Movin’ on up (to self-hosting)

For anyone who might be getting new post updates for my blog via your WordPress Reader, I wanted to let you all know that I’ve moved! I’m still using WordPress, but have moved my site over to a self-hosted WordPress installation where I’ll be more able to customize and grow as I work on blogging my little heart out.

If you’d like to continue receiving my posts via WordPress Reader, you can add my new self-hosted blog to your Reader feed by click on the “Reader” icon in the toolbar at the top of your page (you’ll need to make sure you’re logged on first), and hitting the Manage button.


That will take you to a page where you’re shown your current blog subscriptions, and there’s a nice big Enter a URL to follow prompt. You can just copy and paste my URL in there:

If you’d prefer emails, you can just click through to my new site and sign up to receive emails when I create a new post; if you were previously subscribed, your address has already been copied over, so you should still be receiving emails just like you used to.

And of course you can add my blog to any blog reader, feed aggregator, Bloglovin’, or wherever else you like to get your blog reading in. I’ll also be adding a newsletter sign-up to my new blog soon, for anybody who wants to receive the occasional email update about my latest blog posts, art, writing, and whatever else comes along. If you need any help figuring out how to add me to your blog reader, please don’t hesitate to comment here or contact me wherever else you’d like (my twitter, tumblr, etc are linked from the new site as well), I’m happy to help.

I’m also very active on Instagram where I post glorious pictures like this one of my tiny owl friend, and will be posting a lot more of my photography and art in the future, so please feel free to follow me there!

A post shared by Mackenzie Kincaid (@mackincaid) on

Thanks for sticking with me so far, and I hope you’ll come along for the rest of this wild ride. I’ve got a lot of great stuff going that I’ll be blogging about through March and on into the summer, so I hope you’ll join me!


A Horse in the House: Great Gifts for Horse Lovers

I’m not ashamed to admit it. I have a handmade problem. I just really like things that somebody made with their own two hands and a healthy dose of creativity. I also like horses, as reading this blog may have made you aware, so I like to occasionally share some ideas for gifts for the horse lover in your life, since I know we’re often tough to shop for. (If you’re the horse lover in question, feel free to buy yourself gifts. You’d be very good at wooing yourself.) I’ve put together a list here for you of some of my current favorite items and shops in the handmade marketplace at Etsy, where I also have my own shop. (I don’t know any of these sellers and haven’t received any kind of sponsorship for this, I just think their stuff is really awesome.) I’ve put together a few previous lists here and here, if you’re looking for more ideas. I’ve taken pains to select sellers who carry a variety of horsey goods, so please be sure to check out their shops and dig through their inventories. They like that, honestly.

EQUINE by Lauren

When I first stumbled across EQUINE by Lauren Radvansky, I was enthralled and aggravated in equal measure: the former because her pieces are beautiful, the latter because I desperately wish I’d thought of this idea first. This shop includes some vintage clothing and jewelry, but Lauren’s signature item has to be her re-purposed Breyer horse models, which she turns into bookends and racks for hanging hats, bridles, and show ribbons. The combination of cleanly painted model horses and rustic reclaimed barn wood makes for a beautiful contrast in her horse pieces, and she also does custom work.

Morris PotteryThe essential dilemma posed by Morris Pottery is this: do you put these very functional pieces of art to work in the kitchen, or do you keep them on the shelf where you can admire them 24/7? Whichever way you end up going, you can’t deny that these pieces are insanely pretty; the designs are applied with glazes and slip trails, and the style is beautiful, dynamic and full of motion. Some of the plates are rigged for wall hanging, but all of the dinnerware items are food and dishwasher safe. I for one would like to give this whole herd a home in my kitchen.

Copper Tree Design

Copper Tree Design has a great variety of horse stuff, from the decorative to the practical. My favorite of their pieces is that really cool portable fire pit — it’s made out of steel sheets, which slot together to form the pit. You can set it up on your patio or take it with you to the beach, lay a grill rack over the top and cook up some grub, or just use it as a decorative border around a tree. And in winter you can disassemble and store it. So smart, you guys. This particular motif is reminiscent of a forest trail ride, but they’ll also create these custom, so be sure to ask if you’re after something special. Their other offerings include rope halters and hackamores, jewelry, and some pretty awesome metal windchimes.

Moon Lights

Moon Lights is a mother-daughter team in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and they cut all of their beautiful nightlights and candle holders out of upcycled tin cans. They work freehand with a torch, and maybe that’s why their work has such energy and vitality, or maybe it’s because they’re just awesome. I have no words for how awestruck and jealous I am of their artistic stylings. And their pieces are screened with theater gels, so they’ll cast a beautiful array of delightful colors in your house. Basically if you have money and you’re not purchasing one of these for every room of your house I feel like you’re wasting your potential, is all.

Rustic Designs by Riley

Don’t front… even if you’re a barefoot hoof enthusiast, you still have to admit that horseshoes make for some seriously cool decoration, not to mention some seriously useful household items. Rustic Designs by Riley has an awesome selection of horseshoe crafts large and small, useful and decorative, from large wall-art pieces to lamps, keyhooks, and even a tiny rocking chair.


Helkatdesign‘s cushions are handmade in England, and they have a beautiful rustic but refined flair. They’re hand printed and appliqued, and although the horse and pony-themed designs are beautiful, it’s the shaggy-coated Highland cattle that are really rocking my world. If you’re living the farm life, you’ll be particularly interested in the countryside collection, which is full of farmland charm. There are curly-horned sheep, bounding foxes and rabbits, hedgehogs and bees. You’ll also find collections of dogs, hares, stags, and other sights and symbols of the British landscape.

The Grape Leaf

The Grape Leaf gives new life to empty wine bottles, turning them into a variety of brand new creations with beautiful etched-glass designs. There are Cups, vases, jars, windchimes, and hydroplanters. My particular favorites are the votive candle holders and hummingbird feeders. You guys, beautiful artistic hummingbird feeders out of empty wine bottles. I just can’t even describe to you how happy that makes me, for reasons I can’t even entirely explain. They also have a great variety of designs, with some very simple stuff, some that are almost photorealistic, and some very stylized tribal-type designs.

Branch Handmade

Branch Handmade creates beautiful original screenprinted designs. They’re simple and striking, and available on a variety of fabric items, including tea towels, t-shirts, duvet sets, and pillow cases. There are several horse designs available (and a zebra!), not to mention a range of great designs for other interests. I’ve got my eye on one of those arrow t-shirts.

Chalk It Up

In all honesty, I have no idea what I would do with one of these things if I owned one, but I’ve still been coveting them for ages. Chalk It Up is a pretty simple concept: old Breyer horses re-purposed — thanks to the amazing innovation of chalkboard paint — into a little decorative writing surface. They have a model that sports a coat of magnetic paint, so you can also use magnets to pin notes to it in addition to writing on it with chalk, and they’ve chalked up some other creatures too, like zebras, deer, elk, buffalo, and elephants. If you’ve got a horse-themed wedding to plan, you need look no further for your table numbers. They come with a few pieces of chalk to get you started, and when you’re done doodling on your horse you can just wipe it off with a damp cloth and start again. This is one of those ideas that’s so simple it’s brilliant.

Hiro's Heart

Hiro’s Heart specializes in a single, adorable craft item: upcycled glass jars with animal figures attached to the lids. That might sound unimpressive, but the end product is adorable. In addition to a range of brightly colored horses, there are dogs, deer, barnyard animals, owls, and other awesome beasts. You’ll also find recycled jars with chalkboard lids so you can write their contents on top.

Winchester Pottery

Winchester Pottery makes awesome stoneware mugs, plates, teapots, and other kitchenware and containers. Their horsey pieces are great, with a lot of diversity in types and breeds — there are mules, fjords, appaloosas and more, and each type of equine gets its own distinctive look or pose specific to its breed. They’re all microwave, dishwasher, and food safe.

Etched Dreams

Etched Dreams has a great selection of different forms of etched glass, with a lot of horse designs representing different disciplines and designed for different occasions. You can pick up a pair of bride and groom wine glasses for a horse-themed wedding, some show-jumper mugs to commemorate the big show, or some western-themed margarita glasses to get your drink on. They’ve also got horse-themed vinyl for walls and cars, and they do custom mug printing.

Made by Jessica

I love the rough, rustic charm of these stamped tiles Made by Jessica. They’d make great coasters, or you could incorporate them into a backsplash — they’re sealed with a glaze to keep the ink on. Jessica also sells stamped cards and bookmarks, hand-painted Christmas tree ornaments, and horse-shaped bar soaps.

Dad & Sons Woodworking

Dad & Sons Woodworking makes some pretty adorable wooden beasts, including a sleepy horse that’s perfect for topping shelves indoors or fencelines outside (hopefully out of reach of your horses). They also make sweet mailboxes, animal birdhouses, life-size wooden cats, holiday decorations, yard art, and planters. I’m a particular fan of their really cute and really affordable corner shelves in the shapes of barnyard beasts. I don’t even go in for this type of art normally but I still just embarrassed myself by cooing over a corner shelf in the shape of a pig.

Silvertree Studio

Silvertree Studio boasts an awesome, eclectic collection of housewares, fine art originals, and art prints. You might drop in for one of these beautiful boldly colored animal silhouettes — that turquoise horse is rocking my socks off — and walk away with a gorgeous watercolor piece to add to your art collection. Or maybe you’d prefer a woodburning piece. Or a photo print. Or an original in acrylics. Clearly shop owner Kel is too talented and needs to be stopped.

Bright Strange Things

Bright Strange Things is my own shop on Etsy, where I sell a variety of mostly horse-related things. My most popular items by far are my wire Christmas tree ornaments/mirror hangers; their legs move and frankly they’re kind of awesome. I also have photo prints and apparel for sale, with handmade jewelry and some unique stationary designs on the way. I do hope you’ll drop in.

I also hope this little list has been helpful in your shopping endeavors. Please consider shopping handmade with these and other artists to help support artists in your area and around the world. I’ll be doing more lists like this one in the future, on a semi-regular basis, along with more blogs on art and crafting. If you’ve got a favorite artist or your own store that I should check out, or there are particular horse items you’d like recommendations for, please leave a comment!

What We Have Here Is An Interspecies Failure To Communicate

My dog Trudeau is a constant source of bewilderment to me.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty good with animals. At least, I think I am, if I judge myself by the standards I’ve developed from watching It’s Me or the Dog and My Cat From Hell. Admittedly, I might be skewing my sample about what constitutes an average pet owner by only comparing myself to people who are in such desperately bad situations with their pets that they have to go on television before the nation and admit that they’re the worst pet owners ever. At least it’s good for my self-esteem.

It’s just that reading an animal, at least on a basic level, isn’t that hard. I’ve always thought it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between a horse’s “oh yes, please scratch me there” face and its “if you touch me there I am seriously going to bite you in your most sensitive and squishy bits” face. A cat will clearly tell you whether it is pleased with your attentions as its minion or whether it’s about to scratch your face off as punishment for your impertinence, and it can communicate that with nothing but the tip of its tail. Dogs are even easier, because their happiness involves full-body wriggling and tail-wagging while their “I am so freaked out I might try to bite your jugular” body posture tends to be unsettling in a way that our human hindbrains can recognize as an impending wolf attack.

This is the expression that means he’s pining for the fjords.

It’s not like Trudeau himself should be all that complex a puzzle, anyway. He’s not by nature neurotic or hyper or mean or moody. Sure, with some of those ultra-intelligent herding breeds you end up expending so much energy just trying to keep them busy that eventually you find yourself thinking that it wouldn’t be that hard to teach your dog to play Scrabble. And anyway, Scrabble is the last of your worries because you’re starting to suspect that while you’re at work, he’s building a nuclear reactor in the basement. Trudeau is decidedly not one of those dogs. He’s mild-mannered, eager to please, quite trainable, and overall pleasant (unless you’re another dog, in which case he’d like for you to come closer so he can punch you in the face but he might warm up when he gets to know you better). He’s usually pretty low-maintenance. Usually.

The problem is simply that we don’t speak the same language, and this leads to frustration on everybody’s part. Like, sometimes I’ll be doing my thing, chilling on the couch with my laptop watching cat videos on the Internet or whatever it is people do (people being me, it usually involves staring at pictures of Tom Hiddleston and making whimpering noises), and Trudeau will come stick his head all up in my business, which I’m pretty sure he finds funny because of the squawking sounds I make while I’m desperately trying to keep his drool and my keyboard from meeting one another. In any event, this sort of aggressive affection is international Trudeau-speak for “I want something and I want it too badly to be polite about it right now so can we just set aside the Canadian prime minister jokes and please get on this issue right now.” I’m totally magnanimous, I can rise to the occasion and refrain from making cracks about Canadians and politeness, obviously. The problem is working out what the “something” is that he’s so desperate for.

Most of the time it’s not complicated: he wants to go out, or he thinks it’s his mealtime regardless of whether it’s anywhere near his actual mealtime. (He recognizes that time is not linear and is rather a big ball of wibbly wobbly timey wimey… stuff. Which means it should always be dinner time.) But when he’s just been for a nice long walk an hour ago, followed up by a trick-training session to exercise his mind, a rousing game of “find the treats I have hidden around the house,” and a delicious supper, it’s kind of hard to think of what else he might need. And since he doesn’t actually speak English, except for a few key words like “sit,” “stay,” “roll over,” and “outside,” he can’t even give me the nod when I’ve hit the right item on a whole list of potential answers. I usually rattle them off aloud anyway, because it makes me feel like I’m being proactive about the situation. When “outside” fails to elicit any sort of obviously enthusiastic response, I’m forced to get more creative.

He may try to convince you that he’s never been on a walk before while you are in fact still in the middle of taking him for a walk. Do not believe his lies.

Does he want a snuggle? Is he just trying to weasel his way onto the couch? Maybe he’s distressed that I’ve moved the ottoman to where I can put my feet up on it and have therefore screwed up the room’s feng shui? Is Timmy down the well? Is he concerned about the situation in Gaza? Am I neglecting him? Does he feel like his life is passing him by and he’s not achieving any of his dreams and he’s only just realized that he’s never going to be able to start that woodworking business he’s always dreamed of because he doesn’t have thumbs? Is it just a general sense of ennui? Does he want to discuss his feelings? Do we need to hug it out?

Usually I end up trying at least a few of my more practical suggestions, like giving him a hug or relocating to the floor so I’m in a better position for snuggling if that’s he needs. I’d offer to buy  him a lathe or something so he could hone his woodworking skills but honestly I think it would all just end in tears. I try explaining that to him gently while he just stares at me, getting more and more frustrated, expressing his dire and all-consuming need for something by decorating me with streaks of drool.

Once we’ve dispensed with this ritual, I’m usually flabbergasted enough to try the things I’ve already ruled out, and since he’s never actually succeeded in convincing me that I haven’t actually given him dinner yet, I usually end up taking him outside, where it quickly becomes apparent that at some point he has slurped down his entire very large bowl full of water and does, indeed, need to relieve himself again. Or he just needed a nice wallow on his back in the grass. Or he was dying to try to make friends with a neighborhood squirrel. (Not normal friends, though. Murder friends. Trudeau is not pro-squirrel.)

Mostly, I think it’s just a test he likes to conduct occasionally, to make sure my obedience training is coming along: he wants to make sure that he’s still able to convince me to take him outside on demand for no apparently obvious reason. Which actually is okay with me, because I live in fear of the day that he truly realizes how quickly he can get me off the couch and out the door just by hacking like he’s about to toss his proverbial cookies. I don’t think my nerves could take it.

Five Awesome and Unique Gifts for Horse Lovers

If you ask me, having to buy a present for a horse person is a massive pain in the hindquarters. As a horse person myself, I understand the dilemma. Every horse-crazy individual probably has a massive wish list of tack, equipment, adorable knick-knacks and sassy barn signs that they’d like to add to their already equine-heavy lives, but it tends to be a very specific list, and even for a fellow horse person it can be impossible to get right. For somebody who doesn’t know a manure fork from a salad fork, buying anything horsey can be downright impossible. Tack is easy enough to rule out: it’s usually expensive, requires specific measurements, and isn’t worth bothering with as a gift if you don’t know exactly what you’re buying. The same problem crops up with more mundane items. Does your giftee prefer flat halters or rope halters? Does she use only one specific brand and shun all others? Is this muck bucket you found in the tack store the kind she loves because they last longer than a week, or the kind she’s always cursing because they break if you so much as look at them funny? Will his horse eat carrot-flavored treats or does he only like the peppermint ones? It all gets a bit fraught after awhile.

The obvious route, then, is horse-themed items of a less practical nature. Horse people seem to be pretty happy with any gift featuring an equine, and entering their homes you’re likely to see Breyer horses on the bookshelves and horse photos on the walls and pony silhouettes on the bedspreads. Even those get tiresome, though, when you notice that pretty much every horse equipment catalog carries exactly the same collection of apparel and home decor. (I do want to offer a brief tip of the hat, however, to Back in the Saddle, which tends to offer a wider and much more interesting selection of these sorts of goods than your standard everything-horses catalog. If you have other suggestions, please feel free to offer them up in the comments!)

For my own part, I no longer buy gifts for the horse lovers in my life through catalogs. In fact, I’ve taken to buying handmade items directly from artists, usually through I have an Etsy shop of my own where I sell some pretty sweet little horsey items (I’ll get into a little shameless self-promotion later), but as a buyer I love Etsy purely because you can find something completely original, that your giftee didn’t even know existed, and you can directly support crafters and artists by buying from them. I’ll also highlight here a few services and whatnot that I think are highly underrated as gifts, but my aim here is entirely to expose you to some awesome new stuff that you might want to buy for your friends or for yourself. I’ll likely post a few more lists like this one as we draw nearer the holidays, so if you have a favorite seller of equine goods or are a seller yourself and you’d like me to check out your stuff, please feel free to offer it up in the comments.

I’d like to also point out that I don’t know any of the sellers mentioned, have not dealt with most of these vendors or products personally, and have received no freebies or anything else for my endorsements. I just think the items and services listed here are awesome. And now, without further ado:

Five Awesome and Unique Gifts for Horse Lovers, In No Particular Order

Membership to

As services go, I think Giddyupflix is one of the coolest inventions of all time. As the name implies, it’s essentially Netflix for horse people, and their selection of available DVDs is so diverse that it doesn’t particularly matter which specific brands of horsemanship your giftee likes most, they’ll be able to find a staggering number of rentals to choose from. This is also a particularly thrifty gift since with horsemanship videos, a single disc can cost three or four times as much as you’d pay to buy your favorite new Hollywood release on DVD. This way your giftee can explore topics of interest to them specifically — whether they want to learn about horseshoeing or trick training, rawhide braiding or wild horse taming, showjumping or mounted shooting — without spending a fortune. Unfortunately the service is only available in the US and Canada, though, so if your giftee resides outside those countries, you might want to take a look at the rest of the list for some other suggestions.
Cost: From $10.95/month to rent one disc at a time to $26.95/month for four discs at a time. When purchasing a gift membership, you can decide what level of membership you’d like to gift and for how long a duration, so this is a great flexible gift as far as cost goes.

Hand-painted glass art by CaroligraphyHand-painted Glassware by Caroligraphy on Etsy

Store-bought etched glass has nothing on the beauty of Carol Koch’s hand-painted pieces. The first time I saw Carol’s work on Etsy I fell in love with the bright colors and the beautiful motion in her paintings. She has a wide range of different types of glassware available, from votive candle holders to wine glasses to Christmas ornaments and suncatchers. There’s also something for all kinds of breeds and disciplines, from Gypsy Vanners to show jumpers.
Cost: Prices range from about $15 for smaller and individual pieces to around $100 for larger pieces and matched sets of glassware.

Fox Mask Novelty Fly Bonnet by EquiEars on Etsy

Normally I’m against this kind of thing. I particularly loathe the fly masks that are painted to look like sunglasses. It’s a thing I have. This, though? This is hilarious. This is one of the best things I have seen ever. It’s cute enough not to look totally humiliating and it’s also made in a great vibrant orange that makes it good safety-wear for hunting season. Mostly I just want to see every well-dressed foxhunting pair sporting this stylish ear covering. Just think! Foxhunters won’t even need dogs, they can sneak up on the foxes with cunning disguises! EquiEars also sells other custom fly bonnets and and they’ll even personalize with monogramming and appliques and whatnot, so be sure to check out the entire shop!
Cost: $40, plus shipping

Custom Horsehair Jewelry from Spirithorse DesignsCustom Horsehair Jewelry & Accessories by Spirithorse Designs

You can buy all sorts of pre-made horsehair designs, including bracelets, earrings, necklaces, zipper pulls, and keychains. You can also have items custom-made with your own horse’s hair, which is a particularly great memorial for a beloved companion who has passed on. There are a variety of different designs and different sorts of braids and knotwork available, with both intricate and simple options available, and you have your choice of different beads, ornaments, pendants, and colors to make your own piece truly unique. The artist sells gift certificates as well, which is a great option particularly if you aren’t able to order far enough in advance for Christmas or whatever gift-giving occasion you’re after.
Cost: Prices range from around $15-25 for something simple like a zipper pull, up to $50-90 for necklaces, bracelets and earrings.

Unique vinyl wall art by aluckyhorseshoeVinyl Wall Art by aluckyhorseshoe on Etsy

I’m a huge fan of vinyl wall art.  I love that it doesn’t damage your walls and it’s a great way to give a room a little extra decoration, especially if you’re a renter and you don’t want to deal with painting and repainting. It’s also great for people like me who like to change their lives by rearranging their rooms. Vinyl art is easy to apply and easy to remove, and you can do just about anything with it. There are a lot of vinyl artists on Etsy so there’s a pretty staggering array of vinyl available if you search for what you’re after, but one of my favorites is aluckyhorseshoe because this particular shop has a great variety of different horse-themed art available, some with customization options, and a portion of their proceeds goes to help support horse rescue.
Cost: About $20-40, depending on the size of the art.

And Now For The Shameless Self-Promotion!

Copper wire horse ornaments by Bright Strange ThingsWire Horse Ornaments by Bright Strange Things on Etsy

I’ve been working on my own line of products, mostly horse-related, which I sell in my own Etsy shop, Bright Strange Things. I have a bunch of new stuff in development, but at the moment my most popular products by far are the Christmas tree ornaments I make out of copper wire. They’re pretty awesome if I say so myself; I make them in a variety of colors and poses, and their little legs swing like they’re running when you touch them. They make great year-round decoration too, as a hanging ornament from your rear-view mirror or wherever else you can find to hang them. Maybe your ornate crystal chandelier, I don’t even know. They’re classy as hell, is what I’m saying. Check out my shop for pre-made ornaments, and the option to order a custom-made piece in your choice of colors and poses, or if you’re after something else, I also have a variety of photo prints and a few t-shirts on hand, so I hope you’ll take a look!

If you have favorite handmade sellers, if you make horse-themed items yourself, or if you just have really strong opinions about decoupage, please share your thoughts in the comments!

Featured Creature Friday: The Plummeting Paradise Tree Snake

You guys. You guys, this is a snake. You guys, this is a snake THAT FLIES.

All my nightmares are coming to life.

I’ve always wondered exactly how skills like this develop in nature. I mean, I understand natural selection and adaptive evolution and all of that, but to me this looks like the sort of skill set that could only have come from a long line of severely depressed snakes. They were trying to end it all when they discovered that actually they can be kind of wing-shaped. Maybe they discovered a new purpose in life as accidental pilots and stuck around long enough to breed whole new generations of ridiculous flying snakes.

Or maybe they were just minding their own business, flying the old fashioned way on an airliner — perhaps on their way to a vacation destination far from their native southeast Asia — when Samuel L. Jackson started exterminating all of their friends, and they had to risk jumping just to survive the slaughter. (Now they’re just trying to get over the post-traumatic stress and are planning to bring a court case.)

Their gliding abilities are said to rival those of flying squirrels, and if you ask me they do the job with more style, too. And they come in some pretty swell colors, as you can see here. In addition to flying, they also have available to them a venom that’s powerful enough to paralyze the small lizards and mammals that they prey on but not really powerful enough to hurt humans badly, so at least we don’t have to worry about like… flying acid attacks or anything. They’re also pretty freaking cute. Just look at those adorable little nose-holes! Awww!

Paradise Tree Snake closeup

The Modern Pentathlon, And Why It Makes Me Want To Punch People

By all rights, the modern pentathlon should be the most epic of all Olympic sports. It’s the sort of sport that a group of mustachioed Victorian gentlemen might have dreamed up over cognacs down at the club. In the modern pentathlon, competitors engage in five events: Pistol shooting, fencing, swimming, running, and show jumping. They’re exactly the sort of activities that a proper gentleman might engage in on a mounted hunt, especially if his horse chose to dump him in a river and he’s forced to duel with a passing bear. It’s the sort of sport that I imagine bored cavalry officers came up with during a lull in fighting on the battlefield. In short, victory in the modern pentathlon should be a lot like winning at manliness.

Unfortunately, the modern pentathlon has gone horribly awry, and as far as I can tell, it’s because the participants have failed to properly train for the whole thing. In looking into the modern pentathlon — which I’d never seen before, if I’m honest — I’m struck by the fact that, although none of these athletes would dream of entering the pentathlon if, for instance, they didn’t know how to swim, apparently they don’t see it as a problem at all that they don’t know how to ride.

Protip: Climbing on a living breathing animal and trying to ride it over jumps can, in fact, be just as deadly as drowning in the pool. Also, it makes you look like a complete tool.

It says in the pentathlon rules that the athletes must ride horses which are not familiar to them, but they seem to have taken that one step further by deciding that they should not be familiar with riding horses, period. After spending a few rage-inducing hours watching videos and looking at photos from past competitions, it seems that the average pentathlete’s strategy is to careen around the course at an uncontrolled gallop, while clinging like a monkey so as not to fall off the horse. (They seem to fall off a lot anyway, so I guess as strategies go it’s not a winning one.)

Hwang Woojin’s day did not go well. Click the image to watch the video.

Take for instance Korean athlete Hwang Woojin, whose horseback emergency management skills were not at all up to par when his horse immediately expressed his displeasure with being roped into this event in London 2012. Woojin reacted to his emergency in exactly the wrong way by basically pulling the horse over on top of himself. Apparently he was able to remount and ride the course with 464 penalty points for his troubles, though whether that means that he cowboyed up in spectacular fashion or whether it just makes him insane remains to be seen.

This Olympics saw the gold medal go to Czech David Svoboda; I can only assume that he had a better run this year than he did in Beijing, because this is what his ride looked like in China. As you can see in these other photos, in which the athletes display their mastery of show jumping and their impeccable jumping form, these are highly skilled horsemen who–

Sorry, I couldn’t keep typing all those blatant falsehoods. These fine people have learned to shoot and fence and swim and I suppose all human beings know how to run pretty instinctively. I can’t speak to how well they do any of those things (but it doesn’t seem like they’ve got the concept of fencing quite in hand either), but I can tell you that apparently actually knowing how to ride, before representing their respective countries on the world stage at the Olympics, hasn’t occurred to many of them.

Look, I don’t like to make fun. These are Olympic athletes. They are in better physical condition than I will ever be in in my life, and I wouldn’t want to play against any one of them in a game of laser tag. I’m not a show jumper by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll just give you all this video of World Cup men’s riding highlights, and you can tell me what you think of their form. Personally, I watched these horses flying over (and sometimes through) these fences and wanted to have myself a little cry.

I have no doubt that there are pentathletes who are fantastic horse riders. I also have no doubt that all of them ought to be. Because the thing is, this is not an individual performance. The moment you get the horse involved, you’re part of a team. And most of these riders don’t seem to realize it.

If you skip to 15:45 in the video, you can watch Egypt’s Omar el Geziry both completely stuff up the course and be a total berk to his horse! Click on this image and you will be treated to his atrociously bad ride and even worse sportsmanship.

I was going to continue telling you about the pentathlon history and stuff, but I kept watching that video and found that Omar el Geziry was far surpassed by the 2010 world champion, Russia’s Serguei Karyakin, who not only rides a horrible round (see it here at 27:31) but also apparently blames his horse for it, considering the way he gratuitously beats the poor animal and snatches at its face as punishment for the bad ride.

Go ahead, Serguei. Beat your horse some more. That will totally help when the problem is your shitty riding.

You will also undoubtedly find the commentators’ remarks infuriating, as one of them is a pentathlete himself and also likes to talk about what the horse did wrong. I will tell you what these poor horses did wrong: they allowed their grooms to catch them this morning. I have never seen so many rails go down in a single event. Their jump crew must have enormous muscles from picking up a million and one downed rails per day. I have never seen so many horses display the patience of saints as they sailed half out of control and completely ungracefully over a series of jumps. And lest you think it’s just the men, you can watch the women’s competition “highlights,” too. I put highlights in quotations there, of course, because I’m not sure highlights is the right word.

Riders are accustomed to being told by our friends that we aren’t doing any work when we ride, that the effort is all on the horse’s part. We all know that’s not true, of course, that riding well takes a lot of effort from the rider, too; the best riding is a result of partnership. But in the case of the modern pentathlon, apparently, it’s true that the rider doesn’t need to do much at all, because these horses are pointed at the fences and then left to do their jobs not only with no help from their rider, but with active interference.

Apparently the modern pentathlon has been an endangered event at several times in the past, with Olympic planners wanting to drop the event, which is costly to put on and not particularly popular. It’s been granted a stay of execution several times, with Princess Anne and Prince Albert coming to its defense, and apparently some completely clueless individual described it as the “sport that most accurately conveys the ideals of Olympism.” If so, that doesn’t say much for the Olympics. And I’m not sure “ideals” is really the word.

Unlike many sports in the modern Olympics, the modern pentathlon is truly amateur. As this great piece in The Atlantic points out:

In a culture where we celebrate our biggest sports stars as often as they celebrate themselves, maybe there’s something to be said for the Modern Pentathlon. Maybe it’s because of sports like these—so pointless, so non-remunerative, so culturally irrelevant—that we care so much about the Olympics. We care because of the real amateurs who toil in obscurity for little more than the purity of the pursuit.

I can absolutely get behind that, but not at the expense of the horses, who don’t get much choice about competing and who don’t even get the benefit of experienced handling like the rest of the Olympic horses do. (Putting aside, of course, the rampant practice of rollkur among dressage elites, because that’s a whole other rant that we don’t have time for.)

Here’s my idea: Remove the show jumping round, because the competitors apparently don’t have the resources to learn how to show jump. Replace it with, I don’t know… a BMX biking round or a unicycle-riding round or a jumping round where instead of a horse they ride a motorized pogo stick. I don’t see how any of those things would be considered less legitimate as Olympic pursuits than things that are already included in the games, like trampoline and racewalking (which are both modern Olympic sports featured in the current games). Let the athletes show their own physical abilities and leave the horses out of it, and we’ll all be better off. The horses can have a nice lie-in, the athletes are less likely to be killed by their runaway unicycles, and it’ll definitely be a beneficial move for my blood pressure.

Edit: The Guardian has a fantastic photo collection from the London 2012 pentathlon riding, which features heavily on some truly spectacular falls, and also offers some pretty funny captions to help you enjoy the action. The New York Times also had a good article about the horses and how they are selected and paired with riders, and which discusses some of the difficulties in sourcing appropriate mounts at various competitions (but which, I think, overlooks the fact that the athletes aren’t exactly holding up their end either). There’s also a hilarious thread over on Chronicle of the Horse in which posters shared their own feedback about the event as they watched.

For US viewers, if you’d like to check out the replay you can find it online here, with both the complete coverage of the men’s riding and the women’s riding. If you watch you will have the distinct pleasure — or displeasure, whichever way you want to look at it — of seeing some truly phenomenal horses attempt to save the collective bacon of their amazingly unprepared riders. The horses of the London games, and the people responsible for their selection, really ought to be the ones walking away with medals. I could not be more impressed with the caliber of horses offered at these Olympics and the effort those animals put in; the people of Britain should be justifiably proud.

Featured Creature Friday: The Humble Hermit Crab

It seems only appropriate that today’s featured creature should be one that, at first glance, seems a little boring. Hermit crabs are pretty common animals — there are 1100 different species and many of them are kept as pets. Of course, as pets, they’re about on par with seamonkeys or beta fish, the kind of pet that people impulse buy for a couple bucks and expect to be dead within a week. (With proper care, of course, these sorts of animals can live a long time — some species of hermit crabs, for instance, have been known to live over 20 years in captivity.)

Naked hermit crabs kind of look like what would happen if H.R. Giger had been in charge of creating Hello Kitty. (Photo by Arnstein Rønning, 2011, by way of Wikimedia. Used under Creative Commons license.)

Hermit crabs just don’t get a lot of credit for being complex animals with intricate social — yeah, they’re not very hermit-y — behaviors. And frankly, I don’t think we’re appreciative enough of the hermit crab’s particular form of body armor/performance art; unlike true crabs, hermit crabs have no shell of their own, and instead acquire or improvise a suitable home. You’ll find them living in snail shells, stones, driftwood, broken bottles, crab shells, glass shells, and even, apparently, Legos.

Without a shell, they’re vulnerable and also a little funny-looking when they’re naked, just like people. Which is why they armor themselves with the detritus of the sea floor. Basically, they’re like the Iron Man of the sea, if Iron Man was kind of timid and spent all of his time eating tiny things in the ocean.

Which he doesn’t. Because he’s Iron Man. And that’s neither here nor there.

In cases of shell shortage, hermit crabs will fight over shells the same way humans will fight for a decent neighborhood and a jacuzzi bathtub. But give them shells in abundance and they’re practically socialists, as this article in Scientific American explains:

When a lone crab encountered one of the beautiful new shells, it immediately inspected the shelter with its legs and antennae and scooted out of its current home to try on the new shelter for size. If the new shell was a good fit, the crab claimed it. Classic hermit crab behavior. But if the new shell was too big, the crab did not scuttle away disappointed—instead, it stood by its discovery for anywhere between 15 minutes and 8 hours, waiting. This was unusual. Eventually other crabs showed up, each one trying on the shell. If the shell was also too big for the newcomers, they hung around too, sometimes forming groups as large as 20. The crabs did not gather in a random arrangement, however. Rather, they clamped onto one another in a conga line stretching from the largest to smallest animal—a behavior the biologists dubbed “piggybacking.”

I guess that it’s a bit like when you’re a kid and all you get to wear is your siblings’ hand-me-downs (so speaks the youngest child of the family…), but the hermit crabs at least seem happy about it. And sometimes intensely competitive. Here’s a sweet video from Blue Planet with a terrifyingly huge snail, plus some hermit crab combat. The first rule of Fight Club is, you don’t talk about Fight Club.

Speaking of hermit crabs, did you know that coconut crabs are also sort of a hermit crab? In addition, they’re the largest terrestrial arthropod in the world (that means land-dwelling creepy-as-shit crab-thing). They can and do climb trees, live for decades, and have pincers so powerful they can crack coconuts. When the mommy crab and daddy crab love each other and decide to have a family, the female crab releases her eggs into the ocean, where the young ones start out as plankton. As juveniles they do the usual hermit crab thing and find random shells to live in, then when they get older and toughen up a bit they get by with just a thick sort of leathery exoskeleton and put away childish things like shells. Eventually crawl their way back onto land. Despite being the sort of creature you might imagine dwelling in the sea, adult coconut crabs actually drown if they’re left in the water, and so they generally prefer to dwell in your nightmares.