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First Level or Bust (Probably Bust)

Longer time readers may be sick of me by now saying “I am totally going to show First Level this year! It’s my goal and everything!” It’s been…like three or four years now.

It’s probably pretty obvious from this blog that I am a mediocre-at-best rider with no natural feel, a shit-ton of other things going on in my life, and a horse that I adore with not a speck of natural talent for dressage. Plus, cumulative years’ worth of setbacks and rehab, especially in the last few years.

(In fairness to Tristan, if YOU spent half your life wild/neglected/untouched you’d probably think this whole thing was bullshit, too.)

That’s my long and pessimistic way of saying: hey, we’re entered at First Level in a schooling show on Saturday!

It’s the barn show, part of a statewide schooling series, super low-stakes. We know the ring, we know the judge, we can warm up where we school. Kind of a best-case scenario for making ourselves look like idiots.

We’ll do Training 2 (I wanted the stretchy circle prep) and then First 1. I took some pieces of them out of the box last night during a short schooling ride and he was actually kind of awesome? Some combination of naughty pony weather (we’re getting highs in the 60s, lows in the 40s overnight) and my new level of expectations for him have started to pay off. My fitness outside of the saddle is really starting to pay off, too; I am stronger than I have ever been thanks to 3-4x a week at CrossFit, and I can hold a half-halt in my core in a way that I was never able to do consistently before.

I have zero expectations. Or rather: I have expectations that we will stay in the ring. (I went into my first dressage show with him with those same expectations, and Reader, we did NOT stay in the ring, so…) I’d just like to DO this thing after so long of aiming for it. If we clear 50% I will be surprised but happy.

So, stay tuned, I guess. I may have talked my husband into recording the tests, so I’ll try to work up the courage to share them.

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Hives on top of hives on top of hives

I’ve written here before about how Tristan is prone to hives and other allergy manifestations through the summer and fall. It’s something that’s cropped up on and off since his Cushing’s diagnosis a number of years ago.

Usually, he gets 200mg of cetirizine every day (100mg in each meal) to combat that. Last summer, he started on July 1 and didn’t have a single problem all summer.

This summer…we haven’t been so lucky. He’s had small patches on and off pretty consistently. Now, hives aren’t really a problem-problem, especially when they crop up in small patches on say his neck and butt.

But when they pop up the way they did last Friday, they are a problem. I got a text from the barn saying he’d come in covered in hives, and came out later that afternoon to find, wow, yes, almost every inch of his body was pulpy with hives. As in, you could run your hand down his side and there was barely any smooth skin anywhere.

So then started about three days of stall rest and medicated bathing. I would say there was maybe a 5-10% improvement by Sunday night. Clearly not enough after 48 hours.

So, Monday morning the barn manager checked in with me; she wanted to get more aggressive, and she was particularly concerned about the hives she saw on his cheeks and neck. She said she felt his lymph nodes were swollen. Now – he has a verrrrrry thick neck/jaw tie-in, and I’ve been concerned about overly prominent lymph nodes in the past. So I wasn’t quite as worried about that as she was, but I also trust her completely, and if she was concerned and wanted to ratchet up treatment, I was okay with that.

Here’s the rub, of course: Tristan’s Cushing’s diagnosis was also the reason we’d waited so long to go the intervention route. Horses with metabolic issues really should not have steroids if it can be helped at all. With that in mind, we started on Monday morning with 10ccs of banamine, and there was some improvement to that, especially in his neck, but not enough. That afternoon, after consulting with the vet, he got 5ccs of dexamethasone, a steroid commonly used to fight allergies.

The barn staff kept him in and kept an eye on him, and I went back to check him a few hours later – cool feet, perky pony, and a significant reduction in hives. Not 100% gone but finally responding the way they needed to. Whew all around.

Wednesday, by the time you read this blog post, I’ll have gone out in the morning to give him some hand-grazing time and see how he tolerates that. I strongly believe this particular reaction was the result of a bug bite and not something he ate. Because of his history of allergies, the barn staff is very careful about which pasture he goes on, and he wears a fly sheet to prevent any contact irritation. These hives were everywhere, which to me means systemic, and so it seems the best culprit is a fly bite.

Vermont has started the very beginnings of fall – some leaves are turning, and our highs are in the mid-60s this week. As dramatic as this episode was, with some luck it’s the last of summer problems for him. If everything goes well with his hand grazing, he can go back on turnout on Thursday and if the hives in his saddle area are gone, I’ll get some riding time in again too.

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CALL YOUR CONGRESS CRITTERS

I’m going to hijack for a moment for something very mildly political, but directly relevant to both your life and mine.

You may have heard or seen about the Trump administration’s attempts to dismantle the United States Postal Service. President Trump has directed the Postmaster General, Louis DeJoy (appointed because he donated a great deal of money to Trump’s campaign) to cut back or end major pieces of the Post Office’s service. Trump has stated publicly and explicitly that this is because he does not want voting by mail to be possible. There are also other possible reasons related to DeJoy’s investment in paid shipping services, general fuckery with government, and more.

Whatever your political leanings, a reliable postal service is essential to both democracy and a functioning economy.

Want an example? Here’s a package that I mailed for my Etsy shop on July 30, to an address in Ohio.

I pulled this information on Monday 8/17, which means that this package has now gone two days without even a checkin. It was sent First Class mail, which is usually 3-5 days at most to cross the entire country. You will note, as you go through that list, that this package went from New Hampshire to Ohio, then to Virginia, then back to Ohio, then disappeared for 5 days, then went…somewhere…and is still “in transit.”

My business, which supports my horse expenses and frankly a bunch of my groceries, cannot survive if this is what shipping via USPS looks like. I can bust my ass as much as I want, getting orders out as fast as I can (this particular one was sent 7 days before its listed ship time; I try to always get things out early!) and if the USPS is not functioning, it does not matter.

The idea that I can pay a relatively small amount of money (under $5, usually), put something in a box, and have it appear in someone else’s box halfway across the country a few days later is amazing. And it has worked really well for OVER TWO CENTURIES. The USPS is laid out in the Constitution.

Now, imagine this package weren’t just someone’s pretty new saddle cover. Imagine if it were prescription medication. Imagine if it were a check with social security benefits. Imagine if it were something I vitally needed to survive. My husband is on medication that, were he to run out because of a mailing delay, would severely damage his health.

This is a long way around to saying: call your Congressional representative. It’s easy. It’s SO IMPORTANT right now. There are so many unbelievably fucked up things happening right now and this one is so simple, so universal, and so easy to get right. It needs to get fixed. NOW.

Find Your Representative

Contact Your Senator

How to have a productive conversation with your legislator’s office (guide from the Union of Concerned Scientists)

PLEASE.

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House Post: Upstairs Bathroom, Part 1

If you’ve been following along on my Instagram, you may know that the upstairs bathroom project – which I started in a loose, lazy way in late fall – was thrown into warp speed about two weeks ago when our downstairs shower failed.

Yep. Failed.

See: for some time, the floor had been sort of…bubbly. Warped, kind of. I was pretty sure my poor caulking job around the edges had created some tension that was now lifting the floor off…whatever base it was on. (Totally unclear when looking up from the basement.) Maybe four weeks ago, I found a tiny hairline crack at the edge of one of the bubbles. I caulked it, and got more serious about the upstairs bathroom, finally ordering the tile and making some decisions on waterproofing.

Well, reader, given that it is both a) 2020 and b) this house, which never fails to frustrate, of course that hairline crack failed in a big way before the upstairs bathroom was done. I noticed when I was showering that all of a sudden there was a weird geyser spurting out from the caulk. So I stooped showering immediately and ripped the caulk off and water came gushing out of the crack.

So…I had to rip it open much further with my stomach turning itself inside out. I did run downstairs and there was not a hint of moisture coming through, much less the gushing I would have expected.

Luckily for us, it turned out that the downstairs tub was a cheap Bath Fitter thing over…an actual porcelain tub. WTF. And WHEW. So, I ripped it up quite a bit more and closed the dehumidifer in the bathroom. Crisis averted there: no leaking, no disaster other than a now totally-unusable shower. The white you see in the center of the ripped-up tub is the original. The discoloration is the glue that held the Bath Fitter down. Someday I’ll rip the whole thing out and see if the tub is saveable. That would be a nice intermediate step before the total gut of that bathroom that is scheduled for someday.

On the day the bathroom failed, this is what the upstairs bathroom looked like. Plastering was done, but not really anything else.

Stay tuned for the next part…

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Quick ride notes

Nothing terribly complicated, just some notes for my own processing purposes.

Tris came out on Monday pretty “up”; he had a lot of time off the previous week while I wrangled our bathroom renovation. He’s also getting pretty fit right now and that’s contributing to some extra fizzy energy. So he was trying pretty hard to act spooky for the first 10 minutes or so – walking around on tiptoes, ears in my face, quick little shudders or stops at every possible thing. Someone was sawing and hammering things in the house next to the dressage ring, and he tried to convince me that was worth spooking about probably 10-15 times.

Thinking very hard about spooking at the construction noises

I did not indulge him at all, but kept firmly and consistently asking for him to move forward, with praise for any sign of relaxation, and he slowly worked out of it. I eased off a little bit on my insistence from the previous week about dealing with my set rein length because I didn’t want to pick a fight when he was obviously spoiling for one. (Not riding in the outdoor dressage arena anyway; it’s a long way downhill back to the barn and I did not relish the idea of doing it at speed if he decided to be a shit.)

He eventually gave me some really superb trot work, particularly when I was able to harness the energy of his return to the barn side. I don’t know how much I’ve talked about this before, but he’s hideously barn-sour in the outdoor rings. Getting him to pass the gate and turn back away often involves pony-kicking, and he has a tendency to zoom down the long side back toward the barn. It’s even the case when in the upper dressage ring, when you can barely see the barn. Some days it makes me crazier than others. Nothing has ever made it go away completely.

the best view

The best way I’ve dealt with it is by creating a sort of slingshot effect with lots of little figures, and that’s what worked on Monday night. I started incorporating small circles off the long side so I could channel a whole bunch of energy through his inside hind and really ask for a deeper bend. Then I channeled it into asking for canter departs, and we worked a little bit on both of the pieces from the ride-a-test, on getting a feel of the stretchy trot release into our collected trot, and in tightening up and then spiraling out the canter circles.

It was not a long ride, since it was very humid and high 70s (yes, I know for a lot of you that would be fine weather, but for Vermont it’s too much!), maybe 30 minutes total including the walk to and from the dressage ring. He was puffing pretty good at the end of it, but breathing had returned to normal by the time we got back to the barn. He was in a good mood, too, a big swingy walk back to the barn but did not threaten to bolt, just a bit full of himself.

Some good things to keep building on for our next ride-a-test on Sunday, and then probably a home schooling show in September.

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What helps you feel safe about a place?

I’ve been thinking on and off about this recently, because it’s become such a crucial factor in all our own lives. All of us are making a thousand micro-decisions everyday about things we used to do unconsciously. Stop for coffee. Get gas. Go to work. Send in a show entry. Visit friends and family.

One of the hardest things has been that we are all of us making these decisions based on highly individualized factors. We have to take into account our own personal concerns (based on both our physical and mental health for the day), our immediate communities (town, county) and larger communities (state and ultimately country). We have to maintain a mental database of all the different factors about what used to be somewhat homogenized experiences.

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Summer nights.

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For example: which grocery store do I visit? For me, there are four places that, pre-COVID, I used to visit with some regularity. Each offered a different angle on products, different sales, and each one had at least one item that I couldn’t get anywhere else. I’d make decisions each week based on what I needed, wanted, where I was working or traveling on a given day, and just…go buy the groceries.

Now, I only go to two of them, and I plan my visits carefully. Standard shopping is done at only one store because I know people that work there and trust them, have observed good behavior from the majority of employees (around masks, cleaning, distancing, etc.), have gone often enough to know what times are less busy, and have observed a rate higher than 90% of mask-wearing among customers. The other store I go to is the co-op, which has even higher standards on all of those things, but is further away and was always an occasional visit; now that I am in that neighboring town less due to working from home, I go maybe once a month.

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Struggling lately. This helps.

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There are some things that I feel pretty darn safe about doing (going to the barn, going into my office) because I am either almost always alone or the rules are very firm and well-observed by everyone involved. There are other places I’ve declared no-go zones (a few downtown stores, any kind of dining). There are places I have to go but make me uncomfortable the whole time. (Zero employee mask usage at the tile place, but I had to have a shower, so…)

What are factors that make you feel safe or unsafe in a place? I’m talking a bit less about “well, whatever the local/state/national government has required” and more about the intangibles of places that work to create a safe and welcoming space within COVID structures. (An example: our state rules on gyms are a good base, but my CrossFit gym goes waaaaaaaay above and beyond, and verbally emphasizes the rules repeatedly during workouts, coaches set an example in cleaning and wearing masks, cleaning stuff is readily available without having to ask for it, all communications language is upbeat but firm about what they’re doing.)

Is there something your barn or a show venue has done that has made you feel more confident, or less confident? I’d be curious in building a list of “best practices” as it were. I’ll add my own list in the comments.

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Tell me something good in your life

I don’t know why, but August feels like it’s just hit a wall for me. It could be that I’m just revving up to a new peak of burnout between house and work stuff, or maybe we’re at some tipping point with the pandemic (it feels like it should have been over but we know it’s about to ramp up again), or maybe it’s that the last few days I’ve caught a hint of fall smell in the air, but – whew, I’m done.

I’m hoping for a weekend of catch up with many of the small things that have fallen totally by the wayside over this past week, like riding my horse and walking my dog and some sewing projects and maybe some baking.

So, on this Friday, comment with something that’s going really well for you right now, even if it’s as small as making the perfect cup of tea or coffee this morning. (I say, as I enjoy a perfectly steeped cup of the fancy tea I brought back from Ireland.)

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Liz’s Coat Conditioner

This is long overdue, given that I’ve had the little slip of paper with the recipe on it hanging out on my desk for many months now, but like many things from the before-times, it feels ageless and also brand new.

Turns out it was back in February that Liz first blogged about a DIY Coat Conditioner recipe. I was taken by it immediately, since it seemed achievable and also like something I’d been seeking for some time. Tristan’s coat often gets dry and dandruff-y in the winter, so I’m always pondering ways to work on that.

So, here are the ingredients that Liz suggested, along with my spray bottle, purchased for this occasion because I seem to be one of those people who never has a free spray bottle. The hardest thing to find was the distilled water, which I ended up locating at a drugstore. Everything else I got on Amazon for about $50 total.

While I was making this, I actually ended up putting everything on a scale and measuring it by weight instead of by volume. This meant I didn’t have to mess up my measuring cups and spoons for future batches.

So here’s the recipe by weight, in case you want to do it that way. You can easily double it to fill a 32oz bottle. I love doing things by weight – I bake by weight almost exclusively. It’s a way to do easy math to double, to

830 g water (this filled it up to the rest of the 16oz line)
40 g coconut oil
20 g vegetable glycerin
10 g witch hazel
1 g each essential oil (I used lavender and and eucalyptus, like Liz) (this ends up being a fair bit more than the 10 drops she used, but I liked the stronger smell)

I also chatted with Liz a bit about swapping out apple cider vinegar for some of the water; she

How does it work?

Really well! I didn’t necessarily get before & after photos or anything, but I was really pleased with the improvement in his coat when I used this consistently. I usually used it last in my grooming, brushing it in with the soft brush. I tried both before & after riding and found I preferred after. I also really like to spray & soak it into the base of his mane & tail, which get quite dry, and then rub it into the crest and dock with my fingertips.

If you’re looking for a coat conditioner but don’t want to spend a ton of money, want control over your ingredients, and want something you can make at home without running to the store regularly, this is a really terrific thing to have on hand. One purchase of the ingredients will last you many, many iterations of mixing it up. I just keep it in a box with my other extra horse stuff in the basement and bring it up when I need to make more, which takes maybe 5-10 minutes when I get everything out.

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Face coverings

I’ve experimented a little bit lately with making my own gaiter-style face coverings, for times when I’m exercising and/or need to pull it up and down more regularly than a tied or elastic face mask. So far, I’m pretty happy with it! The fabric I like best is sweat-wicking and light enough to breathe through, but substantial and stretchy enough that I’m definitely not letting air “escape” around the sides.

I’ve still got a touch more experimentation to do with the stitching – I want to find a stitch/style that will let it flex just a touch more – and I think I’d make them just a smidge longer. They’re a decent fit for me but they were a bit small for my husband, who admittedly has an enormous head. I wore the one you see pictured to CrossFit on Wednesday and sweated A LOT into it while it was around my neck and it wicked away quite nicely. It never felt too hot or too constricting.

So, in light of that, I have two questions for you all!

How are you handling face coverings during athletic activities, like riding and working out? Are you wearing just a typical mask or do you have some kind of specialized solution?

If I were to make more of this style in some horsey patterns, is this something you’d buy? Right now, I could make and price them for $30 each in some patterns like the ones below.

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Small Breakthroughs

One of the things that annoys me personally about writing about riding is that it all sounds the same after a while, no matter what level you are.

“He continues to improve in the connection, and I’m just really impressed with the way he’s been seeking out the bit.”

Said by a four-star eventer or me after my ride on Friday night?

Anyway.

I made a change in our warmup that would have been catastrophic six months ago but paid off big time. It was based on something the barn manager said to me during our last lesson: that he’s at the point now where I should be able to set a steady contact and expect him to live up to that. In fact, doing so is crucial to teaching him that the contact is a solid and safe and reliable place to be.

So that’s what I did in our warmup. After a few laps on a totally loose rein but marching forward, I picked up the reins far, far earlier than I would have in our usual warmup. I’m not talking full collection rein length – but solid feel of his mouth. When I had that, I focused solely on keeping my hands steady and keeping him forward.

I know, it’s not exactly rocket science. But going back to the absolute basics was terrific and gave me some really interesting feedback. For one thing, he tolerated it far better than I was worried about. For another, any variations in the contact came from him as he experimented. Sometimes he was incredibly heavy. Sometimes he suppled into it a bit more.

Once it was clear that he could keep hustling and still be in this simple contact, I did start to add some very small modifications: I asked for some bend (not a ton) and worked a bit on the feedback I’d gotten from the ride a test: try and capture the feeling of that great stretchy trot in the regular trot. I made minute adjustments to my posture and my sense of give in the reins to promote that idea of stretch, and it worked pretty well! Not a miracle but definitely a good tool to add.

Another small interesting thing was that truly and completely refusing to change the question – forward, into medium contact – meant there was far less flailing into the canter when I asked for forward in the trot. His usually MO is to flip his head around and fling himself into a few strides of canter rather than actually step forward in the trot. On Friday, he discovered pretty quickly that that was VERY HARD in the canter before he’d warmed up. I just let him run himself into that wall and did not change the question.

I’m excited to see what this step up brings us going forward!