On the second Wednesday in November as the season's first snow graced our farm, I went out to fill the bird feeders and move the food dish belonging to Mr. Boots, the barn cat, to a drier place.
Now I'm inside where it's 68 degrees, where a cup of coffee is on the warmer to the left of my keyboard and where our house cats, Pyewacket and John Robie, are asleep in their bed.
It's lovely out there. Snow is falling on the alfalfa fields in the valley and on the acres of woods rising to the ridge tops north and south above them. But lovely or not, it's 33 out there, the wind chill is 24, and I'm thinking of horses because for a horse in Wisconsin this is only the beginning of winter.
By contrast, in Lexington, Ky., the temperature this morning is 59 and in the dry, warm pavilion at Keeneland Racetrack the November Breeding Stock Sale is beginning its third day. There is no talk of wind chill in the sales pavilion at Keeneland where this morning the bourbon is running more freely than the coffee and the talk still centers on yesterday when Benjamin Leon paid $8.5 million to bring the champion 3-year-old filly Royal Delta to his Besilu Stables and $2.1 million brought the Sadler's Wells mare Love Me Only to Jane and Frank Lyon Jr.'s Summerwind Farm.
Royal Delta and Love Me Only are not the horses I'm thinking of this morning. They will winter well.
The horses I'm thinking of are in a small but significant percentage of the more than 178,000 horses living in Wisconsin that will not. They are the horses who have gone without the pasture and feed necessary for them to have grown a decent winter coat, the ones whose hooves or teeth have seen no attention for years, the ones whose run-in sheds collapsed years ago and the ones who are the tag end of a sad story that began with a kid's request for a horse that now stands pastern deep in mud or its own manure and will stay that way all winter unless it founders and dies a painful death of its own accord.
Those are the Wisconsin horses that concern me.
A few years back while writing a piece for the Texas Thoroughbred on the history of horseshoes, I interviewed a veterinarian in Burns, Ore., who cared for wild horses brought to corrals by the Bureau of Land Management for possible adoption. We talked about the strength of their hooves.
"The best I've ever seen," he said, adding, "but I only see the ones that survive."
Next spring, when we begin to look around again here in Wisconsin, we too will see only the horses that have survived the winter. Given proper care and feed, horses can stand a lot of cold. But without those essentials they cannot stand. Without those they will die of hypothermia, and their deaths won't be pretty.
In 1992, the USDA counted 43,600 horses in Wisconsin. By the beginning of 2003 that rose to 115,000. By 2005, the American Horse Council counted nearly 179,000, ranking Wisconsin's horse population 22nd among the 50 states.
Since 2005 the economy has tanked and, it's safe to assume, so has the care given to the small but significant percentage of Wisconsin's increasing horse population caught up in the negative effects of hard times.
What can you do? If you see something, say something. If you see a horse that is being abused or lacking feed or shelter, contact the local authorities. If you have extra hay, donate it to places in need. If you don't know where those are, most large animal veterinarians will.
We shouldn't need a reason to care for the animals entrusted to our care. The fact that they are is reason enough. Horses are so tied to our history that we are particularly bound to give them the best we can.
Karl Garson lives in Crawford County; www.karlgarson.com.