Posted by: barn owl | April 24, 2009

Use It Up

A colleague of mine told me that her parents had a Depression-era mantra: Use it up, wear it out, make do, or do without. Since our current era includes an economic depression, I decided to try to adopt this mantra myself. Recently, a friend gave me a large box of yarn, left over from projects that her mother (now deceased) had completed. It’s all acrylic yarn, and I wanted to use it in some way, so I decided to make a washable afghan from a very simple single crochet pattern. I’ve made several of these for family and friends, and the afghan works up quite quickly with a size Q crochet hook, and holding two strands of yarn together. Here’s what the Use It Up afghan looks like so far:


There were a number of red, white, and blue yarn skeins in the box, and I had some blue yarn left from an afghan I’d made for my nephew. The afghan will be patriotic-looking as a result, so perhaps I can donate it to a charity for veterans.

One of the ideas for Earth Day resolutions that I read about was “Vegan Before 6:00”. I decided to try this, but I adapted it to be a little more flexible: two vegan meals per day, my choice. Today lunch and dinner are vegan, and for lunch, I made the Spicy Eggplant Pasta Salad with Calamata Olives, from Susann Geiskopf-Hadler and Mindy Toomay’s book The Vegan Gourmet. Here’s what it looks like:


Posted by: barn owl | April 21, 2009

What Killed the Lechuza Polo Horses?
Polo is a demanding sport for both horses and riders, and the top international polo teams, sponsored by fabulously wealthy patrons, compete every year in South Florida. The culmination of the Palm Beach polo season is the US Open Championship, played at the International Polo Club grounds in Wellington. This year, a shocking tragedy unfolded Sunday as 21 horses from the Lechuza Caracas team collapsed and died, within hours after being unloaded from a trailer and groomed to play a match against Black Watch. These were undoubtedly the best horses in Lechuza’s string, in the prime of equine life, and at peak fitness and training. Many of the horses were owned by the team’s patron, Venezuelan businessman Victor Vargas, and each polo pony was valued at approximately US$100,000. However, it’s difficult to put a precise dollar value on all the training, conditioning, care, and breeding strategies that produced such elite equine athletes, and the Lechuza polo players have lost their trusted friends and talented teammates as well. Wellington veterinarians determined that the onset of illness was too sudden to be attributed to an infectious pathogen, but at this point the cause of death remains unknown, and is speculated to involve a toxin in the feed, water, injections, or supplements given to the horses.

Why is polo such an expensive sport, with international-level competition accessible only to the extremely wealthy? Obviously, the horses and their maintenance – feed, board, shoes, veterinary care, training- require a substantial amount of money. Unlike the related sport of polocrosse, which can be played competitively with just one horse, polo requires several horses for each player. A player at the level of low-goal “club” polo (which believe me, is sufficient adrenaline rush for most sane individuals) can compete with two to four horses in her string, which is manageable on an upper middle class income in some parts of the US. Mid- to high-goal polo, however, requires a string of at least six horses for each player on the team, i.e. one horse for each period, or chukker. And we haven’t even discussed club fees, tournament fees, grooms, or professional polo players who require payment.


Campeonata Mundial de Polo – photo by edcarsi under Creative Commons License

At this point I should explain some polo rules and terminology. First, “low-goal” vs. “high-goal” … what’s up with that? Well, every polo player has a numerical handicap, assigned by the club and the US Polo Association (or similar international organizations). A player starts at -2, and the highest possible handicap (for outdoor polo) is +10; realistically, you’re doing damn well to be rated at 0 or +1. In fact, I was over the moon for days every time someone told me I had made a “one-goaler play” in a polo match. There are only a handful of ten-goalers worldwide, and most of them are from Argentina. Polo leagues are set up according to the combined handicaps of the four players on each team. Typically, team handicaps for low-goal polo are between 4 and 8; for example, I (-1 at the time) once played on a team with another -1, a +1, and a +5, for a combined handicap of +4. In contrast, combined handicaps for teams competing in the US Open Polo Championship are as high as 26; with three players at 7 or 8 goals, and the patron at 1 goal, Lechuza Caracas has a team handicap of 23. The Black Watch team that Lechuza was to have played on Sunday has a handicap of 25, and the Crab Orchard team has a handicap of 26.


Polo in the Country – photo by Paul Keleher under Creative Commons license

OK, now that you have the goal thing sussed, why are so many horses required for each player? A polo field is 300 yards long and 160 yards wide, and the entire pitch (as well as bits at the ends and along the sides) is used again and again throughout the course of a chukker (thus the need for divot-stomping). Each chukker is 7 minutes long, with the clock stopped only for penalties, falls, and injuries. Any player on the team can score a goal, and no one is restricted to a particular section of the field, unless a penalty shot is being taken. The pace, at the very least, is a hand canter, and more often the gallop. Only the Thoroughbred horse has both the speed and the stamina for competitive polo, and each polo horse must be at its peak conditioning and aerobic capacity, to compete in a tournament like the US Open. A typical tournament match is six chukkers in length, and usually each horse plays only one chukker per game; in some cases, a player may switch horses mid-chukker, but the clock is not stopped for this substitution. Often the polo player will move from one horse to the other on the sideline, without ever dismounting, as the groom holds the two horses side-by-side. Broken mallets do not stop play either; the player must ride to the sidelines to retrieve a replacement, or if he is the better player, a teammate may quickly toss him a mallet. Polo horses must also be able to stop quickly, start quickly, turn, change direction mid-gallop, push opponent horses off the line of the ball, tolerate a mallet being swung under the neck and tail, and stand or walk forward reliably for the throw-ins. All of this is very physically demanding, and naturally, such ultra-buff and superbly conditioned animals require the best feed, vitamins, and supplements to stay at the top of their game.


NYC – AMNH: Horse-Polo – photo by wallyg under Creative Commons license

Which brings me, finally, to the science associated with performance horses, and the possible sources of toxins that may have caused the tragic deaths of the Lechuza polo horses. First, there are many plants, invasive or ornamental, present in the tropical environment of South Florida, which may be poisonous to horses. The needles and seeds of yews (Taxus species) contain toxic alkaloids, and half a pound of yew needles would be sufficient to kill a 1000-lb. horse (Wright et al. 2007). Creeping indigo (Indigofera spicata), which is planted for cover and erosion control, has invaded pastures in South Florida, and can cause a deadly central nervous system disease in horses that consume its leaves and seeds (Morton 1989). However, it seems unlikely that all 21 of the Lechuza horses would have consumed the same toxic plants -whether yew, creeping indigo, or another poisonous plant such as hemlock, oleander, or lantana – at the same time, and in amounts sufficient to cause death. Another possibility is that the feed or water for the Lechuza horses was contaminated … but then why did only some of the club’s horses fall ill and die, while others were spared? There have been incidents of numerous horse fatalities at a breeding facility or stables, following ingestion of feed contaminated with the antobiotic monensin (Doonan et al., 1989).

While contaminated feed remains a possibility, the question remains as to why only 21 of the horses in the barn died, and the answer is almost certainly related to the preparation of the affected horses for the tournament game. The involvement of anabolic steroids has been dismissed because such drugs are banned in some of the countries where the Lechuza team competes. However, it is not uncommon to inject performance horses with vitamins and antioxidant substances prior to a competitive event. Electrolyte and vitamin supplements may also be mixed with feed or in a bran mash, a treatment which is legal, innocuous, and potentially beneficial to the horse. White and colleagues (2001) reported that intervenous administration of the antioxidant ascorbate, prior to a race, can reduce the oxidative stress produced by intense exercise in Thoroughbred horses. The effects of vitamin E and ascorbate supplements on oxidative stress in Thoroughbred polo horses and in Arabian endurance horses have also been examined, with conflicting results (Williams et al. 2004).


Lipid peroxidation in mature (MAT) and older (OLD) Standardbred horses, before and after the 8-week training protocol. There were no significant effects of age or training on plasma lipid hydroperoxide (LPO) levels. From Williams et al. 2008

Recently, Williams and colleagues (2008) examined the relationship between aging and oxidative stress in the horse. In this study, two groups of Standardbred mares – eight mature (10-14 years) and 5 older (20-24 years) horses – were trained three to five days each week at a submaximal work intensity, and subjected to a graded exercise test before and after the 8-week training period. During the graded exercise test, the horses ran on a treadmill, at an incline of 6%, until they reached fatigue; heart rate was monitored at several different time points pre- and post-fatigue. Plasma lactate concentration, packed cell volume, total glutathione, cellular glutathione peroxidase, and lipid hydroperoxide were measured from blood samples. In addition, the researchers determined the apoptosis percentages in white blood cell samples, as an indicator of immune system function. Both mature and older horses responded to the training regime with physiological adaptations that helped them cope better with the oxidative stress induced by the second treadmill test. The older horses had a greater level of white blood cell apoptosis, which might be indicate that they could become immune-compromised under exercise, and could benefit from antioxidant supplements. However, unlike humans, older horses suffered no apparent decline in the ability to respond directly to oxidative stress, in the context of the treadmill fatigue test. The researchers speculated that a more intensely aerobic training protocol may be required to reveal significant differences between mature and older horses.

Toxic contaminants in feed and nutritional supplements are a concern for all horse owners, whether they are polo players, breeders, professional trainers, or amateur equestrians. Responsible horse owners and equestrian competitors want to keep their animals healthy and in top condition, and vitamin-mineral supplements are widely used. Let’s hope this sad incident was an isolated one.

UPDATE: The news from Wellington states that today’s semi-finals match has been postponed, as several inches of rain fell on the fields, making them unsafe for polo.

UPDATE 4/23: CNN is reporting that a veterinary supply company incorrectly prepared medications injected into the polo horses that died. Five horses that did not receive this series of injections did not become ill.


Doonan GR, Brown CM, Mullaney TP et al. (1989) Monensin poisoning in horses – an international incident. Can. Vet. J. 30, 165-169.

Morton J (1989) Creeping indigo (Indigofera spicata Forsk.) (Fabaceae) – A hazard to herbivores in Florida. Economic Botany 43, 314-327.

White A, Estrada M, Walker K et al. (2001) Role of exercise and ascorbate on plasma antioxidant capacity in thoroughbred race horses. Comp. Biochem. Physiol. Part A 128, 99-104.

Williams CA, Kronfeld DS, Hess TM et al. (2004) Antioxidant supplementation and subsequent oxidative stress of horses during an 80-km endurance race. J. Anim. Sci. 82, 588-594.

Wright B, Jansen J, Leuty T (2007) Yew poisoning in horses and ruminants. Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

Williams, C., Gordon, M., Betros, C., & McKeever, K. (2007). Apoptosis and antioxidant status are influenced by age and exercise training in horses Journal of Animal Science, 86 (3), 576-583 DOI: 10.2527/jas.2007-0585

Posted by: barn owl | January 17, 2009

WIP Weekend: Lopi Icelandic Sweater


This will very soon turn from a WIP into a FO, and will keep me warm when I travel to the UK in February. I just need to finish the neckband, and weave the underarm stitches together. It is rarely cold enough here for me to wear this sweater, but I began knitting it years ago, when I lived in Oregon. Maybe I’ll be able to live in Europe some day … a liberal academic can dream, right?

Knit with Brown Sheep Lamb’s Pride, bulky weight. Photographed with the Schleich Tinker Stallion.

Posted by: barn owl | January 13, 2009

Daily Nature 2009: Bigtooth Maple


Uvalde Bigtooth Maple (Acer grandidentatum), photographed at Lost Maples SNA, November 2008.

Posted by: barn owl | January 12, 2009

Daily Nature 2009: Tufted Titmouse


Tufted Titmouse at birdfeeder. Photo by Dr. Jim Smith.

Posted by: barn owl | January 12, 2009

Buttermilk Excess: The Dilemma

This weekend I decided to try a recipe for buttermilk oven-fried chicken, from the latest issue of Cooking Light. The recipe turned out quite well; from about $4.50 worth of chicken breasts, I got enough meat for two dinners, and two lunches (chicken salad sandwiches). The problem, as with any recipe that requires low fat buttermilk, is that the smallest container available at the store always holds more than needed for the recipe. So I baked Irish soda bread, for the sandwiches and for garlic toast, and I STILL had another cup and a half of buttermilk remaining. My grandmother would have said to “just drink it”, preferably right before bedtime, but I don’t like to drink even regular milk. Blecchh. It’s a mouth-feel thing, not lactose intolerance.

I hate wasting food, of any sort. I’m certainly not poor, as described here by GrrlScientist, and I have ready access to excellent grocery stores and farmers’ markets. On the other hand, I’m not exactly rich, either; I would describe myself as middle-class, with a frugal and thrifty streak. So I’ll post a recipe for Dated Bran Muffins, from Jane Brody’s book Good Food Gourmet, which I often employ to use up that excess buttermilk in a delicious way. The name is amusing … are they out-dated muffins? Have they been on e-Harmony? Has their carbon-14 content been measured?

Joking aside, this is a great recipe, and unlike those posted by Dr. Isis and the Recipe Wars, does not contain expensive ingredients, or require special fancy kitchen equipment. Here are a few of the ingredients, photographed with a vintage tea towel (it covers the toaster), inherited from my buttermilk-drinking maternal grandmother:


See? Nothing fancy-schmancy, nothing expensive like freakin’ mascarpone cheese or lah-dee-dah macadamia nuts. All-Bran cereal (generic will work fine), pitted dates, buttermilk, sugar, egg, flour. I particularly like King Arthur brand flours, as they use US-grown wheat, the company is employee-owned, and the price is very reasonable. Nor do you need any fancy-schmancy kitchen equipment to make this recipe: just measuring cups, bowls, large spoon for mixing, a muffin pan, and a basic oven (the kind that comes with generic suburban McHouses, such as the one in which I live).

1 cup buttermilk
1.5 cups shredded bran cereal
0.5 cup chopped dates
0.33 cup butter or margarine, softened
0.25 cup packed brown sugar
1 egg
0.75 cup whole-wheat flour
0.25 cup all-purpose flour
0.25 tsp. salt (optional)
2.5 tsp. baking powder
0.5 tsp. baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 400F
2. In large bowl, combine buttermilk, cereal, and dates, and let mixture stand for 5-10 minutes.
3. Add the butter, sugar, and eggs, and mix the ingredients well.
4. In a small bowl, combine the whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Add the flour mixture to the cereal mixture, and stir the ingredients until they are just moist. Divide the batter among 12 greased (or lined) muffin cups.
5. Place muffin pan in the hot oven, and bake muffins for 18-20 minutes.

These are great for breakfast, or to bring to lab meeting (instead of the usual crappy doughnuts or whatever).

Posted by: barn owl | January 11, 2009

Daily Nature 2009: On a Monument to the Pigeon

To love what was is a new thing under the sun, unknown to most people and to all pigeons. To see America as history, to conceive of destiny as a becoming, to smell a hickory tree through the still lapse of ages — all these things are possible for us, and to achieve them takes only the free sky, and the will to ply our wings.

~ Sketches Here and There, Aldo Leopold

Posted by: barn owl | January 11, 2009

Weekend WIP: Two-Tone Top

Last fall, at the Kid ‘n’ Ewe Fiber show, I bought enough alpaca yarn to knit the two-tone top from Sally Melville’s book The Purl Stitch: Becoming Intuitive. I just finished the back (front and back are identical):


The dark yarn is natural black alpaca, and the light yarn is natural fawn tweed alpaca; both are from Bluebonnet Hills Alpaca Ranch in Navasota, TX.

Here’s a close-up of the knitted fabric:


I’m hoping to finish this sweater soon, so I can wear it during my upcoming travels in England.

Posted by: barn owl | January 10, 2009

Daily Nature 2009: Pipevine Swallowtail


Another insect and flower combination: Pipevine Swallowtail on Tricolor Lantana. Fredericksburg, TX, September 2008

Posted by: barn owl | January 9, 2009

Daily Nature 2009: Passion


Honeybee on passionflower. The passionflower vine, growing on a lattice, shades my air conditioning condenser, and helps increase its energy efficiency.

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