undercoat.   She glistens in the sun, looks velvety in flat light.   Sam, despite his trickster nature, invites hugs with his teddy-bear coat.

Still, I know their coats will continue to thicken and grow in with the cold and dark, but this is the first deep cold.  I have brought the thick winter blankets inside to stay warm and, last night, spread them out on the kitchen floor and folded them so that the withers end was down and could I could drape them and unfold them from their shoulders back.

But going out in these temperatures is not as graceful as going out to the corral in summer.  I wear my Muck boots—Arctic Sports, lined with the same neoprene that divers use in cold water—my lined Carhartts, a down vest, wool sweater, lined jacket, fleece hat and smoke ring, insulated gloves.  When it gets colder—thirty or forty below—I’ll layer up even more, but this is enough to make walking slow and to increase my dimensions just enough to make me bump into things as I move around in the house with the heavy blanket in my arms.

I had the floodlight on, shining into the corral.  Out above the corral fence, the stars glittered.  Mattie came out of the dark—a darker shadow, nickering for hay.  I let her smell the blanket, then haltered her and draped it over her shoulders.  It had come a bit unfolded in my messing around carrying it out of the house, and parts of it were folded under on her back at first.   I unfolded the blanket, smoothed it back over her rump, then reached under her belly for the straps to fasten it to her.  She moved away a little, suspicious, as if I had lost my mind to be out putting anything on her back at that time of night, but, as usual, she seemed to relax into the warmth of the blanket and let me reach under her belly and run the leg straps around her hind legs to keep the blanket from slipping.  For a moment, I leaned into her flank as I reached under her stifle for the strap.  Her coat is soft, and she was calm.  We had a quiet moment in the cold and dark.

Sam was a different matter.  He snorted when I came into his side of the corral, and walked away from me, even though he had sniffed the blanket.  He walked around the corral and I walked with him, swinging the lead rope in lazy circles as if I were driving him along.  From time to time I flicked him in the rump, just so he shared my illusion.  Finally he got tired of that game—I had beet pellets in my pocket, after all—and he turned to face me.  I draped the rope around his neck and tied on the rope halter.  Sam has been bored since school started—particularly now that I am coming home in the dark—and he teased me, bumping me with his nose or draping his head over me while I was trying to buckle the front of his blanket and keep my hands warm at the same time.  Once it warms up enough, we’ll be back to clicker training on weekends.  Last night, I just wanted to get his blanket on.

Now they look like medieval horses, draped in their royal blue and Black Watch plaid blankets.   They are hungry with cold, and I’m giving them a little extra hay, but not too much.  This is our first cold, but not our last, and they have to toughen for forty below at some point, maybe colder.   We all do, and like blanketing horses, we all will do what we can to help each other through to spring.


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