The transition from mud to ice – Can the British chick handle it?
It was the first time I ever experienced minus 29 degrees Celsius. That’s what the thermometer out on the porch read, and as I pulled on my fleece neck warmer and zipped up my insulated suit to the top, I felt both intrigued and apprehensive.
The first day ever battling the kind of Canadian elements I had been warned about, and I could almost see the rather mischievous band of broncos I had acquired, leaning on the fence with protruding toothy grins on their long faces, just waiting to see how ‘Brit-chick’ would handle the first super-cold day of her Canadian career.
Pulling my cuffs over the tops of my thick mittens and folding my hat down to cover my eyebrows, I was ready to face the freezer. I took my last breath of civilized air and then pulled open the door.
The sensation of the outside wrapped around me in an instant, like an ice pack round a cup of tea, leeching my body heat. My breath was obvious as it visibly drifted out through the still and frigid air, and I became very aware of the inside of my nose, where any moisture inside rapidly froze. On the very next in-breath, I began to choke on the cold, dry atmosphere which assaulted my lungs. Recovering myself, and wiping at the tears which streamed from my eyes, I pulled up my neck warmer to cover my face and nose, and bravely stepped off the porch onto the wooden steps, leaping in alarm as they creaked and cracked loudly, threatening to snap beneath me, the wood protesting and jarring rather than flexing with my weight. The ground at the bottom was solid and I paused to look at the bright sunlight glittering on the ice crystals on top of the concrete sheet of snow which stretched like a shield over the long-forgotten lawn. Seriously, would we ever see the grass again? When a place gets this cold, does it ever come out of the deep freeze? If your freezer were at this temperature, your frozen turkey would shrink to the size of a grapefruit, the chicken nuggets to mere pellets, and surely peas would become microscopic, I pondered.
It was beautiful though; the sky clear, blue and flawless, light bouncing around the yard and illuminating everything with a stark full-on sunlight more intense than any I remembered seeing on an English January day. The winter sun in England tends to be more watery and subtle; less brash than the stage lighting flooding the yard in front of me.
I was pleasantly surprised –
Death was not instant at minus 29…Perhaps it was the sunlight. Maybe I could deal with this climate after-all?
….So fast forward to now; here I am, at the end of my first full-on Canadian winter day. Despite the slight elevation in temperature over the course of the day, by horse feed and muck-out time the light is fading and the trusty porch thermometer is showing the degrees plummeting. With the sun sinking behind the trees, the absence of its golden influence is decidedly pronounced, and the frozen bite of evening is descending. I zip my collar to the top and shiver; it feels like dark is going to move in like a giant glacier; one which will end all life as we know it.
The horses munch contentedly on their grain, not seeming to register the temperature or their steaming breath or frozen whiskers. I’ve been cleaning up for nearly half an hour, feeling the chill nagging at me, and finding the work which was so grounding and enjoyable in the summer, is a horrendous drudge in extreme cold. I stop and ball up my hands in my mitts, fingers hurting with cold and the tips beginning to numb. My shoulders are aching, from the tension, hunched up against the wind that’s picking up. I have to get finished! I straighten up again with a new determination to finish the job, imagining warming my feet in front of the fire, inside.
I’m almost finished – just a few shovels more of the stone solid horse poop to clear, and the shelter will be clean and I can sign-off for the evening.
Tasie (the big chestnut mare) takes a break from her grain and comes over to look at me for a moment, her breath coming in plumes from her nostrils. The last of the evening sun is shining in the fluffy fox-coloured fur sprouting from her tall ears as I slip my hand into her blanket – she’s toasty warm. If only human beings put out the kind of heat horses do – we would be better suited to this ridiculous climate.
“Go finish your supper,” I command, eager to get finished.
I turn and chip at the next frozen pile of defecation which is bonded to the rubber mats surrounding the big round bale of hay. As I turn, straining under the weight of it at the end of the shovel, I see Tasie again, this time with a scampish expression, nudging at the barrow which is loaded to the top.
“No!” I warn. “Don’t you dare! Just go back and finish your grain!”
She looks at me and throws her head playfully.
“Go!” I call, as I advance on the barrow and dump the solid excrement with a loud thud. The barrow wobbles and I steady it, fending Tasie away and pushing her back to her bowl. The other horses are finishing up and beginning to move around. Quickly I return to the shelter for the last of the scattered muck which clatters like granite on the shovel.
A metallic thud from behind alerts me to trouble and I spin around, wrenching my neck and cursing.
“No!” I yell, this time seeing Tiguan, the roguish ex-racehorse hovering over my precious barrow.
But it’s too late; with deft use of his muzzle, he up-ends it, spilling out its petrified contents all over the yard. I stare in horror as the last ball of deep-frozen turd comes to rest. All the horses are standing around now, and their grins are as big as you’d see on a cartoon Far Side card.
“Noooooooooo!” I shriek, finally finding expression and racing towards them, throwing my shovel.
They all step back but they’re howling with laughter (I swear). All I can do is rage incoherently, squealing and shrieking frustrated, powerless piglet squeals, retrieving my spade and waving it furiously like Mr. McGregor incensed with Peter Rabbit at the loss of his prize carrots. They all fall on the ground whooping hysterically, legs kicking in the air and squirming with delight. I fly at them all and they scramble to their feet and jog out of the yard to the edge of the field and then stand and turn to look at me again with smirks, chuckling between themselves.
Feeling like Shakespeare’s poor idiot, who ‘struts and frets his hour upon the stage’, I look back despairingly to the barrow, laying like an abandoned Tonka toy on the rutted ice, its frosted constituents spewed all around. Groaning I head back towards it, hearing sniggering from the line of horses all watching, and the shuffle of hooves. I spin round. “Don’t even think about it!” I threaten, waving the shovel. “You stay there!”
My diligent clean-up is closely observed by the peanut gallery of equines, who are sidling closer across the yard as the barrow refills. There’s one last shovel-full of solid ruined hay to load on and I hack at it miserably, feeling hard-done-by. My hands are now numb in a rubberized kind of way and I can see the thickness of my frozen eyelashes. I turn gratefully towards the barrow to deposit this, the final load of the day, only to see Tiguan, his nose in the barrow, jerking the top layer of frozen goods to the floor once again. I roar and catapult myself at him, another squawking fit ringing shrill and ineffective through the impossibly frozen air. He backs off, grinning, the others snorting behind him.
My indignance at new realms as I see them all lined up smirking at me, snugly warm in their own winter parkas and full of grain and hay from their sedentary and well-catered day. And then there’s me - the wretched serving wench who having waited on them at
dinner, is still struggling to finish the latrines while they schmooze in their smoking jackets, puffing on cigars, impatient for coffee and liqueurs. All sanity abandoning me, and heady with the first symptoms of hypothermia (I’m sure), I launch into another crazed, incoherent diatribe about their lack of respect for me, and the fact I have to work like a slave in arctic conditions for a bunch of superior, chauvinistic a#@holes… I advance on them again waving my shovel, while they shudder with laughter at the depths of the pathetic victim-hood to which I have sunk, with my red-blue face, streaming eyes, frozen tears and incoherent squeaking.
Feeling their ridicule, I sigh, resigned to the weight of my undeniable task. My raging is useless, and grasping for the last scrap of dignity I turn back to the barrow, promptly catching my boot on a frozen peak of manure standing proud from the ground, and falling flat on my face on the jagged wasteland.
As the howls of uncontrolled mirth ring out once again behind me, I whimper and pull myself up to my elbows, feeling every lump of frozen muck digging into my body, and almost certain that next Apollo will ‘help me up’ with his teeth to the baggy posterior of my all-in-one insulated suit. I can see them now, howling and helpless with hilarity, like the Roman guards in Monty Python’s Life of Brian, as I get unceremoniously deposited in my own barrow.
I limp in the door to the house dejectedly, unclenching my hands, and stooping like Quasimodo to prize off my boots, hoping my feet don’t remain in them. My eyes sting uncontrollably as the searing heat of the interior of the house instantly defrosts my frozen eyelashes, and I recoil as Alice Cooper stares back at me from the mirror, the remains of any mascara smeared in streaks around my eye sockets. Back outside the horses gather around their bale chuckling reminiscently, settling into their night at the bar…
Oh England…I now miss your chilled winter mud, bone chilling rain and brown lakes of bridleways. In comparison, I’m sure it was easier than this…
Author’s note: Okay – Canada ain’t all that bad, but horse ownership can sometimes test you to your limits in any country. The other day I was reading a blog post about surviving winter with horses in the UK which made me chuckle, and got me thinking about the difference in the season between England and Canada. I was inspired me to re-live my first memory of extreme cold here in Ontario, and with due consideration of the horsenalities I had in the paddock that year, and some artistic licence thrown in, it became a comedy piece.
Hope you enjoyed it!
For more horse and human drama (with some edgy humour thrown in), check out The Japson Club, my debut novel, a suspense, set in England (so no minus 29 weather!) between the high pressures in the City of London and the pleasures of the rolling county of Sussex.
The exciting sequel is coming this year as we follow the characters picking themselves up from the fallout and traumas at the end of The Japson Club...There’s some shocking truths and sinister twists and turns to look forward to!
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