It came upon a midnight clear that all the horses stared at the most magnificent starry night, nickered at the marvel of it all, and then quietly hoofed it back to their barn and hay-filled mangers. There was much gratifying chewing and then the eldest and wisest mare began to tell the story of how her ancestors — and particularly her long distant cousin, the donkey — were there on that special day that we now celebrate as Christmas.
Who’s to say that horses don’t have dreams of molasses cake, Jolly balls, oatmeal cookies, hot bran mash, new cozy blankets and candy-cane mints?
And, as owners, we are only too happy to oblige. A British study revealed that 97 per cent of horse owners included their equines on the Christmas shopping list.
Personally, my Christmas Day always includes the barnyard critters. The mule and donkeys get extra ear rubs and more hay than usual. I tend to take my time doing chores, as it gives me a warm glow to have them savour their meal in a cozy and clean mess hall.
Lee McLean of High River, Alta., may have yet to hear the animals speak on Christmas Eve (as some believe they do), but she and her family always don their winter gear and head out into the black night to star-gaze. “We go walking on Christmas Eve to look at the stars. And to me, they always look different. They’re brighter. They sparkle more.”
One by one, their horses cross the field to greet them, arriving in the pecking order. “We say Merry Christmas to them, and they empty our pockets of anything we have.”
And there’s nothing like a barn for that warm and fuzzy feeling, McLean added. “I’ve always thought that the inside of a barn is very church-like. When you’re up in the rafters, with the hay, and the sun’s shining through the cracks, it’s like a cathedral. And there’s a manger, so it’s easy to have thoughts of faith.”
Come Christmas Day, and if it’s not too cold, she harnesses a pair of Welsh ponies, bells and all, and goes for a sleigh ride. “I don’t know how much they like it,” McLean said. “But we sure have fun.”
Doris Heintz, also of High River, has fond memories of riding the hills on Christmas Day, but is now content to spoil her Quarter Horses with a few special treats. “They usually get some oats and a few extra crunchies,” said Heintz, 77, who has 24 horses but caters to her 19-year-old mare Pokys Peppy Princess.
Priddis resident Debra Churchill likes to brew up a hot mash with molasses, carrots and apples for her two horses while Deb Clary of Tofield, Alta., also dices up carrots and apples for her Warmbloods and 20-year-old Morgan stallion Night Image.
Over at Spruce Meadows, where the fields and sky sparkle with yuletide lights, the horses enjoy a break from their work schedule. “They go on holidays, from Christmas to New Years,” laughed Sergey Zayika, in charge of Spruce Meadows Hanoverian breeding program. “We don’t give them anything extra or different to eat because we wouldn’t want them to colic,” he said. And of course, the horses get to nod their heads in tune with the Christmas carols piped over the grounds.
And what could be more special at Christmas than a donkey, the blessed creature that carried Mary to Bethlehem to give birth to Jesus? In years past, Toni Grayson, of Millarville, Alta., used to visit her neighbours on Christmas Eve, her miniature donkey Lopez in tow.
“Someone would dress up as Santa Claus, and we would take the donkey around to the kids in the area.” This year, she’ll make sure that her two donkeys, Pedro and Cisco, get to chomp some carrots and crunchies. “I’ll go out Christmas morning and give them something a little special.”
And yes, there are those lucky enough to receive a pony for Christmas, usually boasting a big red bow. High River horse woman Denice Stewart smiles when she thinks back a few years to when her daughter Shelby had only one thing on her list for Santa — a pony.
Denice’s husband Keith made sure her wish came true. “It was grey and wild as a March hare,” recalled Denice. “We had to rope it in the box stall just to get a bow on the little twirp.”
So whether it’s tossing an extra flake of hay, fluffing some extra bedding, lingering just a little longer in the barn, riding your horse while hauling home the Christmas tree, or humming a favourite carol while cleaning the corral, from our outfit to yours, have a very Merry Christmas.