budget · product review

5 Equestrian Products Worth Paying Extra For

As may have become apparent through this blog, I am pretty darn cheap.

However: there are some products out there that are worth buying on the more expensive end of things. They’re not necessarily what most people think of first. I firmly believe that you can shop smart and get quality tack and clothing at a fraction of the price. (I paid $300 for my jump saddle, an older Passier, for example.)

Here are a few things that I personally have paid a bit more for and been thrilled with.

1. Oster Mane & Tail Brush

Buy @Smartpak, $11.95

I actually did a review of this mane & tail brush some time ago, and you can read my full gushing there.

Suffice to say: I was a buy cheap human brushes at Walmart horseperson…until I borrowed a friend’s Oster. Holy mackerel. Little angels appeared and sang in chorus. It is legitimately that good.

I’m not sold on the other Oster brushes – they’re nice enough, but not spectacular – but this? This is mane and tail brush perfection, and it is worth paying the

2. Brush Therapy Effervescent Brush Cleaner

Buy @Smartpak, $7.95 for two

This stuff? It is a miracle. A weird, powdery miracle in a purple tube.

It may seem indulgent, but trust me. It will change your life. Here’s what you do: fill a rubber feed pan with water. Mix one package of this in. Place all your brushes bristle-side down, so the water covers the bristles. If you have wooden handles, go just below the handle; if you have plastic handles, get the water right up to the handle.

Wait 10 minutes. Take out perfectly clean, brand-new brushes. Rinse them once with clean water and you are done. Miracle.

3. Winter Tall Boots

Buy @Smartpak, range of prices
If you’re looking at me funny right now – if you think it’s weird to have a pair of tall boots just to ride in the cold – then you’ve never lived through a New England winter, and I kind of hate you right now. Kidding! No, actually, I’m not.
Is it more than a little indulgent to own an expensive second pair of tall boots for winter riding? Yes. Is it the only way to survive riding through 6′ of snow and -17F temperatures with a modicum of grace? Yes. I don’t care how many layers of Smartwool you wear underneath regular tall boots, it’s not enough. It will never be enough. You need waterproof Thinsulate-lined boots designed for the purpose of keeping your feet functional when it’s below zero.
I don’t know that I have a specific product recommendation; I have the predecessor to the boots shown above, Ariats that I got as a gift about 8 years ago. They retailed for $250 then, and that’s about what you’ll pay for a good pair now. WORTH. EVERY. PENNY.

4. Elastikon

Buy @Smartpak, $26.95 for four
Have you ever wrapped a horse in vetwrap, and said every bad word you know and a few you invented while doing so as it slipped and slid everywhere? Like, trying to wrap a hoof? or a hock? or some other twisty bendy tricky part of a horse?
Elastikon is the magic wand you are looking for. It’s sticky on one side, but stretches just like vetwrap. It sticks to hair, and then molds around whatever awkward thing you are trying to wrap. It wears like iron – easily twice as tough as vetwrap. I never try to wrap a hoof without it, and I would put the conservative number of hoofs I’ve wrapped at 2,163.

5. Sore No More Liniment

You can’t buy this anywhere right now. 😦

I also reviewed this in full. Since that review, there was a national shortage of Sore No More, and I could not get it at Smartpak or locally or anywhere. I sulked, but thought, well, it’s expensive anyway. I ordered a bottle of Absorbine. FAIL. I am counting down the days until that bottle is gone.

Accept no substitutes. Pay the extra $ for Sore No More. You won’t regret it. (If you can find it. Goddamnit.)

What about you? Is there anything on the more expensive range of products that you’ve tried and fallen in love with?

budget · food · stupid human tricks

How I Spend $40 a Week on Groceries

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how I’ve managed my horse finances. It hasn’t always been easy. When I first got Tristan, I was making less than $20k a year. I lived on $20 a week for groceries. Read the original post if you want more details.

I’ve mentioned on and off over the years that I still only spend about $40 a week on groceries for the two of us, and people have asked me how we do it. I thought I’d sit down and spell that out.

The following list is not comprehensive, and it’s important to understand that there are a few things that do not count in our grocery bill: toiletries, pet food, and the occasional splurge, which I usually cover as part of my own personal spending. (See also, the $11 jar of locally made hazelnut chocolate spread from the farmer’s market last week. NOT the most efficient use of grocery funds!)

(photos are all public domain, and linked to their originals on Flickr.)

1. Loss leaders

You may have heard this phrase before. “Loss leaders” are items that are on sale that a store will sell at a loss. The goal is to get you in the door for those spectacularly priced items, and then hope that you will buy other things in order to make up the margin. Think the Black Friday sales at 4am.

Here is the trick to loss leaders: don’t buy anything else. In a typical week, I sit down with 2-3 grocery store circulars (the sales ads from newspapers; they’re all available online on store websites now) and skim through them. I make a note of what’s on sale where, and whether it’s worth going to two or more stores. Sometimes it is – if they’re on my route, if the sale is good enough – and sometimes it’s not. This takes about 30 minutes, max. I often do it during lunch at work on a Wednesday or Thursday.

Keep at this and over time you’ll get a sense of a few things. Loss leader sales ($1.99 for boneless chicken breast is a good one up here) repeat at regular intervals. They are located in specific places in the circulars, often mixed among mediocre sales and non-sales. The first page is a good place to start, but look through the whole thing until you start learning instinctively where to look.

So shop for those loss leaders, and don’t get suckered into buying five other things that aren’t even on sale. Eventually you get into a rhythm: you know how much of something that goes on sale regularly you’ll need before the next purchase. I buy, for example, about 5lbs of boneless chicken breast for $10 about every 8-10 weeks. I freeze each chicken breast individually, and since they’re big, they’re about one meal’s worth for my fiance and I. A few weeks ago, I bought 12 boxes of Annie’s mac & cheese for $0.88 a box. It usually retails for $1.99 – $2.59 a box

2. Compare prices

Shopping for loss leaders only works if you have a sense of what a good price is. I could tell you, off the top of my head, the prices for my most commonly purchased items at 4 different grocery stores that are on my regular commuting route. I am always scoping out new items and new prices and cataloging the in my head. It’s one of the reasons my fiance refuses to go grocery shopping with me: I take my time and always look at three times as many things as I end up buying.

It’s part of the game for me. I enjoy food. I like buying it and cooking it and figuring it out. So I’m always curious what’s new on the shelves, how much it costs, how much it would take to make a meal with, and keep that information in my head when I’m thinking about meals for the week.

Corollary to this rule: don’t buy brand name unless you have to. I buy a mix, based on ingredients and personal preference. I’ll always try out a store brand and see how it goes. Sometimes it’s utter crap and we soldier through a box and then never buy it again. Sometimes it’s exactly the same and costs half as much. For example, there is no mayonnaise but Helmann’s mayonnaise and both store brand and Miracle Whip are the devil’s piss. But generic ibuprofen is totally fine. I have a handful of dietary restrictions that mean I buy name brands more often than I like – high fructose corn syrup, for example, triggers my gout, as do many of the preservatives in cheap deli meat – but it’s all about finding that personal balance.

3. Make a list and stick to it

I can’t emphasize this enough. Make a list. Write down the things you need to buy and do not buy anything else. Force yourself to walk out of the store if you have to. When you sit down and look at the grocery store circular, you are in a calm, logical frame of mind. Don’t make the list when you’re hungry, stressed, upset, etc. Reflect on what’s in your fridge and your cupboards, on your week coming up, on any longstanding cravings or curiosities. Peruse the loss leaders.

When I make a list, I do two things, which I admit are a bit obsessive. First, I divide the list by grocery store, and then put items in the order they will be found in the grocery store if I’m making my typical route. See above re exploring the grocery store, getting to know the layout and what’s available. That means that I spend less time going back and forth and am therefore less susceptible to the traps at grocery stores – and I don’t say that lightly. There is actual science in the way that grocery stores are laid out. They are designed to keep you wandering and to attract your attention to buy more food. Don’t let them.

The second thing I do is I make a quick notation of price next to the item. I round up for any cents so I’m sure that there’s overage. Then I skim the list and do a quick mental tally. If I’ve reached the end of my must-haves for the week with room left in the budget, that’s indulgence money. I think about something I want to snack on at work or the barn, something the fiance loves but I rarely buy, or a new ingredient for a recipe I want to try. If it fits in the budget, then I add that to the list. Some people do meal planning; this has never worked for me. Instead, I have a set list of things that I buy on a regular basis, and a variety of ways to combine them depending on mood and time.

Final corollary to this rule: for the love of little green apples, do not go grocery shopping while hungry. Your eyes will get bigger than your stomach and you’ll end up at the register staring at the pile of food you just bought and wondering how in God’s name you will a) afford it all and b) eat it all. See also, the three different kinds of ice cream in my freezer right now.

4. Learn to eat creatively

All of my tips assume that you are at least a semi-competent and/or adventurous cook. If you are buying pre-made foods, pizza, quick and easy stuff, then you’re screwed no matter what. There is simply no way to put together an affordable, healthy grocery shopping trip buying things you can just throw in an oven or microwave. I’m sorry.

Cooking is not difficult. It takes time, sweat, tears, some ruined food, and patience, but it is not a difficult thing unless we’re talking really complicated stuff. Look: if I can spend 9 months killing the rise on every loaf of bread I made, then you, too, can learn basic kitchen skills. Once you do, the world’s your oyster. You can be clever and thoughtful about the ingredients you buy and the way you put them together.

Cooking skills are the difference between “aaaaah, there’s nothing in the cupboard, I have to order a pizza!” and “hm, I have a few weird ingredients but I think I can make something of this.” Learn the flavors you like, and how to play around with food to make them. This will also help you with the loss leaders: typically there are 2-3 items of in-season produce that are dirt cheap. Buying lots of that and learning how to convert it into tasty food is an invaluable skill.

Corollary to this rule: eat less meat. Your bank account and the environment will thank you. I am most emphatically not a vegetarian, but between dietary and budgetary restrictions, I do a lot of experimenting with different kinds of protein. Meat is, for its dietary impact, ludicrously expensive. I only ever buy it on sale. Ever. I really mean that. We eat meat once, maybe twice a week. In the meantime: lentils, beans, eggs, nuts, and other delicious things are great for protein and they’re all cheap.

5. Buy in bulk when you can

Say it with me: price per unit. You don’t even have to be good at math. You don’t even have to have a calculator. Most grocery stores will put the price per unit on the tag on the shelf! The typical grocery store price tag has the name of the item, and the price of the item. To the left of the price of the item is almost always the price per unit – per ounce, pound, gallon, you name it.

Buying small, cute sizes of non-perishable groceries is a fool’s errand. I have lived in tiny, tiny apartments, and so I feel confident in saying to you that no matter how small your kitchen is, you can find some things that make more sense to buy in bulk. We’re not talking Costco levels of absurdity, here. Just looking for a few seconds longer at the label and realizing something like this: that jar of mayonnaise is $3.89, which is a bit pricey when there’s a smaller jar next to it for $1.89. But look! The large jar is more than twice as big, and its price per ounce is $0.15 less. That means that each delicious spoonful of this mayonnaise costs less, and the jar will still fit easily in my fridge. Try not to think too hard about the black magic that means mayonnaise never goes bad.

Obviously, caveats apply: you need to eat these things regularly, you need to have a plan for the food you buy, both for storage and consumption, and you need to be smart about it. Yes, 200 rolls of toilet paper for $0.50 per roll is a great deal but when have moved that same package of toilet paper from three different apartments, you will regret it.

Last piece of this rule is to also think about your price per serving of food. I have rough rules in my head for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and what constitutes a less versus more expensive type of meal. My typical breakfast is $0.50 – $0.75 in food costs: one English muffin ($0.25), 2 tbs peanut butter ($0.15), one mug of tea ($0.10). If I went with an egg and a slice of cheese instead it’s closer to $0.75. Still way less even than the dollar menu at McDonald’s, and tastier besides!

Let’s apply this rule to dinner. I try to stay below $2.00 per person. I most often accomplish this by cooking in bulk and saving servings for lunches later in the week. Chicken casserole, which makes 6 servings: chicken ($1.00), box of pasta ($0.88), chicken stock (free, because I make my own, but for the sake of argument, $1.00), butter ($0.50), flour ($0.25), milk ($0.50). That’s a base of $4.25; typically, I’ll add some kind of in-season vegetable to it, like mushrooms or broccoli or peas. Let’s say that brings it up to $6.00. That’s $1.00 per serving. Maybe I have a glass of milk and a salad on the side – another $1.50.

You can make yourself crazy doing the math for every penny, but the really important thing is to just think about it, a little bit.

So, that is the very long, possibly overly-involved way that I keep our grocery spending to around $40 a week. Some weeks more, some weeks less. With the new house, I went on a bit of a stocking up rampage and spent $110 in one grocery trip, which still makes me slightly queasy. OTOH, we are set through most of June, so there’s that?


Heroic Budgeting for the Horseperson

I found this blog post at The Simple Dollar, on “heroic budgeting,” particularly apt right now.

I’m in the final stages of saving to replace my daily driver car, and at the same time I’ve had a difficult few months of expenses: vet bills, car bills, and other bills that just came at really bad times.

In the last few days, I’ve felt the itch for heroic budgeting: no spending! at all! ever!

Except, the truck is almost out of gas. Except, puppy is almost out of the wet food that we use to stuff her kongs. Except, except. Then I get stressed and abandon budgeting, then I get terrified, then the cycle starts all over again.

Which is to say that yes, some of my expenses should be ditched. I may have been eyeing bareback pads recently, but the barn has one I can borrow indefinitely. I certainly don’t need to buy new ingredients for fancy meals when I just threw away things that rotted in the fridge. (And my grocery budgeting would already be considered on the heroic side: $40 a week for the two of us. Yes, really.)

But if I don’t let myself do anything, then it snaps like an overstretched elastic.

The blog post at The Simple Dollar was a really good reminder of that.

abscess · adventures with the vet · budget · surgery

Doing the Math

If you follow the COTH forums long enough, you’ll see multiple threads about horse budgeting – and in every single thread, at least one person says that he/she never actually looks at how much it costs to keep a horse.

I don’t understand that attitude at all. When I first got Tristan, I was making just under $20,000 a year. I knew where every single penny went – most of them into him. I am doing better now, but I work in nonprofits. I’ll never make so much that I don’t know how much I spend on him.

With that in mind, here is the end result on a project I’ve had in my head for a little while: start to finish, how much Tristan’s coffin bone chip cost. The period in question is June 8, 2012 through May 16, 2013, when he got his fancy glue-on shoes. I’ve broken it down by categories:

Veterinary Care – vet calls and treatment (hands on care)
Farrier Care – shoeing, which he would not have had had he not gone off
Diagnostics – x-rays, mostly
Medications – bute, antibiotics, sedatives, specific supplements
Supplies – epsom salt, vet wrap, duct tape, and the like

I could also do a category called opportunity costs – for the scratched Valinor and King Oak entries, for the 7-8 lessons I pre-paid and left behind when I moved to Vermont, and I’m sure for other things if I thought about it. Easily around $500 or so.


  • Veterinary Care – $2,037.59
  • Farrier Care – $990
  • Diagnostics – $1,070.75
  • Medications – $1,313.70
  • Supplies – $688.05
Total: $6,100.08
Some of my separations were silly; I split the surgery up several ways (vet care, board, diagnostics, medication) when the two days of hospital care, surgery, and drugs cost $2,189.20, which is DIRT CHEAP if you ask me. I am also certain that I missed a few epsom salt and duct tape purchases in reviewing my budget numbers, so that category may be off by $50 or so.
The medications column ended up being the longest, and it was mostly sedatives for his farrier issues. The big ticket items under supplies were his EasyBoots, the two regular sizes and then the third larger size he had to get at the vet clinic. The diagnostics were entirely x-rays, four different sets of them and the one radiologist consult.
Out of all the vet visits, if you look at each visit as a cohesive cost unit, the surgery cost the most, obviously, but after that it was that first visit, the one on June 8 for the first abscess diagnosis that was the most costly. (In more ways than one, since that was the one that sent us down the wrong track!)
In conclusion, this seems astoundingly low to me. In my head it was closer to $10k. Paying for it has still emptied three savings accounts (Tristan’s, my farm down payment, and my tax return) and put a serious dent in my emergency fund. Still, it’s a testament to those early days living on noodles and sleeping in all my winter gear on the couch in front of the wood stove because I couldn’t afford to turn the heat up that I was able to cover it all and that I could pursue the problem to its final solution.