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Who turned off the heat?

Mike Hillman

(Jan, 2011) For many years my old riding coach and I had a tradition. In the heat of the summer I would ask her if she preferred to teach in the summer or the winter. She would always respond, "Winter because you can always warm up, but ask me again in the winter."

In the winter, she would always reply, "In the summer," followed by a long litany of things that always went wrong on a farm in the winter and why she hated it, to which I always replied, "But this summer you said Ö"

"Yeah," she said, "But now itís winterÖ"

After the brutal heat of this past summer, I donít know a single person who didnít look forward to cooler weather. And while few were jumping up and down for a repeat of last yearís blizzards, no one was cringing at the coming of winter.

I, for one, was hoping for a long fall, one with an exceptionally long Indian summer. Correct me if Iím wrong, but I donít recall us getting one. If we did, I must have been away for it.

Maybe itís just my aging mind, but it seems like we jumped from the heat of the summer right into the cold of the winter without so much as a pause for fall. When December rolled around, I got going on the typical projects to winterize the farm, thinking I had plenty of time. Boy was I wrong.

I didnít really mind the first few days of December being cold, but day after day? And as if the cold isnít bad enough, Mother Nature decided to add insult to injury with non-stop winds! Now, Iím not telling you anything you donít already know. All I want to know is who turned off the heat?

Despite the cold and wind, by the middle of the month I managed to complete my long list of winterization projects and was breathing a little bit easer. One of the most critical of these projects is winterizing the outdoor horse waterer.

Anyone who has farm animals knows all too well that getting water to animals in the winter is not only the most important chore of the day, but often the most frustrating. If youíre not hauling water, youíre chopping ice, unless of course you have a heated outdoor automatic waterer, like I do.

After buying the farm, however, I soon discovered that the advantage of a heated outdoor automatic waterer is proportional to the depth of the water line. In my case, whoever installed the waterer must have done it on a Monday or Friday, as little effort was made to bury the water supply line below the front line. Instead, the installer relied upon heat tape, which probably worked well for the first few weeks, but had long since failed. As a result, in the winter my heated automatic waterer was neither heated nor automatic.

It took me a few years Ė okay, close to 15 years Ė to figure out how to prevent the waterer from freezing up. A simple hand lamp with a 60-watt bulb hanging in the base of the waterer is all that is necessary to keep it from freezing. Since that brainstorm, the waterer has been trouble freeÖuntil today.

From the corner of my eye I saw one of my horses walk up to the waterer and then turn away. Now, horses rarely go anywhere without a purpose, so a horse walking up to a waterer without drinking sets off alarms. Sure enough, the waterer was bone dry, which in the winter means that the water supply line that fills the bowl was frozen. Needless to say, when I inspected it I discovered the culprit Ė the light bulb had burnt out.

As I knew the waterer was working the day before, I also knew from experience that the base of the waterer was frozen, not the pipe in the ground, which was a good thing. In cases like this all I need to do is open the base of the waterer and stick in a hair dryer to warm it up. Given enough time, the pipe will thaw and the water will start to flow.

I had no sooner begun the process of warming up the waterer when I felt a nudge on my back. My immensely curious young horse apparently couldnít resist overseeing my work. Without giving it much thought, I pushed him away with one hand and kept working. He pushed back. I pushed him away with two hands and added a treating "Grrr," which left him thoroughly unimpressed. Before I knew it, he had wrapped his lips around the extension cord of the hair dryer, pulled it out of the waterer base and began swinging it around his head.

It all went downhill from there.

It took me close to five minutes to corner him and retrieve the hair dryer. The excitement of the chase caught the attention of my other three horses, who couldnít resist galloping over to investigate.

I returned to my work on the waterer, only to be nudged on my left by the second oldest horse then thrown back upright by a nudge on my right by the third oldest horse. I turned around and as I expected, the oldest horse was standing squarely behind me, clearly orchestrating the mischief.

Having electrocuted him several years back with a minor wiring issue on the waterer, he had long ago learned to both steer clear of it when I was working on it and never be the first one to drink from it after I was done. But that didnít stop him from encouraging his three younger pasture mates.

Pushing away a 1,200 pound horse in the most ideal conditions is difficult at best. Pushing away three horses, each eager for a drink of water, while trying to fix the source of their water, is impossible, as I can now testify. Add in a blistering cold wind and there you have the reason why people who own farm animals hate winter!

Try as I might, I was unable to communicate to the horses that if they left me alone I could get the waterer working. I gave up and left the hair dryer running unattended in the base of the waterer while I headed into the barn to fill a bucket of water. The irony of hauling water to the waterer didnít escape me.

The bucket was quickly emptied, so I headed back to the barn to fill another. As I rounded the corner of the house, I saw the horses sprinting away from the waterer. As I got closer, I could hear the cause of their fright. The waterer had unfrozen and, lacking its top, was now spraying a geyser into the frigid air.

As I raced to the waterer to secure the top, I saw a flash in the case. The water had hit the new light bulb and caused it to blow out. I let out a few choice words and reached in to pull the bulb out, completely forgetting to first unplug the now-soaked hand lamp.

Letís just say the shock I received was not far from the shock of touching a spark plug. If youíve been smart enough to have never experienced such a sensation and would like to, find your worst enemy in the world and Iím sure they would be willing to oblige you.

Without a light bulb I knew the waterer would freeze again the next day, but by this time I didnít care. Drenched to the bone from recapping the waterer, I headed into the house to make myself a cup of hot coffee with some Baileys. Thinking better of it, I simply chugged the Baileys, muttering all the while how much I hated winter.

So goes Life in the Country.

Read other stories by Michael Hillman