The Rundown: Blizzard Warning

A record-breaking blizzard is a horse owner’s worst nightmare.

The American Quarter Horse Journal

(Photo submitted by AQHA Member Laura Whitney for the 2013 AQHA Calendar)

The Texas Panhandle is still shivering in the wake of a historical blizzard, one that put a damper on any stall cleaning, horseback riding and interstate driving – it even closed the AQHA offices for two days (the first time that’s happened since 1971, by the way). Luckily, my horses aren’t the ones shivering – at least not anymore.

Nothing makes a mother feel worse than feeling helpless in attempts to aid her children. Now, I don’t have children, but I do have two horses – one that my family bred and raised, "Jules," the other, "Nikki," that we bought as a weanling. They’re the closest things I’ve got to kids right now.

Late last week we received a notification that the Panhandle was under a winter storm watch – nothing to get overly excited about. A few inches of snow, big deal. Things got a little more interesting on Sunday morning when I received a weather alert at 4:30 a.m., letting me know the National Weather Service had issued a blizzard warning for our area.

Best I can tell, my fiancé, Cody, and I missed the blizzard-preparedness crazies when we ran around Canyon, Texas, getting our week’s groceries. Even the Amarillo Tractor Supply Co. wasn’t too busy, although the folks before us bought up all the fine-flake shavings *shakes fist.*

Sunday was gorgeous and no indication of the terror we would be in not even 12 hours later. Temperatures soared near 65 degrees, barely a breeze blew – that’s something to write home about in the Panhandle! All in all, it was a perfect day for a horseman. My girls enjoyed a romp in the arena, freed from their winter blankets and the confines of the stalls and runs. Later on, Cody and I went for a ride, enjoying the T-shirt weather.

As our ride wound down, the wind wound up, a Blue Norther driving down the plains upon us. Ominous clouds drew nearer and nearer, and I rethought letting the girls kick up their hooves one last time in the arena. The better bet looked to be throwing the winter blankets back on and letting them hunker in their stalls.

Because I’m only human, I forgot a few things during my morning errands; it was nothing a quick trip to Walmart couldn’t cure.

False. As my checker said, Walmart hadn’t been that packed and its shoppers’ insanity levels that high since Christmas. No wait, she retracted, Blizzardmania 2013 topped Walmart Christmas 2012. To cope with the influx, Walmart had all but two check-out stands open (blasphemy, you say?); the employee at the jewelry counter was even checking customers out.

On our drive home, we noted the temperature, which had dropped more than 25 degrees in an hour and a half. The snow hit Amarillo long before it made its way 15 miles south to our home in Canyon. As I went to bed on Sunday night, hurricane-force winds pounding my house, only a few flurries swirled around. What I woke to the next morning was something entirely different.

We don’t have blizzards in Western Washington, where I was born and raised. Sure, one time we got about two feet of snow overnight. A few years ago we even had three feet of snow on the ground for three weeks. But we don’t speak of a thing called “wind chill” because we don’t have wind. At least not wind like the Texas Panhandle.

I thought I was prepared for the elements Monday morning. Knowing that the AQHA office was closed, all I had on my mind was getting the horses fed, then returning to the warmth of my house and a fresh cup of coffee. Sporting Under Armour, thermal underwear, multiple layers of coats and two wild rags, I threw open the front door. Correction: The 40-mph sustained wind tossed the door back in my face.

Cody and I leaned into the wind, icy snow stingy our faces, and onward we trudged, climbing snow drifts, tripping over snow drifts and falling into snow drifts. The first horses I laid eyes on were not my own, but my neighbors’, and they depressingly sported a fringe of snow and ice. Snow had piled up in their stalls, finding any nook and cranny on the north wall to sneak through. In all, every stall grudgingly held about a foot’s worth of snow.

I rounded the corner and cried with despair – my own poor horses looked no better. Their blankets were covered with snow and ice, their necks sopped with melted snow, their ears rounded with ice crystals and snowflakes, icicles matted their manes. It was more than I could bear. Tears ran out the corners of my eyes, and I wasn’t certain whether the tears were from the stinging wind or my disappointment in myself as a horsey-parent.

As it would happen, this scene was a prevalent one across the Panhandle – photos show that my mares really fared no better and no worse than their equine counterparts around the region.

Snow driven by gale-force winds jammed through cracks in my feed room, covering essentially everything with a foot of powder. Dusting the snow off hay bales and the grain can, Cody and I laid out alfalfa and our girls quickly tore into their Safechoice.

The horse’s hoods, which I had been using as I prepped their hair coats for last month’s National Reined Cow Horse Association Celebration of Champions, hung on a hook, laden with snow. Stupidly, I didn’t think to put them on the night before – these are the hard lessons you learn in parenting. I drug the hoods into the house, wishing that I could do the same with my shivering steeds. An hour or so later, I returned to my mares, warm, dry hoods in hand. With their hoods snapped on, their ears perked up. After spending some quality time, and doling out a few horse cookies, Cody and I trekked back to our house, noting how the drifts had already doubled in size from that morning’s feeding time.

Again, after a couple hours, we bundled up once more. My choice in layered-on clothing became more refined with each trip – I was getting to know my adversary.

By that third trip, my mares were downright perky. In high spirits, Nikki required a little friendly restraining as I slipped dry blankets on. She plowed Cody down, dragging him to the fence so she could look out at our dirt road, now snow-packed and desolate. What was it? Through the blowing snow, my cow horse spotted a western apparition – a maverick herd of cows. They trotted north, heading into the storm; they obviously had wandered up a snow drift and over their owner’s fence. Cody dialed the sheriff’s office. While there was nothing law enforcement could do, at least they had a general idea of where the herd had traveled.

A time later, we headed once more back to our house. Lo and behold, as we trudged to our gate, we spotted the maverick cattle, walking south back down our road. We sprinted to the gate with hopes that we could corral the herd until its owner could get a trailer on the road. I crossed the road in front of them, moving to the wheat field across the street. The cows stopped to give me ponder. Meanwhile, Cody moved along the fence line, making tracks to get to their flank and drive them toward our 16-foot gate. It appeared to be too much for the herd – right as Cody reached their rear, they turned tail and raced north once more into the driving wind. We trudged on behind them, enjoying the improvement in weather from earlier that morning; while the wind still blew with all its might, it seemed the snow had stopped and the wind actually felt mysteriously warm. Strangely enough, it didn’t feel all that terrible. Or maybe that was just me, acclimating to the Panhandle.

Alas, we never did find the herd, but not for lack of try.

By 6 o’clock, it was time yet again to head back to the barn. We shoveled a foot of snow out of the stalls, scraping them down to the dirt and filling them back in with shavings. Alfalfa flakes were tossed and grain was scooped. By then, I finally had a chance to appreciate the end of a long, hard day.

The clouds had passed, the wind was gone and the snow was slowly melting into much-needed moisture. The sun set, casting brilliant shades across a white Panhandle canvas. And my horses were happy. As a horse owner, that’s about all you can ask for.