equestrian · Thoughts · writing

Horse Show Diary #2: The Pleasure Show

Another week, another opportunity to take the horses on an outing. I am not entirely sure what possessed me and my friend Alice to decide to compete in ridden pleasure classes at the Whanganui A&P Fundraiser Show, except that it was fairly local, cheap to enter and there were classes for Best Walk and Best Trot, which I figured even Flea could cope with…

So we loaded the horses onto the float (something Flea is getting progressively better at) and headed 1 hour’s drive north to Whanganui Racecourse. (Not every show in NZ is held at a racecourse, I swear – just all the ones we go to, apparently.)

The horses both travelled well and tucked into their hay nets when we arrived. We paid our entries and gave them a bit of a brush, flicked on some hoof oil, had some lunch, and discovered that Ace loves falafel (as in, will stick his nose in your tupperware and try to push you aside to get to it, LOVES it). We tacked up, brushed ourselves off and headed over to the ring. Flea had been very good when we arrived, but once I was on board and we were riding across the field, he became a little overwhelmed by the sheer number of other horses (100 or so) milling around in the large area. Some were walking, some trotting, some cantering, some standing still, some being led, but they were all horses he didn’t know (except for Ace) and his brain started to short-circuit from the overstimulation. Ace became his security blanket and Flea was quite unable to function without Ace within his line of sight at all times. I walked and trotted Flea around, attempting to get him to at the very least pay a marginal amount of attention to me, but aside from walking and trotting as requested, he was far more interested in LOOKING at everything and trying to see where Ace was and threatening to have a small hissy fit if Ace disappeared from view. So that was…fun.

There were 12 (?) or so riders in our division, Recreational Pleasure 16 years & over, with a broad range of horses on show.

The first class was Best Presented, and given that Alice and I had read “Plaiting and Jackets optional” on the programme and had thereby opted not to plait our horses’ manes or wear show jackets, we were not placed in this.

We then moved on to Best Walk. I positioned Flea behind Ace, and he walked extremely briskly to keep up. Ace was doing his best Morgan Horse walk, energetic and forward and exuding charisma and presence, as always. Flea was still wound up and yawing at the bit from time to time. We changed direction, during which Flea took the opportunity to itch his head on his foreleg and almost fall on his face. Once we were going the other way, Ace was behind us and Flea’s speed halved from brisk to hesitant shuffle with eyes rolling back to try and find Ace. This, it turned out, wasn’t precisely what the judge was looking for. Ace, on the other hand, was exactly that, and was called in first. Alice was delighted to have achieved her goal of getting a ribbon, so her day was thus declared a success at this point and she didn’t much care what happened next.

The next class was Best Trot, and Flea again participated with some unnecessary extravagance and flair. Now that the other horses were moving around him at speed, and some of them started to pass him, he got more and more wound up to the point where I had very little control over his speed and direction. He was determined to follow Ace, and when he got passed by a third horse on the outside of the circle, he threw a small temper tantrum and burst into canter. Not ideal in a Best Trot class! I got him back to a trot and kept him moving but unsurprisingly he was, once again, not what the judge was looking for. Nor was Ace that time around, and we both stepped aside while the ribbons were presented.

Next was Best Mannered, which at this point clearly wasn’t going to be Flea’s strong suit. Also, we would now be expected to canter all together, and I just wasn’t sure whether he would cope. He was very tense as it was, so although we started the class, once everyone began trotting and he again got very wound up and anxious, I decided to remove us from the ring and see if I couldn’t get him to calm down so he could actually process what was going on. He thought that Ace trotting past him as he stood by the side of the ring was a bit alarming, and when everyone started cantering he became even more worried, so I decided to dismount and see if I could get him to stand still and relax. It took a while – two more classes, in fact, in which Ace was a good boy but didn’t earn himself any further ribbons – before Flea finally decided that he didn’t NEED to move his feet, or push me with his head, or whinny to his friend, and that he could in fact stand quietly, lower his head, half-close his eyes, and sigh.

Once he could stand like that for a couple of minutes, I remounted and sat on him, aiming to get the same relaxation from him with me in the saddle. I don’t usually like sitting on horses at shows and using them as a grandstand, but felt it was important that Flea learned that he could still relax even with me on him. He did tense up quite a bit once I was on board, shifting around a little and calling out to Ace again, but he eventually found a more relaxed headspace and managed to stand still and wait.

Ace, meanwhile, had decided that it had been too long between winning ribbons, and picked up another win in the Best Learner’s Mount (Novice 0-3 wins) class. He was also getting a bit over it by this point, but Alice coaxed one more class out of him to place 3rd in Best Rider. He was then called forward for consideration for Champion and Reserve, and was just pipped at the post for Reserve by another horse that had been a little more consistent across all classes. But he seemed quite pleased with himself and Alice was thrilled with him.

We then rode the horses back down to the other end of the field and Alice dismounted to let Ace have a well-earned graze on some clover while I spent about 10 minutes schooling Flea. Once he’d stopped spooking at the practice steeplechase fences (and the tape reel, and that oddly shaped patch of lawn clippings), he produced some pretty nice work. His left rein canter transition was a little dodgy, but we got it after a couple of attempts. Back onto the right rein, and he cantered nicely, then back to the left and asked again. He was getting tired, more mentally than physically I think, and really struggled to pick up the lead. I let him go back to trot and decided to get some relaxation in trot before asking again, and he actually trotted so nicely, taking the rein forward and down and staying soft on the contact while being relaxed and rideable, that I decided to finish on that good note.

Although the day wasn’t a success as far as ribbons won (for Flea, anyway), it was still a good learning experience for him. By not pushing him to perform when he was already so tense and distracted, he had the time and space to calm down and actually process what was going on. I’ve been told by a lot of people that Spanish-bred horses are slow to mature, and he is just SO busy in his little brain that it’s hard for him to process a lot of new things at once. He’s also pretty herd-bound to Ace, which is not ideal, but they’ve been partners in crime for six months now without any other friends so it’s not exactly surprising.

Before we left for the show, Alice and I both filled in a page of a new project that I’m working on, a ‘Horse Show Diary’ where you fill in your goals and focus for the show before you go, then add in your successes and ‘homework’ afterwards. My goals were for it to be a positive experience for Flea, and for me to get him relaxed and attentive, and we achieved those goals, even though we didn’t participate in much of the actual showing part of the day.  (Alice’s goals were not to fall off, to win a ribbon and to have fun, all of which she also achieved. Good job team!)

I have always found that it’s really helpful to write down your goals, especially with young or green horses, because success isn’t always measured in ribbons and prize money. Since I had decided beforehand what I wanted to focus on and what I wanted to achieve, I was able to think logically when Flea’s level of tension and adrenalin early on at the competition started causing problems. Although I was tempted to just grit my teeth and keep going, I was aware that the goal I’d set was to help him find relaxation when he was out in a group. So I had to think about how I COULD achieve that goal, and work towards that. So often when we come home from shows without ribbons, we think that means we haven’t gained anything from the experience. But hopefully the show today will have taught Flea that he doesn’t have to freak out when he’s overstimulated, that he can be out in a situation with lots of horses all doing different things and still be able to focus and stay calm. It won’t happen overnight, but it’s a small building block towards having a more relaxed, rideable horse.

Pictured: Alice and the incomparable Moon’s Ace with their ribbons at the end of the day.

equestrian · writing

Horse Show Diary #1: The Gymkhana

It’s probably obvious that I’ve been struggling a little bit with writer’s block lately, considering I released my last book almost a whole YEAR ago. (It’s true. IRISH LUCK came out in June 2018. That’s…confronting.) There have been quite a few changes in my life since that book came out, not least of which was the purchase of a new house and farm, where I have been joined by two horses, a very loyal dog and a very naughty kitten! (Regular updates on my Instagram @kate_lattey if you’re interested.)

I am still working on book 11 in the PONY JUMPERS series, and I do have large portions of it written, but it hasn’t quite gelled together yet. I find myself caught between the desire to write and release the best book possible, and the awareness that it’s been Almost. A. Year. since I wrote my last book. But I don’t want to just churn it out for the sake of it. I have been looking forward to writing this story for some time, and it is slowly coming together. It’s just taking time…and if I’m honest, I’ve been pretty slack about working on it!

So why are you writing a blog about a horse show that you attended two days ago, instead of writing book 11, I hear you ask? Good question. Because I keep getting stuck when I sit down to write. Because I keep talking myself out of just sitting down and doing it, which is the only way to actually get through writer’s block. So I thought I’d start by writing about something I know, something I can write about easily, where I won’t find myself agonising over each word or each character’s motivation.

So…here goes.

Currently, I have two horses in the paddocks at home. Ace is a 17 year old dark bay partbred Morgan gelding, currently on lease from a friend. He came to live with me a day or two after I moved into my new place, just before Christmas, but has been out of work for most of that time after slicing his heel open on a wire fence (because he was pawing at it, demanding carrots). It wasn’t a major injury, but it still cost me $$$$ in vet bills, largely because Ace kept chewing off every bandage that I attempted to cover the wound with. He is not a horse that likes a fuss being made of him – he’s pretty staunch and very independent. He has his own opinions about things, and is steadfast in them. We got off to a slow start together, when I picked a battle (or two) that I shouldn’t have. (Who would’ve thought that asking an experienced trail horse to walk through a patch of sand would have led to an outright refusal and two weeks of sulking? Not I.) Anyway, I eventually had to leave the wound well enough alone to heal, which it has finally done. He’s now back in work and thoroughly enjoying the outings.

Ace’s paddock mate is Flea, a 7 year old bright bay Andalusian x Welsh gelding who came at the same time as Ace, right after I moved in. (Both horses are around 15.1hh). Flea is a chirpy, slightly peculiar, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed little horse, who enjoys an adventure but also uses Ace as something of a security blanket (although he’d utterly deny this if you confronted him about it). Flea isn’t super keen on going anywhere by himself, as he is scared of flapping things – balage wrap is a particular phobia – and finds schooling to be quite hard work and gets rather grumpy about it. (He does, however, try – unlike Ace, who will occasionally flat out refuse to participate in what he believes is pointless circling. Once you’ve been somewhere once, there’s no point in going around and around again, in his mind anyway.)

Ace and Flea are, despite their differences, great friends. Fortunately, my friend Alice is also a keen rider, and she has taken a real shine to Ace, often getting up at the crack of dawn to come and ride with me before work.

Recently, I saw an upcoming pony club gymkhana advertised on Facebook. Hosted by one of our local branches, it was open to riders of all ages, with just a blanket $10 entry fee (with free entry for all local Pony Club members). Although Flea had – to the best of my knowledge – never done mounted games in his life, and hadn’t been ridden more than a dozen times in the past couple of months, I thought it would be a great idea to take him along to compete. Alice was keen to bring Ace too, and we prepped for the show by debating the relative likelihood of Ace even agreeing to leave the start line (marginal), and whether Flea would buck me off as soon as the races began (given his recent propensity for the odd handstand, likely). But we thought we’d give it a go anyway, so on Saturday morning, having done absolutely zero preparation other than hacking a few times in the days prior, trimming their manes to a presentable length, and cleaning our tack, we loaded the horses onto my float and dragged them half an hour south to the Otaki racecourse, where the show was being held.

We weren’t the only adults competing – there was one other.  Also in our group were two sisters, senior riders from the local PC branch. The other adult elected to not participate in the first few races, possibly because her pony was acting up a bit, so initially we only had four of us in each race. With four ribbons to be handed out for each event, this would make us appear quite successful by the end of the day!

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We arrived at the show early (for once) and put our entries in, just as it started pouring with rain. After sheltering for a few minutes in a horse truck, the rain eased off, and we headed out to tack up. With 45 minutes to go before the show would begin, I got on Flea and started schooling him. Alice held Ace out to graze while I rode, and Flea, although distracted by looking at the scenery (and having a mild freak out about the number of Shetland ponies in the vicinity) was pretty well-behaved, leading Alice to state that “I think he’s going to be fine.” You know what they say about famous last words?

We went back to the float for a bite to eat and for Ace to get tacked up. Then we started warming up properly, with both of us riding, and several other ponies and horses trotting and cantering around as well. It was at this point that Flea became somewhat overwhelmed, especially when Ace attempted to leave his side and trot off in the opposite direction without warning. Flea had a couple of small tantrums that involved stopping, jumping in the air and then performing a controlled sort of levade that his sire (whose claim to fame was his starring role as Asfaloth in the Lord of the Rings movies) would have been proud of. I was not so pleased with these airs above ground, given that we were at pony club, not the Spanish Riding School, and did my best to dissuade him from continuing with the bad behaviour. I did this by raising my voice and growling at him, which had the effect of drawing attention to me while being utterly ignored by Flea. Good oh. I asked Alice to stick a little closer to me, feeling Flea winding up every time Ace went the other way, and being unwilling to get bucked off in front of all the children (and their parents). She conceded (I suspect in large part because she didn’t want me to end up injured, as she’d then have to tow the float home) and Flea settled down a bit.

We were then assigned to our groups and our judges, who decided to start the competition off with the Guts Gobbling race. (For the uninitiated, this involves riding up to a clothesline strung between two trees, dismounting and eating a jelly snake off a peg on the line without touching it with your hands, then running back through the flags leading your horse.) With only four of us electing to participate in this race – me, Alice, and the two pony clubbers – we all lined up together. I put Flea on the right hand end, so that if the other riders’ horses raced off the start line, I would at least have Ace as a steady buffer to dissuade Flea from leaping forward or bucking. Alice, for her part, was concerned that Ace might not stop at the clothesline but carry on beneath it, thus effectively clotheslining her, but it turned out that neither of us had anything to worry about, because when the judge cried “GO!” both of our horses left the start line at…a walk. In Flea’s case this was a rather anxious walk, and in Ace’s, a slightly confused one as he wondered what on earth he’d gotten himself in for. Happily, we made it the short distance to the clothesline without incident, and jumped off our horses. Alice’s first, failed attempt to eat her snake made the line spin around, and my snake snapped off its peg before I could even get my mouth near it. After checking with the judge that it was okay to pick it up off the ground (with my hands) and eat it, I did so. (Pony club hygiene for the win.) Now let me tell you, it is harder to eat a jelly snake quickly than you might think. Certainly, it was harder than I’d expected it to be! However I got it down and led Flea, who followed at a confused trot, back to the start line, beating Alice by a stride or two to finish in third place. And so it was that Flea won his first ever ribbon in competition for Guts Gobbling. (For anyone who knows Flea, honestly, this is entirely fitting, even though he wasn’t the one gobbling his guts.)

Our next game was the Bending race. To be more specific, American Bending, which in the parlance of New Zealand pony club mounted games means you race straight up to the top pole, weave back between the poles, weave up to the top again, then gallop home. In theory, anyway. While the two pony club sisters raced against each other, Alice and I ran a much more sedate race of our own. Again, I positioned Flea on the end row of poles next to Ace, so that he could be a steadying influence, as Alice was still under threat of having to drive home if she caused me to be bucked off. We trotted up to the far pole, turned around it, and started slowly weaving back down. The sisters, whose horses were equipped with studs in their shoes for grip on the slippery grass, were well ahead of us, even at this point. Flea was confused and excited, but obedient. We wove back up to the top pole, and had there been any bystanders, they would’ve heard me telling Alice that I would let her beat me so long as she agreed not to canter home! What a wimp. Kindly, Alice obliged, and Flea and I finished in fourth place, with Alice and Ace picking up the ribbon for third.

We rode on to the Barrel race, and I volunteered to go first. At this point, the light drizzle had turned into a much heavier shower, and we were all getting rather wet. I took Flea slowly around the barrels, going most of the way at sitting trot, but turning him slowly and carefully around each barrel as the rain came down. Alice followed me with a slightly faster run, and then the two pony clubbers ran a proper race. The ribbons were presented in effectively reverse order, with Flea easily being the slowest on the clock for another fourth placing.

We moved on to the Flag race. As, to the best of my knowledge, Flea had never been asked to carry a flag before, our judge kindly handed me one, allowing me to ride a few steps and put it back in the barrel before the game started, just to make sure that Flea had a basic understanding of what was expected of him. He was pretty quiet about it, although a bit anxious as the other horses were on the start line and he wasn’t sure what was going on. We lined up, with Flea once again on the end next to Ace, and were given the signal to start. Flea darted forward with his head in the air, feeling uncertain and a little overwhelmed, so I decided that instead of trying to grab a flag when he was in that unsettled frame of mind, I’d just trot him up to the top barrel empty handed, turn around it and trot back. We did this twice, while the rest of the field carried their flags, until Flea felt a bit more settled. Then we slowly and carefully transferred each flag into the top barrel and trotted quietly home. We finished in fourth place, but I think our exceptionally slow run had inspired the other adult rider at the gymkhana to join in with our group, clearly realising that she was well in with a chance at a ribbon if I was going to ride every race that slowly! Alice and Ace had again picked up third.

We went next to the Sack race. Yes, that’s exactly what it sounds like – start on the line, ride up to the other end, jump off your horse, get into a sack, and hop back. This is the kind of game that, as a kid, you enjoy. As an adult, it’s a form of cruel and unusual punishment, and that finish line looks a million miles away! This time, because our fifth rider had joined in by now, we ran the race in two heats. Flea and I were second in our heat, relegating Alice to the ribbon-less fifth position as Ace had decided that allowing his rider to hop along in a sack in an ungainly manner whilst trying to lead him was completely unacceptable. Rather than get into an argument with him, Alice elected to stop halfway, step out of her sack and lead him home in a much more normal manner, which I think Ace appreciated. We then had to do the Sack race again – of all the races to run twice, this was the worst – and by the time that Flea and I were back over the line, my legs were like jelly and my abs were on fire. I had, however, hopped fast enough to earn us third place. Woop!

Next up was Run and Ride. In official mounted games, this is a pairs or team relay, where the first rider will run up to the top bending pole, leap on and ride back, then their next team member will ride up, dismount and run back, and so on. In the past, when participating in mounted games training, I had elected to do the leg that required you to ride and then run. However, this game was not in the schedule as Ride and Run, it was Run and Ride, so that was the order we were doing things. I did line up with a small advantage over both Alice and one of the other girls – I can get on Flea from the ground. Ace is so round that his saddle tends to slip when you get on from the ground, and Alice didn’t rate her chances at gaining the saddle, and the other rider’s horse was too tall. However, the judge and steward conferred and decided to assist those who needed a leg-up. My concern wasn’t getting on, it was Flea standing still while I did so.  I’m not as quick at mounting as I used to be, and Flea is pretty round himself. The only time I’ve fallen off him was when the saddle slipped sideways, and the last thing I wanted was a re-enactment of that. We set off from the start, with Alice and I again keeping our horses to a steady trot while the pony clubbers (and other adult) raced ahead. Then we dismounted, and I took a moment to steady and reassure Flea. There was a brief window of opportunity in which I could’ve mounted and ridden back to the start line before Alice had got on Ace, but it closed almost before I was aware of it. With Alice legged swiftly back onto Ace, she headed for the finish line and I waited for our kind judge to hold Flea while I remounted. To be fair to him, he did stand still while I got on, so perhaps I was being overly cautious, but at a young horse’s first gymkhana, the key is to keep it all as relaxed as possible for them, as we still had a couple of games to go. We finished the race, narrowly missing out on fourth place and ending up as the ribbon-less fifth. Meanwhile, Alice’s attempt at a dash to the finish line had resulted in Ace discovering that he actually quite liked this mounted games lark, and throwing in what was, from all eyewitness accounts, a rather large and dramatic buck! As Alice had not bothered to put her feet into the stirrups before racing for the line, she was very pleased that she stayed on, but was unfortunately nosed out at the flags to finish in third place yet again.

We moved on from there to the Postbox race, which we rechristened the ‘Soggy Newspaper’ race, on account of the extremely damp rolled up newspapers that we had to ‘post’ through the postboxes at the other end. Again, I elected to take Flea steadily in this race, and he was getting the idea of it all by that point and performed pretty well. We ran a heat, in which we found the nerve to canter home and beat Ace by a nose, and then a final, where again we went slowly and finished fourth.

With the day almost done, there was just one more race to go – the Lemon & Spoon race. This is exactly what it sounds like, and I selected my lemon carefully, then balanced it on my spoon and lined up, again on the end of the line next to Ace. “Go,” said the judge and off we went. Now Flea, being Spanish-bred, has a very smooth trot. So much so that it’s almost easier to ride him in sitting trot than rising trot, as it’s honestly more of a shuffle than a trot. This is not always desirable but is of vast benefit in a lemon & spoon race, as it allows you to trot up the line of poles without your lemon moving at all on the spoon! We turned around the top pole, and managed to trot smoothly back home to cross the line first! Alice, meanwhile, had dropped her lemon between the first and second poles, and after deciding not to dismount and pick it up, had finished the game with just a spoon. Needless to say, there were no ribbons for Ace that time, but Flea was very pleased to receive his first place ribbon, which was somewhat amusingly recycled from a national Miniature Horse event.

As it was a recycled ribbon day, Alice and I decided to donate our ribbons back to the pony club at the conclusion of the show, for them to use again at a future event. (We did make the horses pose for photos with them first, however. #forthegram.) For us, the important part was that we’d had a fun day out, and had given the horses a chance to do something a bit different than hacking out down the road. The event was well-run, our judges and other competitors were very kind and friendly, and all up we had a great time. The horses even won themselves a couple of sugar treats each, although neither of them were particularly impressed. Flea is a bit of a scraggly bearded hipster, and his organic, free range, crunchy granola upbringing has made him quite suspicious of anything that’s not on his nutrition plan. (Honestly, this is a horse that will eat around pony nuts and any processed feed and just pick out the chaff.) Ace was still feeling a bit vulnerable after our judge had made a comment about the size of his neck, so he also declined the sweet treats, convinced they’d go straight to his hips. But both horses were very pleased with the carrots that Alice had thoughtfully brought along. (Just don’t tell Flea that they weren’t organic…)

We were back home within a couple of hours, and with plenty of daylight left to take the dogs for a walk. I have since scoured the internet for any more local shows to take the horses to, and luckily for them, there’s not one but two coming up in the next few weeks. Neither of them involve any mounted games, however…so we’ll see how Ace feels about going around in (pointless) circles in two weeks’ time. It could be interesting!

Deleted scenes · Pony Jumpers series · Top Ten

Deleted chapter from TOP TEN in which Katy visits Kilford

In PONY JUMPERS #10: TOP TEN, Katy stays the night at Caherdubh in Co. Galway with Dan, Keeley and Mairead, before they travel across the country to the Young Rider camp at Shearwater. In this version, the timeline is slightly different and they stop in at a horse show in Barnadown to assist Deacon, then go on to Kilford for the night, in Co. Wexford, before going to the camp the following morning.

I removed this part of the book because it stalled the momentum of the story, and the descriptions of Kilford seemed unnecessary to the plot of that book. Plus, we’d just gone through pages of describing Caherdubh, and more descriptions of another house felt superfluous. However, for those who have now read Irish Luck, I thought you’d like to catch a glimpse of Kilford five years later, as seen through Katy’s eyes.

The chapter was titled HOME AWAY FROM HOME, and it begins with Katy waking up at Caherdubh…

I woke the next morning to the sound of voices outside my room, and the thumping of feet across the landing. A gap in the curtains revealed a dark blue sky, speckled with a handful of fading stars as the night started its transition into day. Footsteps approached my door, then there was a gentle knock.

“Katy?”

It was Keeley. I still felt bad about turning her away last night. I hadn’t meant to hurt her feelings.

The door creaked open, and instinct told me to close my eyes. I feigned sleep as she crept across the darkened room, her sock-clad feet brushing against the floorboards.

“Katy? It’s time to get up.”

I could hear her soft breathing as she stood next to the iron bedstead. If she’d been my mother, she’d have turned the light on and pulled the blankets down to my feet, demanding that I rise and shine in the most obnoxious way possible. If she’d been AJ, she would have just jumped on me, knocking the breath right out of me, or hit me acros the face with a pillow.

I felt Keeley’s hand on my arm, her touch still tentative. “Uh, Katy?”

I opened my eyes wide, grabbed her arms, and screamed. “Arrgh!”

Keeley screamed as well, leaping backwards out of my grip. Her socks slipped on the floorboards, her feet shot out from underneath her, and she landed on her bum with a thump.

“I’m sorry!” I sat up straight, worried that she was hurt, but Keeley just burst into a peal of laughter.

We were both laughing hysterically until Mairead burst into the room, looking worried.

“What’s going on in here?”

Keeley and I looked at each other, and she cracked up again.

“Keeley woke me up,” I explained.

“You were awake!”

“True.” I swung my legs around to the side and stood up. “And now I’m up.” I held out a hand to Keeley, who grabbed it and let me pull her to her feet. “And now, we’re both up.”

Mairead shook her head, but she was smiling. “Get dressed then, and get yourselves down for breakfast.”

She’d left the room before I could tell her that I don’t really eat breakfast, and when I made it down to the table, she’d already put out a plate of scrambled eggs for me. Keeley was tucking into hers like someone who hadn’t eaten in days, and then Dan came inside with the dogs on his heels, his hair damp from the misty rain.

“Is the bacon ready?”

Mairead set a plate of bacon and fried tomatoes on the table in front of him, and he grinned, then looked across at my plate and raised an eyebrow. “What’re you, vegetarian this morning?” He speared a piece of bacon and flipped it across the table onto my plate. “Eat up.”

Deciding it would be easier to eat than to argue, I started on the eggs, which were surprisingly good. I’m not a big eater early in the morning, but the smell of the food and the peer pressure took over my instincts, and it was with a full belly that I eventually clamboured into the large horsebox. With three ponies, two horses, four humans and a small terrier on board, we waved goodbye to Eamonn, who was back on duty looking after the horses while the family were away, and drove on towards the east coast.

 

I’d fallen in love with the house and stables at Caherdubh during the time I’d spent there, loving the exposed beams and sloping ceilings, the warm, cottage-y feel of the place, the old-fashioned outbuildings and slightly desolate west coast landscape, but Kilford was in another league altogether.

It wasn’t a vast property, but it backed onto expansive woodland that made it feel like part of a much larger estate. Apparently it had been one, once, but hard times had seen it change hands over the years and the acreage had shrunk. But it was still very impressive. The fields were large and flat, with plenty of trees to provide shade and thick hedging combined with post and rail fences to ensure security. Glossy, beautiful horses grazed quietly , swishing flies with their tails and dozing beneath the trees. I caught a glimpse of a large grey stone house with large white-trimmed windows before the horse truck turned and drove on towards the stables, and I remembered my early impression of Caherdubh – that it hadn’t seemed like a place where Grand Prix horses would live or be trained. This, on the other hand, did.

The stable block was enormous, all built from grey stone. Hanging baskets full of red and white flowers hung from the eaves between each loosebox, and what must have been the old carriage house stood at the far end of the yard, two sets of large double doors thrown wide open on this summer’s day. Elegant heads with pricked ears looked out over their doors as we led the ponies down the yard to their stables, and more than one whinnied a greeting to us.

“So, what d’you think?” Dan asked as we shut the ponies into their boxes, where they immediately began rearranging their tidy bedding.

“I love it,” I said, staring around me in disbelief. “It’s even nicer than I’d imagined.”

Dan chuckled. “I’ll warn you now, it’s a lot nicer than the house.”

I thought of the large manor I’d seen as we drove in, and figured that he was cracking another joke. But when Keeley eventually led me through the front door into a dark entrance hall, with dust motes floating in the air and several moth-eaten hunting trophies mounted on the wall, I realised that Dan had meant what he’d said.

“It’s a bit of a dump,” Keeley said cheerfully as I followed her over creaking floorboards towards the curved oak staircase. “We used to have a housekeeper, but after Dad married Mairead, she said it would be a waste of money to get someone else in to clean the house. Trouble is, she doesn’t do it either. But we spent most of our time outside, so none of us really care.”

Daylight filtered dimly through the unwashed windows as we made our way up the stairs. Fat dust bunnies lingered in the corners of each step, and more disembodied stag heads glared down at me.

“Don’t you find it creepy being surrounded by so many dead animals?”

Keeley looked over her shoulder at me with some surprise. “What? Oh. I suppose I’m used to it,” she shrugged. “They’re much more cheerful when we dress them up at Christmas. Every year there’s an argument over who gets to be Rudolph, but we try to make sure they all have a turn.”

I laughed as we stepped onto a large landing, and followed Keeley along the passage and up a couple more steps to another landing with three doors leading off it.

“This is my room,” she said, throwing open the door on the left to reveal an enormous bedroom with a four-poster bed and walls plastered in rosettes and photos of her ponies. It was something out of every pony-mad child’s wildest dreams, and my inner eight-year-old gasped in delight.

“I like the way you’ve decorated,” I told her, and she grinned.

“Well, the wallpaper is proper horrible, so I had to try and cover it up as much as I could,” she explained. “You’ll be through the door behind you,” she added, as she tugged her suitcase into her room and dropped it on the floor. “And we’ve got our own bathroom, so we don’t have to share with Dan. Always a good thing.”

“Perfect.” I dragged my broken suitcase across the gap between the two rooms and opened the door to reveal a medium-sized bedroom with dark green walls and an open window that looked out over the stables. The long curtains fluttered in the breeze, and I abandoned my luggage and went to kneel on the wide window seat, watching a groom swing up onto a sleek chestnut horse and ride out of the yard on a loose rein. Had anyone ever had a better view from their bedroom window than this?

Keeley’s voice over my shoulder made me startle. “Do you like it?”

I turned and grinned at her. “Do I? Can I move in here forever?”

Her face lit up instantly. “Of course! Dad and Mairead wouldn’t mind.” She closed the gap between us and sat down next to me on the window seat. “Will you really, though?” she asked hopefully. “Please?”

I shook my head, regretting my words in the face of her excitement. “I can’t, not really. I have to go back home in a couple of weeks, remember?”

Her face fell in an instant, her disappointment clear. There was never any need to guess what Keeley was thinking – she wore her emotions on her face without a trace of self-consciousness. It was strangely disarming, although I worried that the outside world would force that openness out of her as she grew older.

“Why?”

“Because. I live there. I go to school there. My mum and my friends and my ponies are there.”

She bit her lip, clearly not wholly buying my excuses. “You’ll come back though, right?”

“I will definitely be back as soon as I can.”

“Good.” She tilted her head. “How soon will that be?”

“Keeley! I haven’t even left yet,” I reminded her, looking around at the bedroom, taking in the peeling wallpaper and faded bedspread and dusty mantlepiece over the empty fireplace. It was very different from my small, pale bedroom at home, but I could almost imagine myself staying here. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

 

I woke early the next morning to the sound of singing.

“I like to rise when the sun she rises, early in the mooooorning…”

Across the short landing, Keeley’s bedroom door was flung open and I heard her voice.

“Shut your gob, Dan!”

In response, he only increased the volume. “I like to hear the small birds singing…”

Keeley’s door slammed shut again, and I heard Dan laugh as his footsteps clattered down the stairs. I sat up and threw the covers off, then walked to the window and pulled back the heavy curtains to reveal a pinkish tint still in the sky, and grooms carrying buckets down the yard to whinnying horses that banged impatiently on their doors as they waited for breakfast.

My own stomach rumbled, and I closed the curtains again before heading to the bathroom to wash my face. I changed into denim breeches and a polo shirt, tugged my favourite bright blue socks up to my knees and pulled a hoodie over my head to guard against the morning chill before heading downstairs.

Dan was still whistling the song he’d been singing earlier as I walked into the expansive kitchen and found him making toast.

“Morning.”

He turned with a smile that made my stomach squirm a little. “Good morning yourself. Is Keeley up yet?”

“She’s awake,” I said. “I don’t know if she’s out of bed.”

“She’d better get on,” he said, dropping hot toast onto a plate and slathering it in butter. “We’re going up to Barndown to see Deacon shortly, but Mum wants us to do our mucking out before we go.”

“Can’t we leave it for the grooms, and say we’ll skip out for them tonight?” Keeley asked as she walked into the room, still in her pyjamas, her unbrushed hair straggling over her bony shoulders.

“Don’t be so lazy,” her step-brother replied, and she stuck her tongue out at him as he turned his back. “You’ll have Katy thinking you’re a proper spoilt brat if you keep going on like that.”

She wrinkled her nose but didn’t argue, taking a seat at the large table at the other end of the room, surrounded by windows that looked towards the yard on one side and the hedge-trimmed fields on the other.

“You do know we have a guest,” Dan said, watching as she poured herself a cup of tea from the steaming teapot sitting in the centre of the table.

Keeley looked surprised. “Can Katy not pour herself a cup of tea?”

“Of course I can,” I said, taking a seat opposite her and helping myself.

“Is nobody going to help me with the eggs?” Dan demanded.

“Nope.” Keeley had picked up a Horse & Hound magazine and was flipping through it, so I stood up again.

“I’m not much of a cook, but I’ll try.”

Dan grinned and held out a spatula. “That’s all I ask.”

Barnadown was another purpose-built equestrian centre with multiple arenas, row upon row of temporary stabling, and a truck park full of floats and horse trucks of all shapes and sizes. We parked near the gate, then made our way through the venue to the stable block where Deacon had his team, accompanied by his head show groom Ailbe, and their working pupil Roisín, a tall girl with fiery red hair and endless freckles.

I was introduced to Deacon’s horses – a stunning light grey stallion called Rook, two of his dark grey progeny, Carrick and Flint, a wild-eyed bay called Mac, who snorted at me suspiciously every time I went near him, and Balor, a black and white pinto with blue eyes and a large Roman nose.

“I did warn you,” Dan said, as we stopped in front of the piebald horse’s stable and I looked in at his awkward conformation and oversized hooves. “Every yard has to have at least one ugly horse, and Balor is ours.”

“Don’t say that to his face,” I scolded Dan as the piebald horse nudged me with his nose, his large ears flopping forwards in greeting. “You’ll give him a complex. Don’t you listen to him, Balor. I’m sure you’re a lovely horse.”

From the corner of my eye, I caught Roisín’s approving smile at my comments as Dan chuckled.

“Oh aye, he’s sound,” he agreed, then leaned in conspiratorially, his breath warm against my cheek. “Deacon would never admit it, but I think he’s his favourite.”

We spent the day helping Deacon with his horses, tacking up and washing down, walking the horses between rounds, checking start times and running from ring to ring. The horses jumped brilliantly, for the most part, with Carrick placing second in the Six Year Old class and Flint winning the Seven Year Old. Rook had one down in the first round of the Grand Prix, but Mac seemed utterly overwhelmed by the atmosphere, cantering around the course sideways, flinging his head around and taking the first two rails before Deacon retired him after a refusal at the third fence.

“What was the matter with him, do you think?” I asked Dan as he led the nervous bay back to the stables.

“Just had an off day,” Dan shrugged. “That’s sort of Mac’s deal. He’s like the little girl in the nursery rhyme, you know the one. When he’s good, he’s very very good, but when bad…”

“He’s horrid.”

“Exactly.”

“Why does Deacon bother with him, then?”

Dan shrugged. “Says he keeps him honest, stops him from getting too sure of himself. And loads of people said the horse would never be any good, so he’ll take any opportunity to prove them wrong.”

“Or prove them right,” I said, looking at Mac dubiously.

“Sometimes. But the thing with Mac is that he’ll always find a way to surprise you.”

We packed up shortly afterwards and headed back to Kilford behind Deacon’s enormous green truck, with its glossy paintwork and pop-out side. I’d taken one look at it and shaken my head at Dan.

“I thought you said you don’t have a lot of money,” I reminded him. “But I’ve seen where you live, and how you travel, and none of this is cheap. I should know. We do cheap like nobody’s business.”

He grinned. “We don’t, but our sponsors do. Well, Deacon’s sponsors do, anyway. And you said it yourself. You’ve seen where we live.”

“In an enormous house with six bedrooms and four bathrooms.”

“A house that’s falling down around our ears,” he retorted. “This is window dressing, Katy. Surely you’ve figured that out by now. It’s an illusion.”

“Fake it ‘til you make it?” I replied, and he winked at me, reminding me no matter how much time we’d spent together, he still had the ability to make my knees go weak.

“Exactly.”

On our return to Kilford, we put the horses away and then went out for an evening hack through the woods. Keeley joined us on her dun pony Spice, who struggled to keep up with Dan’s longer striding horses. I was mounted on Tadhg, who marched out happily and seemed pleased to be home.

It was a perfect evening, and I couldn’t help wondering if Keeley’s offer that I could stay on was a genuine one. Well, I had no doubt that it was genuine from her, but would the rest of her family agree? Was there really a place for me here? Could I bear to be away from home for so long?

And yet, the more time I spent at Kilford, the more at home I felt. The house, despite its unkempt state, was thoroughly lived-in. If it had been maintained in the grandeur that it had obviously been designed for, it would’ve felt intimidating. The library, with its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with old leather-bound books, would have felt stuffy if the antique furniture hadn’t been pushed aside to make room for a well-used pool table. The dark red walls and macabre hunting prints on the walls of the formal dining room would’ve felt oppressive if Keeley’s school books hadn’t been scattered across the big oak table; and the drawing room, with its enormous tall windows that looked out into the overgrown, stone-walled garden, could have felt vast and echoey without the juice stains on the cushions to the well-thumbed paperbacks stacked on the windowseats.

If you’d asked me to describe my dream home, a place like Kilford wouldn’t have immediately sprung to mind, but now that I was here, I couldn’t think of a better place in the world to live.

 

 

Book Excerpt · Irish Luck · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek

Excerpt from Pony Jumpers Special Edition #2 – IRISH LUCK (2)

When I started writing IRISH LUCK, I’d simply intended it to give Dan’s backstory. Keeley inserted herself into the story too, and I wrote the first few chapters thinking that this book, with protagonists aged 12 and 8, was going to end up aimed slightly younger than the rest of the PJ series.

But what I’ve come to realise in the past few weeks, especially as I started editing this book, is that it’s not really Dan and Keeley’s story at all. It’s Deacon and Mairead’s.

Originally, there was quite a bit more of Deacon in TOP TEN, but most of his scenes got cut because the book was becoming unwieldy and Katy’s visit to Deacon’s home base in Co. Wexford became superfluous. So it is in this book that you’ll get to properly meet the man himself, and find out what the family’s other home is like. I’ve had a lot of fun writing it, and I really hope that you all enjoy reading it when I finally get it finished!

I also didn’t intend the book to take this long to write (yes, I am aware that I say this every time). I’m working three jobs at the moment so finding the energy to write at 10pm when I’ve finally got everything else done is a bit of a challenge.

Speaking of which, it’s half past midnight as I type this, so I’m going to just post a short extract below from Chapter 7 to tide you over a bit longer. (I’ve been working on Chapter 14 of 17 this evening so I am getting there, I promise.)

Let me know what you think with a comment below (hopefully positive ones!).

CHAPTER 7  –  THE PITCH

The small office was bitterly cold, and the oil heater in the corner was doing nothing to take the edge off the chill. A single fluorescent bulb flickered above the desk, and a large grimy window looked into the dingy indoor school. Deacon frowned as he sipped from the mug of weak tea, struggling to rein in his impatience with the red-headed woman opposite him.

“But why not?”

“Because I don’t want to see my son get hurt.”

Mairead held her voice firm, and she forced herself to look Deacon in the eyes as she spoke to him. All the books on body language said that people who were sitting were at a psychological disadvantage in a confrontation with someone standing, but it didn’t seem to be working for her. She was leaning against the cold stone wall of her cramped office, arms folded firmly across her chest, while Deacon was sitting in a hard plastic chair and holding a mug with bright pink daisies on it. Yet he was gazing calmly back at her and looking about as unintimidated as humanly possible.

“He’s not a dangerous pony,” Deacon insisted. “And it wouldn’t be for long. Just until I can get the animal sold.” He rested the mug on his knee and wrapped his hands around it in an attempt to warm them. “Look, I’m trying to do your lad a kindness here. He needs a decent pony and I need a decent rider. What’s the harm? I’ll not be letting him ride unsupervised or do anything foolish, if that’s what you’re worried about.”

“You don’t understand.” Mairead shook her head and pushed herself away from the wall, walking over to her desk and sitting down behind it. Forget body language. It clearly wasn’t working, and she was too tired to try anything else. She rested her elbows on the worn desk and pressed her temples, trying to stave off the inevitable headache that came at the end of a long day. Not that there seemed to be any other kind, lately.

“What don’t I understand?” Deacon’s voice was kinder, gentler than it had been a moment ago, and Mairead looked up, her defences lowering.

“I don’t want him getting his heart broken,” she told him, registering the look of surprise on Deacon’s face, and wondering what he’d expected to hear. “Dan has wanted a pony of his own for as long as he’s been riding, but I’ve never been able to give him one. And he’s known and accepted that fact, and lowered his expectations accordingly. And then you come along and offer him the ride on a pony the likes of which we’ll never be able to afford. Don’t misunderstand now, I’m grateful that you gave him a chance today, but I wish you hadn’t. Because it’s going to make everything that much harder when the dream fades away.”

Deacon’s blue eyes met her hazel ones challengingly. “Who’s to say the dream has to fade away?”

“You know it will. It always does. I don’t want to get his hopes up, only for him to be tossed aside when you’ve no further use for him.”

“You don’t have a very high opinion of me, do you?” Deacon asked her. He looked around the small office, as unfriendly as its primary occupant. “I’ll remind you now that you don’t know me. This place may be enough for you, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough for your boy. Not for much longer. He’ll be wanting to go all the way to the top, and if you don’t help him to get there, you’re going to lose him when he goes to find it for himself.” He leaned back in the chair, confident in the knowledge that he was right about this. “You can’t protect him forever, Mairead. He’s going to have hardship in his life, and the sooner he starts getting used to –”

It was his turn to be cut off as the fire rekindled in Mairead’s eyes. “You think he hasn’t known hardship? You think he hasn’t already had to get used to defeat? You know nothing about me, or my son, and I’ll thank you to get out of my office and out of our lives right now and to mind your own bloody business in future!”

Deacon set down his mug on the scratched desk and got to his feet. “Have it your own way. But you’re doing Dan no favours with your stubbornness.” He walked to the door and grasped the handle, then looked back over his shoulder at her. “You may think you are, but you’re not.”

And he left, shutting the door firmly behind him as Mairead put her head in her hands and closed her eyes against the stabbing pain.

Book Excerpt · Irish Luck · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek

Excerpt from PONY JUMPERS: Special Edition #2 – IRISH LUCK

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.

Yes Dad.”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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.

 

2

SECOND ROUND

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.”

 

3

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.

 

4

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.”

 

*   *   *

 

“Keeley!”

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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Top Ten

The real deal

In the Acknowledgements at the end of Pony Jumpers #10: TOP TEN, I mentioned that some of the ponies that I’d written the story around were inspired by real-life equines. When I decided to set the book in another country, I spent a lot of time watching videos of horses and ponies on that side of the world to try and get a feel for what the competition scene was like over there, and there were a few ponies and riders that caught my eye and ended up, in my mind at least, in the book.

Here is a selection of some of my favourite videos, and those that had the biggest influence on me. I’ll leave it up to you to match the horses and ponies below with their fictional counterparts – I doubt you’ll have any trouble doing so.

The Dark Emperor (Kate Lewis, England)

 

Tixylix (Jodie Hall-McAteer, England)

 

Dynamite Spartacus (Abbie Sweetnam, Ireland)

 

Dingle (Hannah Fleming, Ireland)

 

Kilimandjaro Van Orchids (Kate Lewis, England)

Book Excerpt · New release · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek · Top Ten

Excerpt from Pony Jumpers #10: TOP TEN

Chapter 1 – Departure 

The morning dew was heavy on the grass outside my bedroom window, and the clear sky above promised a sunny day to come. Not that I would be here to see it. I leaned my forehead against the window pane and stared out at the unkempt garden, overgrown with weeds because Mum and I didn’t waste our time on pointless things like gardening. Beyond the scraggly shrubs lay our neatly fenced paddocks, and I counted off the ponies grazing contentedly in them. Lucas and Puppet happily coexisting in one paddock, with Molly in the smaller field next to them. Squib and Robin in the narrow ‘fatty’ paddock without much grass, because they lived off the smell of it. And my horse Tori, just visible from here if I turned my head and leaned into the cold glass, impossibly beautiful, impossible to ride.

Tori lifted her head and pricked her ears, staring at something away in the distance. I opened the window and leaned out, ignoring the chilly wind that went straight through the thin t-shirt I was wearing, and as Tori snorted and spun on her hocks, I heard the same thing she did. The growl of a dirt bike, coming our way.

Like my horse, the sound jolted me into action. I pulled the window shut and grabbed a hoodie off the floor, tugging it on before pulling on a pair of jeans and buttoning the fly. The dirt bike got louder and louder, then cut out abruptly, and I hurried down the hall in bare feet and threw the back door open to see Phil step off the bike and pull his helmet off, revealing his thick mop of dark hair.

“Hey.”

He turned towards me and smiled, that slow smile that I especially liked. “Hey yourself.”

I stopped on the bottom step of the front verandah, curling my toes over the wooden edge, unwilling to venture barefoot onto the stones. “You’re up early.”

He shrugged. “You said you were leaving at half six, and I wanted to see you before you were gone.” His boots crunched across the loose gravel as he made his way towards me.

“That’s funny, because I could’ve sworn we said goodbye last night.”

Phil shrugged sheepishly and stopped in front of me. I wrapped my arms around his neck and hugged him, and he pulled me close, holding me tight against his warm body.

“I don’t want to go,” I whispered into his ear, knowing I could say that to him. Knowing he’d understand. That he wouldn’t tell me that I was crazy, that going to Ireland to ride for my country was the opportunity of a lifetime, that I was sure to love it once I got there, and all the other things everyone else kept saying. Phil knew how I really felt – that deep down, I was utterly terrified.

“I know. I don’t want you to go either.”

A flicker of light made me turn my head, and I saw Mum walk into the kitchen and pull a loaf of bread out of the pantry. My stomach clenched at the thought of breakfast this early in the morning, even knowing that a long day of travel lay ahead.

Phil lifted his head and when I looked back at him, he kissed me. Like everything he did, it was intense, no-holds-barred, his hands in my tousled hair, lean body pressed against mine. His lips were soft and he tasted of spearmint, and closed my eyes and kissed him back, trying not to be distracted by the prospect of subjecting him to my own terrible morning breath.

I heard the window swing open behind us, then Mum’s voice. “Katy, breakfast.”

I broke off the kiss, and looked up into Phil’s dark eyes. “You hungry?” I asked.

He smiled. “I could eat.”

I don’t think Mum was super happy to have Phil eating with us, although I’m not sure whether it was because she was running low on eggs or because we sat at the table holding hands while we ate. I knew that annoyed her, even though she liked Phil okay. I didn’t care. I wanted to hold tight to everything I had before I had to leave it behind. My little dog Critter was curled up in my lap, unimpressed by the early start, and his warm body and Phil’s warm hand comforted me in a way that no reassuring words out of Mum’s mouth ever could.

Mum sat down opposite us and started cutting into her bacon. “Nervous?” she asked me.

Couldn’t she tell that by looking at my face? “What do you think?”

Phil squeezed my hand, and I responded in kind as Critter sat up and licked my chin.

“Don’t let him do that at the table,” Mum complained.

“He can do what he likes,” I replied, because my nerves were making me irritable and I didn’t feel like being read a lecture when I felt this edgy. “He loves me, don’t you Crit?”

I put down my fork and wrapped my arm around the little dog, clutching him to my chest. He squirmed uncomfortably, but I selfishly held him for a few seconds longer before letting him go. Critter leapt onto the floor and stalked off to his basket indignantly, his short tail sticking up in the air.

“I’ll miss you too,” I told his rear end.

“Eat up,” Mum nagged, and I reluctantly picked up my fork as Phil’s thumb methodically stroked the back of my hand. I didn’t know what I’d be doing right now if he wasn’t there to keep me calm. Having a full-blown panic attack, most likely.

Mum was still watching me like a hawk, so I filled my mouth with scrambled eggs, forcing myself to chew and swallow the food. My stomach argued, insisting that there was too much uncertainty ahead to bother with such unnecessary things as eating, but in the face of my mother’s glare, I overrode my instincts and ate half of what was on my plate, before lowering my fork definitively. Mum accepted that, because she knew me well enough to pick her battles, and she stood up and started clearing the plates.

“It’s five past,” she announced, as though nobody else in the room could see the clock on the wall. “Are you all packed?”

“Almost.”

“Well, hurry up then. We need to leave in ten minutes.”

I took a deep breath, trying to steady my anxiety. Pretend you’re going to a show, I counselled myself. Just another early morning on the way to a competition, like you’ve done hundreds of times. Only this time we would be in the car, not the truck, with no reassuring bulk of warm ponies behind us. I’d be going alone, without my team.

“Can Phil come to the airport with us?” I asked her.

Mum frowned, but Phil spoke before she did.

“Can’t,” he said ruefully. “I’ve got work.” He’d recently started working at a local supermarket, stocking shelves. He hated it, but it was a way to both get out of his house and earn some money, so he put up with the inconvenient hours and working conditions.

“Call in sick?” I suggested, but he shook his head.

“I wish.” He stood up as Mum cleared his plate away. “Thanks for breakfast.”

“Any time,” she said, probably not meaning it.

“I’ll walk you out,” I told him.

“Seven minutes,” Mum warned me.

I ignored her, following Phil outside and giving him a long hug and another lingering kiss before he got back onto his dirt bike and rode it back home. I watched him go, the cloud of dust he’d kicked up making my throat dry. Mum flung the kitchen window open and yelled at me again.

“Katy! Would you get a move on?”

 * * *

There wasn’t much traffic on the road at that time of the morning. I stared out of the window while Mum ran over my itinerary again, out loud, in case I’d somehow forgotten it in the last half hour.

“You have three hours at Auckland airport before your international flight leaves,” she said. “Your luggage is being sent straight through, and you’ve got your boarding pass, so you just have to find the Christiansons and they’ll take care of you.”

“So you keep saying,” I muttered.

With Mum utterly unable to get three-plus weeks of leave from work, and Dad having some apparently crucial business trip in Singapore to attend, my supervision had been lumped onto my teammate Lily and her parents. I’d assumed, naively as it turned out, that when you went on a team trip, the entire team would all meet at the airport and fly over together. But the two senior riders who’d been selected, Ellie Warren and Imogen Davis-Blake, had found working pupil positions at show jumping yards in Europe back in March, so they were already in the northern hemisphere. The two intermediate riders, Anna Harcourt and Charlotte Yeats, had flown over a few days ago with their mothers to spend a week with Charlotte’s relatives in Hampshire, leaving just me and Lily to bring up the rear. Charlotte’s mother Maureen was our team chef d’equipe, and although Dennis Foxhall-James had been announced as our team coach, he’d pulled out at the last minute over a pay dispute, which had caused an enormous kerfuffle that I had done my best to stay out of. In the end, they’d decided that Maureen would coach us as well as managing the team, which sounded to me like a recipe for disaster, but nobody had asked me.

“You’ll have a six hour layover in Los Angeles, then fly on to Dublin,” Mum continued, breaking into my thoughts.

“I know,” I reminded her. “I have read the itinerary, you know.”

To shut her up and to distract myself, I took the paperwork out of its folder and smoothed it out on my lap, staring down at the printed itinerary. Dennis had been arranging our first week of training and competition, but when he walked, rather than arrange anything else, Maureen had just shortened the tour by a week. After we’d bought non-transferable flights, of course. That had left me with ten unallocated days between my arrival in the country and the day that we would all finally come together as a team. Mum’s utter panic had resulted in me being handed off to the Christiansons to look after, a fate I was sure that none of us wanted, but were all stuck with.

Lily was my teammate in the Junior division for the Youth Nations Cup, and quite what the selectors had been thinking when they’d picked her ahead of my friend Susannah Andrews, I couldn’t tell you. Lily was twelve years old, had only just started jumping at the top level a year ago, and although she had a decent seat, was as green as grass. Although she had very good ponies which she had steered competently enough to win some big classes at home, if she drew any kind of pony in Ireland that required actual riding, we were stuffed. Susannah had been named as a non-travelling reserve, so I’d been keeping my fingers crossed that Lily would fall off or fall ill before the trip, meaning Susannah could come instead, but to no avail.

I looked down at the itinerary again, trying to focus on the part of the trip that actually had been organised. A training camp at a big venue in Co. Wexford with a top Irish trainer, followed by a week of sightseeing before the big event – the Youth Nations Cup. My stomach clenched apprehensively.

“You’ll have a wonderful time, Katy,” Mum said, as if she could read my mind. “I’m so jealous. And even if the first week or so is a bit tough to get through, it’ll be worth it once you’re on a horse, wearing the silver fern on your jacket.” She sighed heavily, returning her eyes to the road. “God, I wish I was coming with you.”

Don’t say that. Not out loud. I blinked hard and looked out of my side of the car, fighting back tears. I couldn’t reply, or I’d start crying and begging her not to make me do this alone. Both of us had dreamed of this for years, the chance to ride for New Zealand, to wear that silver fern and see our flag waving from the rafters of a big indoor stadium. And maybe, just maybe, standing on a podium and hearing the national anthem being played in victory. I’d laid in bed and imagined it all, many times – but never in my wildest dreams had I imagined doing any of it without my mother by my side.

My phone buzzed, and I looked down as the screen lit up with a message from Susannah.

Good luck go hard and have an amazing time! Wish I was coming with you 😦

I wish that toooooo, I typed back. Which was crazy, really, because if you’d told me a year ago that I’d have to spend three weeks with Susannah Andrews, I would have told you that I’d rather pull my fingernails out with pliers. But over the past few months we’d gone from despising each other to actually becoming friends.

I’d assumed that Susannah was texting me from her bed, which is where I’d be at this time of any normal morning, but she sent back a selfie of her and Forbes, the warmblood pony she’d bought from me a few months ago. He was standing in his stable with his ears pricked, his coat gleaming, and she had her arm over his neck as she smiled brilliantly at the camera, all blonde hair and blue eyes and straight white teeth, looking polished and pretty despite the early hour. Only Susannah could make mucking out look glamourous. I still had no idea how she did it.

I sent her back a row of four-leaf clover emojis, because I couldn’t think of any other response. The car jolted over a speed hump, and I looked up to see that we were driving into the Napier airport already. Sick dread lay over me like a shroud, but I did my best to hide it. Although my flight wasn’t for ages, Mum hurried me into the building and checked the departure board anxiously while I dragged my suitcase behind me.

I followed her to the check-in area, smiled weakly at the cheerful woman behind the counter, and lugged my suitcase onto the conveyor belt as instructed. It was heavy and cumbersome, and the whole effort was made more awkward by having to surreptitiously shoulder my mother’s attempts to help me out of the way.

“I can do it,” I muttered, wondering how she thought I was going to get along for three-and-a-half weeks without her if she didn’t even trust me to be able to lift my own suitcase thirty centimetres off the ground.

Mum said nothing, just threw her hands up and stepped backwards as the woman stuck a label on the handle, then hit a button that sent my suitcase trundling off onto the bigger conveyor and on down the line into oblivion, only to be seen again when we reached Irish soil. It suddenly seemed terrifyingly far away, and I stepped back shakily, my passport clutched tightly in my hand.

“Where do I go now?”

“Check your boarding pass,” Mum suggested, then read it over my shoulder. “Gate two. This way.”

As we walked in that direction, I bumped my arm against my mother’s in silent affirmation that she was still there, by my side – at least for now. I was starting to realise how terrified I was to leave her behind, and how much I was going to miss her while I was gone. We drove each other crazy on a daily basis, and argued all the time, but she was my mother. For years, it had just been the two of us, and we’d never been apart for this long. Ever. A lump rose in my throat, but I gritted my teeth and stared determinedly ahead.

Don’t be a wimp. You’re going on an adventure, not to your execution.

“Are you hungry?” Mum asked, oblivious to my internal anguish. “We’ve got a bit of time. Do you want something to eat before you go?” I shook my head, unable to stomach the thought of food, but she pressed me. “Are you sure?”

Her nagging irritated me, and I grasped the excuse to snap at her, because otherwise I was in danger of bursting into tears and begging her to just drop everything and come with me.

“Of course I’m sure,” I snapped. “They do serve food on planes, you know.”

Mum responded to my narkiness the same way she always did – by averting her eyes and letting out a small sigh, staring into the distance towards a time and place when I would no longer be a horrible teenager and would be bearable to be around. But when it came time to board, I lost the struggle to hold back my tears. It didn’t help that Mum cried too as she hugged me goodbye, and I sobbed into her t-shirt as she stroked my hair and told me that I’d be fine once I was on my way, and this was the adventure of a lifetime, and she loved me no matter what. I pulled myself away from her at last, wiping my eyes and leaving a damp patch on her shoulder as I grabbed my hand luggage and turned around, knowing I couldn’t turn back because I’d just start bawling again. And so I walked on, through the sliding doors and out onto the warm tarmac, reminding myself with every step that I would only be gone for three-and-a-half weeks. Twenty-five days. That was all. That was nothing, right?

The flight to Auckland was short and smooth, and the plane landed a couple of minutes early. I grabbed my backpack and waited impatiently to get off the plane, feeling more and more hemmed in and claustrophobic the longer I had to wait. The thought of all the flying that still lay ahead of me was giving me nervous palpitations. How did people do this every day?

Eventually I managed to get out into the main terminal of Auckland airport, where I was supposed to meet the Christiansons. It was a lot bigger than Napier, but although I wandered around a little bit, I couldn’t see any sign of them. A flight from Wellington was landing in ten minutes’ time, so I went to that arrivals gate and st down with my bag at my feet, staring at the clock on the wall and waiting.

Five minutes passed, then ten, then fifteen. The flight arrived, and I stood up, keeping my eyes peeled, but they weren’t there. I checked the arrivals board again and discovered that flights from Wellington came in every hour or so, but I didn’t know which one they were on. I was scrolling through Instagram in an attempt to distract myself from complete panic when I saw a selfie that Lily had posted nearly an hour earlier, grinning in front of a plate of fruit salad.

Ireland bound! Kickin back in the int’l Koru lounge while we wait to fly out #yestofreefood #onlywaytotravel #AKLairport

I stared at it for a moment in shock, then stood up and looked around. I had no idea where the Koru Lounge was, but there was an information desk off to the side, so I went that way.

“How do I get to the Koru Lounge?”

The man behind the counter eyed me suspiciously. “Do you have a Club card?”

“Well, no…” I started to say, and he shook his head.

“Then you can’t go in. It’s not for everyone. You have to be a member.”

“I know that. But my friends are in there.” I held up my phone to show him Lily’s Instagram, and he squinted at it.

“That’s the international lounge,” he told me. “You’re at the wrong terminal.”

“Oh. Right.” Duh. I started to turn away, then spun back. “Wait, how do I get there?”

“You can take a shuttle, or it’s a ten minute walk,” the guy told me, pointing me towards a well-marked path that wound through the car park and along to the international terminal.

I followed the painted trail, my hands shoved deep into the pockets of my thin jacket as the straps of my heavy backpack dug painfully into my shoulders. The wind whipped around me, pulling strands of hair out of my ponytail and chasing them across my face as planes took off and landed around me.

Once inside the international terminal, I walked down the wide expanse of carpet, surrounded on all sides by people in various states of transit – smartly-dressed people with briefcases and phones to their ears, only in town for the day; intrepid travellers with backpacks stuffed to bursting, hiking boots and sleeping bags dangling off the side; families with luggage trolleys piled high, bickering amongst themselves in languages that I didn’t understand. A small child sat on her hard plastic suitcase with a soft toy clutched in her arms, staring vacantly at the commotion around her, and I watched her enviously, wishing I could just be led around by someone who knew what they were doing, instead of being left to navigate my travel alone.

Almost there. I spotted a sign for the Koru Lounge, and arrived there with a palpable sense of relief. The woman at the desk smiled at me, and I did my best to respond in kind.

“Hi. My friends are in there and I need to go join them.”

“Name?”

“Katy O’Reilly.”

She tapped something into the computer, then shook her head. “There’s no registration for O’Reilly.”

“Oh. Um, their name is Christianson.”

“First names?”

“Uh…” I racked my brains, but I couldn’t remember Lily’s father’s name. Or her mother’s, for that matter. I knew it, but it wouldn’t come to me. “Lily?”

She tapped a few keys, then looked at me again. “We do have a passenger booked under that name. I’ll see if I can get someone to locate her for you.”

“I know what they look like,” I assured her. “Can’t I just go in?”

She shook her head. “Sorry, love, but I can’t let you do that. Let me just put a call through, and Lily can come out and sign you in. How’s that?”

So I nodded and stood off to the side with my backpack at my feet as other travellers were swiped through the sliding glass doors into the promised land of the Koru Lounge. As I waited, it gradually occurred to me that maybe the Christiansons were making this awkward on purpose, as punishment for crashing their family trip. Mum said they’d assured her that it would be no problem to have me along, but I was dubious. My mother was a pretty poor liar, and I had a sneaking suspicion that they had only said yes out of obligation, not because they wanted me around. I looked at the floor, fighting the desire to get on the next flight back to Napier and tell Susannah to take my place on the team.

Then I heard the sliding doors open with a swish, followed by a familiar voice. “Hi Katy.”

I looked up to see Lily, and I smiled at her as I grabbed my bag off the floor and waited while she signed us in, then led me into the Koru Lounge. It was big and warm and in-your-face trendy. We walked past the long buffet table and over to where her parents were sitting. Her dad was tapping away on a laptop, and her mother was sipping coffee as she flipped through a glossy magazine.

She looked up at my approach, and produced an insincere smile. “Katy, there you are. How was your flight?”

I did my best to smile back as I took a seat next to Lily. “Um, fine thanks.”

Sonya – I’d finally remembered her name – nodded vaguely and took another sip of coffee. “Lily, love, did you order that hot chocolate you wanted?”

Lily was scrolling through her phone, and shook her head without looking up. “Not yet.”

“Well, hurry up if you want time to drink it. We’ll be boarding soon. Are you as excited for this trip as our daughter is, Katy?” she asked. “Lily has been talking about it non-stop for weeks, we just can’t shut her up about it!” She laughed in a fake kind of way, then nudged her daughter with her toe. “Lily, get ordering.”

“I’ve just done it,” she muttered. “I texted it through.”

“Of course you did. Technology!” she told me with a laugh, as though I was supposed to be impressed that you could text your drink order to a bar only a few metres away instead of just getting up and walking to it. “Oh, did you want a hot chocolate too? Lily, add one onto the order for Katy.”

“I can’t just add one on,” her daughter replied. “I would have to do a second order.”

“Well, do that then.”

I spoke quickly, before I ended up with a hot chocolate that I would have to drink. I wasn’t sure my stomach could handle anything right now, and certainly not anything that sweet. Or milky. “Thanks, but I’m fine. I don’t really like hot chocolate.”

“Sure?” Sonya asked. “Well, there’s a buffet over there. Go help yourself if you’re hungry.”

I shook my head. “I’m fine.”

She shrugged and went back to flicking through her magazine, but Lily looked at me. “The chocolate chip biscuits are really good,” she said conspiratorially. “I’ve got like, ten of them in my bag. Plane food sucks, so it’s always good to have a backup.”

“Thanks, but I’m fine,” I repeated. I was starting to sound like a broken record, even to myself.

Lily shrugged and went back to her phone, so I reached into my pocket to check mine too – only to discover that it was no longer there.

 

Chapter 2 – Long Haul

Don’t panic yet, I told myself. Check your other pockets before you panic. But it wasn’t in my other pocket either, or any of the pockets in my jeans. I grabbed my backpack and hauled it up onto my lap, then started rummaging through it. Lily glanced at me a couple of times, but nobody said anything until I had completed my search, and dropped the bag at my feet with a thud.

“Everything okay?” Sonya asked.

“I’ve lost my phone.” My voice came out shaky, and I swallowed hard.

“Oh dear.” Sonya was trying to sound sympathetic, but her expression clearly told me that found my carelessness exasperating. “Where did you last use it?”

I thought back. “Um…when I was in the Domestic terminal.” I’d pulled it out of my pocket to show the guy who’d told me I couldn’t get into the Koru Lounge, and I couldn’t remember having it since.

“Did you leave it there?”

“I don’t know. Maybe?” I was already trying to work out if I had enough time to run back and get it. How far had it been? How long would it take?

“You should keep better track of your belongings,” Lily’s father said, the first words he’d spoken to me since I’d got there.

“Oh, Hugh,” Sonya scolded him. “Lily loses things all the time as well.”

“I know where it is,” I said, getting to my feet. “I’m pretty sure I left it at an information desk. I can go get it.”

Hugh looked up at me. “You don’t have time. We’ll be boarding shortly.”

“I’m a fast runner,” I said desperately.

“Are you sure you need it?” Hugh asked me, and Sonya slapped his arm with the back of her hand.

“Come on Hugh, she’s a teenage girl. They don’t last five minutes without their phones. Frankly, I’m surprised it took her this long to realise she’d left it behind.” Sonya sighed heavily, then put her magazine down and stood up. “Okay, Katy. Come with me.”

I followed her through the lounge and over to an information desk, where she explained the situation to a bemused airline assistant. I was about to find out that one of the perks of being rich enough to join the Koru Club was excellent customer service, because the woman was very understanding and immediately rang over to the Domestic terminal to see if she could track my phone down. It took forever, and I stood nervously aside as she was transferred from one desk to another, pausing a few times to ask me questions about where exactly I’d been, and which booth I’d asked at. I just shrugged.

“It said Information,” I told her.

“We’ll find it,” she assured me, just as announcement came over the speakers that our flight was about to commence boarding.

Sonya sighed, then looked at me. “You’ll just have to buy a new phone in Dublin.”

“I can’t do that,” I told Sonya. “I need my phone.”

Sonya rolled her eyes and walked away, leaving me with the woman behind the desk.

“I’ll keep trying,” she promised, giving me a sympathetic smile as she slid a notepad and pen over. “If we track it down before your departure, we’ll bring it to the gate for you. But in case we don’t, you’d better write down your name and home address, and we can pop it on a courier.”

I just wanted to cry. It wasn’t so much that I was addicted to my phone – okay, I was kind of addicted – but that it was the only connection I’d have to the people that I was leaving behind. The prospect of pending almost three weeks without being able to contact Mum, Phil or AJ was terrifying, but there was nothing else that I could do.

A few minutes later, I was trailing the Christiansons out of the lounge and across the airport to our gate. They showed their tickets and were ushered straight through, but when I attempted to follow them, I was stopped.

“Business class only. You’ll have to wait for main boarding.”

“Oh.” I looked down at the boarding pass in my hand, then watched as Lily and her family disappeared down the chute and onto the plane without a backward glance.

 * * *

“Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. We are about to begin our descent into Dublin…”

I opened my eyes and blinked in the bright cabin lights. The woman sitting by the window had pushed the shade up, but all I could see was clouds. On paper, 26 hours in transit hadn’t seemed like all that much. It was more than a whole day, sure, but I’d intended to spend most of the time watching movies and sleeping. But I’d never flown so far before, and I hadn’t been prepared for how loud it would be, or how difficult it was to sleep sitting up. The cabin pressure was giving me a headache, my eyes were gritty, and my neck ached from the position I’d put it in when I’d finally fallen asleep. I couldn’t wait to land and get off the plane. Three-and-a-half weeks suddenly seemed like a very short time to wait before having to go through all this again on the way home. My eyes welled up with exhausted, lonely tears as we dropped below the clouds, and I caught my first glimpse of Ireland. The grass was green but the sky was grey, and raindrops spattered the plane’s windows as we made our slow descent.

It seemed to take forever for us to touch down onto the tarmac, and even longer before the seatbelt sign went off. I stood up immediately, desperate to stretch my legs and get out of this sardine can. The air conditioning had been switched off, and the air was moist and warm with all of the human bodies squished into such a small space. My heartbeat quickened, and my breath came more quickly. Just breathe, I told myself. This was not the time or place to have a full-blown anxiety attack. I knelt on my seat and closed my eyes, breathing deeply as the people around me chatted and laughed. Up the front of the plane, a baby started to cry.

Finally, there was movement. I shoved my way out into the aisle as people began shuffling towards the exit, almost forgetting my backpack in the overhead locker and having to go back for it. It took an interminably long time to get down the aisle, but finally I was in the terminal, my feet on solid ground at last. The Christiansons were waiting for me this time, looking relaxed and well-groomed as usual, and I staggered towards them with my headache bashing against my skull.

I wanted to be excited, to bask in the thrill of having arrived at a foreign destination, but all I could think about was getting to the hotel, having a shower, taking some painkillers and falling into a deep, much-needed sleep.

We piled into a taxi, which wove its way through the stone buildings of Dublin before pulling up outside a vast hotel. When Mum and I went on holiday, we stayed in the cheapest places available, but the Christiansons preferred to travel in style. They were rich, and they obviously enjoyed flaunting it. Our hotel door was opened for us by a man in a top hat, and porters rushed forward to take our bags. My suitcase looked cheap and tacky in their gloved hands, especially when placed next to the Christiansons’ matching Louis Vuitton luggage in the foyer.

There were sparkling chandeliers and marble pillars, and a sweeping staircase which led up to a five-star restaurant. The staff fawned over us before escorting us up to our suite, which was absolutely insane. It was bigger than my entire house, with its own lounge and bar kitchen, and two huge bedrooms with en suite bathrooms. I stood in the middle of the room that I was sharing with Lily and stared around me at the impossible grandeur.

I could hear Sonya in the lounge, gushing over the décor, while Hugh said things like “it should be nice, it cost enough” and “that’s what you’d expect, for what we’re paying”.

While Lily was distracted logging her phone into the hotel wi-fi, I went to take a shower. The bathroom was sparkling clean, and the water pressure was so strong it felt like needles stabbing into my skin. I washed my hair and scrubbed myself down twice, then dried off and wrapped my hair in another thick white towel before going back out into our shared room.

Finally,” Lily said, sitting up and picking up her things before heading into the bathroom. “You took forever!”

While she was gone, I pulled the curtains and shut the door into the lounge, then lay down on my bed and closed my eyes. I’d never appreciated just how good it felt to lie flat on my back, and I stretched all of my muscles in turn, then relaxed my whole body into the springy mattress. I just needed a short nap, just a brief pause to let my headache abate and my stomach settle. The traffic roared past outside, but I quickly became oblivious to it as I sank down into a deep slumber.

 * * *

When I woke up, the room was empty. I rubbed my eyes, then sat up, my head foggy and throat thick and sore. At least my headache had subsided, but my stomach had realised how much it had been deprived of food since leaving New Zealand, and was painfully hungry. I ran my fingers through my damp hair, trying to look presentable, then opened the door into the lounge, ready to apologise for having overslept. I’d expected to find Lily and her parents in there, sitting on the couch or watching TV, but they weren’t there. I walked across and peered through the half-open door into the master bedroom, but it was empty as well.

They had gone out, and left me here alone. I sat down on the couch and stared out of the window at the rooftops of Dublin. I’d assumed that riding in the Nations Cup was going to be the most challenging factor in this trip, but at that moment, I would’ve given anything to have been walking through a stable or sitting in a saddle, instead of alone in a strange hotel room, feeling stranded, like a fish miles from the nearest water…

Suck it up, Katy, I told myself firmly. You’re being pathetic. My stomach rumbled, and I looked around the hotel room, my eyes alighting on a large basket of snack food that the hotel had left out for us. They really do think of everything around here, I thought with relief, and I’d consumed a bag of potato chips, half a packet of pistachio nuts and a can of Coke before the Christiansons returned.

“Katy, you’re awake,” Sonya declared, as though it wasn’t obvious by the fact that I was sitting there, staring at her. “Did you have a nice sleep?” As though I was five years old and had just woken from my afternoon nap.

I forced myself to remain civil. “Fine, thanks.”

“I see you got hungry,” she said, eying my empty food wrappers.

“Yeah, a bit.” I wondered if I should have asked first, but it wasn’t as though there wasn’t heaps left. “Lily was right. The food on the plane was horrible.”

“Oh really? Ours was quite nice, I thought,” Sonya said as Hugh walked up behind her and glared at me.

“Raiding the mini-bar already, are we?” he asked. “I’ll put it on your tab.” I smiled at him, thinking it was a joke, but his expression didn’t change.

“We’ve made a dinner reservation at the hotel restaurant for seven,” Sonya told me. “So you’d better get changed.”

I looked down at the jeans and sweatshirt I was wearing. “Changed?”

“It’s a nice restaurant, Katy,” she said, as though explaining something obvious to a toddler. “There’s a dress code.”

Fortunately, I’d packed a dress, just in case I’d be required us to go to any fancy shindigs, although I hadn’t expected to need it so soon. I went back to my room to change, then waited while Lily hogged the bathroom, applying a ridiculous amount of makeup for a twelve-year-old girl and leaving me barely time to slap some mascara and lip gloss on before Sonya summoned us into the lounge.

Before I’d left, I’d thought that my simple blue dress was perfect for the trip – classy enough for a fancy occasion, but understated enough for a more casual one. Yet when I walked out into the lounge and saw what everyone else was wearing, I felt incredibly underdressed.

“I suppose that will do,” Sonya said with pursed lips, adjusting her gold shawl before heading towards the door with her perfectly presented family in tow.

As if I could’ve predicted that I’d be staying in a place like this, I thought grumpily as I followed her out into the hall. Nobody had put a ball gown on the packing list. A grandfather clock struck seven as we walked past it, and I counted back the hours as we waited for the lift to arrive. Four hours since we’d landed in Dublin. Thirty-six hours since I’d left New Zealand, and so far, all I wanted to do was turn around and go back home.

The lift dinged its arrival, and the doors slid open. Lily and her parents stepped inside, and I gritted my teeth, took a breath, and followed them.

 

Chapter 3 – Change of Plan

Dinner started out okay. Sonya just talked a lot about the local tourist attractions and which ones were ‘must-sees’ for Lily, as she hadn’t been to Ireland before. The food was expensive and the servings were tiny, but it was so richly flavoured that it was making my still-sensitive stomach uneasy. I picked at my risotto, trying to ignore Sonya’s pointed glares. She’d made sure to tell me that the meal was their ‘treat’, but apparently that meant I was expected to gush over the food like they did, smacking my lips and declaring that I hadn’t had such delicious pâté since I was last in Paris – which I was never going to do, because a) pâté is disgusting, and b) the last time I was in Paris was never.

“Speaking of France, I think we should head over on Monday,” Hugh said abruptly, making me almost choke on my food. “There’s no point wasting too much time wandering around Dublin. We’re here to look at ponies, not paintings.”

I just blinked across the table at him as Lily started literally bouncing in her seat with excitement. “Ooh, can we go to Nice? There’s the most spectacular pony there that I would actually die for. Remember, Mum? The bay with the white stockings? We have to go and try it.”

Sonya smiled indulgently. “That was a very nice pony,” she agreed.

“And we’ve come all this way,” Lily insisted. “It’d be a waste of the airfares not to go and have a look at him. Can we? Please?”

“I don’t see why not,” Hugh replied, as I sat dumbstruck in the middle of their conversation, trying desperately to figure out how I was going to pay for additional flights to France, and accommodation in fancy hotels, and posh meals. Dad was going to be livid. He hated spending money, even though he had heaps of it. Mum loved spending it, and she had next to none. Go figure.

“What about you, Katy?” Hugh said, making my head snap up from my plate. He wasn’t even looking at me as he sliced off another piece of his steak and held it up near his mouth. It was practically raw, and meat juice dripped off it onto his plate. “What are your plans for the rest of the week?”

I just stared at him, slowly realising what he meant. I didn’t have to worry about how to pay for a trip to France, because I wasn’t invited.

I swallowed hard. “Um, I’m not sure. Are – are you all going?”

Hugh frowned across the table at Sonya, who directed her surprise at me. “I did tell your mother that,” she said, which seemed highly unlikely, since Mum would definitely have mentioned it to me.

“She asked us to escort you to Dublin, which we agreed to do,” Hugh said. “But there was never any arrangement for you to stay on with us after that. At least, not that I was aware of.”

Again, he looked across at Sonya, who shook her head. I couldn’t stop the tears from gathering in my eyes as panic set in. I was on the literal other side of the world from home, I was sick and jetlagged and exhausted, and now I had to deal with the fact that I had nowhere to go for the next ten days. How had this happened?

“We’ll sort something out,” Sonya said, noticing my panicked expression and apparently discovering some shred of humanity within her. “I’ll give Maureen a ring later this evening. She has plenty of contacts, I’m sure she’ll be able to arrange something for you until the rest of the team arrives.”

I nodded slowly, breaking apart the mound of rice on my plate with my fork. If I looked at any of them, I knew I’d burst into tears. I wished more than ever that I’d had the guts to refuse to come on this trip, to let Susannah take my place, to have stayed at home. Home, where my ponies grazed in their shady paddocks, where Critter snoozed on my lap while I did my homework in front of the TV, where everything was safe and familiar and I knew what I was going to do each day and where I would sleep every night.

But I wasn’t at home – I was here. Soon to be alone, in the busy capital city of a foreign country. I had to pray that Maureen knew someone who’d take me in for a week, because I knew nobody in Ireland, not a soul…

I dropped my fork as I realised that wasn’t entirely true. When Mum was in her early twenties, she’d befriended an Irish girl called Eilish, whose granny owned a farm on the west coast. When they’d grown tired of working for other people and being paid next to nothing for it, they’d moved onto the old farm, living in the ancient stone cottage, clearing out the stables, buying a handful of ponies at the sales and starting up their own riding school and trekking centre. Mum’s tales of her days spent at Lonloughry on the wild Connemara coast were the stuff of my childhood fantasies. As a kid, I’d listened to her stories of half-broke ponies and bold hunters, had peered at blurred photographs of her cantering along windswept beaches, holding a team of matched grey Connemara ponies, jumping them at regional shows and out on the mud-soaked hunt field. They’d been starting to make a success of the place when my grandfather had got sick, and Mum had returned home to see him before he died. And then she’d met my dad, and fallen pregnant with me, and all of her plans had evaporated into nothing more than faded memories.

But as far as I knew, Eilish was still at Lonloughry, schooling ponies and leading rides across the rolling Connemara hillsides. Mum always used to talk about going over to visit her, but we’d never had the money, and slowly the dream had faded into just that. But maybe I finally had a chance to walk the path my mother had walked when she was only a few years older than me, on her big overseas adventure. For the first time since we’d left New Zealand, I felt a sliver of hope that this trip might not be a complete disaster after all.

“There might…I might have somewhere I can go,” I told Sonya.

“Perfect. See, I knew it’d work out,” she said, as though the word might hadn’t been part of my sentence.

As our plates were cleared and dessert ordered, I let my mind wander, trying to imagine myself at Lonloughry. I let the daydream wash over me, picturing windswept hills covered in purple heather, narrow country roads lined with mossy stone walls, skittish black-faced sheep and crying gulls overhead. I could almost feel the swing of a pony’s stride beneath me, could almost see the shape of its ears, the flip of its forelock, the brightness in its eager eyes as we strode towards the grey Irish sea.

My pleasant daydream was interrupted by Lily, who had pulled her phone out to take a photo of her dessert for her Instagram – as if anyone cared – let out an excited gasp and almost dropped her phone into her tiramisu.

“The Summer Pony Championships are on at Cavan this weekend!” she cried, staring at her parents. “It’s not far from here, either. Can we go? Please? There’s bound to be some brilliant ponies there.”

Something finally clicked into place in my head, and I looked up. “Are you buying a new pony?”

“We’re certainly looking,” Hugh said smugly, sticking his tiny fork into the world’s smallest chocolate brownie, which had cost almost twenty euro and was the size of a button. “There’s certainly a wider range of top calibre ponies here than there is back home.”

That was probably true, but you also didn’t need a top European pony to win back home. There were plenty of ponies already in New Zealand that were more than capable of jumping Pony Grand Prix, with the right training and the right rider. I wanted to tell him that, and to remind him about Stacey Winchester’s family, who had spent a crazy amount of money importing a pony from England a couple of years ago, only for it to just about kill her every time she took it into the ring. Literally.

But the Christiansons still thought that money could buy success in this sport. Which it could, up to a point. They just didn’t realise that while they hadn’t reached that point yet, eventually they would. It was only a matter of time.

When we finally got back to our room, I used the hotel phone to put a collect call through to my mum. She was predictably shocked by the turn of events, and demanded to speak to Sonya about it. Since Sonya had wisely taken herself off to the pool for a swim with Lily, I handed the phone over to Hugh, allowing him to explain. I expected him to be as rude to her as he had been to me, but like most adults, he was completely two-faced about it, apologising profusely for getting their wires crossed while laying the blame for the “miscommunication” at his absent wife’s feet. All of which was clearly lies, but when he eventually handed the phone back to me, Mum had been won over. She just said that it was a shame, but couldn’t be helped, and that she’d try to get hold of Eilish and would call me back later with a plan.

I hung up the phone, and stared at it, a lump building in my throat. Somehow I’d managed not to sob down the phone as soon as I’d heard my mother’s voice, though it had been a near thing. But something inside me kept telling me that I had to keep it together. If I started crying now, I didn’t know if I’d be able to stop.

 * * *

I woke early the next morning, and lay in bed for a while, staring at the dark room and listening to Lily’s soft breathing. At least she didn’t snore. One small mercy. With no phone to scroll through, I got up and spent a while sitting by the window, staring down at the cobbled street below and watching the world go by.

I pressed my forehead against the cold glass and looked down at the passers-by, so wrapped up in their own lives, wondering if it ever occurred to them to look up at the windows of the grand hotel and wonder if anyone was staring down at them.

“Girls, are you up?” Sonya flung the door open and stuck her head into the room as Lily rolled over onto her back with a groan. “If we’re going to Cavan today, we’d better get a move on.”

The Christiansons started their days the same way they did most things, with a brisk efficiency that made me feel hopelessly disorganised. In just over an hour, we’d showered and dressed, eaten breakfast in the hotel dining room, picked up a rental car and were whizzing towards Cavan Equestrian Centre, an hour-and-a-half from Dublin. Lily was scrolling through her phone, looking for ads for suitable ponies that were competing at the event, and Sonya was dutifully ringing up to find out which classes they were jumping in, and organising times to try them out afterwards. I crossed my legs and picked at a loose thread on the knee of my jeans, trying not to stare enviously at Lily’s pristine breeches, custom-made tall boots, and designer polo, making her look like an advert for junior rider fashion in one of those posh equestrian magazines that AJ and I always made fun of, because the models usually looked like they didn’t know one end of the horse from another, and the photographers seemed to care more about taking a good photo of the model than the horse, which was always annoying. Didn’t they know that equestrians were always going to look at the horses first, and the riders second?

I shifted awkwardly on the leather seats. I’d always thought it would be fun to experience life in the lap of luxury, but I hadn’t realised how uncomfortable and out of place it would make me feel, to be surrounded by opulence I would never be able to afford.

Sonya’s phone rang, and she fumbled through her large purse to find it, then answered with a chirpy phone voice.

“Hello, Sonya Christianson speaking,” she said, like she was a receptionist for a law firm instead of someone answering their own phone. “Oh, hello Deb. How’d you get on?”

My ears had pricked up at my mother’s name, and I leaned forward, holding out a hand towards Sonya’s phone. She frowned, shifting in her seat to be further away from me, and carried on her conversation as though I wasn’t even there.

“Oh, lovely. That’s perfect. Ten o’clock tomorrow, was it? We’ll make sure she doesn’t miss it. I’m sure she’ll have a lovely time, and we’re so sorry about the mix up, but I’m sure it’s turned out for the best.”

She laughed again, said “yes absolutely” a couple of times, and then bid my mother farewell, and hung up. “It’s all sorted,” she told me, turning slightly in her seat to look at me. “You’ll catch the bus to Clifden tomorrow, and your mother’s friend Eliza will pick you up.”

“Eilish,” I corrected her. “Her name’s Eilish. And I’d’ve preferred to talk to my mum about it myself.”

Sonya looked surprised. “There wasn’t any need for that, was there? She told me the details, and besides, you wouldn’t want her to rack up a huge phone bill just to make small talk with you.”

I ground my teeth together, fighting the urge to scream at her with the more sensible knowledge that I still had to spend another twelve hours in this family’s company, and twelve hours was a long time when you had nowhere else to go.

The equestrian centre at Cavan was enormous, especially by New Zealand standards. There were three indoor arenas, a surfaced outdoor and four grass arenas, plus miles of stabling and truck parking, not to mention its very own restaurant and bar. I wanted to take a moment to just stop and take it all in, but the Christiansons were on the move, and the last thing I wanted was to get lost, since they’d probably consider it good riddance if I did, and would likely head back to Dublin without me without a second thought.

We made it to the biggest indoor arena just as the 148cm Pony Championship was getting underway. Unlike back home, where ponies of any size could compete in Pony Grand Prix, classes over here were typically split into divisions based on the height of the pony. The 148cm ponies were those up to 14.2hh, and consequently jumped the biggest fences, but even the 12.2hh ponies were expected to jump at least up to a metre-ten at the big events here, something that nobody back home would even consider attempting on such small ponies.

We found seats in the stadium, and watched as the ponies came into the ring one by one and jumped around the big, imposing course. It was only slightly higher than the classes I was used to jumping at home, but we rarely jumped indoors, so we had heaps more room to get around the turns. Here, even the first fence was only a few strides off the wall, and if your pony wasn’t well on its hocks the whole way around, you couldn’t hope to jump clear. There were one or two riders that still hadn’t quite learned that, and some of the riding wasn’t the prettiest, but most of it was effective nonetheless.

Of course, Lily and her parents couldn’t resist loudly commenting on their perceived shortcomings of some of the competitors. I slumped down in my seat, trying to look like I wasn’t with them as they prissily refused to clap for a solidly-built boy who’d had to give his pinto pony a couple of good whip taps to get it in front of his leg early on, but had gone on to jump a clear round, while loudly praising a girl with feeble equitation, who’d been good at posing in the saddle but had fallen apart when her pony refused at the triple bar, sobbing her way out of the ring after getting eliminated.

“Poor girl,” Lily said sadly. “And she rode so well!”

“Her pony was miles behind her leg,” I snapped, forgetting my resolve to pretend not to know them. “It had no energy to take it forward, and no choice but to stop.”

“I suppose you think she should have smacked it, like that boy did earlier on,” Sonya said primly, raising a haughty eyebrow.

“He went clear,” I shrugged. “Sometimes it’s kinder to be a bit mean on the way to the fence, so that they’ve got enough power to do their job properly when they get there.”

Sonya sniffed. “Fortunately, not all of us consider whacking our ponies to be good riding, regardless of whether or not it results in a clear round.”

I looked around for a wall to bash my head against, but there were none close enough. I’d assumed that as soon as I was around horses, my homesickness would go away, but if anything it was only getting worse.

At least, it was until a black pony with an arched neck and bright eyes came into the arena at an impulsive, high-stepping trot. His dark coat gleamed with good health, his mane was neatly trimmed and his tail flowed behind him like spun silk. The dark haired girl riding him was smaller even than Lily, her legs barely extending below the flap of her well-worn saddle, but she sat beautifully, and with an easy confidence that I immediately envied and admired.

“That’s an impressive looking pony,” Hugh said, his voice rich with admiration, and I crossed my fingers that the girl on the black pony was too smart or too wealthy to even consider selling him. If Lily ended up bringing a pony like that home, I’d probably have to kill myself.

“Our next combination in this class will be Keeley O’Callaghan from County Wexford, riding Deacon O’Callaghan’s The Dark Knight.”

My jaw dropped in amazement. Deacon O’Callaghan was one of the best show jumpers to have come out of Ireland in the past decade, and a few years ago, he’d gone seriously close to winning individual gold at the Olympic Games. Mum had let me stay up past midnight to watch the final rounds, and both of us had been crossing our fingers for Deacon to win. I think Mum’d had a bit of a crush on him, while I’d fallen in love with his big chestnut mare, Castletown Shamrock. She wasn’t as flashy or quite as scopey as some of the other horses, but she’d cleared every fence, in round after round, and had become something of a crowd favourite. The final jump-off had been going well too, up until the second to last fence, when she’d slipped on the turn and taken the rail, costing her country a medal. I’d watched in disappointment as Deacon shook his head ruefully before finishing his round, then had patted his horse all the way out of the ring. His good horsemanship in the face of extreme disappointment was something that Mum and I still talked about. When I messed something up at a big show and was mad at myself, Mum would just bump me on the knee and tell me that I wasn’t at the Olympics, reminding me of the scale of my disappointment.

I’d never realised that he had a daughter. No doubt her life was the stuff that dreams were made of – stables full of Grand Prix horses, touring Europe since she was knee high, going to all the biggest shows, riding the most brilliant ponies. I watched as she touched the black pony into a bounding canter, her eyes fixed firmly on the first fence. Her position was flawless – back straight, arms supple, heels down and eyes up, every line perfect. Of course, she’d have had her father coaching her from the moment she first sat in a saddle. It would be impossible to ride badly if your father was an Olympian.

The Dark Knight fought for his head, but Keeley kept him firmly in hand until they reached the first jump. His hooves thudded against the arena sand as he took off, and I heard Hugh make a small choking sound next to me. The black pony’s technique was far from conventional – he jumped with his head in the air, his back hollow and all four legs tucked up underneath him – but he left some serious daylight between himself and the poles. He landed well past the back rail of the wide oxer, all four legs touching down the ground almost at the same time. I winced involuntarily at what must have been a jarring landing, but Keeley appeared completely unfazed by it. She rode the distance beautifully to the next fence, finding the perfect take-off spot once again, keeping her back straight and letting her hands go forward slightly as her pony bounded over the big vertical. Her lower leg didn’t move an inch, and I shook my head in admiration. I dreamed of riding like that, and I wasn’t sure if it was inspiring or confidence-shattering to see such a young rider making it look so easy.

The black pony was excitable, clever and full of sass. He bucked his way around the corner, flinging his hind legs out behind him with blatant disregard for the spectators lining the sides of the arena, several of whom shrank back in alarm. Keeley was unfazed, riding firmly to the exact distances she wanted, ignoring her pony’s shenanigans, which only increased as he continued around the course.

Then Sonya spoke, her voice cutting through the trance I was in and returning me to the reality of knowing that I was sitting with the stupidest people in this entire building.

“I think we’ll pass on that one,” she said disparagingly. “I can’t see you on a pony like that, can you, Lil?”

As if Lily would be able to stay on him for more than five seconds before getting tossed off like a rag doll, I thought, then bit my tongue to stop myself from saying something I’d regret.

“She’s a really good rider though,” Lily opined, which was the first sensible thing she’d said all day.

“Bit hard not to be, with a father like hers,” I commented as the pony flew over the oxer right in front of us, close enough to smell the sweat on his coat, to glimpse the veins popping under his skin, to see the look of fierce concentration on Keeley’s face.

Lily turned to me, surprised. “Who’s her father?”

Seriously? I fought back the urge to roll my eyes. “Well, since her last name’s O’Callaghan and she’s riding Deacon O’Callaghan’s pony, I’m assuming that he is,” I said, reaching for my phone to Google it and check, then remembering, yet again, that I couldn’t.

Sonya glanced across at me. “And who’s Deacon O’Callaghan, when he’s at home?”

“Oh, nobody,” I told her. “Just a top international show jumper and former Olympian. Only one of the best riders in this country, and probably Europe as well. No-one important.”

“All right, no need to be so snippy,” Sonya said. “We don’t keep up with the international scene as much as you do.”

Clearly, I thought, but did not say aloud, which I thought showed progress. I was feeling quite proud of myself until Sonya spoke again.

“His daughter looks about Lily’s age. I wonder if they have any ponies for sale,” she mused, clearly inspired by the thought of being able to parade Lily around at home on not only a European show jumping pony, but one that had come straight from an Olympian’s yard.

Before I could say anything, a girl with long red hair who was sitting in front of me turned around and looked at us. “They do, as a matter of fact. A brilliant chestnut pony that won the individual gold at the Europeans a couple of years ago,” she said. “Deadly in a jump-off, so it is, but not an easy ride.”

“As long as it’s not as crazy as that one,” Hugh said, pointing at the black pony as he flung himself through the treble, landing so far out from each fence that he could barely fit in a single stride before taking off again, but somehow leaving all the fences up. He celebrated with a series of victory bucks as the girl in front of us shook her head.

“It doesn’t buck,” she assured them. “It’s just fierce hot. Keeley had it on the entry for this class, last I checked. It was well down the order, but if you stick around, you’ll see it go.”

Sonya looked pleased, and Lily bounced excitedly in her seat as Hugh sighed.

“They’ll be wanting the world for it, I expect,” he said, although I didn’t think that would stop him buying it if he thought Lily would win every class she ever entered on it.

“I couldn’t tell you,” the girl said. “Not being in a position to consider it myself.”

“Would you, though?” Sonya asked. “If you had the money?”

“Oh, in a heartbeat,” she said, getting to her feet. “It’s a brilliant pony, so it is. One of the best on the international circuit, if you ask me.”

She walked away, and the Christiansons all beamed at each other as Keeley finished with a clear round and rode towards the exit. The crowd applauded as she met a tall blonde man at the gate, and with an excited jolt, I recognised Deacon O’Callaghan. He said something to his daughter as she rode past him, then gave the pony’s rounded quarters a pat as he jogged back out into the collecting ring. The next rider came into the ring and the O’Callaghans disappeared from view.

But that wasn’t the end of it. Hugh decided that there was no time like the present to go and talk to them, so he stood up and pushed past me, even though the row behind us was basically empty and he could have just climbed over his seat and walked along there. I hoped the O’Callaghans would tell him where to get off, or that their pony would turn out to be too expensive for him, but I had a sinking suspicion that the Christiansons had a bottomless pit of money – or that they would re-mortgage their house if necessary to fund a European gold medal winning pony for their darling daughter. One or the other seemed inevitable, and I sighed, a green cloud of envy settling over me once again. Why was everyone else’s life so much more thrilling than mine?

Hugh was back in a matter of minutes, assuring us that he’d spoken to Deacon and secured the chance for Lily to try their pony that evening. When Keeley eventually returned to the ring on a blindingly gorgeous chestnut pony, I knew that no matter what the price, the Christiansons would move heaven and earth to bring this one home with them. His name was Enoch Arden, and he was short-coupled with a dishy blaze and tall white stockings. His jump was super, all snappy knees and arched back and super back end, but I still liked the black pony better. There had been something about his sublime confidence in his own ability that had made me ache to know how it felt to ride him over a fence. The chestnut pony had classically correct technique, but he looked slightly overwhelmed by the indoor arena, hesitating into the combinations and needing lots of leg through the turns. He didn’t look to me like he’d won gold medals all across Europe, but Lily and her parents were so blinded by his good looks that they didn’t notice any of that, and I said nothing, knowing any criticism would fall on deaf ears anyway. The pony had four faults at the triple bar, keeping him out of the jump-off, but Keeley patted him all the way out of the ring, seeming proud of him rather than disappointed by his effort.

The fences were raised, and I waited impatiently to watch The Dark Knight’s return to the ring, sure that he’d be the one to win the class. He bounded back in with as much enthusiasm as he’d had in the first round, but his exuberance was his undoing when he over-jumped into the double and took the rail at the out. The boy on the pinto won the class, with the chunky bay second, and a pretty steel grey finishing third.

As if to rub salt into my wounds, Sonya decided that it was time to peruse the trade stalls. I would’ve have been excited by a shopping trip if I’d been able to afford to buy literally anything other than a hoofpick, but naturally they only went into the most expensive shops. I quickly got bored of watching Lily try on blingy European helmets with horrifying price tags, so I wandered over to a rack of gorgeous show jackets and rifled through them, trying to pretend that I had enough money to buy one. I fell in love with a gorgeous bright red jacket with black trim, and couldn’t stop myself from checking the price, almost passing out when I saw that it cost nearly a thousand euro. That wasn’t only outside of my price range, but out of the price range of anyone who had any sense at all. I mean, why would you spend that much money on a jacket that your horse was only going to slobber on in about five minutes anyway? But there was a mirror right there, and I couldn’t resist the temptation to try it on. Just for a second. Just to see how it looked.

Of course, it fit me like a glove, which only made me sadder that I could never in a thousand years afford to buy it. I turned sideways in the mirror, making the most of this brief moment of pretend, conjuring up the rest of my dream outfit in my head – snow white breeches with sequinned pockets, custom tall boots made of Italian leather, and one of those expensive helmets I’d seen around but never been able to afford because they started at six hundred dollars and Mum didn’t think that was a worthwhile price in case I ever fell off in it and she had to buy another one. Imaginary rich me had one of those helmets. She also had an indoor arena and a string of talented, rideable warmbloods and a father who rode internationally and trained her every day and took her to Europe to win prestigious pony classes and ride on her national team…

Then Sonya came over and ruined everything by saying that jacket was a nice colour, and made me take it off, and her daughter try it on. I wandered away, sick with envy, and hung around by the front of the store until they came out with a large carrier bag. I couldn’t bring myself to ask what was in it, and Lily didn’t volunteer the information. All I knew was that if Lily ever turned up to a show wearing that red jacket, I was going to scratch my own eyes out in a fit of jealous rage.

 

Chapter 4 – Dan

It should have been fun, and exciting, to be at a big international show like this one, but I couldn’t remember a day at a show ever dragging on so slowly. As the light faded slowly into dusk, I found myself standing in a small indoor arena, leaning against a jump stand and watching Lily trot circles on the chunky bright bay pony that had been second in the championship that morning, while Sonya gushed to the owners about how brilliant Lily was, and Hugh silently videoed his daughter, and the people selling the pony no doubt tried to keep themselves from throwing up from all the pretentiousness. What they didn’t know was that Lily was only trying their pony as a warm-up for riding the O’Callaghans’ chestnut, although when I’d asked Sonya if she was wasting these people’s time, she’d simply said that there was nothing stopping them from buying more than one pony. Which had not cheered me up at all.

Lily pressed the bay pony into a canter, and he moved on willingly. He had a kind expression and seemed to be a straightforward enough ride that Lily was getting along well with him. I sighed with boredom, my hand slipping into my pocket in a futile search for my phone. It still wasn’t there. I was surprised how hard it was to live without it. I’d known it would be an adjustment, but I had never expected the lack of a phone to be so difficult. Somehow, I was going to have to find a way to buy a new one.

A brief gust of cooler air made the hairs on my arms stand up, and I turned to see the gate swung open and a tall boy about my age walked into the arena, leading a powerful chestnut pony. Her gleaming copper coat shimmered under the arena lights, and she held her elegant head high, looking around suspiciously as he latched the gate behind them. Now here was a pony that looked like she could jump around a Grand Prix course without even trying.

The pony snorted, and Sonya turned around and noticed the boy. She nudged her husband’s arm questioningly, but Hugh just glanced over his shoulder and shook his head, then returned his attention to filming Lily.

Unwilling to tear her eyes away from her precious daughter for more than a few seconds, Sonya turned to me for the first time since Lily had been legged into the bay pony’s saddle.

“I don’t know who he is, but tell him we’ve rented the arena for the evening,” she told me. “He’ll have to exercise his pony somewhere else.”

I rolled my eyes as she turned her back on me again, and I straightened up, relieved at least to know that the pony wasn’t another of darling Lily’s prospects. I wasn’t sure I could stomach the thought of her on such a spectacular animal, especially since I could already tell she wouldn’t be able to ride it.

I walked towards the boy and his pony, trying to figure out how to politely ask him to leave. He’d stopped a few feet away, and was tightening the mare’s girth with one hand, his helmet dangling loosely from the fingertips of the other. As I approached, I started noticing things. His saddle was an older model with suede knee rolls and a shiny, well-worn flat seat. His tan breeches had a slobber stain across one thigh, his boots were cracked and dusty, and there was a rip in the shoulder of his faded green windbreaker. There was nothing flash about him except his pony, but she was enough to catch anyone’s eye. She flattened her ears as he pulled up the girth straps, and he gave her a gentle pat on the neck before turning around and smiling at me.

Okay, woah. Suddenly I wasn’t paying nearly so much attention to the pony, because her owner was giving her a run for her money in the looks department. He was tall, with thick brown hair hanging over dark eyebrows, a straight nose, strong cheekbones and friendly brown eyes flecked with green. He also handled the spirited mare with a calm confidence, and I had to make a genuine effort to pull myself together, and not just stop in front of him and drool unintelligibly.

“Hello,” he said, holding his hand out for me to shake. “Dan Caldwell.”

I shook Dan’s hand, immediately able to tell from its callouses and slightly rough skin that he was no part-time rider, nor did he have grooms that did all the work for him. I was in serious danger of forgetting Phil entirely.

“I’m Katy,” I added belatedly. “Katy O’Reilly.”

“That’s an Irish name,” he commented, raising his eyebrows. “But you’re not from around here, are you?”

“No,” I admitted. “We’re from New Zealand, over here for the Youth Nations Cup competition.”

“Ah, right.” His pony pawed the ground impatiently, and he shook his head at her. “All right Pops, enough of that,” he gently chided. “Sorry. She’s not the most patient beast that ever lived.”

“She’s stunning,” I said honestly.

“She’s been a good pony for me, but is sadly much outgrown these days,” he said, his eyes travelling past me and lingering on Lily as she trotted down the long side of the arena. “I’m assuming you’re not the one looking for a new pony, are you?”

I shook my head. “Sadly, no. Shipping a pony to the other side of the world is a little beyond my parents’ budget.”

Dan smiled. “Yeah, mine too.” He watched Lily ride the pony past us down the long side of the arena. “That’s Rockford Maverick, is it not?”

I shrugged. “I’ve got no idea,” I admitted. “I suppose it could be.” Sonya turned around and glared at us, and I remembered my orders. “Oh, I’m supposed to tell you that my teammates over there have hired this arena exclusively for the next hour, so…”

Dan raised an eyebrow, his attention returning to me. “Are you telling me to leave?”

I quickly shook my head. “I am not telling you anything,” I assured him. “Just passing on a message.” I lowered my voice. “Feel free to ignore it.”

He laughed. “The thing is, I’m here because I was told that these people are looking for a class pony and that they had money to burn, so I thought I’d throw my hat into the ring, so to speak. But if you don’t think they’d be interested, I won’t waste my time.”

I looked at the fidgety chestnut dubiously. I didn’t want Dan to leave, but I seriously doubted that his pony was going to be suitable for Lily.

“She does look like she’ll be a bit much for her,” I said honestly. “Contrary to her parents’ belief, Lily’s not exactly the next Bertram Allen.”

“Pops isn’t a novice ride,” Dan replied. “She’ll jump anything you point her at, though, so long as you can sit still and let her get on with it.”

“I bet she would,” I said, casting an envious eye over the pony. Oh, to have parents as rich as Lily’s who would buy me any pony I wanted. This was the one I’d be looking at, not the ordinary bay pony Lily was wasting time on right now. “How old is she?”

“Rising ten. I bought her at auction three years ago as an unbroken six-year-old. She’s always been sensitive, and gave me a hard time for a while, but came around in the end. Unfortunately just as we started to really get somewhere, I grew several inches and now she has to be sold to someone whose feet don’t hang down around her knees.”

“That sucks,” I commiserated. “I hate selling ponies. You’d think you’d get used to it after a while, but the special ones are always hard to part with.”

He nodded. “Pops is special, all right. I thought for a while that my sister would take her on, but she’s got her hands full with her own team and let’s just say they never quite clicked. Pops knows who she likes and who she doesn’t,” he told me. “She’s a woman of refined taste.”

“Aren’t we all?” I reached up and gently scratched the mare under her forelock. She leaned into my touch, tilting her head to help me find the itchiest spot.

Dan smiled. “I think she likes you.”

“Not as much as I like her, I’m sure,” I replied.

Then Sonya decided to ruin the moment by striding towards us with a fake smile plastered on her face.

“Can we help you?” she asked him, ignoring me entirely.

Dan looked startled for a moment, then nodded, explaining that he’d brought Pops along as a prospective purchase. Sonya ran her eyes over the mare, and even a novice like her could tell that she was something special.

“She looks nice. Did we see her jump this morning?” she asked, proving her boundless capacity for gross understatement by standing in front of one of the best looking ponies I’d ever seen in my life and describing her as nice.

“No. As you can see, I’m far too tall for her myself, so my sister rides her now, but she was busy with her other ponies today,” Dan explained. “But Pops is a top pony for a competitive rider, so long as they know what they’re doing. She’s won loads of championship classes, both here and abroad, and she’s already qualified for Dublin this season.”

“I see. Well, she could be a good prospect for us, but your timing’s not so good,” Sonya told him. “We’ve got another one turning up any minute that we’re very interested in, and we won’t have time to try both. But thanks for thinking of us.” She shot him another brilliantly insincere smile, turned and walked back to her daughter

Dan gave me a bewildered look, and I rolled my eyes. “See what I have to put up with?”

“You have my sympathy,” he said sincerely. “Where’s the rest of your team?”

“Scattered to the four winds. It’s a long story, I don’t want to bore you.”

He smiled, and a dimple appeared in his left cheek. “I’m sure you wouldn’t.” I swallowed hard, trying to maintain my composure in the face of his impossible beauty, but he spoke again before I had to. “Trouble is, this pony’s been in a stable all day waiting for someone to exercise her, and we’ve got a long journey ahead of us. If she doesn’t get worked now, she’ll kick the walls of the horsebox in and Mum will lose her mind the whole way home.”

“Don’t let them stop you,” I told him. “There’s plenty of room to share. And you might still get your shot at impressing them into being interested in buying her.”

“Maybe. But she’s not too pushed on me riding her now, with my legs dangling around her sides, bumping her forelegs with my toes.” Then he looked at me, and speculation lit in his eyes. “What about you? Fancy a ride?”

I just blinked at him in abject disbelief. “Me?”

“Why not?” His eyes sparkled, daring me to accept his challenge. “It’s what you came to Ireland to do, is it not?”

“Well, yeah.” I looked down at my jeans and paddock boots, then back up at him. “But I’m not really dressed for it.”

Dan shrugged. “Sure our Pops won’t care,” he said. “Go on. It’ll give me a chance to check out the competition. See what our Irish team will be up against in the Nations Cup.”

Then he winked at me, and my knees actually went weak. Don’t you dare swoon. People outside of historical romance novels do not literally swoon, I told myself firmly. But I couldn’t help it. The more I talked to Dan, the more attracted to him I became. And now he was standing in front of me, offering me a ride on his spectacular pony. Am I dreaming? I fought the urge to pinch myself as I reached out and took Pops’s reins from his hands.

“That’s the spirit, now,” Dan said approvingly, handing me his helmet. “Better put this on too, just in case. Can’t have your team accusing me of sabotage.”

Our hands touched as I took the helmet from him, and a jolt like electricity ran down my spine. You. Have. A. Boyfriend, I reminded myself, thinking frantically of Phil. But he was so far away, and besides, I could hardly help having a crush on Dan, standing there all gorgeous and friendly, with his beautiful pony and his kind eyes and friendly banter. Besides, I’d probably never see him again after today. I had to seize the moment and take what enjoyment I could out of this trip, since god knew it had been pretty dire so far.

“Your head must be bigger than it looks,” Dan teased, placing his hand on top of the helmet and wiggling it around to make sure that it was reasonably snug. “That’ll do. Will I give you a leg-up?”

I nodded, and his hand wrapped around my knee, making the skin beneath it tingle. Pops sidled away from me, and I shortened the reins and hopped closer to her side, my hands resting atop the hard saddle.

“Ready? On three,” Dan said.

“One, two, tree,” I counted aloud, mimicking his accent, and heard Dan’s chuckle as he boosted me onto his pony’s back. My feet reached for the stirrups, but they were miles too short. “You must ride very short,” I teased him.

“That would be my sister, she’s a proper midget,” he agreed, nudging my foot out of the stirrup and pulling down on the leather to adjust it. “Fair play to her though, she’s only twelve.”

“And if there’s one thing I’ve learned today, it’s that there are some pretty impressive young riders in this country,” I told him. “We saw Deacon O’Callaghan’s daughter in the 148 class this morning, and man, can she ride!”

Dan looked up at me, amusement dancing across his face, and I realised how silly it sounded to be gushing over a kid.

“Aye, she’s not bad for a kid,” he said casually, stepping back as I finished adjusting Pops’s offside stirrup with fumbling hands. “That black pony she rides has the devil in him though, and no mistake.”

“I liked him,” I said, leaping to the black pony’s defence as Dan rolled his eyes. “The pony they’re waiting to try is one of hers,” I added with a nod in the Christiansons’ direction. “A chestnut pony. We watched it jump this morning.”

“Is that so?” he asked. “What’d you think of it?”

I shrugged. “They liked it more than I did. He’s got a super technique, no doubt about that, but he looked a bit unsure of himself and wasn’t always taking her to the fences.”

“I’d agree with that,” he said as I touched his pony into a walk.

Any thoughts of Keeley O’Callaghan were quickly dismissed from my mind as I focused on the pony under me. Pops had a long stride, high head carriage and a mouth as soft as butter. Dan was right that she was sensitive – the slightest movement from me elicited a reaction from her, and I had to work hard to keep my body soft and my aids clear and consistent. But after a few circles, Pops’s head gradually lowered, and she began to bend properly through her body, lifting her back as her trot changed from a stiff, hurried pace into a swinging, athletic stride. I closed my fingers around the reins, asking her to seek the contact forward, and she softened her jaw willingly into my hand.

“She likes you,” Dan said approvingly, and I grinned at him.

“She’s lovely,” I replied. “She’s so responsive, but so light. I’ve never ridden anything quite like her.”

He smiled proudly. “She’s one of a kind, that’s for sure. Give her a canter, tell us what you think.”

I shortened my reins before brushing my outside leg behind the girth a fraction. Pops bounded forward into a powerful, ground-covering canter, the kind of canter that could take you down to a metre-forty oxer without a shadow of doubt that you’d make it to the other side. I eyed the warm-up fences speculatively, wondering if I’d be allowed to jump her. Lily had the jumps set at about a metre-twenty, but they looked tiny from here, minuscule, insignificant in the extreme. A metre-twenty would be child’s play for this pony.

I steadied Pops back to a walk, giving her a moment to catch her breath, then touched her back into a canter straight from walk. She shifted gaits as smoothly as if trot didn’t even exist.

“She’s like a high-powered sports car,” I commented to Dan. “Like I’m driving a Ferrari or something. She’s got such power behind hair-trigger reaction times.”

“Formula One,” Dan suggested, and I nodded.

“Yes. Exactly.”

I’d got the hang of how to collect Pops now, and grinned broadly as her stride compressed, coiling herself tighter and tighter together until she was almost cantering on the spot, with all that incredible power and balance still coming through the light contact on the reins. Dan must have put some serious schooling into this mare over the last three years, and my admiration for him only increased.

I said as much to him, but he just shrugged humbly. “Had a bit of help from my step-father. He knows a thing or two about producing horses.”

As I turned Pops across the arena and rode a fluid flying change, I caught sight of Lily standing next to her parents and watching me with interest. The owners of the bay pony were leading him towards the exit, and I glanced at the gate, expecting to see Keeley and her father, but there was no-one there. I wondered if someone had warned her about Lily, or whether the pony had already been sold before the Christiansons got their chance at him. The thought of that gave me a moment of pleasure that was swiftly extinguished by the sound of Sonya’s voice.

“We’ve got time to try that pony that Katy’s riding, while we wait for Keeley to arrive,” she said. “What do you think, Lily?”

I looked across at Dan, who was watching Lily and her parents approaching. I drew Pops back to a walk and stroked her glossy neck, wishing I’d had a chance to jump her. But it looked like my luck had just run out.

“I’ve got to head away shortly,” Dan was telling the Christiansons. “So you’ll have to be quick if you want to try her.”

Hugh scoffed dismissively. “If you’re serious about selling her, we’ll expect to take all the time we need,” he told Dan. “And it looks like Katy’s already warmed her up, so Lily can get straight on and start jumping, which is what we’re really here to do.”

Dan’s frown deepened, and he looked over at me. “Sure you don’t want Katy to take her over a fence or two first?”

“Why?” Hugh demanded. “We’re here to buy a pony for Lily, not for her.”

Funny, I’d thought we were here for the Nations Cup. I wanted so badly to say it out loud, but I bit my tongue.

Dan looked at me, his expression conflicted. “She does have to be sold,” he admitted, and I slid reluctantly to the ground.

“She’s very sensitive,” I warned Lily as Dan legged her into the saddle. “So you’ll have to pay attention, and be incredibly still with your hands.”

Lily nodded as her parents came up behind us. Sonya overheard my final comment and started prattling on about how Lily had the most beautiful quiet hands of any rider ever in the history of equitation, everyone said so, and that she’d ridden sensitive ponies before because all of hers were very well-schooled. She’s never ridden a pony like this, I wanted to say, but with a force of will I bit my tongue. They’d find out soon enough.

Dan and I stood together and watched as Lily trotted and cantered a couple of slightly uncontrolled circles on Pops. The mare was tossing her head against Lily’s hold on the reins and rolling her eyes expressively at Dan, as though asking why she was expected to put up with this. I heard him sigh as he shifted his weight, then his elbow was lightly touching mine and I couldn’t concentrate properly on the pony anymore.

“What do you think, darling?” Sonya asked her daughter, who was puffing slightly as she brought Pops back to a walk.

“She’s really strong,” Lily said breathlessly, and I shot a look at Dan, who had pitched his eyebrows skyward at the comment. I pressed my elbow more solidly against his in empathy, and he returned the pressure. Butterflies started exploding in my stomach and I swallowed hard, trying to focus.

“Would you like to try jumping her?” Hugh asked his daughter, and Lily nodded, although she looked slightly apprehensive at the prospect.

“Okay.”

Dan looked over at the handful of jumps set at the other end of the arena. “Just take her over any of those,” he said. “She’ll be grand.”

“I think you’d be better to start with a crossbar,” Sonya said, clearly still under some kind of illusion that Dan didn’t really know what he was talking about.

“The thing is, she’s not much of a jumper over a low fence,” Dan explained to them as we trailed behind Lily’s parents on our way towards the practice jumps. “She prefers a bit of height to back her off, like, or she has a tendency to rush.”

“I’m sure Lily can keep her under control,” Hugh said confidently. “What’s the use of buying a pony that can’t jump a crossbar, for god’s sake?”

He went to help his wife adjust the fence, while Dan crossed his arms over his chest and said nothing. They set one fence as a low cross, and another as a medium sized vertical. The big oxer they left, presumably for once Lily was warmed up. Or in hospital, I thought to myself as Lily picked up a canter that looked like she’d intended it to be a trot.

“How do you think she’ll go?” I asked Dan. “Over, around or through?”

“She’ll always go over,” he said, sounding calmer than he looked. “But it may not be pretty.”

It wasn’t. Lily’s tight grip on the reins upset Pops, who responded by lifting her head and rushing forward. She took off half a stride early and cleared the low crossbar easily, then plunged her head down towards her knees and swung her neck from side to side, trying to tear the reins out of Lily’s hands.

Dan did his best to help, telling Lily just to sit quietly and soften her hand on approach next time, but somehow Lily interpreted that as ‘throw the reins away entirely three strides out from the fence’, which resulted in Pops ducking out at the last minute, then taking off at a gallop around the arena. Hugh was swearing as Lily managed to circle at the other end and regain some semblance of control, but she was focusing too much on her speed and not enough on her direction of travel, which proved to be her undoing.

Lily might not have realised that she had lined Pops up with the square oxer, but the pony did. She latched onto the big fence and her stride opened up as she sped towards it. Lily’s face was horrified, but instead of trying to turn away from the jump, like a sensible person riding an out of control pony would’ve done, she pulled back on the reins, attempting to halt rather than turn. Objecting to the pressure, Pops yanked hard against her, tearing the reins out of Lily’s grasp, then took two massive strides and leapt over the jump. I stared in breathless admiration as she flew over the wide oxer, her knees tucked tight to her chest on the way up, back arched like a dolphin over the top, hind legs kicking out behind her as she started her descent. She was every bit as talented as I’d thought she would be, and I had no doubt that this was a truly international class pony – and far, far too much for Lily.

To Lily’s credit, she managed to stay on over the jump, but lost a stirrup on landing and struggled to regain control without it as Pops shot off at a gallop again. I’d wanted nothing more than to see the kid get taken down a peg or two, but when I caught a glimpse of her panicked expression as Pops barrelled past, still out of control, I did feel a bit sorry for her. Not nearly as sorry as I did for Pops though, whose nostrils were flared red as she raced past, the whites of her eyes showing.

“Woah, girl. Woah now, lass. Easy, Pops.”

Dan’s voice cut through the thudding of the pony’s hooves, and she slowed down a bit, her ears swivelling in recognition of his voice. Lily was little more than a passenger, and Pops evidently decided that she was better off to ignore her rider entirely and just listen to Dan. She veered towards him, and he reached up and took hold of her rein, running alongside her for a few strides before gradually drawing the pony down to a jittery walk. He looked up at Lily, who was white as a sheet.

“You all right?”

“Is this some kind of joke?” Hugh demanded, storming towards his daughter, who was sitting shakily on the pony, her hands resting on the mare’s withers. I watched Pops’s skin twitch under her touch, and Lily sat up and lifted her hands away, which was the first intelligent thing she’d done all day.

“I’m not finding it funny, myself,” Dan said as he stroked Pops’s sweaty neck.

“You obviously didn’t get the message that we’re looking for a pony that has been properly trained,” Sonya snapped, because god forbid anyone have a conversation she wasn’t involved in.

“I can assure you that Pops has had plenty of schooling,” Dan replied, somehow managing to stay reasonably civil in the face of their incredible rudeness. “But as both Katy and I warned you, she needs an experienced rider, and I don’t think your daughter’s quite up to the mark.”

Highlighting Lily’s shortcomings was not the way to get a point across to Hugh. “I can’t see how it’s my daughter’s fault that your pony is a lunatic,” he snapped. “Lily, get off that pony before it tries to kill you again!”

Lily slid to the ground and walked shakily back to her mother, who pulled her in for a hug. Hugh shot me a filthy look, as if any of this was my fault, and I just watched sadly as Dan turned and started to lead his brilliant pony away from us. I realised I was still wearing his helmet, and quickly unsnapped the chinstrap and hurried after him to give it back. Then the arena gate swung open, and Deacon O’Callaghan walked in.

I stopped and stared at him for a moment, star-struck by his sudden appearance. My eyes searched the gate for a glimpse of Keeley and her chestnut pony, but there was no sign of them. Just Deacon, and I suddenly realised that he wasn’t looking at Lily, or at me. His eyes were fixed on Dan, who was walking right towards him.

Then Deacon spoke. “So, what’d they think of her?”

My heart thumped in a mix of exhilaration and embarrassment as the pieces slotted together.

My sister rides her now.

Fair play to her, she’s only twelve.

Had a bit of help from my step-father, he knows a thing or two about training horses.

Had Lily and her parents really accused a pony that had been trained by an Olympian of not being properly schooled? Could such a brilliant thing be possible?

It could. It was. I was breathless.

“Didn’t like her,” Dan was telling Deacon as I approached, running a hand through my sweaty hair and hoping I didn’t look too dishevelled. “Said they’re looking for something with a bit more training.”

Deacon swung his head around and looked at me, and I froze like a deer caught in headlights, under the scrutiny of his glare.

“Is that right?” he demanded of me, his blue eyes flashing, and I realised that he, too, had mistaken me for Lily.

I shook my head, still struck dumb by his presence, but fortunately Dan spoke up on my behalf. “No, Katy managed her beautifully. But she’s not the one with the money,” he explained, smiling at me as he took the helmet back from my outstretched hand. “Unfortunately.”

Deacon had shifted his gaze towards Lily and her parents, who were standing in a huddle behind me and looking mortified. I was practically rubbing my hands together with gleeful anticipation of Deacon giving them the verbal smackdown of the century, but unfortunately, he was far too professional for that.

“I’m sorry that you feel that way, but I can assure you that all of this mare’s training has been done under my supervision. Pops is a double European gold medal winner, but she’s not a novice ride.”

Double European gold. And I’d ridden her. I wished then, more than ever, that I’d had a chance to jump her myself, and it took everything I had not to leap back into the saddle right then and there. I waited breathlessly to hear Sonya’s reaction to her daughter being referred to as a novice, but I was about to get my second big surprise of the night. In the face of Deacon’s celebrity status, mother dearest went a full one-eighty and threw her precious daughter straight under the bus.

“Of course she’s obviously a very talented pony,” she gushed. “Unfortunately Lily just isn’t ready yet for a pony of her calibre. She has come a long way in a short time, but she still has a lot to learn.”

Lily was staring at her mother as though she’d just poured boiling water over her head, and even Hugh was looking a bit scandalised.

“Then I suggest you limit the ponies you’re looking at to ones your daughter is capable of riding,” Deacon said, which was fair, if a little blunt. It was certainly too blunt for Hugh, who opened his mouth to offer rebuttal, but before he could speak, Deacon turned aside. “We’re running late, and your mother will skin me alive if she’s not on the road before dark. Go on and get Pops loaded.”

“All right.” Dan looked at me again and smiled warmly. “It was nice meeting you, Katy. Good luck for the rest of your trip.”

“You too,” I said quickly, feeling the heat rise to my cheeks as I stumbled over my words. “I mean, it was nice meeting you too.” I scrambled for something else to say. “Maybe I’ll see you around.”

Dan nodded. “I’m counting on it,” he said, his eyes twinkling under the arena lights before he turned and led his pony out into the darkness.

Want to read more? Leave a comment below!

 

 

 

Nine Lives · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek

Excerpt from Pony Jumpers #9: NINE LIVES

Before I could say anything else, the front door swung open and my brothers came in. Aidan was first into the kitchen, making a natural beeline towards the fridge.

“Sorry we’re late. Took longer than I thought to go through the place.”

“How was it?” I asked, because I knew that Mum wouldn’t. She was still struggling to deal with the revelation that Aidan wasn’t going back to Otago, and hadn’t quite faced up to the thought of him moving into a flat in Hastings just yet.

“It was a dump,” Anders said, limping into the kitchen behind his brother and sitting down at the table next to me.

“It was cheap,” Aidan countered.

Anders snorted. “Because it was a dump. I can’t believe you’d actually consider living there.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers,” Aidan said. “Wait ‘til you move into whatever student accommodation you end up in. Trust me, there’s a lot of places way worse than that. Especially in Dunedin.”

“Well it’s a good thing I’m not going to Dunedin,” Anders snapped back.

That had Mum’s attention. “I thought you were.”

“What, going to Otago to do a Phys Ed degree?” Anders said bitterly. “I think it’s time we all wake up and realise that’s not going to happen now.”

“Don’t sell yourself short, bro,” Aidan said helpfully. “There’s at least one paper available on Disability in Sport.”

Anders’s response to that earned him a sharp reprimand from our mother.

“Language!”

“Sorry Mum.”

She looked at him in concern. “Just see where you’re at when you finish out this year, hmm?” she said. “You don’t need to make any decisions just yet.”

“You could always take a gap year,” I suggested.

“And what, limp across Europe?” he snapped.

“Roll across it in a wheelchair for all I care,” I replied, sick of the pity party. “Just stop being such a whiny bi-”

“AJ, what did I just say!” Mum said.

“Sorry.”

“Anyway, the flat’s a maybe,” Aidan said, dragging us all back to the original topic. “I’ve got a couple more to look at tomorrow.” He pulled a pizza box out of the fridge and opened it, then took out a cold slice and bit into it.

“At least heat that up,” Mum grumbled.

“No point,” Aidan said, taking another massive bite and speaking through his mouthful of food. “It’s almost gone.” Anders raised his hand and snapped his fingers, and Aidan pulled a second slice out and tossed it across the room like a frisbee. Anders caught it in one hand just before it hit Mum’s laptop.

“Boys!” she cried in exasperation.

“Sorry Mum,” they said, almost in unison.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Aidan told her on his way towards the door. Anders shoved half the slice of pizza into his mouth in one go as he stood up and slowly followed, and I leaned back in my chair as Mum wiped pizza sauce off her laptop screen.

“They’re disgusting.”

Thoughts

A pony book dream come true

Have you ever read a pony book where a keen and determined young rider gets given the opportunity of a lifetime to ride an amazing horse due to the generosity of some mysterious benefactor? I know I have. And although I was never that young rider, today I got to play my own part in a pony book story.

I’ve had my horse JJ since he was six years old, and six years on from when he first arrived as a nervous, head-shy youngster he has become a very confident, happy horse. We’ve had a lot of fun together but recently we’ve reached a point where he has learned everything I have to teach him. So we’ve been fumbling along for the past few months, trying to work out how we fit together these days, and the only thing that has made both of us really happy has been when he has been out competing with other riders. Lately he’s had a lovely 12-year-old on board, and he has taken her from never completing a 90cm course to placing 1st and 2nd in the two rounds they’ve done at that height! They’ve been to three shows together, done ten classes, and they’ve won two firsts, two seconds, two thirds and a fourth.

I love my horse, but a few weeks ago, I came THIS close to advertising him for sale. I even wrote a ‘For Sale’ ad, but when I finished it, I saved the file as “JJ is not for sale” and closed my computer, completely torn. I knew that what we were doing wasn’t working – I could barely catch him and no matter how many different things I tried, we weren’t really enjoying our rides anymore – but the thought of selling him scared me. Even when you sell a horse to the best possible home, you never know where they might end up long-term.

But although he’s worth a fair amount of money, at the end of the day money is just money, and I would rather have a happy horse than $$ in the bank. That’s not what life is about. And he is so happy with his new rider – they go for bareback rides to the river, share snacks and snuggles and generally adore each other. What you get to see in pictures and videos is their success at shows, but it goes much deeper than that, which is why I knew this would be the right lease home for him. He will be cherished, which is how he believes he deserves to be treated, so this way, we all win.

And in case you missed it, here are some of the highlights of the new #dreamteam‘s adventures over the past month. They make a great team, and I couldn’t be prouder of them both. Here’s to many more successes and even bigger smiles to come.

How lucky am I to be able to make someone’s dreams come true?

Thoughts

When your world turns upside down

Not to be overly dramatic or anything, but this has been a hell of a week. The American public elected Donald Trump as their next president, which was shocking enough as it was (to me at least), then New Zealand was hit by a magnitude 7.5 earthquake and continuous aftershocks, and now flooding and landslides have hit many regions, including the one where I live.

The image below shows the earthquake pattern around NZ in the last 48 hours (image from NZ Herald, for more information click here).

nzherald

It was just past midnight on Sunday morning and I was just about to go to bed (well, to go to sleep) when I felt an earthquake. Living in New Zealand, quakes aren’t that unusual, but this one had a little bit more force behind it than usual, although it was still fairly mild. I paused the YouTube video I was watching as the quake started building, and getting stronger. At a certain point, perhaps 20 seconds into it, I decided to get off my bed and into my doorway. We were always taught at school to get in a doorway if there is an earthquake, and there was nothing in my bedroom that I could easily get underneath so it was the best I could do. My cat lay on the bed and watched me as I braced myself with back against the frame on one side and feet against the other, riding it out. It got stronger, and stronger. I could hear things rattling around in the kitchen, and then the power went out. The sky seemed to light up, then the power came back on for a moment, before going off again. It wouldn’t come back on for several hours.

The light in the sky was due to the phenomena known as Earthquake Lights – see video here.

quakelights

I live in a flat below a bigger house, and my bedroom is right by the access into my neighbours’ garage. At the strongest point of the quake, a shelving unit of some kind crashed to the ground in the garage, and I gritted my teeth and looked at my cat, who was still lying on the bed by the laptop, watching me with the detached curiosity that cats reserve for humans that seem to be behaving oddly. Eventually, the rolling stopped, and after a moment, I realised my legs were shaking so sat down, still braced in the doorway, and tried to call my parents. I couldn’t get through, so I logged on to Geonet to check out where the quake was centred and how strong it was, then popped onto Facebook and looked at the pile of OMG and HOLY CRAP statuses that were flooding my wall.

I posted the following status at the time:

THAT was by far the biggest earthquake I have ever felt. Scary! Power is off and phone is dying but the cat and I are both fine. Hope everyone is okay and safe. Aroha to the people of Christchurch as it was a 7.5 located just north of Hamner Springs. Ground is still shaking…stupid earthquakes.

(And yes, I realise now that I spelled Hanmer Springs wrong, but I was under a bit of pressure at the time!)

I then tried my parents again and this time got through – their power was off as well and most of their phones are cordless and don’t work if the power isn’t on, so I had to give them time to get downstairs to the office. I spoke to my Dad, who told me that they were all fine and he’d heard from my brother in Wellington who was also fine. That was a relief, and we chatted briefly before I said goodnight as my phone was very low on battery. I think that was one of the scariest parts – my work phone was downstairs but the charger cable had given out a few days earlier and it was completely dead. Living alone, with no power and a phone on 11% battery and swiftly fading, I started to feel quite cut off.

Meanwhile I was still bracing myself for aftershocks. Years of experience have taught me that aftershocks are an inevitability after a quake, and generally the bigger the quake, the bigger (and more frequent) the aftershocks. I still remember a quake that we had one night when I was living in Wellington. I got out of bed and into the doorway (possibly not the best place to be, given that the door was made of glass, but still safer than in my bed below the window) and rode it out. It wasn’t too big, and after a few moments of stillness, I decided to go back to bed. Halfway across the room, an aftershock hit that almost knocked me off my feet and had me scrambling back into the relative safety of the doorway.

Click here for live updates on the quakes we’re getting and how severe they are:

I decided that I needed to rest my phone and save its battery, so once the ground had mostly stopped moving, I went back to bed. I plugged my phone into its charger in case the power came back on, but turned the mobile data off (I didn’t have much left anyway) so that it wouldn’t drain its battery faster. I had no way of knowing how long the power would be off for, but I switched on my beside lamp so that I would know when it did come on (which happened a few hours later, when the bright light woke me up).

What I never considered was the threat of a tsunami. It wasn’t until I woke up later that morning and checked Facebook again on my now fully charged, wifi enabled phone, that I realised how many people had evacuated overnight due to concern over a tsunami. Fortunately the threat was mainly on the east coast and never eventuated here (or anywhere else really, though apparently a big wave did hit Kaikoura – more on them later). But it was a bit remiss of me not to even think of that one!

Most earthquakes hit you like someone’s just reached out with a giant elbow and bumped your house – the ground jolts suddenly and everything rattles around, but it’s usually over fairly quickly. Sometimes you can feel (or hear) it coming, sometimes things rattle in the cupboards for a moment or two beforehand, and you know there’s a jolt coming and you just wait for it. But this recent string of quakes have been more like being on a ship at sea – during the big one, the ground seemed to be rolling, and it lasted for a full two minutes. Initially, Geonet had it listed as a 6.6 magnitude quake, but it was later upgraded to a 7.5 – the biggest quake here since the 7.8 at Dusky Sound in 2009.

Radio NZ (who have been brilliant throughout) posted this series of photos showing earthquake damage across the country.

The aftershocks could last days, weeks, months or even years. Every time there is a quake of magnitude 6 or higher, there are predicted to be approx. 10 corresponding aftershocks of magnitude 5, and so on down the chain. Most of the time, it just feels as though you’re slightly light-headed – that kind of “Am I moving?” sensation. (Like right now…) But sometimes you really feel them, and there have been a couple in the past two days that had me on my feet and moving into a safer space in the room, but none have been as scary as that first one. My view from my desk is of my horse float and car, and on Monday afternoon, more than once I looked out of the window and watched the horse float swaying from side to side.

The quake caused this landslide which rerouted the railway line near Kaikoura (for more pictures and info click here).

railway.jpg

What was also unusual about this quake was how widely felt it was. Earthquakes are often quite centralised, but other than the Far North and the bottom of the South Island, almost everyone felt the big one. Swimming pools had their own private tsunamis as far north as Auckland, but it was the coastal town of Kaikoura that was eventually revealed to have been hit the hardest. Roads are still closed in and out of Kaikoura due to slips, and tourists are being evacuated by helicopter. Kaikoura (kai – food, koura – crayfish) is a small settlement on the East Coast of the South Island, and is a popular tourist destination. Whale watching is particularly popular in the area, and they also fish for paua and crayfish in the area. They already have big catches of both that may have to be thrown out as they can’t get them out of the area to sell. One of the quake’s two tragic fatalities occurred when Kaikoura’s famed Elm Homestead collapsed. (The other fatality was due to a heart attack brought on by the quake in North Canterbury.)

Closer to home in Wellington, my brother lost most of the plates in his kitchen and his TV is done for. He lives on the 15th floor of an apartment building in the central city, and it’s designed to move slightly, which is probably good for its own stability but not so good for his possessions. (It’s so moveable that it actually sways in high wind, which Wellington gets a lot.) Also in the city, shop windows smashed, and today they closed off Molesworth Street when a routine check of a (fortunately vacant) building revealed a broken beam and a possibility of collapse.

Wellington Live on Facebook posted this video from security footage inside the Golf Warehouse at the time of the quake – you can see when that big jolt hit that sent my neighbour’s shelving to the ground!

As if all of that wasn’t bad enough, less than 24 hours later we had almost 24 hours of torrential rain which has resulted in flooding, road closures and landslides.

This is how State Highway 1 out of Wellington ended up being closed for most of the day (photo from NZTA):

slip

And this is the alternative route out of Wellington along SH58, which was also closed as the flood water kept rising (photo from NZTA):

haywards-roundabout

My cat continues to be utterly unfazed by all this, and if you’re wondering how JJ is coping, based on this photo I took of him today, he’s been comfort eating his way through it. (Ye Gods, the boy is fat. Spring grass is coming through and I haven’t been riding much, but I think it’s time to get the grazing muzzle out!)

i-dont-feed-it

He’s certainly faring better than this unfortunate cow family:

cows

Don’t worry, they’ve been rescued. (Click the link above to find out how.)

So last night and tonight, and for the next few nights, I will be sleeping with a solar powered torch radio next to my bed, already tuned into Radio NZ. I have filled my car up with diesel and my cupboard up with food that I can eat without having to cook it. I’ve got bottled water and my phone lives on its charger (I bought a new charger cable for my work phone too, so I now have two fully charged phones.) And I have my car parked right outside the front door, a sleeping bag and boots by the door, clothes on the end of my bed when I go to sleep and a packed bag nearby in case I need to evacuate in the middle of the night. I also keep my contact lenses right by the bed instead of downstairs in the bathroom, just in case. Better to be safe than sorry, right?

All photos belong to the respective copyright owners and where possible have been linked to their source.