Monday, November 2, 2020

Starting Over

It has been about six months since I lost Nimo.  The early days after his death were very hard.  As time went on, I still missed him and was very sad.  But the reality of not having a horse to work with every day began to eat away at me.  I didn't like the person I was becoming, and I realized that I couldn't go on living my life for too much longer without a horse to spend time with.  I also realized that I missed writing about my life with a horse.  I had so many ideas left unpursued and there was so much I still wanted to learn.  Plus I learned so much from Nimo that it would be such a waste to let the lessons he taught me collect dust in the recesses of my mind.

And so I came up with the idea to continue blogging, but with a different objective.  This blog started with a very specific purpose - to write about Nimo's and my journey into endurance riding.  Though we never got to the destination I hoped for when I started blogging, it's possible that we got to one even better - one that left me with a much greater understanding of how complex our relationships with horses can be.  I couldn't believe how much I learned about everything from hoof care to feeding to turnout to riding to behavior to bodywork.  I'm not sure if there is another equine discipline out there that requires the owner/rider to know as much about horse care as endurance riding does.

I want to continue my education about all things horse-related, but I don't want to do it on this blog.  For the time being, I will be leaving this blog up and running, in case Nimo's and my struggles and successes are helpful to someone else.  But I will be moving my writing over to a new blog called "A Student of the Horse."  It feels right to do that now, both as a way to honor Nimo's memory and to allow me to continue writing about something I love.  If you feel so inclined, please join me at for future posts about anything and everything related to horses.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The Day I Didn't Go to the Barn

I didn't go to the barn last Thursday.  It was the first day that I haven't gone to the barn in at least seven years (except for a couple of times when I was very sick or out of town and sent my husband in my place).  The reason I didn't go was that Nimo wasn't there.  He wasn't there because just before 4 am that morning, I had asked the staff at a nearby equine hospital to euthanize him.

I don't quite know how to write the words...I'm not sure anyone truly understands what happened, but I'll do my best to tell you the story from my perspective.

On Tuesday afternoon, I got a call from the barn owner telling me that Nimo just didn't seem himself.  He was quiet in his stall, and hadn't finished his breakfast or eaten his hay.  He was standing with one front foot a bit forward, like he was trying to stretch and he was curling his upper lip (which can be an indicator of pain).  He also hadn't pooped.  Even though he was not pacing, sweating, pawing, biting at his sides, or laying down, I immediately assumed it must be colic, and I called the vet for an emergency visit.  She made it in record time, beating me to the barn.

By the time I got there, Nimo had already been sedated.  The vet had inserted a tube through his nose to his stomach to check for gas build-up and to deliver about 10 liters of fluid.  She was concerned about colic or the possibility of toxicity from something he might have eaten.  She had detected a heart arrhythmia and elevated heart rate during her initial exam and that led her to wonder if he could have accidentally ingested something poisonous.  She didn't find anything of concern during the tubing process, though, and the heart arrhythmia resolved after he got the fluids.  But she also couldn't hear gut sounds.  A rectal exam revealed that there was normal poop ready to come out and there were no other abnormalities.  Nimo was also running a fever of about 101 degrees.  Unfortunately, because I had missed the early part of the exam, I didn't learn about that until much later.

The vet diagnosed gas colic and assured me that she was almost 100% certain that Nimo would be fine.  She gave Nimo some electrolytes, but did not administer any drugs, and she wanted him to stay in his stall overnight under observation with a report to her in the morning if he did not seem to feel better.  Because of the fever, she also wanted to pursue the possibility of an infection, so she had taken blood to send out to the lab.

I got Nimo settled in his stall and stayed with him for a bit.  Then I quickly took care of my ducks and took my daughter home.  I grabbed a quick bite to eat and stocked up on supplies in case I ended up spending the night at the barn.

I set up my little nest in Nimo's stall and spent most of the night with him.  He definitely wasn't feeling well, but as the night wore on, he seemed to have moments where he felt better.  He acted alert, moved around a little, and at one point, tried to climb on my lap!  He alternated between seeming to be uncomfortable and feeling better for hours.  I could also hear gut sounds from across the stall and there was a lot of farting.  I assumed that all that noise was the gas colic resolving and that his system had started adjusting back to normal.  I also walked him for a few minutes every hour and a half or so, and he always seemed happy to get out of the stall and he walked energetically.

One thing I didn't do was take his temperature.  The vet had sort of thrown out that I should do that as she was leaving, but because I didn't know he had a fever, I didn't understand the significance.  My thermometer was digital and apparently the battery had died.  Rather than drive home in the middle of the night to get a spare, I figured I could check it the next day.

Because Nimo definitely didn't seem to be getting worse and had moments of feeling better, I decided to head home at around 2:30 to get a shower and a couple of hours of sleep, plus check in with my husband.  I asked him to stay home from work so I didn't have to bring Gemma to the barn and I could focus on Nimo.

I got to the barn around 7:30 on Wednesday morning.  Nimo was alertly looking out over the stall door and had pooped for the first time in what was probably at least 24 hours.  The poop looked normal in quantity and quality.  I was so relieved, and Nimo was delighted when I took him out for a short walk and gave him a few bites to eat based on the vet's instructions.

I brought him back to his stall, and got a half a flake of hay for him to start munching on (the vet wanted to withhold food until Nimo had pooped).  But I was soon dismayed to see Nimo reverting back to his condition from the day before.  He didn't want to eat and he was standing quietly while placing one front foot slightly forward and curling his upper lip.  At no time did he pace, sweat, paw, bite at his sides, or lay down.  I called the vet and let her know that he was not feeling better and didn't want to eat.  She said she would be there in about 3 hours.

I stayed at the barn with Nimo and watched him.  He pooped again, and it looked possibly slightly dry, but the quantity was normal.  He also peed for the fourth time since the night before, even though he hadn't had any water.  I kept missing the actual peeing because it always seemed to happen when I was out of the stall for some reason, so I didn't know what it looked like, but the quantity seemed normal.

But by a little after 9:30, it became clear that his condition was worsening.  He still wasn't demonstrating the typical colic signs, but I could tell he was in more pain.  He was shuffling his front legs forward more frequently and hanging his head.  I decided to call the vet to see if she could come earlier.  She could.  She was there in about 40 minutes.

She took his temperature, and we were shocked to discover that it was over 103 degrees.  His heart rate had jumped to 84 (his resting rate is between 32 and 36).  His bloodwork had also come back showing an infection was present.

At that time, the vet changed her diagnosis to a viral infection.  She was very concerned, and I notified the barn manager.  Quarantine procedures were immediately discussed and implemented as the vet pulled samples for testing.  Nimo was unfortunately not a textbook case for any particular virus.  His symptoms were a fever, anorexia (not wanted to eat), muscle tremors in his shoulders (aka fasciculation), a high heart rate, and indications that he was in pain (the slightly stretched position and lip curling).  Based on his vaccination history (as well as the efficacy of those vaccines) and the prevalence of certain viruses in the area, she decided to test for Equine Coronavirus, Potomac Horse Fever, and Equine Herpesvirus.  She also pulled a nasal swab that could be used to test for strangles in the event that there were negative results for the other tests, because he had prior exposure to infected horses many years ago and strangles can sometimes come on spontaneously if a horse is a carrier.  (The tests are pretty expensive, so she was trying to limit the damage to my bank account, but also be responsible and reasonably try to identify what the virus could be so that the barn could set a quarantine time period and know what to look for.)

She also set up a neck catheter to administer another 10 liters of fluids and she gave Nimo what was a drug cocktail almost guaranteed to raise the dead.  I honestly can't even remember all the drugs.  Banamine was one (and one that I thought should have been administered sooner, but the vet didn't want to mask symptoms before coming to a more conclusive diagnosis, despite her assurance to me the day before that it was gas colic).  He also got drugs with anti-inflammatory properties, pain killers, and antibiotics.

The vet continued to monitor him while the fluids were dispensed.  His fever had not budged after half an hour despite receiving medication that should have acted quickly.  So she gave him something else.  Finally, his fever started coming down to 102 degrees.

She left me thinking Nimo was stable and that I could attend to a few things like taking care of my ducks and getting some food.  But she would be back that evening for another round of fluids and a check of vital signs.

We met back at the barn at about 6 pm.  It was clear that Nimo was worse.  The vet took his vital signs.  His temperature had reached 104 degrees, and his heart rate was 112.  She hooked up another round of fluids and we discussed options.  I had two.  I could put him down right then or I could haul him to the nearest equine hospital.

The vet suspected one of two things was going on.  Either the infection was from a ruptured stomach or he had a virus that was killing him quickly.  If he had a ruptured stomach, there were no options other than euthanasia.  If he had a virus, his only chance of survival was 24/7 care by skilled staff.  But she didn't have the diagnostic equipment to check for a stomach rupture.  The only way to know was to take him to the hospital.

By then, I knew in my heart that Nimo would not make it.  I can't say why I was so sure except that the virus scenario had never made sense to me.  The only place that we'd traveled to for months was a little farm about half an hour a way for a lesson every three weeks.  At that farm, we were self-contained because of the precautions for human corona virus, but that resulted in pretty good precautions against equine viruses too.  

But the ruptured stomach scenario didn't make sense either.  It would have meant that his stomach had probably been ruptured from the beginning of the whole ordeal, and he had never shown any of the more volatile and sometimes violent reactions that a horse with that situation would have shown.  He had been completely easy to care for.  He never resisted or had any reaction other than complete cooperation with every procedure.  Even when the vet had the worst time getting the catheter needle in his neck, he remained calm and patient.  His eyes were bright and he was very alert to things going on around the barn.

I knew the best solution financially would be to put him down at the farm.  I could be with him during the procedure and I knew the barn owner would ensure he was buried in a beautiful field.  But I also knew that a contagious virus was still a real possibility, and I felt that a trip to the equine hospital could yield useful information for treating any other horses that became infected, and it was his only chance at survival.

I called my husband to explain the financial implications of taking him to the hospital.  (I used to have Nimo insured for both major medical and mortality, but once I had decided that I would never do colic surgery - Nimo is not the kind of horse that would tolerate the lengthy recovery period well and I can't think of a single case of a successful surgery that I know of - and that I couldn't stand the thought of an insurance company dictating my options in the event of an emergency, I dropped the insurance.)  And my husband, who has never made any secret of being completely baffled about why a person would spend so much money on an animal or hobby, said, "It doesn't matter how much it costs.  I know how important he is to you, so do whatever you need to do."  He also said he would come out to the barn to go with me, so I wouldn't be alone.

I told the vet that my decision was to take Nimo to the hospital.  I could tell she was relieved.  I think she really believed that he would have a chance at living.  She called the hospital to explain the situation and I answered some questions as well.  Then I hooked up the trailer and backed it up to the barn, so Nimo wouldn't have to walk far.  With his condition, I couldn't even imagine how he was still standing.

Loading him was difficult.  He absolutely fussed at getting on the trailer.  It could have been because it was in a different place than usual, but it may also have been his way of trying to communicate that he thought I must be stupid if I thought I was going to haul him for a ride (which is the only reason he has ever gotten on a trailer).  There is a scene in one of the Batman movies (the one when Harvey Dent kidnaps the kids of the police chief - or maybe he is a detective - I don't know the movies that well, but this scene has always horrified me).  In the scene, Harvey Dent tells the police chief to lie to his kids and tell them that they will be OK even though everyone knows he intends to shoot them.  I felt very much like I was in the same situation when I loaded Nimo on that trailer when he didn't want to go.  I told him everything was going to be fine, and he was going to a place where they were going to help him feel better.  Even though I knew it wasn't true.

My husband arrived just as I got Nimo loaded, and we all set off to the hospital.  It was an hour's drive, and it was so awful.  Gemma had come too because there was no place to leave her, and because I wanted her to have the opportunity to say goodbye.  She asked some questions about Nimo, and I felt like I was lying to her too, as I tried to be positive.

We finally made it to the hospital and it was dark by then.  Because of the possibility of infectious disease, I would no longer be able to be with Nimo once I dropped him off.  He would be in the isolation unit.

I parked and as we waited for the staff to don their PPE, Gemma and I said our goodbyes to Nimo.  I unloaded him and had him ready to hand off to the doctor in charge of his care.  Of course, he looked perky and not near death at all, so everyone was so positive and assured me that would take good care of him.  My last view of him was through the windows of his isolation stall as I drove away.  I could see him making the face that he makes when he meets someone and tries to con food out of them.

I drove the trailer back to the barn and then followed my husband home.  I waited for the call from the hospital to let me know what their assessment was.  It was about 11 pm when the vet called.  She was so sorry to tell me that an abdominal ultrasound had revealed a large amount of fluid in Nimo's abdominal cavity.  A ruptured stomach was the most likely cause.  There was regrettably only one option in the case of a ruptured stomach - euthanasia.

The one issue was that when they took a sample of the fluid, they couldn't find any feed material in it.  Even though Nimo had eaten very little for at least a couple of days, there should still have been feed material in the fluid.  So if there wasn't feed material in the fluid, that meant that there could be a cause other than a ruptured stomach for the leaking fluid.  If the leak was caused by something else, there was a small possibility that it could be repaired.

I could tell that Nimo had made good progress in his attempts to endear himself to the staff.  The vet made a point of telling me how amazingly cooperative Nimo had been.  How comfortable he seemed to be given everything that was going wrong inside his body.  She assured me that they would never let him be in pain.  But she was really bothered by the lack of feed material in the sample.  She said that while "it's not wrong" to euthanize him at this point, she felt comfortable giving him a bit more time to see if they could do another ultrasound in a few hours and take another sample, just to see if they could get more information.  (I have now learned that when vets say, "It's not wrong if you want to euthanize at this point," what they really mean is that they don't want you to do it, even though they know that not doing it means they are going to be charging you tons more money and probably prolonging the suffering of your animal so they can try to get more information that doesn't matter in the end.)

I agreed to give Nimo a few more hours of life because a small part of me was desperately clinging to this hope that maybe he would be OK.  At a little after 3:30 am, my phone rang.  It was a new vet.  A senior specialist had been called in because Nimo's symptoms and diagnostic results just were not making sense.  He was clearly not demonstrating the kind of extreme pain response that would be expected for a ruptured stomach.  But there was a whole lot of fluid in his abdominal cavity and it was looking worse.  They could find no abnormality in the scan of his internal organs.  No foreign body, no signs of an abscess or a tumor.  And still no feed material in the fluid sample.

The senior vet assured me that she was 95% certain that his stomach was ruptured and that a ruptured stomach could not be repaired.  But the lack of pain response and feed material in the sample was really bothering her.  She recommended that they do exploratory surgery to see if they could find another explanation.  She explained that if they found another reason for the leaking abdominal fluid, there was a small chance it could be repaired.  But she acknowledged that with Nimo's vital signs, he was an extremely poor candidate for anesthesia.  In addition, the long term outcome of such a surgery was unknown, but likely to be poor.

And at that point, I am very, very glad that I didn't have Nimo insured, because if an insurance company had told me that they would pay for what would be an incredibly, mind-bogglingly expensive surgery and recovery, I don't know what I would have done.  The idea that I would never see Nimo again.  That I couldn't be with him in his final moments due to COVID-19 restrictions on owners being present at their beloved horse's death (which is so very, very wrong - and if you don't agree, please, please keep that to yourself) was so painful, I could hardly breathe.  If someone had thrown me a lifeline, I might have taken it, even though I had vowed never to put Nimo through colic surgery.

But the fact of the matter is that for the last 9 hours, I had prolonged Nimo's life so that humans could get the answers they thought they needed.  His symptoms hadn't fit anything as neatly as the vets would have preferred, and the medical professionals working with him wanted definitive answers.  Amazingly, throughout all of the diagnostics and medications, he had remained calm and alert and engaged.  He had given the very best of himself, and I could no longer justify his suffering.

So at just before 4 am, I made the request to euthanize him.  After the phone call was disconnected, I realized my daughter had awakened and heard me.  She was confused and crying and so was I.  We spent a long time crying together.  And I kept desperately hoping that it was all a terrible mistake.  That the hospital would call back and tell me they realized that Nimo would be OK because they found new information.  But as time went on, the terrible knowledge that he was gone started to sink in.

I've had a few days to think back through what happened, and I still don't have a good answer.  It is almost unbelievable to think that his stomach was ruptured from the beginning.  That he could have gone through that process without giving away the terrible pain that must have preceded the rupture makes no sense.  It is just as unbelievable for me to think that he ingested something that might have cut open his stomach or intestines.  Some kind of abscess or tumor might make more sense because it may have happened less painfully or more gradually, but the ultrasound did not find any abnormality.  Of course, the scan cannot see everything.

All I know is that something went wrong inside of him and created a terrible reaction that was killing him.  The likelihood of repairing that something and then helping him to recover to live a comfortable life was almost zero.  I don't have any doubt that I made the right decision, although I do kind of wish I'd made it a little sooner.  I'm also relieved beyond words that it wasn't a virus.  I can't even imagine having to watch the other horses at my barn go through this horror.

But the reality is that the world is a little less beautiful now.  Nimo added value not only to my life, but to the lives of other people.  He had this way about him that was simply enchanting and even mesmerizing sometimes.

I don't even know how to go forward.  I know that part of it is the grief associated with losing a beloved partner, but how does one really go on after being part of the life of an animal with the beauty and magnificence of heaven, the personality of a Labrador Retriever, and the charisma of a rock star?

There is a Charley Mackesie drawing that I have always loved.  It shows a horse and a boy.  The boy says, "I can't see a way through."  The horse says, "Can you see the next step?"  The boy says, "Yes."  And the horse says, "Just take that."  Such inspirational words.  But right now I can't even see the next step.  It's too dark.

I was so blessed to have the privilege of such a wonderful creature in my life.  I am a better rider, a better horsewoman, and a better human being because of Nimo.  And despite all my mistakes and all the times I thought I couldn't go on, he kept believing in me.  He never lost faith that I could be better.  He never gave up on me even when I gave up on myself.  And he was there for me during the absolute darkest times in my life.  He gave so much more to me than I could ever have repaid.

But now during this dark time, all I have are the memories of him.  And there are so many.  I would never have met all the wonderful people in the endurance world without him or started blogging and been so pleasantly amazed at all the lovely people who read and commented on my posts.  And I would never have found the Science of Motion methodology which has helped me improve my riding and communication with Nimo so much (we even recently had a break through on canter!).  But the best memories are the ones of riding with my daughter.  We started leasing a pony part-time for her earlier this year, and she has been riding the pony (aptly named Mini) around the farm with me and Nimo.  I had fantasies of eventually being able to take my daughter and Mini on trail rides with us.

None of my dreams of taking him back out on the trails or going camping or riding with my daughter will ever come true now.  And the thought of trying to follow the same path with a new horse is something my brain cannot process.  Perhaps in time, I will be able to see a path forward, but for now, all I can do is try to absorb the grief that seems to ooze out of every pore.

My journey to 100 miles with Nimo has ended now.  We never met the goal that I set 7 years ago.  We didn't even come close.  But I learned so much about myself and about Nimo that I can't regret a single minute of it.  I thank all of you who have stopped by to check on our progress throughout the years.  I have loved every comment you have made, and it truly brightened my life to know that there were others out there who were in this horse life with me.

But much like I had to say goodbye to my lovely Nimo, I am saying goodbye to this blog.  I have other posts drafted and still more ideas, but they are pointless without my partner.  I have no idea if I will return to the world of endurance in the future, but I suspect that I will not.  If I do get another horse, we will have a different path to follow.

So, goodbye, my dear readers, and goodbye, my dearest partner.  May you run free and without pain up in the stars.
This is the very last picture I took of Nimo.  I took it a month to the day before Nimo died.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

And then we have lights!

You may remember that we had planned to go see the Festival of Lights over the weekend, but we were thwarted by Gemma's upset stomach.  We decided to try again today as our New Year's Eve celebration.  (Thus ensuring that we can all go to bed at a reasonable time - lol!)

The Festival of Lights is a 2.5 mile display of lights that you drive through.  Traffic was nonexistent this late in the season, so that meant that we were moving a bit too fast for pictures to turn out well.  But I got a few to give you an idea of the types of lighting displays.  I also took a video of my favorite section to give you a better idea of the movement that some of the displays include.

The displays aren't always Christmas-themed.  This one is from the Wizard of Oz - the blurry orange thing in the bottom right is the Cowardly Lion and if you look closely, you can see a witch flying around the castle.
Santa's Toy Co.

And so ends 2019.  Thank you for following along with my journey, as erratic as it can be sometimes.  I really do appreciate every single reader.  I'm always surprised by how much simply writing about a situation can make it seem so much better.  And I really do love writing, so it's wonderful to have a place to share.

Here's to another year gone by, full of experiences that a younger version of myself would never have begun to guess at.  And as difficult as life can be sometimes, I'm still always very glad to be able to participate.  See you next year!

Monday, December 30, 2019

A Fun Way to Track Miles

I first read about an app called Walk to Mordor on Ashley's blog:  While I enjoy the Lord of the Rings movies, I have to admit that I haven't read the books and I wouldn't consider myself a huge fan.  But the idea of tracking my ride miles in the context of Frodo's epic journey seemed kind of cool.  So I downloaded the app, and I've been using it all year, with the exception of entering my miles from this month, which I'll probably do later this week.

The app doesn't track your miles based on a GPS-type technology; rather, you just enter your miles manually for a given date.  So it actually works for hikers, runners, bikers, and riders.  What I've been doing is entering my miles every few weeks based on what I recorded in a Traveler's Notebook that I made.  It's kind of fun to watch things add up.

Here are a few screen shots to give you an idea of what the app looks like:

The Home Screen tells you how many miles you have to the end of the journey as well as to the next milestone.
The distance log is where you enter your miles by date.
There is another screen that shows progress by milestone.
You can click on any milestone to get a short narrative.
Because I'm not a hardcore fan of the LOTR trilogy, I'm not sure how accurate the information in the app is.  But one thing I do know is that it is good that the people of Middle Earth are not relying an me and Nimo to get to Mordor, because we aren't getting there anytime soon! (ha, ha!)

Sunday, December 29, 2019

For the love of art

When I first started thinking about homeschooling my daughter, I did quite a bit of research on educational philosophies and even looked at private schools in our area.  The Montessori method is quite popular, but I found myself drawn to the Waldorf method.  I really liked the focus on creativity, experiential learning, and interdisciplinary projects.

So I bought a pre-school curriculum to try.  As it turned out, it was good that I did not commit to more than one year of it, because I ended up hating it.  The exercises were so archaic that it felt like I had been transported back to the 1800s.  For example, we would sing songs about threshing wheat.  Not that threshing wheat is an inherently bad concept, but let's be serious.  We don't thresh wheat now and we haven't for a long time.  I really believe that it is important for kids to be exposed to the language that is used now and the concepts that are used now.  History or maybe science class is fine to learn about the way we used to do things, but I can't see why I need to be explaining threshing wheat to a 4-year-old.

The other thing that frustrated me was the art.  I had gotten this book that was supposed to cover art from Kindergarten through 6th grade.  I was especially excited about trying watercolor painting.  But OMG, the methodology for painting was so complicated that we spent way more time setting up and cleaning up than we did painting.  And Gemma only got to use one color.  Seriously?  Kids want to use all the colors.  They are not going to be happy painting with one color at a time.  I ended up scrapping the whole curriculum after a few months because it was just awful and not a good fit for us.

I did find better curricula for future years, but one thing that was still lacking was art.  Gemma loves to create, and I wanted to make sure I fostered that love.  Eventually I stumbled across a company called Let's Make Art that sells watercolor kits and provides free tutorials on YouTube.  I ordered a single kit back in March of this year and we tried it out.  And we had so much fun!  (This is the tutorial we did:  Rainbow Wish.)

This is my effort.
I've never considered myself artistic.  Quite the opposite, actually.  I've often wished I had more skill at drawing or painting, but the sad truth was that I rarely even doodled because I was so embarrassed about my lack of ability.  Stick figures were about the extent of what I could do.  But I had really enjoyed painting the dandelion, and I figured continuing with the tutorials would be a great way to spend time with Gemma and make sure she got a tiny bit of more formal art education.

Over the next few months, we did tons of watercolor paintings.  Some worked out better for me than others, but I got addicted and soon I was knee deep in Daniel Smith watercolor paints.  We were also getting some liquid watercolors with our Let's Make Art kits, but I found myself wanting to explore and use really high quality paint.  I had previously bought some books by Gina Rossi Armfield, and I was in love with many of her methods, but too scared to try them on my own.  Armed with the knowledge from the tutorials plus Armfield's strong recommendation for using DS watercolors, I built up quite a collection.

And the DS paints are gorgeous.  They create amazing colors on the paper and they do things like granulate and sparkle and separate in cool ways, which gives amazing effects if you learn how to use them.  But I felt like I needed more.  I ended up finding Amy Maricle's website and related Facebook group, which was so helpful.  Her focus on creative self-care was the final push I needed to dive into really creating art, not just doing an occasional tutorial with my daughter or reading books but being too scared to try anything.

In August, I hit my stride.  I started creating something everyday.  At first, it was simple stuff.

The first page in my new art journal.  If you can't read the writing, it says, "I was drawn to horses as if they were magnets.  It was in my blood.  I must have inherited from my grandfather a genetic proclivity toward the equine species.  Perhaps there's a quirk in the DNA that makes horse people different from everyone else, that instantly divides humanity into those how love horses and the others, who simply don't know." Allan J. Hamilton in Zen Mind Zen Horse
Another page in my journal.  This one is original - I used a technique I'd learned in one of the Let's Make Art tutorials and it turned out just like I imagined in my head.  Later I ended up coming back to it and writing in the spaces between the petals (or the wings - not everyone sees the same thing when they look at it).
I made these flowers on 3" circles of watercolor paper.  The flowers are based on a tutorial by Let's Make Art.  They might be my very favorite thing to paint because there is so much you can do with water and paint.  I think I painted at least 20 of these.
Another page in my art journal.  I used gel printing techniques to create the backgrounds.  The photo is from the dressage show I did in July.  The quote is, "Spiritual growth doesn't happen when you're meditating or on the yoga mat.  It happens in the midst of conflict - when you're frustrated, angry or scared, and you're doing the same old thing and then you suddenly realize that you have a choice to do it differently." Andrea Mills
An exercise from Jean Haines' book, Paint Yourself Calm.
This is my attempt to copy one of Jean Haines' paintings.  She is creates stunning work and I cannot stop looking at it.  This painting was so fun to create because I had to work quickly to use the water before it dried and I was using so many colors!
This painting was done with three colors of DS watercolor paint and I based it on a tutorial by Let's Make Art.
Another layout from my art journal in honor of Back to Hogwarts in September.  I'm a huge Harry Potter fan and the quote comes from Sirius Black - "We've all got both light and dark inside of us."  I had a great time designing this layout and finding the right paints to use.
I was terrified to create this painting.  I had this vision in my head that wouldn't go away and I finally got it out on paper.  This is done with one color - Daniel Smith hematite genuine.  I used the paint blowing technique I learned from Gina Rossi Armfield and worked loosely from a picture of a Friesian.  It was so gratifying to see this come from me.
This was another milestone painting for me.  I started with a simple exercise from Jean Haines' Paint Yourself Calm, but it left me unfulfilled, so I started adding things, and it turned out so well.  It still makes me happy to look at it.
Another one color painting.  I think I used Pyrrol Orange.  I remember I had to experiment with different pigments to find one that would react just right to the salt.  The dandelion seeds were created by applying salt to wet paint.  Such a cool effect, and a nod to my first painting back in March.
I became briefly obsessed with painting huge poppies.  This one is probably 10 x 11".
Another exercise from Paint Yourself Calm.  That book is the best at really getting you to explore paint and water.
One day I painted seven different paintings, which were all variations of a single rosemary sprig that I picked from my garden.  It was another exercise from Paint Yourself Calm, and I was so amazed that I could paint something that looked like this that I just kept doing it.
Lest you think I was neglecting my daughter's art education, let me assure you that she was painting right along with me.  I painted this flower based on a tutorial that she designed for me.  She narrated it live (and was definitely making it up as she went along) and I painted based on what she told me to do.  It was really a lot of fun!
And then the day came where I finally felt brave enough to tackle drawing a person.  I found a tutorial by Jane Davenport, and gave it a try.  This was my first attempt.  I was delighted that it did not even remotely resemble a stick figure!  Who knew I had this inside of me!
And then I found an artist named Tamara LaPorte.  She offers mini classes as well as a big year long class called Life Book.  I took one of her mini classes on painting Quirky Birds so I could expand my ability to work with mixed media.  And I was so hooked.  Quirky birds are so fun to create!  The quote on this journal page is, "In a world full of people who couldn't care less, be someone who couldn't care more."
After Quirky Birds, I took the Beautiful Bugs class, also by Tamara LaPorte.  Again, so much fun.  And you guys, I drew this bee.  I'm still in shock that I can draw anything that is remotely recognizable, much less something that actually looks like the reference photo, or in this case reference painting.

Another quirky bird and some practice doodling.  I will note the appearance of a dragonfly in my doodles.  I've never really thought about dragonflies much before.  But all of a sudden, I couldn't stop seeing them.  Dragonflies are often viewed as a symbol for change, although I didn't know that until I kept getting beat over the head with seeing them EVERYWHERE, including one that landed on the railing right in front of me on the deck.  I'm not even sure if I'd ever seen one in person before.  So I started paying attention and did some research.  I don't think there can be any question that all this art was changing me from the inside.  And the quote reflects my realization that it's OK to do stuff even if you aren't the best at it, "The woods would be very silent if no birds sang there except those that sang the best."
I started another class offered by Tamara LaPorte.  This one was specifically billed as art for healing.  I don't think I would have done it if it hadn't been free.  And when I started creating this layout, it was hard.  I won't go into the details, but there was a lot of emotional reflection that had to be done before I could create this page.  The quote I ended up choosing was the one that spoke to me the most about the process, "May you have the courage to break the patterns in your life that are no longer serving you."  I need to hang this on my bathroom mirror, because YES, so yes.  I have some patterns that need to be broken.
This lovely reindeer girl is the last piece of real art I created.  I finished it on November 30, and it was a great exercise.  I used collage to make the layers of her scarf and it was amazing.  So meditative.  A lost myself in the process for over an hour the first day I worked on it.  I've never liked collage before or had much luck with it, but it clicked for this lesson.
So you can see that I evolved from a focus on watercolor and more abstract things to working with mixed media approaches.  I really love the mixed media work - the paintings typically take a few days to a week to create, so it feels really rewarding to finish them.  But I've been missing my Daniel Smith watercolors a bit, so I suspect that I'm going to try to find a balance between using mixed media and watercolor.  And the watercolors work great for days when I want to finish something quickly.

I think one reason I felt so stressed this month was because I didn't have any time to create art.  I had gotten used to having it in my life almost every day, and it's absence had a strong impact.  I am definitely committed to keeping the art in my life - it is stunning to see the things I created when I look back on them, and if there is a lesson here, it is that it is never too late to bring art into your life:)

Saturday, December 28, 2019

So you get a picture of my fish...

I had originally planned to post lovely pictures of our annual holiday lights festival.  However, on the way to see said lights, our daughter felt sick and vomited all over the car.  It turns out that there is a limit to how long the average human being can smell vomit without wanting to rip their nose off, and that limit is less than the amount of time that it would have taken for us to complete our journey to see the lights.  And then we would have had to drive through the miles-long light display before going home.  We decided that even though Gemma said she felt much better, we would try the light display another time.

When we got home, my husband handled cleaning up in the car while I got the child cleaned up.  (I totally got the better end of that deal, especially because the car she threw up in was his.  Sometimes karma smiles upon me...)  Then I had to hang out with Gemma for awhile because she said she was feeling sick again.

So the best I can do for you today is tell you a little about one of my fish tanks, which is completely and absolutely unrelated to horses in any way.  We have a male betta named Stanley.  He lives in a 10 gallon tank in our family room, and I think I've had him for a little over a year.  He's a delightful little fellow who never gets upset about anything and will absolutely take food off of the tip of your finger very gently.  He's so chill that I've contemplated the possibility of putting him in with other fish.  Usually male bettas will rip other fish to shreds, but Stanley has never so much as flared a fin at anything and he seems very comfortable with snails.  On the other hand, I worry he might not get enough to eat because he is so gentle.  My rasboras literally attack the food when I put it in the tank and they are tiny pigs about it, so I suspect they would not be good candidates for Stanley's buddies.

Anyway, the interesting thing about this particular tank is that it has evolved (or some might say devolved).  It is a planted blackwater tank, which is common enough to have a few Facebook groups devoted to the concept, but isn't really mainstream yet because it doesn't work well with what most people consider to be an aesthetically pleasing aquarium.  Most people struggle with plants that get out of control and they don't like the tannin-stained water either, even though tannins are really good for most fish.  In my opinion, planted blackwater tanks should probably be the goal for most freshwater fish owners because they have the capability to function as ecosystems and meet fish needs so much better than the sterile and clean environments that most people seem to prefer.  Plus, once they get set up, they typically require less maintenance.  But it can be really intimidating to set them up and most live fish stores don't keep a lot of the things needed in stock, nor do their staff have the expertise to advise new fish owners.

I set my tank up with plants and wood and leaves and seed pods and rocks and then sort of let it go.  It's been fascinating to watch.  I was a little concerned when it went through a crazy algae phase, but an accidental snail infestation fixed that problem.  Then I had the snail infestation, but that resolved on its own as well.  The tank seems pretty balanced now, with a crazy tangle of plants both below and above the water, a few snails, and almost zero algae.  (Who knew aquatic plants could produce purple flowers in their emergent state?)

I feel like the tank is at least in the ball park of what a wild betta could experience and Stanley seems to love swimming amongst all the plants.  Plus the plants handle the nutrient overload from the fish and the snails.  And the snails eat the algae.  As a bonus, I'm growing duckweed on the top of the water and guess who gets the extras when I pull it out of the aquarium?  (Apparently it is called duckweed for good reason!)  So I don't have to do all the water changes and algae scraping that are typical fish tank maintenance activities.  I can just enjoy my lovely fish:)  And I might be strange, but I have come to love the unkept look of the tank.  It seems more like getting a glimpse of a natural habitat than looking at a display.

Hey human, do you have any food for me?

Friday, December 27, 2019

Remineralizing the Soil

One thing that I hoped would happen after I moved the ducks out to our acreage was that I would be spending more time out there and start to feel more comfortable being out there.  I suspected that without the daily draw of the ducks, I would not go out there much.  And I really wanted to put myself in a position to start really seeing the land and planning for a horse barn.

For once, my plans worked out really well.  Because I'm out at the acreage at least once a day, I'm starting to get the hang of the rhythm of the property.  I see what parts stay wet after a rain, which parts really need more soil brought in, and which parts I need to prioritize the next time I rent a brush hog.

I was so inspired by being out there that I ordered a couple of pear trees from a nearby orchard to plant at some point before March.  I also started working on diagrams of where other fruit trees might go as well as figuring out the possibilities for a garden.

As part of my interest in a garden, I remembered an ebook I had purchased quite awhile ago.  It covered the concept of a minibed garden on plastic.  When I first bought the book, I think I had been thinking of using the ideas within the context of the few raised beds I keep in my front yard.  But I ended up putting it away and not really doing anything with it.  Then, all of a sudden, I realized that the concept would be perfect for our acreage.  Unlike the yard at our house, which is uneven and slopes quite steeply, our acreage is reasonably level.  And unlike the yard at our house, which is populated with huge rocks, our acreage has no rocks, so it isn't so hard to plant and doesn't need raised beds to make gardening bearable.  Not everyone is crazy about the idea of using plastic mulch, but I have to admit that after many years of dealing with weeds that seem to grow a foot overnight, I'm ready to try something different.  I would rather get good food using plastic than lose most of my crop to weeds.

When I started re-reading the ebook, I knew I really wanted to try the concept out this coming spring.  I also happened to have another book by the same author, Herrick Kimball, called the Planet Whizbang Idea Book for Gardeners, and I skimmed through that one as well.  Kimball wrote about the concept of remineralizing the soil and he referenced a couple of books on the topic.  I found The Intelligent Gardener by Steve Solomon and The Ideal Soil v2.0 by Michael Astera to be fascinating reading.  One thing that disturbed me quite a bit was the analysis of the nutrients in an apple grown in 1914 as compared with one grown in 1992.  The amounts of Calcium, Phosphorus, Iron, and Magnesium were so much lower that I wonder what the point of eating an apple is.  The way farming has been carried out has damaged the soil so much.  The other thing that I really took away was that simply adding compost to your soil doesn't necessarily do much good.  Soil, especially neglected or mismanaged soil, is more complicated than that.  And if you want to grow nutrient dense food, it is important to pay attention to the nutrients in your soil.  You simply cannot expect to keep growing things and removing the harvest without putting something back in to replace what was lost in a targeted way.

I decided I wanted to put the information I'd read about to the test.  I ended up getting a soil probe, and my daughter and I went out one day to take soil samples with the probe, so I could have a soil test done.

Using a soil probe is harder than it looks!
I mixed up the samples we collected and sent off a package to the soil lab recommended by Astera.  I got my results back really quickly by email.  See below.

One of the most important numbers to pay attention to on the report is the Total Exchange Capacity.  I'll spare you the scientific explanation, but it essentially means how much fertility the soil can retain.  When I sent my results to Michael Astera himself to be analyzed and get fertilizer recommendations, he said that my soil was among the lowest fertility soils he'd ever analyzed.  That isn't surprising actually, because the soil on our acreage is composed of what is considered ancient clay.  This clay has been around for a very long time and with the high rainfall in our area, much of the minerals have been leached from the top soil.  And I already suspected the soil wasn't that good just based on what I've seen growing there, which is a lot of scrubby, brushy things.  These scrubby, brushy things probably have extensive root systems so that they can draw nutrients from the subsoil instead of the top 6-12 inches, which doesn't have much to offer.

What this means is that I have my work cut out for me if I want to make our acreage a productive place for growing fruit trees, a garden, and a horse pasture.  Thankfully, as long as I keep my soil improvements concentrated to smaller areas (like a half acre), the soil amendments that I need to add are affordable.  I really should have limed my field with what might seem like an excessive amount of lime already (1,750 pounds for a half acre!).  This high amount is partly to address the fertility issue, partly to address the pH issue, and partly to address low Calcium.  These three issues are likely connected to each other.  Plus, we have high rainfall, so anything I add will be leached quickly until the soil develops the capacity to retain it.

Typically liming is done in the fall so that the lime can leach through the soil a little before spring.  (And there is a chemical reaction that really needs to happen which takes some time and helps improve the soil's ability to accept additional minerals in the spring.)  Unfortunately, by the time I'd gotten the analysis from my soil test, it was a bit too late.  The ground was alternating between being frozen and wet enough to have standing water.  Neither of those conditions are appropriate for spreading anything.

So I will try to get it done in March, and I'll add the lime with all the other amendments and till it in.  I think tilling is not always recommended, but in my case, my soil is really hurting and if I want to try to grow anything on it besides brush and weeds, I have to get the minerals in the soil.  Plus, when I contacted a local feed store about purchasing lime, I discovered there was a study by Virginia Tech that found that it takes lime about a year to leach down through one inch of soil.  If you can't till because you have pasture or an orchard, you have to live with those slow results.  But I can till, so I can get minerals into the top six inches pretty quickly, although it will still take some time for the chemical reactions that need to happen in order for the soil to actually start improving.

I really like the idea of leaving our acreage in better condition than when we got it, so this spring you will find me behind a spreader and a tiller as I happily distribute minerals throughout my soil:)