CARS HOMES JOBS

If the sleigh’s extra-heavy, local reindeer up to the task

Sunday, December 1, 2013
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Reindeer graze at the Smith farm in Ballston. (Kelly de la rocha/Gazette reporter)
Reindeer graze at the Smith farm in Ballston. (Kelly de la rocha/Gazette reporter)

— You know Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen, but how about Omega, Athena, Dally and Hunter?

Those last four live quite a distance from the North Pole — in Ballston, to be exact — but during the holiday season, those southern reindeer are even busier than Santa’s famous herd.

According to legend, the nine reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh work only one night a year — Christmas Eve — but the four Ballston reindeer work just about every weekend from late November through mid-December.

Owned by Bob and Wendy Smith, the four reindeer make appearances at all sorts of community Christmas celebrations and parades. While at the gatherings, they frequently generate questions about their famous relatives.

Kids often ask if the reindeer can fly.

“I just tell them, 'Only at Christmastime, if Santa needs them,’ ” Bob Smith recounted. “I tell them that all the reindeer belong to Santa and he knows where they are if he needs them.”

Smith has never actually seen his reindeer fly, but one young, white bull did make its way onto a rooftop some winters back.

Smith came out into the barnyard to find the little fellow up on the metal barn roof.

There’s the possibility that a large snow pile near the eves could have assisted with the ascent, but Smith can’t confirm that there was no flying involved.

“I didn’t have the presence of mind to get a camera,” he recounted. “All I had to show for it the next day were reindeer poops going up the roof.”

Racks grow quickly

The Smiths’ reindeer, male and female alike, have impressive racks of antlers that they grow in a matter of months. Every year, they lose them and new ones grow back. Last year, Omega, a 450-pound, 7-year-old steer, sported a rack with 40 points. They’re hard to count because he doesn’t stay still too long, but this year’s rack has well more than 20 points so far.

Males typically lose their antlers in the fall, frequently before Christmas, while females keep theirs until spring, Smith noted.

Carrots, apples and oats are the common fare kids leave out for Santa’s reindeer, but there’s something else the Ballston deer really like — sugar beet pulp. In the summertime, the four of them will go through 20 pounds of it a day, Smith said. They also eat horse pellets, ground corn, apples and, as a treat, slices of bread.

“They cut back eating an enormous amount in the winter because that’s the way it is for them naturally,” Smith said. “So they will eat maybe one-fifth as much in the winter on a given day.”

The reindeer are happiest in cold weather and are perfectly suited to stay out in the elements. They have a dense winter coat that even covers their noses and extends into their ears and between their toes.

Smith said they’re pretty much waterproof, too.

“If they lay [outside] in the winter and the snow builds up on them, either the sun melts it or they get up and shake it off, but they don’t give off any body heat to melt it,” he said.

The Smiths bought their first pair of reindeer for $4,500 in January of 1998. They have owned as many as 18 at once.

“I just really fell in love with them,” explained Smith, who said he looks forward to exhibiting his small herd during the holidays.

Wendy Smith said she loves the people she gets to meet when they bring the reindeer to functions.

On a recent Tuesday, the Smiths’ four reindeer chased each other around the barnyard, at times stopping to bend their heads to graze.

Although they’re not afraid of humans, “they’re not ‘pet me, pet me’ animals,” Bob Smith said. But occasionally, Omega, who was bottle-fed as a calf, will come close enough to let a tentative hand stroke his fuzzy nose.

Reach Gazette reporter Kelly de la Rocha at 395-3040 or kdelarocha@dailygazette.net and follow her on Twitter at @KellydelaRocha.

 
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