Different Ears

The less-than-great news first: Tristan continues to be slightly off, in slightly weird ways, all still (seemingly) connected to that left front. He’s on the list for the lameness vet for next week, and he’s getting regular in-barn evaluations in the meantime.

That left open the question of what to do with my standing Friday lesson spot; for a few weeks, that was changed over into a deep grooming session. I have a requirement to use one “service” each week as part of my board, so why not?

Two weeks ago, though, the barn manager (who serves as trainer while the main trainer is in Florida) texted me and asked if I wanted to ride Crumble in my lesson, to which my reply was a hugely enthusiastic YES.

For those who aren’t familiar with Crumble, or more officially Abercrombie, he belongs to fellow blogger Emilie, who is our barn’s main trainer’s barn manger and assistant trainer. Crumble stays in Vermont with us during the winter, teaching lessons and being adorable. (For those who didn’t know we share a barn, surprise! I try to keep my blog fairly narrowly focused on my own journey as a rider and horse owner and part of that means not sharing too much about others at my barn, partly for privacy concerns and partly because it doesn’t feel fair to me to put people on the internet.)

Crumble is many things that Tristan is not: smaller, for one, but also a different breed (Haflinger) and build (much more solid), and, of course, much, much, MUCH better trained. (They are similar in other ways, though; both have clear and distinct personalities, both are very easy to handle, and both are generally cheerful around people.)

It is literally impossible to overstate the cuteness of his ears.

I’m still chewing over lots of the things that I’ve learned after just two rides, but my chief takeaway is this: it feels really, really good to know that I can be good at riding horses. I generally think of myself as a mediocre-to-poor rider; there are some things I can do (sit a buck and grit through, mainly) and so many things that I cannot, especially not with any finesse.

You can imagine it was revelatory and quite nice to sit on Crumble and get ready to struggle and…not. Oh, I don’t mean for a second that I magically became a brilliant rider, but all of a sudden having a willing and educated dance partner felt…amazing. I could ask for things, and get them, and learn that I did know how to ask for them. I could use my seat and learn that I DO have a mobile and communicative seat. I could rely on him to keep a gait and then experiment within that gait, and have a conversation of which one side wasn’t entirely fuck you, no. I don’t want to flatter myself too much, but the barn manager said a few times that she was struck by how well he was going even in my first ride and that usually people take longer to figure him out. We clicked quite nicely, and I have really, really enjoyed him.

It’s also incredibly useful to be able to quickly pinpoint things that are either bad habits from Tristan (inside leg in the canter, I’m looking at you) or simply personal weaknesses that show up obviously in both horses (left hip flexor, you suck).

I don’t know how long this will last – obviously I want my own horse to be sound again! – but I am enjoying the hell out of it in the meantime.


Two steps forward, two steps back

Well, last time I updated, Tristan had put a foot wrong during a lesson and came up a little off.

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks. We gave him about two weeks of time off, with stretchy 20 minute walks bareback every other day, and about 10 days into that I was sitting on him in the middle of the ring, watching another rider go, when I glanced down and noticed that the large muscle over his left shoulder was spasming.

Big, full-muscle twitches, sometimes such that he would shift his weight. Now, he shifts his weight a lot; he doesn’t like to plant his feet and stand still. Our agreement is that shifting is fine, actual steps are not. So that’s why it hadn’t registered to me before that there was something else going on.

Once I noticed that, I had the barn manager watch me walk him and she agreed with me: he was still a bit off and his shoulder muscle was twitching weirdly. By “a little bit off”: she described and I felt that it was like he was reluctant to fully extend that left front leg into a good forward walk stride. Better on straightaways, much more noticeable on turns, and much more noticeable left than right.

With some probing, she identified a large knot in his shoulder muscle, a few inches below the wither and back from the shoulder point. I checked in with the vet, and we worked out a plan.

For the next 10 days, Tristan got a regimen of bute + Robaxin (methcarbamol). The former to hopefully ease him over the pain and the latter to loosen his muscles overall. He got 20m walks every day, and I worked on him with a curry with a massage side (like this) and Sore No More liniment.

During that time, I was able to get a short video of the shoulder twitching; you can see it here.

I felt like he was getting slowly better over this time. He was more willing to walk out, and the twitching was less violent and fewer and further between. Last Wednesday was his last day tapering off the drugs, I gave him two days of rest, and then we pulled him back out on Friday to look at together…

…and he was as lame as ever. Whomp whomp. It did seem to get worse with more work, so that’s a useful data point.

He’s going to get one more week of lighter work (only a few rides), massages, and his new Back on Track mesh sheet, and then we will check again on Friday, and if there’s no improvement, we officially get the vet out, one month to the day after he came up lame.

For those wondering why I am playing it so conservatively, because the internet: he has been entirely comfortable, happy, and sound for turnout, and he is 26 years old. He is not a high performance horse that I want to get better next week. If we can let him rest and chill for a few weeks to resolve this, that’s fine by me. We are pretty darn confident that it’s a strain in that big shoulder muscle.

In the meantime, I’ve started riding other horses for lessons, and I’ll write about that in a little bit. Fingers crossed that we either see some improvement, or the vet comes out to do one of those “meh, just keep doing what you’re doing, it’s just time” visits.


March 2020 Reading Roundup

At the beginning of the year, I set a few broad categories of reading goals. How am I doing?

This roundup will work for both February & March. In those two months, I read 15 books – most of those in March. I have been devouring books lately.

To recap my goals list:

  • one book in French (0/1)
  • five books about horses (2/5)
  • five books about Vermont (1/5)
  • five books from the “to be read” pile (2/5)
  • one book of poetry (0/1)
  • one play (0/1)
  • five books by authors of color (5/5 already!)
  • three books about museums (2/3)
  • five award nominees (Hugo, Nebula, Dragon, Pulitzer, etc.) (3/5)
  • two books about science (1/2)
  • three classics (0/3)
  • three books about organizing/politics (2/3)
  • three memoirs or biographies (1/3)

Some highlights:

One book about organizing/politics: Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America by Stacy Abrams. It is a bit painful to have read this so recently and then watched the news about the ways white Republican men in Georgia are currently fucking things up once again. One of my biggest takeaways from this book is that Stacy Abrams has a clarity and focus of thinking that translates into incredible writing. She explains things succinctly, and with impact. There were lots of things in here that I caught myself thinking about weeks later. It was a useful read as during this time I was elected to chair the board in my small city that oversees elections.

One book that didn’t fit any categories: A Court of Silver Flames by Sarah J. Maas. I actually read this twice. Loved it both times, despite a few really, really awful plot choices. I adore this series, I adore the people I get to geek out about it with, and I am super excited about the upcoming tv show based on it. I’m writing this and I want to read it again. Maas isn’t always the best at writing, or plotting, but she has a really good handle on character, and where she really excels is emotion. There is always at least one moment – and sometimes several moments – in every book when I either start sobbing or cheering and forgive her every dumb choice she has made to that point.

One book about science: Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War by Mary Roach. I’ve read one or two of her other books, and I always come away having learned at least one thing about human bodies that I wish I didn’t know. In this book, it was about why and how humans sweat. There are certain facts just lodged in my brain now. At least I learned more about science – and, where she really excels, about the scientific process.

Also worth a mention, as they were quite good:

Circe by Madeline Miller: beautifully written, clearly realized, enjoyed it from beginning to end

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab: I didn’t like this quite as much as everyone else did; not enough happened, and I wasn’t fully on board with the love interest. That said, I LOVED the ending.

Walkable City Rules: 101 Steps to Making Better Places by Jeff Speck: I’m now on the Planning Commission and read this for a small “making better communities” book club through my local library. I really, really liked it and haven’t looked at a street or a downtown the same way since reading it.


A Philosophy of Bute

File this under “things I think way too much about.”

When is the use of bute appropriate? Not medically, I mean, but philosophically.

It’s an anti-inflammatory that is relatively benign as far as things go; it’ll upset a horse’s stomach, and in true longterm use can cause other things like kidney & liver issues. (It is, after all, an NSAID – and there is no such thing as a drug with zero side effects.)

I tend to think of it as the equivalent of a human taking an advil or tylenol pill: something that’s perfectly fine in direct application, but a bad idea to do every day for extended periods of time.

I will use bute for Tristan in a couple of circumstances. If he appears a touch off, I’m happy to do an evening + morning of bute after he is a bit lame, and then wait and see. If he’s worked excessively hard in a lesson and seems likely to have a bit of soreness, I’ll do the same. He often gets a dose after spring shots to help with that. The key for me is as an acute response to a specific situation – not a coverup.

Go beyond that, however, and it gets into gray areas. I’m sure we’ve all known a lesson horse or two that gets bute the morning before a long day of work, or before a schooling show. I’ve once or twice seen owners be very liberal with bute in response to any possible pain or inflammatory response. I’m sure there are people out there who just bute regularly as a matter of course, in a neverending cycle of overwork and stress. I think that we can all agree that bute as a masking technique to enable high-volume work is definitely on the misuse side of things.

Where’s the line between acute and chronic, though?

Consider that lesson pony, who has a lot to give still and may not mentally handle retirement well. Is it okay to do a little bit of bute if, say, the pony is going to do a small schooling show, to take the edge off a day of work that’s longer than usual?

What about an older horse turned out in spring for the first time, who’s likely to be a little bit of an idiot?

What about a horse who really needs to stay in very light work to keep healthy, but struggles through warmup – would making that warmup a bit more fluid be to his benefit, so he can get the physical therapy of a light ride?

In short, what about pre-emptive bute? Bute to pave the way to a goal, instead of as a reaction to a specific situation? How to define the guard rails there? Always, sometimes, never?

I don’t have a good answer. I’ve seen it done; I’ve never done it with Tris. I have no real plans to do it with him, but as he gets older, it seems likely to be something I’ll have to grapple with. So I wonder.


Old Horse Woes

I mean, they’re the same as regular horse woes, really. Just with an extra tinge of desperation.

In our lesson a little over a week ago, Tristan took a funny step. I’ve always wondered about other people saying that. I know I’m not as sensitive or attentive as I could be in the saddle, and I know that Tristan trips A LOT, so I always figured I’d never be able to tell if he took a funny step.

Good news, I guess? I felt it and then his next few steps were just angry, and not in the “you’re making me work hard” way. With the barn manager’s eyes on us, I asked him for a little bit more trotting and we both agreed that he was definitely off, identified as left front.

I pulled him up and did a thorough examination; no heat, no swelling, nothing in his foot itself. He got liniment and Back on Track wraps, bute that night and the next morning, and 48 hours later was still clean, cool, and tight in both front legs but a touch off.

We’re now 10 days out, and he is definitely feeling a bit cooped up – yesterday I jogged him out and he took two steps and squealed and helicoptered up next to me. I snapped his halter a few times and growled at him, he put four feet back on the ground, and gave me side-eye while licking and chewing for a few seconds. I waited until he huffed in resignation, and then asked again and he gave me a lovely sound trot-out, nice big flowing strides and a very polite attentive head tilt. My horse in a nutshell!

When I brought him around a tight turn to the left, at the trot, he was still just a smidge off. Not lame, exactly – just a little funny about maneuvering with that leg. Fair enough. Back to his stall, more liniment, more Back on Track. We’ll keep rechecking.

If he weren’t showing improvement, I’d be more worried. Still, I don’t like that it’s been 10 days and he’s still a smidge hesitant. We’ll see what this week brings, I guess! One nice thing about older horses is that instead of fretting about lost time I can just shrug and really embrace the “long way from his heart” theory for things like this.


Riding a new horse

If you’ve followed this blog for a time, you know that Tristan has been slowly evolving over the last ~2 years into a different kind of ride.

I’ve owned him for 15 years, and actually ridden him for a smidge longer than that. I put the very first rides on him in the summer of 2005, right after I graduated from college. He became my horse in January 2006. So – I know him pretty darn well. And for 75% of those years, he has been darn well unflappable.

here, have the first picture I ever took of Tristan from that summer

I really do mean unflappable. His fifth and sixth rides were in an open field in a hackamore. (God, to be 22 and stupid and fearless again!)

Which is not to say he could not be an ass at times. He spent weeks and weeks bolting and rearing on the longe line. He had a bolt in him that took me for many an adrenaline-pumping ride. But generally speaking he was a kick ride, observed everything but reacted to hardly any of it, steady good citizen. He just did not really have a spook in him. When he spooked, it was calculated – he would pick a spot in the indoor halfway through winter, just to spice things up. He would get pissy when I asked him to go more forward, so he’d seek out something and fake-spook at it.

(Please note that generally I think horses are honest when they spook. I have known this horse intimately for many, many years. He watches, he does his mental calculus, and he goes through the motions of a spook.)

Well, joke’s on me. We’ve been doing such good work over the last few months that two things have happened: even on a lighter schedule, he’s as fit as he has been in years, and he has learned whole new ways for his body to work and move.

what 95% of our rides look like right now: bareback, quarter sheet, big thick coat, insulated Dublin boots

After so many years of knowing what I’d get every time I swing a leg over the saddle, I suddenly have a reactive horse.

Let’s be clear: “reactive” Tristan is still pretty darn chill. I’ve ridden nuttier horses. But there’s a reason I enjoyed my kick ride straightforward horse! I don’t love riding hot horses. But I do love Tristan. So, I’m working on it.

An example: when I got on him again after 3 months off from his surgery, it was a non-event. I was back out hacking him on roads within a week. Last night, after 10 days off from weather, I got on bareback and I swear to you his ears were so pricked forward and focused at everything that I thought he would sprain something. Everything was pretext for a high-headed snort, or a scoot sideways, or a little bit of striking out with his front legs. Someone sweeping in the back aisle. The hay cart in the main aisle. The door to the hay shed opening. The door to the hay shed closing. The velcro on my gloves.

When we’re actually schooling, it means I’m constantly riding a fine line between forward and out of control. I get a lovely, big, powerful trot, he’s sitting more and more, and it’s 50/50 whether I can count on a nice light soft rein or whether two seconds later I’ll be hauling his head up out of a crow hop. And of course, a few weeks ago he dumped me fast and hard and dirty. So I’ve got that in my brain.

I’m ashamed to admit that for little things – like last night’s ride – my reaction is to mostly get pissed off. The snotty little leap and buck when we got closer to the person sweeping earned him a hauling around on the reins and a couple of harsh words. I’m sure that’s not ideal. My instinct at least is to go hard, fast, and then release just as fast, and as soon as he gave even the slightest hint of easing up he got a ton of praise and pets.

I’m working on it. It doesn’t make me terribly inclined to ride during my usual time, at night after everyone else is gone. It does, however, make me a little more keen on riding, because I can’t resist a challenge.

Has anyone else had their horse change under them? Especially after so many years?

(I do want to clarify up front that this is not pain. He is regularly, obsessively examined and is sound as a bell and in great condition.)


Hoof update, winter 2020

I bet you thought you would never have to read an update about Tristan’s feet again, huh? Joke’s on you, Tristan’s hoof saga will never end.

Quick recap for those who might be new: in the summer of 2012, Tristan sustained a stress fracture of the coffin bone in his right front. A piece of the bone separated and became badly infected. In March 2013, he had surgery to remover dead bone and clear out the infection. (You can search for “hoofgate” or “surgery” or “coffin” in the side of my blog, since apparently all my tags did not transfer from Blogger, a thing that I only just noticed now, several years later. I’ll work on that someday.)

Since then, he has gone through a variety of permutations to keep that hoof stable. For a while it was glue-ons; then he went back to barefoot for a while. For a few years now, he’s been in front shoes with pads because the last, lingering problem is that the spot on his sole, near his toe, where the surgeon went in to clean out the coffin bone has never quite been the same. Our best running theory is that the scar tissue grew back just a smidge more porous and less stable. If he goes barefoot for too long – two or three cycles – it invites bacteria and things go downhill from there. Basically, guaranteed white line in that spot with no real way to stop it except covering it up.

For the first time in a very long time, a week or so ago I was at the barn at the same time as the farrier, and Tristan was on the list. So I got to see his foot naked, which I haven’t seen in over a year.

If you look just to the right of the notch (an unrelated carve out of a spot of white line), you can see a patch near the toe that’s a subtly different color and texture. That’s the spot I’m talking about.

Overall: the farrier is quite happy with it! We did talk briefly about a possibly future solution for when Tristan retires: he’s been experimenting with doing a deeper carve out and then filling the hole with sturdy wax. He’s had success with that in horses with keratoma scar tissue, which is a very similar profile to what happened to Tristan. I opted against that because Tris is going so darn well right now; I don’t want to upset the apple cart. It’s definitely something we’ll experiment with in the future if he needs to step down in work, though.


Future plans, or, questions without answers

I’m currently in the incredibly fortunate position of having some mental and financial space to make plans for the future that aren’t purely reactive.

The Etsy shop has let me backfill emergency savings to my personal comfort level, and to be a little more generous in other purchases so that I don’t have to plan them months in advance. (One example: I have to re-order Tristan’s Pentosan and Prascend in the next 3-4 weeks, a $500 hit, but not one I’m freaking out about. That is a welcome change!)

I’m trying to devote some energy every week to introspection that can help me define goals and plans. There are a lot of things on my mind right now, some of them horse-related.

Probably the biggest is the sequence of events for After Tristan. He is right now what I would describe as semi-retired; three or four rides a week with the focus squarely on keeping him comfortable in body and mind. That means we’re making good progress, certainly, but it also means that where progress and ease come into conflict I’m generally going to choose ease. He’s 26 this year, and quite fit and healthy, but right now I see dressage less as a competitive and improvement-driven pursuit and more as a way to keep good muscle tone and flexibility.

Younger, braver, faster (schooling at Scarlet Hill Farm in 2010)

I know a couple of things for sure:

  • I can’t afford a second horse, whether Tristan is in active work or fully retired. That means that if he does have to step down to being a pasture puff (whether from injury or just age) I’ll be back to a lesson rider for an indeterminate length of time. That will be a sad moment, but not necessarily a bad thing; I’ve ridden one horse for fifteen years now, and getting broader experience will be useful.
  • I do want to own another horse in the future. Right now, I want that to be a sport-bred old style Morgan gelding, something 15.2 – 16hh, not totally green but ideally younger than 12. Yes, I know that’s specific, and I know that making a specific horse-shopping list often backfires. I’m willing to wait. (I actually have a few farms here in Vermont that I’m keeping an eye on.) (though, honestly, there’s like a 15% chance I get talked into another mustang, we’ll see…)
  • I’d like to get back into low-level eventing, up through Novice or so, and to take a crack at some higher-level dressage than I’m currently working on; Third level would be good. I’m not overly ambitious but I do like forward progress.
  • I’d like to do more than I did with Tristan, to take advantage of the incredible horse landscape that Vermont offers. By the time we moved here he had broken his coffin bone and was at the waning end of his career. There’s still so much to explore with a horse. Some competitive trail? Camping? Fox hunting? Who knows!
About our current speed (summer 2018)

What I don’t know is much broader. I don’t know anything about timing. I don’t know anything about finances. For the purposes of medium-term future planning: do I want to buy another truck and trailer? I was a nervous hauler and don’t regret for a second selling my truck and trailer a few years ago, but some of the things I want are only possible with my own rig. If I want that rig, I have to start making at least some small plans now. My current car hopefully has 3-5 years left, which is my window of decision about whether to replace it with a truck.

Do I want land? I thought I did. My heart still does. Having a small farm would mean I could in fact get a second horse. It would mean some other things that I want could happen – like taking on some small rescue/rehab projects. But I love my house, and I’m just not sure I’m up for the commitment of living on a small farm. (Husband has already made it very clear that any farm work would be 100% my responsibility, so that is a factor in planning.)

How big do I want to go? I’ve never been much on showing, mostly because I’ve never been anything close to competitive in my horse life, but would that change with a new, more talented horse? I don’t know!

Has anyone else faced an upcoming pivot in your horse life? Do you plan for it or do you just see how you feel when it arrives?


Reading Update

Earlier this month, I set out some reading goals: general categories that I wanted to use to guide some of my reading for the year. January has been a great month for reading – spurred, paradoxically, by all the chaos. One of my best ways to escape was to walk away from computer and phone and read a physical book.

In my categories, this month, I’ve read:

One book about horses: I reviewed The Age of the Horse by Susanna Forrester. I really loved it and would recommend it to anyone who wants a more contemplative horse read.

One book nominated for a Nebula award: Hild by Nicola Griffiths. I had complicated feelings about this; it was incredibly dense and complicated and immersive, and that felt both good and bad by turns. I also picked it up thinking it was YA fantasy and boy was I wrong about that. It took me a little while to get over that whiplash and into the narrative.

One memoir: Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco. I did not like this quite as much as I wanted to. I really enjoy Alyssa Mastromonaco’s perspective as a commenter in the Crooked Media universe of podcasts, but this book felt just a smidge too light for me. It had some really great moments, mostly when you got glimpses of how absolutely hyper-competent and observant she is, but too often she sacrificed sharing those moments for light, breezy stories meant to entertain. It was still a thoroughly enjoyable read.

I read one book by an author of color: Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi. I wanted so badly to like this! I loved many things about it. Ultimately, it stayed too much within the confines of traditional fantasy, its main characters were too often irredeemably stupid (in plot-driven ways, not character-driven ways), and the style of constantly switching first-person perspective (sometimes only a page or two per chapter) meant I never entirely settled in.

I also read three other books that don’t fit into my categories, all fantasy, all varying degrees of enjoyable.


House Post: Sleeping Porch Problems

The sleeping porch, a small three-season room off our second floor hallway, is one of my favorite spaces in the house. In the summer, we put in screens and I spend hours and hours reading and relaxing in the hammock.

It is, however, one of the more troubled rooms in the house. I’ve largely been putting off dealing with it, but with the progression of work on the rest of the house having reached a good spot, it’s time to start thinking about the sleeping porch work for this summer.

There are, loosely, two main areas of concern and a third small piece.

The first and largest concern is the roof. Our house has three different kinds of roof in different areas: asphalt shingles on the main part of the roof; a kind of non-shingled single-sheet asphalt over the sun room; and standing seam on some accent pieces and the sleeping porch.

Above is a very poor quality Google Maps satellite photo of our house. The sleeping porch is largely obscured by a tree but you can see where I’ve pointed at it with the red arrow and you can also see our problem. The roof is quite rusted. That doesn’t automatically mean it’s bad, but…

Look at what happens in winter.

I took this photograph a short while ago. If you look just behind the chimney, you can see the problem immediately. Yes: those are icicles coming down behind the trim. It’s not great. It’s hard to tell what the problem is, exactly. Is the roof actually failing – perhaps at the top, where it connects to the main roof of the house – and the water is getting in up there, traveling underneath the roof, and then out behind the trim? Or is the water hugging the edge of the roof and wicking up and behind the trim because the paint flaked a little bit?

The good news is that we should have the beginning of an answer soon. I’ve finally found a contractor who will work with me to take a look at this – as well as two other spots of flaking paint & siding rot that are less worrying but still need to be addressed. I’m bracing myself for a new roof at the least, and possibly a more complicated rebuilding of the underneath parts of the roof as well.

The second major area of concern is the windows.

The windows have some problems both inside and out. In no particular order:

  • several of them are cracked and need panes replaced
  • even windows with intact panes need reglazing
  • the system for opening them, by sliding them sideways along tracks, is terrible and needs to be either dismantled and cleaned out or replaced entirely
  • the blinds are godawful and need to just be removed, that’s an easy one at least
  • the trim needs a thorough going-over with some replacements, and then repainting

Being able to open the windows all the way up and essentially replace them with screens over the summer is a big appeal, so I’d like to keep that concept in whatever we do going forward.

It’s not clear whether it will make the most sense for this to happen before, during, or after the roof work.

Finally, the easiest problem: some cosmetic upgrades. Right now, the entire interior is painted white. Because of its weather and temperature exposure, that paint is done. There is some evidence that the original wood was stained and covered with poly, based on this water stain in the ceiling.

I kind of love the look of a stained wood ceiling on a porch. The rest of it can stay white; it keeps the space feeling open. The floor right now is a sort of bland brown. It might be fun to paint that (it’s sort of wide baseboards, boring but practical, and should stay painted because of exposure) in a sort of pattern, to mimic a carpet. Probably at the same time we’ll also add an outlet, and if we do have to open up the ceiling to address the roof, we might add a fan as well. (For sure a new fixture is in order.)

That definitely comes last, after all the other work is done.

So: the sleeping porch. It’s complicated, and it’s going to cost a chunk of money, hence the delays.