Thin Horses, Body Scoring, and Inconvenience.

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Start here: There is no rule that says when a horse’s age goes up, his weight needs to come down. Age is no excuse for thin horses.

It’s my Grandfather Horse on the right in the photo. You can tell he’s three-times the age of the other horse because he’s sway-backed. He was thirty when he passed, with a list of maladies a mile long: nearly toothless, blown tendons, arthritis, heart murmur, cancer, and near the end, some sort of stroke… but his weight was just dandy. #ageisnoexcuse.

I have a filthy habit. I attend horse abuse cases in court. On sunny days, when I could be giving lessons or working with my horses, I sit in rooms with no windows to listen to lies. This week, two of us from Colorado Horse Rescue Network drove to the next county to sit in court. If I was guaranteed convictions with real penalties, I’d call it a guilty pleasure

The hard part of this dark hobby is listening to the evidence. Testimony on behalf of the horses includes the state of the facility; the quantity of manure, along with usual empty water tanks, and lack of feed. There are usually statements about the condition of the horse’s feet and their teeth, but their weight is the most visible symptom. We use a BCS (body condition score) rating system to describe the physical state of the horse on a scale from one to nine.

The most common excuse that lousy horse owners use to justify neglecting their horses is claiming that older horses are just naturally skinny. And yes, there are a million other flimsy excuses for how horses get to this sad state, but it’s ridiculous how often you hear the “old horse” excuse. Ridiculous how many elders that end up at auctions look like the walking dead. Ridiculous how little it takes for these same elders (without health issues) to regain a healthy weight.

Disclaimer: Sometimes good horse-people get into trouble. There could be a death in the family or a job loss. Law enforcement doesn’t want to seize horses; it’s actually a complicated process. They would rather help the owner find a solution. By the time charges get filed, it generally means that the owner has refused a few ideas.

How to tell the difference between an owner who’s trying and actual neglect? My personal rule is that if the water tanks are empty, it’s a bad sign. Water is free, after all. Even if it is inconvenient to walk out to the pen.

Horses who lose weight with feed available probably have a dental problem. Equine teeth “erupt” through horse’s lives; they continue to grow. Daily grazing wears the teeth down but as time passes, sometimes the teeth don’t wear evenly, leaving sharp hooks and edges that result in painful ulcers inside the mouth and less effective mastication (chewing) means less of the nutrition in the hay is available to the horse and he loses weight… not because of his age.

Good horse-people get dental care for their horses; “floating” is the process of filing the teeth level to improve the tooth surface for effective chewing.

Confession: Growing up, I don’t remember seeing floats done. We were poor farmers and my father dispatched “useless” animals that were thin or old. Times change and when we know better, we can do better. Ignorance is no excuse. Checking teeth is part of a routine vet check. Unless, of course, a horse doesn’t get consistent veterinary care, either.

Sometimes in a pen of horses, a few will be an okay weight but others will be too thin. They are being under-fed. The more assertive horses are eating the hay while the more submissive ones are starving. It’s still neglect; don’t wait until they are all emaciated.

So, there you are in court, listening to a cloud of evidence: some combination of no hay, or no vet care, or just lies and excuses. The defendant always has friends in the court, ready to testify on behalf of the abuser. I always wonder if they are such good friends, why didn’t they step in and offer help before things got so bad?

Last year in court, at the end of a full week of expert testimony about the horrific neglect that had resulted in the death of over half of her herd, I listened to a life-long horse-owner explain to the jury, in a perfectly reasonable way, that her horses weren’t show horses and they just didn’t need that level of care. I looked to the jury and no one’s chin was on their chest. It sounded almost rational. Almost believable.

Don’t be fooled. Neglect is failing to provide adequate care to any animal you possess and it’s against the law.

Now for the rant: I know caring for animals is inconvenient. It’s just true–endless time and endless money. And as time passes, you might have to soak mush or buy bags of senior feed. But still, the crime isn’t getting old– it’s lacking the compassion to inconvenience yourself.

I want to ask a favor. Remembering every chubby old sway-backed horse you’ve known, please consider posting a photo of them on your Facebook page and copy/paste the hashtag #AgeIsNoExcuse to the Colorado Horse Rescue Network page. Then “like” the other photos there. Help us debunk the “skinny old horse” myth.

If you feel you owe a debt to horses in your life, please participate in our legal system. Bear witness in court; let them know the community cares about animal welfare. Too many times people put their personal convenience above the needs of others, when it’s our character at stake.

And if you see a thin horse, kindly ask the owner about floating. Make it easy; say that you didn’t always know about it, either. Give them the chance to do the right thing.

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Here’s our foster, Lilith. She arrived in May, extremely elderly, rail thin, and with, in the equine dentist’s words, “expired teeth.” This fall, I cut back on her feed, worried that too much weight would make her move a little stiffer than she does already…

#AgeIsNoExcuse

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

Email Subject Line: “Do I Want a Horse?”

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February 2nd, 10 pm, 12 degrees. There was dense fog all day. We didn’t see the sun and the temperature stayed in the teens. My barn is full now, with three fosters visiting, on top of the usual herd of boarded horses and my family horses.

It’s time for the night feeding; double socks in my muck boots, sweats over my pajama bottoms, coat zipped to the very top, and two layers of hats and gloves. The dogs come with me as I carry two buckets of warm mush. One is for the elderly toothless donkey who can’t stay warm by chewing hay all night like the others. There’s some of her supper frozen in her feed-pan; she’s a slow eater. The other bucket is for two of the fosters who could use just a bit extra on such a bitter night. Everyone else gets extra hay, a flake of alfalfa, and a visual once-over.

I’ve fallen hard enough on icy ground that I’ve had to catch my breath and then crawl to a safe place to stand again; I swear, icy nights are more dangerous than horses. So, it’s small steps, testing my boot cleats as I go around the barn to throw hay in the back pen. I want to put eyes on everyone, but now my headlamp is flickering. A bit of whacking and head-shaking works and when I’m finally satisfied everyone is okay, I head back to the house and un-peel. My boots and coat are off when I remember the water. There’s one tank that I should have topped off. The layers come back on and I waddle out the back door again, with fewer dogs this time.

My barn hydrant has been frozen all week, so I’ve rolled out hose from the far side of the house. I can’t stand the thought of hose-wrangling on this night, when the frost is as thick as snow, so I walk a pair of five-gallon buckets instead.

Here’s why you should particularly not feel sorry for me. Right about now, I set the buckets down, pull my phone out, and take my gloves off. It’s so beautiful that, even in the dark, I take a few shots. It all looks night-vision green in my view finder and my eyes are too cold to focus. Then as I deliver the water, Edgar Rice Burro exhales a staccato series of heavy breaths, his precursor to braying, and I give him an extra scratch before going in for the night.

Thursday is blog night, these last seven years, so the dogs and I go to my studio to start writing. If there’s anything less romantic than below-freezing trips to the barn, it’s pounding out a blog past bed-time. Feel no sympathy for me; I’m hooked.

I’ve been thinking about an email I received from a stranger. The subject line asked, “Do I Want a Horse?” What a silly question, of course, you do.

The email was from a woman of a certain age, who has taken riding lessons every week for a couple of years but dreams of having horses at her home. Her husband and family think she shouldn’t; she thinks I might be impartial since I don’t know her. Really? I’m not sure I’m the right person to ask. Even now, I’m haunted every day by the desire to have a horse.

It was a serious question and I gave her a serious answer. Keeping a horse at home is ugly work, not just for the weather. It’s constant fence repair and mucking and less time to ride than you imagine. I reeled off the numbers; cost of care, feed, vets, farriers, and all the rest. But the money is the easiest part.

Horses are somehow both accident prone and dangerous. They get hurt or sick and it isn’t always obvious until it’s bad. It takes years to gain the required knowledge and methods to keep them well. Then, she’ll need two; it’s cruel to own one horse. And she’ll need a truck and trailer and a safe place to ride. Or if she hauls to ride or have lessons, the horse left home might have anxiety, so maybe three horses are a better number. It gets complicated fast.

The heartfelt wish to have a horse is the selfish and easy part. I tell her it isn’t so simple to just get rid of them if it doesn’t work out. I give her the commitment talk. And of course, she must include them in her will to avoid them landing in rescue or on a truck to Mexico, if they outlive her. Then I urge her to make a list of what she’d be willing to give up if push comes to shove.

Sometimes parents ask me about a horse for their kid (and none of us are much more mature than that) and I always say no, don’t do it. Instead, lease a horse at a barn. When we get it wrong, it’s the horse that suffers.

But if the kid (you) can’t eat, or sleep, and begs relentlessly for at least a year, then consider getting a horse. But only do this thing if you think you’ll die without one. Know that you will see ugly things that will haunt you forever and you’ll be terrified a good part of the time. It’s a lot to go through for the view of a horse outside your window. Then, take the leap, if you must.

I never candy-coat horse ownership, but what I don’t say (and what I really believe) is that there’s too much cheap talk about loving horses. I never think it’s about owning one. I think we need to own all of them–each one of us literally owning each one of them.

I wish it was all more absolute. Not just the conditional love of a personal horse, or loving a breed of horses, but accepting the old crippled ones, the babies that need care and training, and the ones destroyed by abuse and neglect. It’s about track horses and plow horses and horses past any kind of work. It’s volunteering at a local rescue or therapeutic program when you’re done at home. It’s taking in an elder in the name of a heart-horse you’ve lost. And when your barn is full, then get out the checkbook and spend whatever’s left there to support local riding programs and rescues. Show up and witness abuse cases in court; call your elected officials on horses’ behalf. Then hope to encourage others by your example.

Do I think you should you get a horse? No. You should get all of them.

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….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

Photo Challenge: New Horizon

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inconvenience be damned
the next improbable
howl of resilience
is just beyond the word
yes

so just yes


Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro
(WordPress Photo Challenge is a weekly prompt to share a photo–I enjoy twisting these macro prompts to share our micro life here on the Colorado prairie. My photos are taken with my phone, on my farm. No psych, definitely not high tech.)

Negotiating; Not Fighting.

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It was last spring when this ancient donkey came to the farm. In the beginning, we thought she might not make it. Nobody likes change but we couldn’t tell if it was a hunger strike or her organs shutting down.

Then she nibbled and sipped and gave us a chance. She gained weight. Upper-thirties, we’re thinking. She has no teeth; she can’t graze. Her big old ears are mostly deaf and her eyesight is poor. We call her Lilith.

And I’m not saying Lilith’s quirky, but the only friend she’s made is the goat. And that only happened after she managed to kick him in the head.

Some days her walk was almost remotely fluid, all things considered.  But by fall, she took a bad step sometimes, and it developed into a limp. After a few months of actual nutrition, her hooves started changing. I thought I saw a crack, not that she let me near her hooves.

Let’s be clear; she was alive for a reason and it wasn’t being stupid about her feet. That’s how predators kill donkeys out on the prairie; they clamp down a leg and it’s all over.

At the same time, Lilith developed a new habit of coming up to strangers for a scratch. It almost created the illusion that she’d surrendered. I knew better. If my hand snuck a few inches south of her spine, her hind end came my way fast.

Our dance must have been a strange-looking event; Lilith teetering her butt around stiffly, her hind hooves twitching up and down fast enough to send me scurrying out of her way. Is this what all my years of dressage training have come to? A war of wits with a relic of a donkey. Well, yes.

Choosing to not pick a fight is always the right answer. But it doesn’t mean giving in either. I like to call it peaceful persistence.

Our process had to speed up now that she was hurting. I set a date with Roxann, my farrier, and came up with a plan.

I rigged up makeshift stocks by dragging an old gate into the corner of a pen. I secured the front of the gate to the fence panel at a corner using twine. It isn’t that twine works all that well, but it’s a tradition at this point. Sometimes I even think twine’s good luck. The gate was angled wide, with a bowl of feed at the ready.

Then I led her in and slowly lifted the gate, bringing it parallel to the fence panel, but not tight enough to squeeze Lilith. My friend, Nickole, offered her a snack which was apparently an insult. Lilith pulled back, I held onto the lead rope, and began slowly touching her shoulder. She was mad, nipping at me while I sweet-talked her.

Finally, I lifted the first foot. Good girl. For all the thousands of times I’ve cleaned hooves and never seen a rock, this time there is a sharp one wedged deep by her frog, and I went for it. There’s no telling how long it had been there; years maybe.

It probably would have been good to stop right there, but I worried about what I might find in her other front hoof. She was stomping mad when I got to her other side; meaning stomping quick enough that I couldn’t catch her hoof. Now would have been the time to get frustrated or even just more forceful. I went extra slow picking her hoof up, then quickly picked it clean. We let her hind feet wait. She paused to glare at me good and hard before walking away. Never underestimate a donkey’s memory.

The next week, all I saw was her backside. Instead of our usual scratch-fests, she only seemed to remember the atrocity, and spun gingerly around, kicking at me as she left. If her hooves felt better, she didn’t say so. I went to work melting her new grudge, and just when she was almost accepting scratches again, the farrier came.

The same chute set-up, except that I thought she’d had probably stressed her neck pulling back, so this time her head was loose at the front of the chute and I had a rope behind her rump. Roxann began slowly touching her leg, until finally, Lilith released a foot. Nickole, with the feed pan again; this time Lilith ate a few bites. She was so mad it is more like she bit her feed, the way she wanted to bite us.

The trimming took a few minutes but Lilith stood well. It was a long time on one front foot. After a rest and more sweet talk, lifting the second foot seemed much harder. It would have been the time most people would have doubled down to push on through. She’s little and frail; the three of us could have manhandled her easily.

Instead, my farrier started humming softly, and Lilith lost the will to attack her feed pan or any of us. We all praised her, grumpy as she was. When we finished, she limped away–sore and unhappy.

It didn’t help that the weather turned cold. I was back to wondering about her quality of life. Now she seemed all-over uncomfortable: Still sore in front and her hind seemed worse as well. I gave her a couple more weeks. Everything goes slower with elders.

Then I had the rescue’s vet out to check Lilith. She perked right up and walked toward the vet with curiosity. No way was she standing still for that stethoscope, though. I got the halter slowly over her nose before it occurred to her what that might mean. She walked off while I was trying to clasp the buckle. She kept on pushing and I kept on struggling. Think very slow motion bull-dogging, only now I’m fussing trying to get my gloves off, too. Negotiating; not fighting.

Then Lilith stood quietly in the stocks, picked up her feet fairly peacefully, and she still passively tried to bite the vet, as a matter of pride. The vet scratched her kindly. Who doesn’t love an opinionated old donkey?

Lilith’s diagnosis: Not bad for her age; let’s try some Previcox for the pain, and see if she can be more comfortable. Probably a decent diagnosis for me, too.

That’s how negotiation works; you refuse to escalate. In time, everyone gets to have their way. Just not all at once.

….
Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Speaker, Equine Pro

 

The Passion to Punish

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First, last, and always, this is the truth about communication with animals: Punishment is the lowest form of expression.

A photo of this foster dog snuck out and a couple folks asked me about him. Okay, I’ll tell you, but if you’re expecting one of my clever posts about Corgi hijinks, you’ll be disappointed. This biggest feeling I have about this dog is that I’m mad. Really mad.

I don’t write about all the animals we foster here. A couple of months ago, Jack, a Corgi-Jack Russell cross, was here for a foster/evaluation visit. He was a riot. I’m not sure why he was relinquished, but he was a dog’s dog. Maybe his owners wanted a people-dog. I suppose depending on how you see things, his problem could have been his “bad” half. He was the personification of both breeds, loud and proud.

A great dog-woman adopted him and they are busy living happily ever after. She keeps me posted on the battle to see who gets under the covers first. It was a simple foster to a happy ending. They should all be this easy.

This new white-bellied foster dog isn’t so easy. See how cute he is when he’s nearly napping? He came to rescue with his shock collar and his meds; he’s on canine Prozac. Oh, and he’s just thirteen months old.

His owners were first-time dog owners. I think they did their best but got the very worst advice available. As much as it pains me to talk badly about an animal, this pup has a list of problems that are destructive, or scary, or both. The fancy term is resource guarding, but it’s complicated. He isn’t just quirky. He’s a mess. And still very cute belly-up.

He went to an obedience class. The pup sits and shakes and goes in his crate. But somehow while learning tricks, the conversation must have changed, because someone thought a shock collar was a good idea. Who uses a shock collar on a puppy?

This is what Lara, from the positive dog training blog, Rubicon Days, has this to say about shock collars: “The argument is not that they are not or cannot be effective. The argument is that the potential fallouts of training with these devices can be increased aggression, shutting down, and confused associations. Aside from not wanting to deliberately hurt or scare my dogs, these risks are too great.” 

And if that wasn’t enough, what kind of vet prescribes Prozac for a puppy? A Corgi puppy? Does that qualify as an oxymoron? I remember back in the day that people used Prozac as a murder defense, claiming aggression was a side effect. Did he even weigh twenty pounds?

***Cue the Rant***

Most days, I want to scream at the top of my lungs, “Stop taking advice from idiots!”

(Remember me? I’m the one who always recommends that people ask for help. As if there was an easy way to spot idiots–even professional idiots. At the same time, when I hear people say that all trainers are idiots and I want to raise my hand and say, “not me.” Like any trainer would admit to being an idiot, even if they were. It’s a dilemma.)

The first day, this little foster destroyed a couple of toys, stole most of my socks, unloaded some shelves, and shredded a cardboard box into small bits. He’s frantic out of his crate, but he’s been crated so much I want to give him a chance. He has no recall and he wanted to play with the other dogs so hard that he pushed them relentlessly. Now they don’t like him much.

Then he ate one of my Crocs. A few minutes later, he got another Croc. I think you know what that means to me…. I looked at him and he stopped chewing. He sat dead still, his brow furrowed, braced for something bad. I still haven’t made a peep, but he’s worried and puts his head in a corner. How many people have failed this dog in his short life? That’s what I’m mad about. Not him.

So, for now, this little guy is in detox. His meds certainly weren’t helping. He’s still waiting for that sting that makes his head want to explode, but it isn’t going to come. Sometimes he flashes his temper and starts a fight. Then he falls asleep with his pasty white belly as vulnerable as a baby. Sometimes he won’t let me touch his neck. He’s afraid of flyswatters. Other times he crawls into my chair and lays his big, flat head on my chest and looks into my eyes.

Right now, my plan is to let him breathe. He needs time. I called a moratorium on punishment. He’s had enough discipline for a lifetime. Instead, he gets to chew sticks in the yard and I hid my shoes. Sometimes, he comes now, if you say good boy first.

As concerned as I am for him, I might be more concerned for us. Are we so intolerant that we have to legitimize torture for puppies? It’s profanity; dogs are our best animal friends. If humans truly have a passion for punishment, then it’s us that need to learn to get along.

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro
I recommend a book a friend wrote: Bark and Lunge, by Kari Neumeyer. It’s the story a reactive dog whose loving owner looks for help in all the wrong places.

Winterizing the Compassion Fatigue. Again.

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Chatting lightly about weather is considered the tiniest of small talk, unless you live outside the urban bubble. We take it more seriously out here on the prairie.

There was ice in the water troughs this week. It’s dark early now, and the sun is cooling. The flies are slow and stupid, but still with us. The horses and donkeys have grown their winter coats and just like usual, I haven’t added a single hair.

Are there flies in heaven? I mean just tell me now. (I notice I’m a bit testy.)

For a start, I cleaned the tack room, updated the first aid kit, and pulled out the winter blankets, just in case. Then I mucked out my own mind for a while. It was sorely needed.

There’s a term used in the caregiving world: Compassion Fatigue. The physical expression of that term has to be a long deep sigh.

It isn’t an accidental condition, like getting a cold. It’s a term we first heard of in medical caregiving professions, but it soon spread to animal welfare workers and many other helping professions. The shoe fits a lot of us.

I like this definition. It’s broad and it includes real life: “Compassion fatigue is the cumulative physical, emotional and psychological effect of exposure to traumatic stories or events when working in a helping capacity, combined with the strain and stress of everyday life.” –The American Bar Association. (Who would have thought?)

It’s when a few layers of normal things like work and financial responsibilities and world events meet up with fear and loss and exhaustion, along with the awareness that you aren’t getting younger. It feels a bit like doubt, only sticky and dark. Your horse might be the first one to mention your change.

There’s always a fence to mend before the weather changes, and in that quiet work, I indulge my voices. Yes, I hear voices. It’s my parents, both gone for decades now, who come back to nag me for my foolishness.

My father did not suffer idiots. Well into my adulthood, he wanted me to “grow up,” which always meant act like him. After all, the world is cruel and no place for ridiculous idealists. Idealist is my word for it; like most bullies, his terminology was more coarse.

My mother’s approach was practical; she pleaded with me to be more “normal”; to keep my head down. Always reminding me that life was a veil of tears. My mother knew the safe comfort of giving in and suffering silently.

Here’s what I like about replaying the old tapes–I remember who I am. I remember my particular rebellion–it hasn’t changed. I choose to care. In their eyes, I cared about things that were like gravity; things that weren’t worth fighting because they were never going to change. You can’t save them all, so don’t even try.

My steadfast response: For the ones I help, like this relic of a donkey, all is saved.

Now I’m preparing for my hay delivery by pulling out pallets to clean out the musty hay underneath. Change is inevitable. That’s a given, but the passing of a season is like an arm around your shoulder, urging you to scurry along. Okay, okay.

I admit it. It’s been a rough summer. I don’t think of myself as a worrier, but I do keep my mind busy. It’s a choice to be aware; choosing to care is a kind of prayer to the world. What some people see as a weakness, I am most certain can be our greatest strength: To stay vulnerable in the face of darkness. To hold a vision, against the odds. It’s our superpower.

Perhaps compassion fatigue isn’t the worst thing. It means you have compassion as a pre-requisite, and that requires a special kind of strength in the first place. It’s knowing inside that you have enough to spare and then taking a step forward when a door to possibility opens. It’s the best in us. Against skeptics, fly that flag high and proud.

I drag the tank heaters to the barn with a smile. Hail damage got us a new roof and I upgraded. I know the animals will be a bit more snug this winter. Everyone’s weight is good, the llamas are in full fleece, and I’m considering growing some hair between my toes. It seems to work well for the dogs.

Experts say that the remedy for compassion fatigue is self-care. It’s the art of showing yourself the same compassion you have for rescue horses, stray dogs, and your dear ones. It means letting yourself be the stray dog that you welcome into your own heart. To come in out of the cold, welcomed by the person you were meant to be.

My spiritual beliefs rest with nature. It’s my test of true; I’m comforted that gravity works on all of us. I trust the natural laws. I trust that the monotone prairie is just resting and that the sun’s warmth will return. Nothing dies; it transforms. And as butterfly-vulnerable as we can be, the more compassion and growth are possible.

Sometimes there is a sunset like tonight. Just one beret-shaped cloud perched on Pikes Peak, Jupiter is alone in the southern sky, and a peachy pink and orange gloaming soaks down to the tall grasses; the world is filled with unbearably precious beauty. This dusk coats good things and bad things as equals, as we choose. Being vulnerable means that I can have this infinite moment of perfection.

Meanwhile, back in the house, there’s a new Corgi foster dog here. He’s just a year old and the survivor of both shock collar “training” and canine Prozac. He’s a trainwreck, and maybe part of me is, too. But we’re going to bark and chew our way through this, under the prairie moon.

 

Anna Blake at Infinity Farm
Horse Advocate, Author, Equine Pro

The Fine Art of Cantankery.

lillith I’ve had a hard time acting my age. That’s not it, exactly. It’s more like I’m straddling the Grand Canyon between my usual teen angst and dealing with the fact I’m supposed to be wearing support hose. It all started with my birthday. Two years ago.

Then recently a donkey came to the rescue that I work with. She was nothing special, really. Her “selling point” was her age, I guess. We joked about needing to carbon date her. We’re guessing upper thirties. At least. Continue reading “The Fine Art of Cantankery.”