THE TALK OF THE TOWN
Dan leaned against the rail and watched the ponies canter around the collecting ring. Hairy-legged cobs were being overtaken by high-strung blood ponies, straining at the bit, barely held with tight martingales. Cresty Welsh Cobs pinned their ears and turned their faces out of the rain as athletic Connemaras sloshed their way down to the practice jump and leapt over the mud-spattered rails. It had been raining all day, but as the saying went in Ireland, if you didn’t ride in the rain, then you didn’t ride at all.
Spruce tugged at the end of his reins, and Dan reached over and scratched the small grey gelding’s neck. One of the pony’s lumpy plaits had fallen out, and he made an attempt to reband it with his cold, numb fingers, but it ended up looking worse than it had that morning.
With a sigh, Dan left it alone and turned to see a small girl on a breedy bay pony ride up next to him. Her face was serious as she squinted through the drizzling rain at the jumps set up in the outdoor ring. She stood out from the rest of them, with her posh kit and class pony, both immaculately done with hardly a hair out of place, despite the weather. The wee pony’s coat gleamed with good health, and he was muscled up in all the right places. Dan stared at her enviously, but the small girl was oblivious to him. She sat straight in the saddle, chewing on the end of her jumping stick as a Roman-nosed chestnut splashed its way into the arena.
Spruce sighed, and rubbed his forehead on Dan’s shoulder, leaving a trail of white hairs across his damp tweed coat.
“Get over and have some manners,” Dan muttered, but he scratched Spruce’s forehead with his fingertips to try and satisfy his itch.
The pony half-closed his eyes gratefully, and Dan smiled. You’re lucky to have the chance to ride him, he reminded himself. Spruce was a school pony, belonging to the equestrian centre, and he’d only managed to convince the manager to let him ride in this class because she was his mother. She knew how much it meant to him.
“The open class though?” she’d asked dubiously when he’d handed in his entry. “I don’t know about that, love. Spruce isn’t getting any younger, and the fences will be mighty high by the third round.”
“We’re not likely to make it into the third round,” Dan had pointed out. “Just let us have a go at it, Mum. Please?”
She’d sighed, staring down at the entry form and looking uncertain. Dan had crossed his fingers behind his back and prayed to Jesus that she’d say yes. He wasn’t sure that you were supposed to pray to Jesus about that sort of thing, but he was desperate. He couldn’t get stuck in the novice class again. Ever since they’d come to live in the little cottage at Ballyford Equestrian Centre three years ago, he’d watched the riders go round the open classes, and every time he’d longed to ride with them. He wanted to jump a course of fences that went up at the end of each round, to have the chance to jump a second round and then a jump-off against the clock, instead of pottering around the novice where there were so many entries that if you were through to the jump-off you rode it right away, without your pony having a chance to recover his breath, and without the challenge of raised fences. He’d worked hard for months on Spruce, one of the more willing school ponies, to get him to be competitive. They didn’t go away to shows, so Ballyford’s Spring Series was a rare chance to compete. If his mother said no, that’d would be a whole year of dedicated schooling gone down the drain, and by the time next year rolled around, he’d be too old and too tall. He couldn’t let her talk him out of it. It was his one shot.
His mum had sighed, running a hand through her thick auburn hair. “Sure he’s a good jumper, son, but he’s not been so willing lately. He wouldn’t go over a pole for Evie last week.”
“That’s because Evie’s rubbish. He’ll jump anything for me,” Dan had insisted. “Come outside and I’ll show you what he schooled over yesterday. He can do it, Mum. We both can.”
Mairead had looked at him with her hazel eyes, so similar to his own, then nodded and signed the form, smiling at her son as she’d added it to the pile of entries on her desk. Dan had watched in dazzled disbelief, realising he’d been given his chance at last.
Now that the moment was here, however, he was starting to wonder if he hadn’t set himself up to fail. Spruce had a heart of gold, to be sure, but he wasn’t a patch on some of the ponies he was up against. Seeing the quality ponies around him had Dan feeling hopelessly outclassed, and he debated taking the grey pony back to his stable and untacking him now, before he went out there and made a proper eejit of himself.
“Do you know your course, then?” asked a deep male voice behind him, and Dan glanced over his shoulder and froze.
Deacon O’Callaghan. The tall man was striding up behind him like it was nothing out of the ordinary for a top international Grand Prix rider to have come to Ballyford, but as far as Dan knew, such an amazing thing had never happened before. He had a poster on his bedroom wall of Deacon O’Callaghan clearing a massive water jump at the last Olympic Games on his Irish-bred chestnut mare Castletown Shamrock. Deacon hadn’t won – a late rail in the jump off had dropped him down to fourth place to finish just outside of the medals – but he’d come close, and had been the talk of the town ever since.
Dan watched, open mouthed, as the small professional-looking girl on the slender bay pony turned towards Deacon, her face screwed up against the rain.
“Tell us it then, so you’re sure.”
Deacon’s daughter rolled her eyes towards the dark sky and began pointing out the fences with her stick as she recited the course aloud.
“First the grey oxer, then right to the yellow and on to the green in five, then left and around to the flowerboxes…”
She doesn’t sound nervous at all, Dan thought incredulously. But then, Deacon O’Callaghan’s daughter would have been show jumping since she was born. This course, as big as it was looking to Dan, would be nothing to her. Especially not on a class pony like that, he decided, eyeing the bay jealously.
Deacon caught Dan’s eye just then and nodded a brief hello. Flushing, Dan quickly turned back to Spruce, fidgeting with his uneven plaits, which looked ten times worse next to Keeley’s perfectly plaited pony, although he supposed she had a groom to do such things for her. The girl on the chestnut pony rode out of the ring, and Jock’s voice came over the tannoy.
“An unfortunate four faults there for Niamh Kelly and Whirlwind. Next to jump will be Padraig McCourt, to be followed by Saoirse Taylor, Dan Caldwell, Keeley O’Callaghan, and then Mary Rourke to finish.”
Help! Dan hurried back around to the other side of Spruce, and tightened his girth, then swung up into the saddle. He’d been so busy watching the others that he hadn’t noticed the time passing. Now it was almost his turn to ride, and Spruce was hardly warmed up at all!
“C’mon Spruce,” he told the grey pony as he shortened his reins, and the little grey strode out willingly through the rain.
A few minutes later, Dan entered the arena with his stomach full of nerves – but soon he was riding back out again, grinning and furiously patting Spruce’s fleabitten neck. A clear round! He’d never expected that, not with how nervous he’d been going in. All the jumps had looked enormous, and Spruce had knocked down the practice fence right beforehand, which had seemed like a bad omen. But the grey pony had gone on and jumped his heart for a clear – an actual clear round!
“A brilliant clear for Dan Caldwell and Spruce,” Jock said, sounding a little biased and mighty proud of him. “They’ll be back shortly for the second round. Now we move on to Keeley O’Callaghan, riding No Day Like Today.”
Keeley trotted into the ring past Dan, her blue eyes focused determinedly on the course ahead. Dan brought Spruce down to a walk and patted him again, watching Keeley ride her pony over and show him the wall. The pony was as much of a professional as she was, and didn’t blink at the bright red painted bricks, or the nearby boxes stuffed full of fake flowers.
Deacon stood by the gate, watching his daughter, and Dan had to ride right past him. To his surprise, Deacon smiled at him as he rode past, then spoke.
“You rode that well,” he told Dan, who flushed scarlet at the compliment and managed to mumble a quick “Thanks very much.”
Deacon O’Callaghan just noticed me! This day was just getting better and better, and although the rain was coming down even harder now, Dan hardly felt it as he rode Spruce back to the stables to tell his mother what he’d just done.
The inner stable block was frantic, with more people than ever dashing up and down the aisles in varying states of panic. Spruce’s usual loosebox was occupied, as it had been rented out for the event, so Dan used a halter to tie the pony to a ring in the wall, then hurried off to the tack room to fetch him a blanket.
“There you are, son!” His mother caught him by the shoulders as he dashed into the room, just avoiding being cracked on the chin by his helmeted head. “I haven’t missed your round, have I?”
Dan grinned up at her. “Only the first one, but we’ll be jumping the second soon. I just came to get a blanket for Spruce so he doesn’t stiffen up while we wait.”
Mum looked astonished. “He went clear? That was a right tough course out there, I didn’t think you had a hope.”
“Gee, thanks Mum.”
She laughed and pulled Dan in for a hug. “Sure I’m so proud of you! I’ll come out and watch you go in a moment, I just have a few things to sort here.”
She left the room, and Dan picked up a thick wool blanket which he took back to Spruce. It was made for a much larger horse, and hung almost to the grey pony’s knees, but as daft as it looked, at least it would keep him snug. Dan led the grey pony back to the outdoor ring, trying not to mind the laughter he could see in people’s eyes as they took in the spectacle of the aged pony in his oversized blanket.
Keeley O’Callaghan was still there, still chewing the end of her stick as her pony walked around the collecting ring. She had a bright red mack on now, and her pony had a matching bright red quarter sheet over his muscular rump. Dan glanced at Spruce again, who looked like a grandfather in a worn-out dressing gown. At least it hid the rumpity old saddle, but you could still tell that his bridle was all made up of spare pieces, and there was a sprinkling of rust on his ancient snaffle that no amount of buffing could get off.
But he jumped clear, Dan reminded himself as he tightened the girth and swung back into Spruce’s hard saddle. Posh tack didn’t make you any faster in a jump off, or help your pony to jump any higher. From the way that Keeley’s bay pony had its ears flattened back right now, and its head turned against the incoming raindrops, it didn’t appear to be thrilled to be out in the weather. Spruce, on the other hand, just kept marching around the ring, blinking the rain out of his eyes in his usual workmanlike way, and Dan felt hopeful. He clapped his pony’s neck encouragingly as the course builders finished lifting the fences for the second round.
Keeley handed her pony off to her father before marching into the ring to walk the course. Three other riders followed suit, and Dan looked around desperately for his mother. She was nowhere to be seen, and he couldn’t see anyone else that he knew. He stopped Spruce by the fence and watched the riders walking the track, trying to memorise the new course that way.
“D’you need me to hold your pony, lad?”
Dan’s head swivelled fast on his neck and he stared at Deacon, who was smiling at him. Talking to him. His face was speckled with rain and mud, and he turned his head aside for a moment and coughed. It was odd, Dan thought, that an Olympian whose poster was on your bedroom wall could seem so normal when you met him face to face.
“Uh, sure. Thanks a million.”
He kicked his feet out of the stirrups and jumped to the ground, his boots sinking into the slush. He could feel water creeping in through the cracks in the worn leather, but he focused on snugging Spruce’s oversized blanket up onto his neck, before handing the tattered reins to Deacon.
“Go on then,” the man said, nodding towards the ring, and Dan set off at a run.
The jumps looked enormous to Dan as he walked the course. They were higher than anything he’d ever jumped before, and was starting to realise what his mother had meant when she’d warned him that it would be too much for Spruce. Was he about to make a proper fool of himself? More importantly, was it fair to ask such a thing of the kind little grey? He looked over to where the pony was standing, head down against the rain, one hind leg cocked under his large blanket. Spruce had already jumped two smaller classes today with riding school pupils, and Dan bit his lip, doubting his own judgement.
He looked back out at the course and gritted his teeth, determined to make an attempt at it. Spruce would let him know if it was truly beyond his capabilities, and then it would be himself sprawled in the mud with his lesson well and truly learned. Dan started walking again, carefully pacing out the double before looking around for what came next.
Just ahead of him, Keeley was marching towards the planks, and he followed in her small footsteps. She stopped in front of the fence, which came up to her shoulder, and looked back over the course, pointing at each jump in turn, her lips moving as she recited the order to herself. She doesn’t seem nervous at all, Dan thought to himself. Surely he could do it, if she could.
Keeley saw him coming and showed him a gap-toothed grin.
“Fierce wet today, isn’t it?” she asked brightly.
“Uh, yeah. I suppose so,” Dan said with a shrug. “It rains a lot here.”
“I know. We only live on the other side of the village.” Keeley walked around the planks and looked for the next fence.
“I didn’t know that,” Dan said, surprised. “I thought you lived in Mullingar.”
“We moved. Sure it didn’t rain this much over there though,” she said with a heavy sigh. “I don’t think I’ve been dry since we arrived!” She started pacing towards the white oxer with the painted grey wall beneath it, and Dan fell in next to her. “Cruel of them, isn’t it, to put a big wide oxer like this right after the planks? I’ll have to fair gallop Scooter down to it and hope he’ll make his way over.”
“I’m sure he will. He looks like a cracking jumper,” Dan said, glancing across at the slender bay pony.
“Oh, deadly,” Keeley agreed. “He doesn’t like the rain much though. I wish we were jumping indoors.”
“You don’t really, not off that surface,” Dan told her as they reached the base of the white oxer. He tried not to look at how wide it was, or how high. “It’s that deep, your pony would be jumping an extra foot to try and get out of it. Spruce almost fell on his face in there on Thursday night. It’s more like a sandpit than an arena.”
Keeley looked surprised. “Do you take lessons here, then?”
“No,” Dan said quickly. “Well, sort of. My mum’s the manager, so I ride here. But I don’t take lessons, like. Not with the others, I mean,” he muttered, embarrassed by his humble existence, so stark in contrast to hers.
But it was Keeley’s turn to surprise him. “You live here? You’re so lucky!”
Dan blinked at her. “Come again?”
“Well, there’s loads of other people here,” she said as they walked back over to their ponies. “I’m always stuck riding on my own, and it’s dead boring.”
“What’s that you’re giving out about now?” Deacon asked as they arrived back at his side.
“This boy lives here, Dad. He gets to ride with other children every day if he likes!”
For a moment, Dan almost told them the truth. He almost said that Keeley had it wrong, that he always rode on his own so that he didn’t get in the way of the paying customers, that he was too busy doing chores to spend much time socialising, and even if he hadn’t been, he had no time for the gossipy girls that hung about the yard, giggling behind their hands when he walked past. Mostly he rode in the evening under the lights, when nobody else was around except his mother, sitting in the office going over stacks of accounts. He would catch glimpses of her through the window as he trotted around the indoor school, watching her run her hands through her hair and chew on the end of her pen, glancing up occasionally to check on him as he rode.
The best evenings were when she had time to give him a quick lesson, but that had happened less and less lately. She’d been too busy to help him, and was that stressed out about the upcoming show that he hadn’t wanted to bother her asking for advice. So he carried on alone with Spruce, muddling through and hoping for the best. When the office light went out, he knew his mother was heading to the cottage to put the dinner on. Dan would walk Spruce out under the orange floodlights until he was cool, his reins hanging in loops along the pony’s damp neck. Then it would be just him in the yard afterwards, untacking the pony and rubbing him down until he was warm and dry, leaning against the fleabitten gelding’s round sides as he munched contentedly on his feed, listening to the huffing breaths and restless stomping of the other horses and ponies that lived there, always feeling more at home in their company than he ever did when he was surrounded by people.
“There you are, son! Are you ready? When is it you’re on?”
Dan slid his offside foot into the stirrup and picked up Spruce’s reins as his mother came sloshing over to him in her green wellies. Her red hair was hanging in a damp ponytail, and her oilskin jacket was dark with rain, but she was grinning at him and he found himself smiling back.
“Soon,” he told her. “There’s not many of us through to the second round.”
“Oh good. Give us that blanket while you warm up. Dear old thing, he looks a bit daft in it, doesn’t he?”
Mum was still smiling, but Dan was scarlet. Spruce was about to jump in the second round of the open class, and his mum was calling him a dear old thing. Right in front of Deacon O’Callaghan, too, who was still standing there with his daughter’s pony. But Dan said nothing as he stood up in the stirrups and let his mother pull the blanket off over Spruce’s rump.
“Wait for me,” Keeley demanded as she gathered up her reins in small gloved hands. “We can trot round together.”
Dan looked at the small girl in surprise as she jogged her pony up alongside him.
“Are you nervous?” she asked him, sitting well as the little bay tossed its head and sidled in protest at the oncoming rain.
“No,” Dan lied. “Are you?”
“Course not. You look nervous.” She grinned at him, unfazed by her lack of good manners. “I used to get nervous too, but you’ll be grand once you’re over the first jump.”
“Right.” He felt a glow rise to his cheeks at being called out, and decided it was time to get away from her. “I’m going to canter.”
“Okay.” Keeley shortened her reins and clicked her tongue, and her pony leapt forward into a swift, high-stepping canter. “Come on then!” she called over her shoulder to him. “Don’t muck about.”
Sighing, Dan shortened his reins and rode a careful transition into a canter. Spruce didn’t have naturally smooth paces, and Dan knew that if he didn’t balance him properly, he’d end up bouncing all over the show. And he definitely didn’t want to do that in front of Deacon O’Callaghan, who was now standing with his daughter’s bright red quartersheet folded over his arms, talking to Dan’s mother. She had the purple woollen blanket wrapped around her shoulders like a cape, and Dan clenched his jaw and focused on his pony instead. He loved his mother, but sometimes she did the most embarrassing things, like that time she’d gone into the shop in her wellies and tracked mud all across the floor, then just laughed when he’d pointed it out.
“Sure it’s just a bit of mud, love. Nothing to worry about.”
But he did worry, especially about her. Since they’d come to live at Ballyford, their lives seemed to be treading a thin line between the good and the bad. The good parts included living on the yard, getting to ride Spruce, and the regular pay cheques that the successful business provided. The bad parts were the long, hard hours that his mother worked, the building exhaustion he could see in her face, the way she didn’t seem to have any time left over for him at the end of the day. Dan did his best to help out, but he was twelve years old, and there was only so much he could get done before and after school, especially when he was trying to fit it around riding Spruce and getting his homework done.
Keeley didn’t know how lucky she was, he decided as he watched her jump her pony effortlessly over the practice fence. Imagine living on a top professional yard with loads of money to buy all the right gear and top class ponies, travelling to all the biggest competitions in the country, and most likely abroad as well. It would be easy for Keeley to get sponsors, to go on tours, to make it onto the Irish pony teams. She had everything laid out in front of her, and here she was complaining because she didn’t have enough friends to ride with? Dan thought she must be the most ungrateful child in the whole of Ireland. He’d swap his world for hers in a heartbeat.
His mum was calling to him now, telling him to get on and give his pony a jump. Dan’s nerves were jangling, but Spruce’s stride stayed steady and even, and he pricked his fuzzy ears at the sight of the jump ahead of him. Dan measured Spruce’s stride, adjusted him slightly, then squeezed with his legs as they hit the prime take-off spot. Spruce leapt neatly over, and Dan grinned as they landed. He loved the sensation of his pony flying through the air as he jumped, but even more he loved it when they found that sweet spot in front of a fence where everything was balanced and right and perfect. Spruce tossed his head, pleased with himself. The little pony always seemed to grow several inches taller when there was a jump in front of him, and his confidence was contagious. As Dan’s name was called to enter the ring, he felt his nerves floating away on the drifting rain as the excitement of jumping took over. For a moment he let his imagination run away with him, and the handful of spectators huddled around the muddy ring became a roaring grandstand of fans under the blistering European sun. The elderly Connemara pony beneath him morphed into a majestic grey stallion, his neck arched and ears pricked, powerful muscles bunching under his silver coat. People sighed in admiration as the stallion stepped into a smooth canter at just the lightest touch of Dan’s heel against his side. They oohed and aahed as the horse soared effortlessly over the highest fences, Dan keeping the tempestuous stallion carefully in check around the course, collecting and releasing its power in intoxicating bursts at each obstacle. And when they finished with a clear round, the cheers around the stadium were deafening…
Spruce baulked as he passed the white gate, and Dan was jerked back to reality. He had to focus on right now, and let the future take care of itself. The grey stallion faded away, and Dan pushed the small pony into his bouncy canter, lifting himself slightly out of the saddle as they rode a circle, waiting for the buzzer to start their round.
Spruce might not have been the mighty stallion of his daydreams, but he was a good pony. Despite his advanced age and the shocking conditions, he threw himself heart and soul into getting around the course. The height of the jumps faded into insignificance as they cleared them, one by one, and it was only as they came down to the last jump on the course that Dan felt Spruce start to flag.
I know you’re tired, Dan wanted to tell him. Just one more jump to go.
He tapped the pony on the shoulder with his crop, and Spruce’s stride lengthened. Dan sat up taller and steadied him, then clicked his tongue and Spruce jumped, tucking his forelegs up under his belly, giving everything to clear the last obstacle. His hind hooves brushed the back rail, but it didn’t fall. Dan pushed on through the flags, then leaned forward and flung his arms around the pony’s damp neck. Spruce dropped back to a jog, then a walk, his sides heaving and nostrils flared.
Keeley entered the ring as he rode to the gate, and they smiled at each other.
“Best of luck,” Dan told her, and she grinned even wider as she sent her pony forward into a brisk canter.
“Thanks, and well done yourself!” The buzzer sounded and she headed towards the start as Dan left the ring.
“Dan, that was brilliant!”
“Well done lad!”
“I never knew Spruce could jump like that! I can barely get him over a crosspole!”
Dan gazed around at the people surrounding him, clapping Spruce’s sweaty neck, gushing over his performance. He found his mother in the crowd, standing off to the side with a proud smile on her face. He mumbled his appreciation to the others as he pushed his way through them, and jumped off Spruce to let his mother throw the purple blanket back over the pony’s steaming back as the rain started lashing down.
“Well done, love,” she said with a shaky smile. “I was that nervous for you, but you rode it beautifully.”
“Thanks Mum. Will I walk him out now?” Dan loosened the girth a couple of holes and looked at Spruce’s heaving sides, going in and out like a bellows. His forehead creased into a frown. “He’s really heaving, isn’t he?”
His mother nodded. “He’s fair done in, son.”
Dan sighed, feeling some of the glow go out of his success. Spruce had jumped his heart out for him, had given everything he had, but now there was nothing left in the tank for a third round. As the spectators around the ring burst into polite applause, he knew that Keeley had just gone clear as well, putting them both through to a jump-off.
The inside of Spruce’s nostrils flared red, and Dan swallowed his disappointment.
“All right. I won’t jump him any more today. He’s done enough.”
“I think that’s a good decision,” Mairead agreed, patting her son on the shoulder with a relieved smile.
Dan did his best to smile back at her as he led the grey pony slowly around the collecting ring. He put a hand on Spruce’s wet neck.
“Sorry lad,” he said. “You did me proud out there though.” Dan slipped an arm over the pony’s withers and hugged him closer for a moment. “You did me mighty proud.”
HOW THE OTHER HALF LIVES
The brightly coloured rosette swung from the rear-view mirror as the big green horsebox pulled out into the narrow country road. Deacon frowned at the weather and increased the wiper speed.
“I wish we’d got to jump off,” Keeley said with a heavy sigh, leaning back into the seat and kicking her feet up onto the dashboard.
“Put your feet down,” her father said, without taking his eyes off the road.
“Oh come on, it’s filthy already,” she argued, but he shot her a look and she sighed, shifting her feet back to the floor.
They didn’t quite reach, and Keeley wished she would hurry up and grow a bit taller. She was sick of being so short.
“Why didn’t that boy come forward for the jump off?” she asked her father again as the horsebox slowly wound its way along the narrow road.
“You know why.”
“Because his pony was too tired,” Keeley repeated. “Why’d he jump at all then, if he couldn’t do all three rounds?”
Deacon didn’t bother to answer the question. “You should be pleased that you didn’t have to jump off in that muck,” he told her instead. “I don’t think we’ll be going back there. The surface was appalling.”
“Scooter jumped all right,” she reminded him.
“Scooter has hooves like suction cups,” her dad said. “He’ll jump out of anything.”
“Because he’s the best pony in the world,” Keeley said fondly, glancing at the screen on the dashboard that was connected to the camera in the back of the horsebox. Scooter was standing between two of her father’s youngsters, looking like a right midget next to the big seventeen -hand warmbloods. “It’ll be all right to go again if it doesn’t rain.”
“When does it ever not rain around here?” Deacon grumbled, shifting downward as they approached another sharp bend in the road.
“I don’t know.” Keeley swung her feet back up onto the dashboard, and this time her father didn’t notice. “But I think we should go again next weekend.”
“Do you think so?”
“You don’t have to ride,” she told him magnanimously. “We could just bring Scooter down. Maybe that boy and I will get to jump off next time.”
Deacon glanced across the front seat at her. “Aren’t you a bit young to be fancying boys? Sure you’re not even nine years old yet. And put your feet down, for the love of Christ. Don’t make me tell you again.”
Keeley rolled her eyes as she returned her feet to the floor. Well, almost to the floor. “I don’t fancy him. He was just nice, that’s all. And he was a class rider, even on that scruffy old pony. Didn’t you think?”
“Mmm. He wasn’t bad,” he said, and Keeley grinned, knowing that in Dad-speak, that meant very good indeed.
They drove on in silence for a while, the only sounds the swish of the wipers and the scratching of the overgrown hedges against the sides of the huge horsebox. Deacon kept wincing and glancing in his wing mirrors, concerned about the paintwork. He’d only just been given this truck by his sponsors, and good sponsorship was hard to come by – and even harder to hang onto. His good performance at the Olympics had helped immensely, but a few bad rides or the loss of a good horse could spell the end of everything. If his run of bad luck didn’t finish soon, the last thing he’d need would be a bill of damages from the company when they demanded their horsebox back.
He glanced over at his daughter, who was looking out of the window at the murky countryside.
“We’ll see what the weather does next weekend,” he eventually conceded. Keeley’s face lit up, until he spoke again. “Maybe we can bring Cubby down as well.”
His daughter’s face had fallen as soon as he mentioned Cubby. “Daaaad!”
“You’ve got to ride him sometime, Bug. Might as well give him a go around at a small show like that.”
Keeley pulled a face. “I don’t see why I have to ride him at all,” she argued. “You’re the one who bought him without asking me.”
Deacon’s fingers clenched tighter around the steering wheel. “He’s a grand wee jumper.”
“Yeah, he’s brilliant when he goes over the jumps,” Keeley shot back. “If only he’d do that instead of grabbing the bit between his teeth and galloping past every time.”
“Not every time.”
“Most of the time.”
“He won loads over in England,” her father reminded her again, and Keeley’s face twisted into a sulky expression.
“Of course he did,” she grumbled. “He had a boy riding him who was a thousand times stronger than me.”
“Sure you’re not just being feeble?”
Keeley swung a boot onto the seat between them and aimed a kick at her father’s leg. He reached out with one hand and grabbed her ankle, eyes still fixed on the road.
“Mind yourself now.”
“Well, don’t call me feeble,” she muttered, but she took her leg back.
The prospect of riding Cubby made Keeley that nervous, she didn’t even want to think about it. Her mind flickered away from the prospect. Dan had been nervous today, she’d been able to tell. He’d denied it, but she knew she’d been right. He’d still ridden brilliantly though, and she was hit by a sudden inspiration.
“You could see if that Dan wants to ride Cubby,” Keeley suggested to her father. “You know he’ll be at the show next weekend, because he lives there.”
“Aye, so you said.”
“I wish I lived there.”
The horsebox came to a slow stop at the end of the road, and Deacon clicked on the indicator, waiting for a break in traffic big enough to ease the big vehicle out into.
“Why, so you could ride scruffy school ponies as well?”
“Well, no. Did you see the blanket he had on his pony? It was about ten sizes too big.” Deacon smiled slightly and let the horsebox roll forward a few inches as he waited. “But I bet he doesn’t have to ride by himself all the time.”
Deacon sighed, easing his foot back onto the brake. “I know it’s been a bit dull for you since we got here,” he said. “But we have to go where the money is.”
“I know.” Keeley chewed on the edge of a fingernail. “Will we always have to, though? Can’t we a buy a place of our own?”
“I’d love to, but we’re a wee way off that, I’m afraid,” Deacon said, putting his foot down and driving the horsebox forward onto the wet road. Only by about fifty years. He glanced over at his small daughter. “Be patient, Bug.”
“I’ll try,” she conceded. “But it’s not easy!”
* * *
The black pony snorted softly, his breath puffing out into the cold evening air. Dan sat tall in the saddle and turned Toby across the diagonal of the indoor school, pushing him forward with his legs, asking him to work harder, to give a little more. Toby baulked, slowing right down and sinking his weight onto his hindquarters, threatening to rear.
“Oh no you don’t,” Dan muttered, kicking the reluctant pony’s wooden sides. “Get on into the bridle, you old sod.”
Toby laid his ears back and waved his head around, but he grudgingly took the contact back into the reins and trotted on, his tail swishing irritably at the suggestion he actually work for his oats. Dan sighed as he returned to the track and proceeded around the school in the opposite direction. He could smell the sweat coming from the pony, and knew he was sweating almost enough himself to match him. He rode around the corner, then turned determinedly across the diagonal again, asking once more for Toby to lengthen his strides. Through the thick rubber reins, he felt the obstinate gelding clench his jaw and trundle on, outright ignoring Dan’s firm aids.
“How is the wee devil tonight?”
Dan looked up to see his mother watching him, her arms resting on the top of the wooden gate that separated the indoor school from the stable block. Grateful for the opportunity to give his aching legs a rest, he slowed the pony to a walk. Toby obeyed immediately, and Dan gave him a reluctant pat. Always praise them when they do something right, even if it’s the only thing they’ve done right all day. He didn’t need to hear the words come out of his mother’s mouth – they were ingrained into his head.
“Lazy as the day is long,” Dan told her over his shoulder as he nudged Toby on past the gate. “How you can teach anyone to ride on this old slug I’ve no clue.”
“Ah, he’s safe enough,” Mairead said, giving Toby an affectionate look. “Never need to worry about him bolting off on anyone, and that makes him invaluable to us.”
“Not likely to be valuable to anyone else,” Dan muttered under his breath.
Keeley O’Callaghan’s classy bay pony floated back into his mind, as it had done every day since the show. Now that was a valuable pony. He couldn’t stop thinking about the pony, and his young rider who had been handed success on a silver platter, yet still found something to complain about. Dan looked around the empty, cold arena as Toby walked slowly along the wall. Let her swap lives with him for a day or two, and see if she still cared about riding alone when she no longer had beautifully-schooled, top level jumping ponies. She could come here and ride ponies that were tired from a day of lessons, and soured from endless rotations around the indoor school, while he would go to whatever utopia she lived in, and ride bright, athletic ponies that were soft and supple in their bodies, that would jump anything you pointed them at, that were sleek and fit and so beautiful that people turned their heads to watch them as they passed…
Toby stumbled, and Dan was startled back to grim reality.
“I just got an entry in from the O’Callaghans for next weekend,” Mairead told him as he rode past her.
Dan brought Toby to a sharp halt, wondering if she could read his mind. “Really?”
“Just the daughter riding, and bringing two ponies this time.” Her green-flecked eyes watched his face closely, and Dan gave up any pretence that he wasn’t madly jealous of Keeley O’Callaghan. His mother knew him too well to be fooled anyway.
“Must be pure class, living at a yard like that and having such brilliant ponies.” The envy crept into his voice, and he gave it full rein. “Just think of all the money they must have. She’ll be on all the Irish pony teams, no question.”
While I’m stuck here, trotting around in reluctant circles. He reached forward and patted Toby’s neck as he spoke, feeling a little guilty. Better this than not being able to ride at all. Better this than only getting to ride once a week, the way he had before they’d moved here. It was better this than nothing, but it still didn’t seem fair.
“I’m sure she has plenty of advantages,” Mairead was agreeing calmly. “But everyone has their own struggles.”
“What struggles?” he demanded bitterly. “Having no friends to ride with?”
She frowned. “Don’t blame the child for being lonely. It’s not been so long since her mother passed, and that’s never easy for anyone.”
Dan shot her a questioning look. “I didn’t know that.”
“Funny how it’s easy to judge someone from the outside, without thinking about what they might have been through in their life,” Mairead replied.
Dan kicked Toby back into a walk, startling the pony into sudden activity. He didn’t need his mother reading him a lecture, and she sounded like she was gearing up for one.
So Keeley didn’t have a mother; well, he didn’t have a father. Not one worth bothering about, anyway. His dad had bolted shortly after he was born, and Dan had no recollection of him at all. Mum always said they were better off without him, which he supposed was true. But his absence had left a hole that only Dan’s imagination could fill. When he was younger, he’d dreamed up countless possible reasons for him being gone – that he was an undercover spy, had been kidnapped by pirates, was making his fortune and would come back a billionaire, and buy Dan all of the best ponies imaginable. That one had always been his favourite daydream, but these days he didn’t give over to such fantasies. And yet no amount of common sense could extinguish the lingering hope that one day his father would want to know his son.
SOMETHING TO PROVE
“Sit up and get your shoulders back!”
“I am!” Keeley yelled back at her father as Cubby grabbed the bit and rushed forward, flinging himself over the second fence in the line.
She grabbed a fistful of mane and held on for dear life as the bay pony cleared the third fence, then ran out sharply at the fourth, leaving her swinging on his neck. Fighting back tears of frustration, Keeley regained her seat and hauled on the reins, trying to bring the naughty pony back under control.
“Keeley, will you not listen to what I’m telling you?”
“I am listening!” she shouted back at her father. “I just can’t do it! He’s too bold, and I’m not strong enough.”
Deacon ran a hand through his short hair in frustration. He’d never liked teaching, had always been one of those who was better at going out and doing things than telling others how to do them. He’d had to learn it all the hard way, by riding and making a lot of different horses, and the experience had proven invaluable over the years. He wanted the same background for Keeley. His pony-mad daughter swore that she was going to follow in his footsteps and make a living off horses, but for her to be successful without a family fortune – which they certainly didn’t have – she was going to have to learn how to make and ride horses for herself. He wouldn’t have his own daughter being one of those posh children that were bought clockwork ponies and only had to stay on and steer to get themselves onto teams, nor did he want her selected simply because of who her father was.
Cubby had seemed like the perfect step up from Scooter, and he’d bought the smart Welsh pony on a recent trip to the UK, after seeing him fly around the 138cm Championship at Olympia just before Christmas. He’d liked the pony’s attitude, and had thought it would do Keeley the world of good to have a pony that would take her boldly to the fences. He hadn’t considered that Cubby would be too much pony for a slight eight-year-old girl, but he wasn’t going to admit defeat. She’d learn. Eventually.
“Would you let go of his mouth, for a start,” Deacon told her, planting his hands on his hips. Keeley pouted, which only increased his irritation with her. “And don’t you go getting the hump with me, I’m only telling you the truth and you know it.”
At her father’s last words, Keeley dropped the reins and kicked her feet out of the stirrups. “I’m not riding him anymore. I don’t care what you say.”
She jumped to the ground, dragged the reins over the pony’s head and marched towards the gate with Cubby crowding her heels and walking almost on top of her.
Deacon ground his teeth in frustration as he watched her walk away, her small shoulders squared in determination. If only she’d put that stubbornness to work on the pony instead of him, she’d be away. He was sure of it. But he didn’t know what to do with her when she got like this.
He closed his eyes, missing his late wife with a desperate pang that never seemed to lessen in intensity. The grief had been raw and all-consuming at first – he’d expected that, and dealt with it as best he could. But she had been gone five years now. Five years had passed without her by his side. So why did it still hurt as much as if it had happened yesterday?
Deacon heard footsteps, and opened his eyes to see a young groom leading a large grey stallion in his direction. He took a deep breath, then slowly exhaled. He had to let go of the tension he was holding before he rode Rook, or he’d have even more problems on his hands. He took the helmet that Caiomhe held out to him and pushed onto his head as the young groom pulled down his stirrups. She was a hard worker, this girl. He usually steered clear of hiring young female grooms, as they had an irritating tendency to fall in love with him, but he’d taken Caiomhe on in the hope that she’d provide some companionship for Keeley. Unfortunately, neither of them seemed inclined to forge any kind of friendship. In fact, he got the distinct impression that Caiomhe viewed Keeley as a spoiled, ungrateful child, and with the behaviour his daughter had just shown, it was hard to blame her for that.
Deacon led Rook over to the mounting block and held him steady, patting his dark dappled neck before swinging into the saddle and settling his foot into the offside stirrup. Caiomhe has only been here a few weeks, he reminded himself. There was still time for the pair to warm to each other.
“Do you need anything else?” the young woman asked eagerly, looking around at the jumps in the arena. “I can set out some poles, if you like, or…”
“Will you go and check on Keeley?” he asked her as he touched the stallion into action. “Make sure she’s taking proper care of that pony.”
“Sure.” Caiomhe sounded resigned as she turned away towards the gate, shoulders slumped.
Deacon halted his horse’s springing steps. “Wait a moment. You’ve been riding Cubby for us, haven’t you?”
Caiomhe nodded, her freckled face breaking into a smile. “Three times a week, like you asked.”
“What d’you think of him?” Deacon asked her.
She seemed surprised to be asked for her opinion, but offered it willingly. “He’s brilliant,” she said. “I love riding him.”
“Is he too much pony for Keeley though?” he pressed. “Have I made a mistake buying him?”
Caiomhe shook her head, her eyebrows lowering. “I wouldn’t say a mistake. He likes to act the maggot if he thinks he can get away with it, but if you’re firm with him he’s lovely. He’s not wicked at all, just a little bold. I can ride him more often, if you’d like.”
Deacon sighed. “You may have to. Go see to Bug, make sure she’s all right.”
Caiomhe nodded and made her way back down the gravel path to the stables, wondering whether she should’ve been a little more honest with her employer. She loved Cubby, but he was wilful – a lad’s pony through and through, and far too much for wee Keeley to hold onto. But Caiomhe was the only groom on the yard small enough to exercise him, and although she loved riding the big horses, and still longed for the day that she might be allowed to have a sit on Rook, Cubby was the one she was fondest of. It was him that melted her heart when his little head popped out over his stable door, and she’d be heartbroken if Deacon decided to sell the pony, which it sounded suspiciously like he was considering doing. Just because his horrid little daughter was too feeble to ride him properly.
She met Keeley on her way of Cubby’s box, her small arms laden with tack. The young girl hadn’t run her stirrups up properly, her bridle was dragging on the ground, and her helmet and stick had been discarded carelessly onto the concrete. Caiomhe gritted her teeth as Keeley pushed the door shut with her shoulder and kicked the latch over at the bottom, shutting Cubby in. The bay pony saw Caiomhe approaching and whinnied to her, his face still sweat-marked where his bridle had been.
“Give us that and you wash him off,” Caiomhe said, reaching for the armload of tack that looked in danger of falling out of Keeley’s arms at any second.
Keeley pulled the saddle back towards herself sulkily. “I can do it.” She narrowed her eyes at Caiomhe, then looked back at Cubby, who was straining over his half-door to try and beg peppermints off the groom. “And I’ll wash him off myself too.”
“Your da told me to help you.”
“I don’t need your help,” Keeley snapped. “Don’t you have work to do?” she added, before marching off, trying not to trip over the dangling reins.
In the tack room, Keeley slung Cubby’s saddle onto the low rack and detached his sweaty numnah, laying it upside down over the saddle to dry. Stupid pony. Couldn’t he have just behaved in front of her father? Why did he always have to embarrass her like that? She picked up the bridle that she’d dropped on the floor and carefully untangled it, then went to the sink to wash the bit. She knew that Caiomhe thought she was a spoiled brat, and that she resented Keeley for the opportunities she had. As if she could help having them. And it wasn’t like Dad went out of his way to make things easy for her. Some of the children of her father’s teammates went through ponies like pairs of shoes, riding them for a season then discarding them as soon as they stopped performing, or got injured, or reached retirement age. But that would never happen around here. Her father wouldn’t allow it.
I’ll show her, Keeley thought as she washed saliva and pieces of carrot off Cubby’s bit. The bridle was dusty from where she’d dragged it on the ground, so instead of hanging it on her pony’s peg, Keeley slung it onto the bridle hook in the corner and picked up a sponge and a tin of saddle soap. So Caiomhe thought she was a little snob who didn’t look after her own things, did she? She’d show her. She was going to get her saddle and bridle so clean that Caiomhe would be the one asking her how she’d done it.
* * *
Dan slid the stable door open, smiling as Spruce looked up from his feed bin with a welcoming expression. His upper lip was covered in mash, and Dan couldn’t help grinning at the pony as he admired the bright red stable blanket that Spruce now wore. He’d picked up a bit of prize money at the show on the weekend, despite conceding victory to Keeley, and had combined it with his savings to buy Spruce a new blanket as a thank you for jumping so well for him. His mother had tried to dissuade him at first, reminding him that he’d been saving for his own pony, and was he sure he wanted to spend it on a blanket for a pony he didn’t even own? But Dan had been certain. The pitiful amount of money he had in the bank wasn’t nearly enough to buy a pony that would be able to compete against the likes of Keeley O’Callaghan’s, making the whole endeavour to save for his own seem pointless. He might as well make the most of the ponies he did have at his disposal, instead of languishing over ones he would never be able to afford.
“There you are.” Mairead stopped in the door of Spruce’s box, smiling over at the pony as he licked the last remnants of feed out of his manger. “Looks like he’s enjoyed his tea.”
Dan stepped closer to Spruce and put a hand on the grey pony’s thick mane. “Did Evie pay her entry fee yet?” he asked, hating the hopeful sound in his voice.
“Aye, she did,” Mairead confirmed. “Sorry, son. But after the performance Spruce put in with you last week, I’ve got customers lining up for the chance to compete him, and she was determined that it would be her.”
“She won’t get him round,” Dan said. “She hasn’t a hope, not even in the Under Tens. He’ll stop with her, because she won’t put her leg on.”
“I know, Dan, but what will you have me do?” Mairead asked. “I can’t turn down a paying customer just to let you have a ride. And you know the open class was too much for him anyway.”
Dan pulled the pony’s ears through his hands, and Spruce snuffled at his pockets hopefully. “I could get him fitter. If you’d let me ride him more, maybe not use him so much in the school…”
“You know that I can’t do that, love.” Mairead’s voice was soft, but resolute. “I wish I could buy you a top class pony, you know I do. And I’m not saying you don’t deserve one. But there’s only so much I can do. We haven’t the money…”
“I know,” Dan said quickly. He hated being reminded. “I was just saying, that’s all.”
“And I was listening,” his mother assured him. “But neither of those things are going to change the real world, and that’s the one we live in.”
* * *
She jumped at her father’s sharp bark, sloshing neatsfoot oil out of the tin and across the rag in her hand. It dripped onto the floor as she hastily righted the tin and looked over at her father, who was looming in the doorway of the tack room with a furious expression.
“What’re you doing?”
Keeley set the oil tin onto the bench and turned back to the saddle on the rack in front of her. “Cleaning my tack. You’re always giving out to me about not doing it, so I thought you’d be pleased.”
“What about your pony?” Deacon asked, his anger refusing to dissipate. “When were you going to get around to looking after him?”
Keeley started guiltily. She’d completely forgotten about Cubby, standing in his stable covered in dried sweat and without a blanket to keep him warm in the cold evening.
“I forgot,” she admitted, dropping the oil rag onto the floor and starting towards the door. “I’ll go do him now.”
“Too late, Caiomhe’s already seen to him.” Deacon walked into the room and slung his saddle onto the cleaning rack next to Keeley’s smaller one.
“Of course she has,” Keeley muttered. “Bloody Caiomhe.”
“Watch your language,” Deacon told her sharply. “You should be grateful that someone cares about your pony enough to look after him when you can’t be arsed.”
“I told you, I forgot! And she knew I was in here,” Keeley retorted. “She could’ve come and fetched me, not done it herself and then tattled on me to you.”
Deacon frowned as he pulled his helmet from his sweating head. Rook had been in a right temper tonight, and had messed about the whole ride. Deacon wasn’t blaming the horse – he knew that the sensitive stallion had picked up on his lingering irritation with his daughter – but that knowledge hadn’t made his ride any smoother.
And he had to admit that his daughter had a point. He’d been relieved to hear from the groom that Cubby had been taken care of, but if he’d been the one to find the pony left in that state, he’d have gone to find Keeley and made her do it herself.
“Well she won’t be doing it again,” Deacon told his daughter. “I’ve told her that you’re to clean your own messes up in future.” He looked pointedly at the oil rag on the floor. “You can start with that one.”
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