Thoughts

Why Joey Potter is the (true) protagonist of Dawson’s Creek

It is a truth universally acknowledged in storytelling that in order for your protagonist to be relatable and to drive the story forward in a compelling way, they need to have a goal that they’re working towards, something tangible that they want to achieve. The purpose of a story is to take the reader/audience on a journey with the protagonist, who is the person driving the story forward to its conclusion, and a satisfying/happy resolution comes about when they achieve said goal. The goal itself should be a tangible thing, an action the character is trying to achieve – for example, in Disney’s Moana, her goal is to restore the heart of Te Fiti. The goal should also be something that is clearly proclaimed by the protagonist. In musicals, this is obvious when the protagonist often opens the show with an “I Want” song. When we listen to the opening number of Beauty and the Beast (“I want much more than this provincial life”), or Aladdin (“If only they’d look closer, would they see a poor boy, no siree, they’d find out there’s so much more to me”), or Hamilton (“I’m a diamond in the rough, a shiny piece of coal, trying to reach my goal, my power of speech unimpeachable”) we know what it is that these characters want, and what it is that they lack (freedom, wealth, power). The things they lack are directly related to what they want, and are what are standing in the way of them achieving their goal.

Which brings us to the second part – obstacles. In order for a story to hold the audience’s interest, there must be obstacles in the protagonist’s path towards that goal. Sometimes this is a literal antagonist who is working toward the opposite of that character’s goal, or wants to directly thwart them from achieving it (in order to achieve their own goal) – Jafar in Aladdin, Scar in The Lion King – but in a long-running television show, there’s only so long you can draw out that conflict before it becomes tedious to watch. (For example, in a TV show that is about fighting various antagonists, such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there are a steady stream of ‘big bads’ (and Monsters of the Week) throughout seven seasons of the show, all of which Buffy eventually vanquishes. You couldn’t have drawn out Buffy’s rivalry with the Master for seven seasons. Also as a side note, it’s the characters that Buffy has a direct emotional relationship with who make the most compelling antagonists, notably Angelus in season 2 and Faith in season 3.)

In the case of Dawson’s Creek, which is about four teenagers in a small town on Cape Cod, the show doesn’t have an overt “chosen one” mission statement like Buffy does, and so the obstacles are not so much one particular person trying to thwart a character’s progress, but a series of outside influences that make their stated goal harder to achieve. 

In season 1, the show gave us four main characters – Dawson, the idealistic film nerd; Joey, the sarcastic tomboy from the wrong side of the creek; Pacey, the class clown and black sheep of his family; and Jen, the ‘bad’ girl next door. According to the show’s title, the protagonist is Dawson. He is the ‘main character’ that the show is named after. But is he the protagonist? 

Let’s break down each of these characters into their stated goals and obstacles. It’s important to remember that their goals should be plainly stated – could you write them an “I Want” song? – and quantifiable – will the audience know for sure and certain when that want has been fulfilled? Their desire should be something tangible, not a general concept like ‘to find peace’ but something that everyone, including those outside of that character’s internal monologue, can tell when they’ve achieved it. The obstacles they face also should be directly in the path of that particular goal. 

Dawson Leery 

GOAL: 
To become a successful film director, a la Steven Spielberg. Stated early in season 1 and carries through the entire show.

OBSTACLES: 

  • Simply put – he has none. Dawson has ample time to make short films, support from friends and family, and enough money and equipment to fund his filmmaking dreams. In the pilot he is declined the chance to get into his high school film class, but he talks his teacher into letting him sit in on the class (and ends up becoming an active participant). His friends act in and produce his movies for him, mostly without protest, he wins multiple film festival awards throughout the seasons, and the show ends with him in Hollywood, making a successful TV series and getting a meeting with Spielberg. (There are, at times, implications that Dawson is not a particularly good filmmaker, but the show never commits to this idea; instead, those who diss his filmmaking efforts usually double back on their opinion and deliver unwarranted praise, or are painted as a villain for not believing in his artistic endeavors.)

Joey Potter

GOAL: Joey is unique in Dawson’s Creek in that even in season 1, she has not one but two clearly stated, tangible goals:

  1. To get out of Capeside and go to a good college. 
  2. To get Dawson to see her as romantically viable (not just his best friend).

OBSTACLES: 

To start with, we’ll focus on her obstacles for Goal 1: Escape from Capeside.

  • Lack of resources – Joey’s family is not wealthy, and she has to work at least one part-time job throughout her high school years (in season 3, she’s working before and after school, while still taking AP classes to get ahead). She needs to get good enough grades to earn a scholarship to college, because her family can’t afford to pay for her higher education, so she does as much extra credit as possible (see episode 1×10, amongst others). 
  • Lack of family support – her mom is deceased and her dad is incarcerated. She has a loving but contentious relationship with her older sister Bessie, who is her legal guardian. (Bessie herself is an unmarried mother with a “black boyfriend” – the show, particularly in season 1, places great emphasis on the word black, although they shy away from stories overtly about racism especially in relation to Bodie – and while he’s a great guy, he is mostly absent from the narrative.) This family obstacle is directly tied into her goal because Joey provides her sister with help in the family restaurant (S1-2) and B&B (S3-4) as well as childcare for her nephew (S1-4), making her plan to leave town something that would potentially make her sister’s life more difficult, and one she feels guilty about at times.
  • Class & reputation – Joey’s family is working class, and has a bad reputation around town (this is an idea hinted at early on that the show doesn’t particularly commit to, but she’s definitely from the ‘wrong/poor’ side of the creek, not to mention her father’s known drug dealing and infidelity.) This obstacle is directly tied into her desire to get into a top college so that she can move up the socio-economic ladder. She’s not simply satisfied with going to a state school to get her degree – she wants to prove, both to herself and the wider community, that she’s worthy of going to one of the best schools in the country. 

Obstacles in the path to Goal 2: Get Dawson to see her as more than a friend

  • Jen Lindley. The way the show pits Joey and Jen against each other is a disappointment throughout the series run, but it’s particularly evident in season 1, when Jen and Dawson are dating. Joey is extremely jealous and caustic towards Jen. After Jen and Dawson break up, Joey and Jen almost become friends, but the writers don’t know what to do without a love triangle, so they steered Jen back towards wanting Dawson again almost immediately, which continues this antagonistic relationship between the two girls. 
  • Dawson is an idiot. He simply cannot see what’s in front of his face. 
  • Joey also gets in her own way here with her fear that if something romantic does happen between her and Dawson, it will ruin their friendship, aka the only stability she feels in her life. So she’s emotionally torn between her desire for him, and her need for that stability. This is something that comes up again and again in relation to Joey and Dawson, but it becomes less convincing every time as we’ve seen Joey clearly grow up and move past the need for the security of Dawson’s friendship.

Personally, I don’t think this goal is particularly compelling, especially since almost as soon as she gets Dawson, Joey seems to decide she doesn’t want him anymore (fair). But it’s worth mentioning because her entire arc of season 1 is focused on trying to get Dawson to see her as something other than his best friend. Her emotional breakdown at the end of 1×07 spells this out to everyone except Dawson (see above, bullet point 2). The show thinks it’s asking “Which girl will Dawson choose?” in S1, but since he doesn’t even realise that he likes Joey until the penultimate episode of the season, it’s clearly her story arc, not his. Also, when he does discover his feelings for Joey in 1×12, she rejects him, redirecting the narrative back into her corner.

Pacey Witter

GOALS: In season 1, Pacey wants to have sex. He succeeds in this goal within a couple of episodes, although the whole thing is icky because he has sex with his much older teacher, a terrible storyline that thankfully gets wrapped up quickly (1×01-1×06). Beyond that, Pacey’s goals are arbitrary. One could argue that his ultimate goal is to find love, but I don’t think that’s something he is searching for in black and white terms, and it’s not something he states outright that he wants. We know that Dawson wants to make movies, that Joey wants to go to college – Pacey starts the show strictly in sidekick territory. It’s also not a tangible goal – love isn’t a permanent state, and while Pacey’s overall arc in the show is to learn to love himself, it takes him until the series finale to get there, and even then feels like an afterthought in service of Joey’s plotline. 

Pacey does have a few goals, but most of them end up being in service of others – he wants to ‘save’ Andie (which he fails at, not that he could ever actually succeed as it’s not up to him to save her, something the show thankfully realised on its own) – he wants to be with/love/support Joey, which he does, but at the expense of his own happiness by the end of S4 – he wants to be successful and make money in S6, but that’s a storyline that only appears in that season and is one he ultimately fails at. Pacey is rarely allowed to succeed at anything. His most compelling goal, in my opinion, is simply to rebuild True Love and sail her down to the Florida Keys. This is something he wants for himself, and that he achieves. It occurs only in season 3, is not built up to in S1-2 nor mentioned again in S4-6 except in passing (in 4×22 we get the line “If I were lucky enough to own a sailboat again…” but that isn’t really about wanting to have another boat, it’s more about affirming a possible future relationship with Joey).

OBSTACLES: 

Despite his lack of tangible, quantifiable goals (especially early on in the show), Pacey has a ton of obstacles. 

  • Unsupportive family – Pacey has a very unhappy home life, with an abusive alcoholic father who tells him that he’ll never be any good at anything, and an unsupportive, disinterested mother. Pacey’s home life is expanded on a little in later seasons, but we don’t meet his mother or see inside his house until 4×12, by which point he’s ostensibly the show’s romantic lead. His older brother Doug pulls a gun on him in 1×05, and Pacey barely flinches in response, indicating that “he does this stuff all the time”. While the Pacey/Doug relationship changes over the seasons, it’s always a little contentious and they’re never really friends. Pacey does have a good relationship with his sister Gretchen, but she doesn’t appear until season 4, and never returns in S5-6. She also dates Dawson, who by that point is Pacey’s ex-best friend/borderline nemesis, which complicates things somewhat. 
  • Sexual abuse – in season 1, Pacey is easily manipulated by his teacher into having a sexual relationship with her. (Sure, he starts out being the one trying to seduce her, but he’s fifteen and she’s in her mid-thirties. The fact that it ends up happening is not his fault, she’s the adult in this scenario.) His trauma around this is never explored in the show, except to be used as a punchline.
  • Lack of support from his friends – Pacey’s supposed best friend is Dawson, but Dawson is not a very good friend to him for the most part, and that friendship falls apart when Pacey and Joey begin a relationship. Joey is not very friendly to him either for the most part in S1-2. Pacey isn’t really allowed to have any meaningful friendships outside of romantic relationships (he’s friends with Jen and Jack, but there is never any emphasis placed on these) and when Dawson says that Pacey will end up “friendless and alone” the show genuinely means it. (Inexplicably, since Pacey is a great friend to everyone and Dawson is a terrible friend, but the narrative insists that the show revolves around Dawson, who deserves zero friends.)
  • Poor grades in school – Pacey is smart but unmotivated in the classroom, which culminates in him barely graduating high school. He gets support from Andie (S2), and encouragement from Joey (S4), but his grades are not important to him, except that his failures exacerbate his lack of self-belief. 
  • Lack of self-belief – due to all of the above, Pacey suffers from low self-esteem, a lack of self belief, and depression in season 4. This is an obstacle that ultimately derails his relationship with Joey (S4). 

Jen Lindley

GOALS: Nothing tangible. Ever. What does Jen want from life? Where does she want to live? What does she even study in college? Nobody knows. One could argue that Jen wants to belong and feel accepted, but again that’s not really a tangible goal, and she never really achieves it. She acknowledges this ongoing lack in her final speech in the finale, prior to her untimely death. Jen’s entire story is a tragedy.  

OBSTACLES: 

  • Lack of family support – from her parents, who kicked her out for being ‘slutty’ and because she knew something her father didn’t want her to tell anyone (although she does eventually have a loving relationship with her Grams, this takes its time to develop and isn’t a stable relationship until season 3 onwards). 
  • Lack of self-esteem – this fluctuates wildly between episodes, let alone between seasons. Jen never, ever, has a satisfying romantic relationship, and ends the show as a single mother who essentially dies of a sudden heart stripe. (One could argue she is happy in her brief S5 relationship with Dawson, but a) I refuse to believe Dawson could make any woman happy, and b) she breaks up with him for a completely arbitrary reason, leading me to believe a) to be true.)
  • Bad reputation – Jen comes into the story as a ‘fallen woman/broken bird’ who has been living a wild life in NYC, and this reputation follows her to Capeside (and throughout her life, apparently). She wants to have a relationship with Dawson (presumably in an attempt to feel normal?) but her ‘wild’ past quickly derails their relationship when Dawson finds out she’s not a virgin, panics, slut shames her and then breaks up with her. Even though Jen has arguably less sex in the entire show than any of the other female characters, she’s still considered by the narrative to be the ‘slutty’ one, and is forever haunted by her past.
  • Trauma – Jen reveals that she lost her virginity to an older man as a drunken 12 year old. This is portrayed by the show as evidence of her wild ways, not as Jen being the victim of rape and sexual assualt. Jen eventually goes to therapy, but right when she starts to unpack her past, she quits therapy entirely, a decision the show seems to be fine with.
  • Depression / suicidal ideation – this is a storyline that pops up at least twice for Jen, once in season 2 during the Ice House fire, and once in season 4 on the prom boat (can’t blame her for that one, I’d have thrown myself off that boat too). Both of these moments are brushed past and never mentioned again, but are clear markers towards Jen’s depressive state.

I haven’t mentioned the other main characters here – Andie, Jack and Audrey – but the only one of them who really has a tangible goal is Andie (to get into Harvard). She also has obstacles (her mental health struggles, her family problems) but the show lost interest in her when they lacked a love interest for her in season 3, so wrote her out in season 4. Jack and Audrey have plenty of obstacles (Jack especially, although nearly all of his revolve around his sexuality), but neither have a clear achievable goal that they are working towards in the show, so I haven’t included them here.

I think what this breakdown shows us is that Joey is the show’s true protagonist. She is the one with clear, achievable goals, and with obstacles standing directly between her and those goals. From the pilot, we know that Joey wants Dawson to see her as romantically viable, and ultimately to escape from Capeside. She achieves the first goal at the end of season 1, providing a satisfying conclusion to her story arc (although arguably it works a little too well for her since he becomes jealous and obsessed with her from S2 onwards). She achieves the second goal twice, first at the end of season 3, when she sails away for the summer with Pacey, then again at the end of season 4, when we find out she got into Worthington, and will be moving to Boston in the fall. 

At the start of season 5, a new showrunner took over the show. It becomes clear when looking at those two seasons, that the show had realised that Joey was indeed the true protagonist – seasons 5 and 6 are very Joey-centric, and Katie Holmes was the only actor to appear in every episode of the show’s 128 episode run, including one season 5 episode in which she is the only main cast member to appear (5×15). Unfortunately, at the same time as the show came to accept this fact, it failed to realise why Joey had become the protagonist in the first place. Not only that, it went on to strip her of all of her goals and obstacles. 

You see, by season 5, Joey had achieved her number one goal, the one she’d stated outright from the start of the show. She was out of Capeside and at a good college. She had overcome her obstacles and achieved her dream. Yay Joey! So…now what? That’s clearly a question the new showrunner never asked themselves. Because in seasons 5 and 6, Joey has no clear goals whatsoever. She doesn’t even have a romantic goal like she did in season 3, instead fluctuating between a series of meaningless relationships with men she doesn’t seem to like very much. Not only that, all of her obstacles have vanished. 

Lack of finances seem to no longer be a problem as she wears an ever increasing array of designer clothes (Jen even makes a comment in S6 about how many coats Joey has).  In season 5, Joey gets mugged at gunpoint and robbed of her savings, but this doesn’t seem to have any effect on her storyline going forward (financially or emotionally). She does get a part-time job in season 6, but it barely seems to cramp her style or affect her grades. Her few academic failings are nearly all due to a series of unprofessional professors behaving badly, and every boy she meets falls in love with her, regardless of how she feels about them. She barely seems to remember her family back in Capeside, and all visits back there are fleeting. When she returns for Mitch’s funeral, his death is less about her loss of a father figure and more about her desire to allay Dawson’s grief. We get something of an attempted resolution to her own father’s storyline when he unexpectedly returns in 6×10 – which we don’t get any build up to, he’s just suddenly back for one episode, then he’s gone again – but we don’t get to find out how Joey feels about his return. We don’t see their initial reunion – the episode implies her father has been out of prison for a while, and she’s completely laissez faire about it. What? Huh? The laziness of the writing in S6 is unbelievable. (And that episode was written by Tom Kapinos, the S5-6 showrunner, which tells you everything you need to know about those two seasons.) 

Worse, season 5/6 Joey lost nearly all of the snark and sass that made us love her so much in the first place. Katie Holmes’ ability to go from scowling to intensely vulnerable and back again in the blink of an eye is surely what got her the role, and the way that Joey’s sass was toned down in later seasons (or used only for brief moments of comic relief) should be a crime.

But wait. Hold on. There was one more thing that Joey wanted – to go to France. Does that still count as a goal? Let’s discuss. 

Back in season 1, Joey had the chance to go to Paris on student exchange for a semester, but turned it down in favour of staying with Dawson.

This goal is almost never mentioned again until the end of season 5, when Joey is chasing after Dawson at the airport. She has to buy a plane ticket to get through security, so she whips out her credit card and buys a ticket to France. But in the season 6 opener, it’s revealed that she didn’t go. Instead, she spent the summer in Capeside, waiting tables at the yacht club and having nameless boys fall desperately in love with her, only for her to reject them out of hand. (Because of course she did.)

The ‘Joey wants to go to France storyline reappears again very late in season 6 when her boyfriend Eddie plans a trip around Europe for them both, but again, she doesn’t go, because she’s a realist who figures they can’t afford it (which, fair – also Eddie is a nightmare and would be the worst travel companion ever). Eventually, Joey ends season 6 by going to France by herself in 6×22, which would’ve been the series finale if not for the return of Kevin Williamson to shoot the ‘five years later’ grand finale.

While this is a nice resolution for a storyline that was started in season 1, it falls flat for two reasons. One, because Joey only ever sporadically talked about going to France, and the obstacles sitting between her achieving that goal were simply ‘because money’, which doesn’t seem to hinder her in any other way at any other time in S5/6, and two, because the show had just resurrected their most meaningful and interesting storyline – Joey and Pacey’s relationship / the love triangle – and then tried to tell us that the ultimate resolution of Joey’s story was “I choose neither boy”. Which could’ve been okay if the show’s beating heart didn’t revolve almost entirely around that love triangle, and if one of those boys wasn’t so obviously perfect for her and the other wasn’t such an enormous tool, leading the love triangle to read as meaningless because almost nobody wanted her to choose Dawson. (The way the show broke Joey and Pacey up the second time was so ridiculous that Katie Holmes couldn’t even look Josh Jackson in the eye while she delivered her lines. The fact that the scene is still heartbreaking is testament to their acting abilities and unparalleled chemistry, which the show repeatedly squandered.) 

Which brings us to the show’s true storyline – the love ballad of Pacey and Joey. From the pilot, where they’re bickering relentlessly; to 1×10, where Pacey realises he’s attracted to Joey and kisses her (only to be rebuffed); to season 3, where they develop a friendship that turns into something more; through season 4, where their relationship is badly written but still compelling due to the aforementioned chemistry; to the worst breakup episode ever (4×20) followed by the saddest post-breakup episode ever (4×21); to a season and a half of relationship amnesia where the new showrunner tried to pretend P/Jo meant nothing and D/Jo was still on the table; to the high point of S6 when those two crazy kids got back together for a few glorious episodes (6×14-6×18), all the way to the resolution of their storyline in the finale when they finally end up together and get their happily ever after. 

The show was supposed to be about the epic love story of Dawson and Joey, but it became the truly epic love story of Joey and Pacey. Even the show’s creator and originally D/Jo shipper, Kevin Williamson, realised that. It was the Pacey/Joey storyline in season 3 that revived the show’s lagging ratings. It was the love triangle between Joey, Pacey and Dawson – the love triangle which Joey, our protagonist, was at the centre of – that made the back half of season 3 so compelling to watch. As Pacey pointed out to Joey in 3×19, ultimately, it’s not about how he feels, or how Dawson feels, it’s about how Joey feels. As the promos went on to tell the audience relentlessly from that point onwards, it was her choice that “changed everything”. 

She was the one who drove the story forward. She was the one with clearly defined aspirations. She is the one we cheered for when she achieved them, despite all the obstacles the show threw into her path. 

Joey Potter is the true protagonist of Dawson’s Creek. 

Review · Thoughts

Rein It In – a review of ‘Free Rein’

Disclaimer: I wrote this review shortly after season 1 of Netflix’s Free Rein was first released. (I have not watched seasons 2 or 3.) I don’t remember much about what happened in the show, but I found this review on my laptop and thought I’d post it for a laugh. My opinions are my own and feel free to disagree. 

REINING IT IN: Netflix goes all in with the equestrian cliches

The recent release of Netflix’s new series Free Rein was a masterclass in equestrian fiction clichés. The tropes were all there – inexperienced girl tames wild horse that nobody else can get near (in this case by raising her arms and crying “Hey! Shhhhh!”), snobby rich girl treats her horses about as well as her parents treat her, overworked yard manager loses the plot, mother refuses to let daughter ride because of a traumatic experience in her own past, the hotshot male rider that all the girls are in love with, the shy stablehand that only our protagonist appreciates, the horse-crazy best friends, the nasty horse thieves, etc, etc…

Her friends were fun, even if they confused me when they first turned up, because although Becky actually looked like a teenager, the other one (I forget her name) appeared to be close to thirty, and it took me a while to get my head around the fact that they were supposed to be teens. Much like, I presume, our protagonist Zoe.

This main character was fawned over by the two requisite male leads – the “hot” stable star Marcus, who fluctuated during the show between being an instructor and one of the pupils, and surly stablehand Pin, who would have been a far more likeable character if he hadn’t insisted on being a complete a-hole to Zoe more than ninety percent of the time.

The guy who played Marcus had clearly offended the wardrobe department, as he appeared onscreen looking like a walking Ken doll, complete with garish shirt, excessive hair gel and far too much pink lipstick. Pin, at least by contrast, resembled an actual human being, albeit a slightly vampiric one with sunken cheeks and a suspicious squint.

Pin was a character that I was predisposed to like, because the misunderstood young man with the impoverished background is a character that I always have a soft spot for. There were times when he reminded me of Jonty (from my Pony Jumpers series), but neither Jonty, nor any character that I would ever write as any kind of potential love interest, would be as much of a jerk as Pin was to Zoe. There’s misunderstood and surly, and then there’s just being a dick. He had his redeeming moments later on, but for the first few episodes, every interaction he had with Zoe was unnecessarily rude, and I couldn’t work out why she even kept going back to talk to him. The only real explanation given was a throwaway reference to his cheekbones, but listen up girls – a boy’s good looks are not enough reason to pursue him when he insists on treating you like crap. We need to stop perpetuating that old trope.

On the upside, there were things to like. Aside from the guilty pleasure of the whole experience, Charlotte Dujardin’s guest appearance was a nice touch, and there was some equine eye candy to be had. The riding itself was pretty borderline – is it that hard to cast people who can act and ride? I didn’t need everyone to be Olympians, but if someone is supposed to have a special ‘way with horses’ then perhaps they should ride as though they’ve had more than ten lessons in their life.

The sick moor pony would have been well and truly dead, given that it appeared to spend literally weeks lying flat on its side. Horses are not designed to lie down for long periods of time as it crushes their internal organs. That’s why they sleep standing up, most of the time, and why horses with broken legs who are rehabilitated will often be put in a sling. Unless it was crippled with laminitis or some other hoof issue, it should have been standing. Miraculous how it leapt to its feet at the end though, right on cue. Marvellous.

Okay, let’s talk about the tack for a moment. What was up with all those pelhams with single curb reins? Haven’t they heard of forked reins or roundings? I cringed for the horses on numerous occasions, and it sets a dangerous precedent for young riders who may think that is the correct way to use a pelham. I did appreciate the nod to safety that made sure riders always wore helmets, although the notion that Zoe was wearing her mother’s old helmet (“how vintage”, as one of the snobby girls commented) was stupidly unsafe. Replace your helmet at least every five years, or after a bad fall, people. Head injuries are no fun.

Mia was your classic snobby rich girl with next to no endearing qualities, and an “explanation” for her behavior which was as simple as “Daddy won’t pay much attention to me so I shall be horrid to everyone I meet.” I’m not saying girls like that don’t exist, but generally they are less one-dimensional and obnoxious, particularly to their only friend. It would’ve at least carried more credibility if Mia had been nice to her bestie, but she treated her like a slave, and her best friend just took the abuse on the chin, over and over with about as much spine as a wet dishrag. Of course, at the very end the friend showed “character development” by abruptly changing her mind and ditching Mia, but at that point it was totally out of character and there is a high chance that they will be back in their same roles next season.

I’m not even going to get into the fashion, which looked like they robbed it off a TV show made in the mid-90s – surely nobody actually wears that many sequins in the real world? The whole show was relentlessly bright, and I’m not just talking about the lipstick. (Though I was intrigued to see that the boys wore twice as much lipstick as the girls. They must have been more diligent about reapplying it.)

The ‘twist’ at the end regarding Sam, the stable manager, was pretty weak. Sure, nobody saw it coming, but that’s because it didn’t make sense.

They put up cameras to track Pin’s movements, videoing the horses’ stalls and the stable yard, but nobody thought to check those cameras after Firefly was stolen? Then they went to the effort of spending thousands of pounds installing CCTV?

And as usual in horse features, the horses whinnied far more than any actual horse ever does.

Some of the stupidest moments:

  • Bob being ‘entertained’ by watching a slideshow of horses on the iPad (if that worked, no-one would’ve had to invent Likits).
  • Basically every second that Zoe spent ‘taming’ Raven.
  • The fact that thieves were stupid enough to ‘mistake’ a fleabitten grey for the jet black horse they were meant to be stealing.
  • Anything to do with the Ghost Pony – although Becky’s enthusiasm was mostly endearing, the fact that she supposedly genuinely believed in it strained credulity.
  • The girls being so excited to have crisps at their sleepover and then opening the packets and throwing the crisps into the air – firstly, don’t get crisps in the hay, you’ll attract rats and mice, and secondly, if you’re that excited about having crisps, eat them!
  • Pin stealing sedatives to sedate a pony that was supposedly so sick it couldn’t stand up anyway – unless he completely overdid the sedative and temporarily paralysed it, which frankly was entirely possible.
  • The party decorations for the barn dance. Sure, that was Rosie’s doing, but it was ridiculous. Where did they get fake palm trees from on their tiny little British island?
  • The fact that Zoe got named as Reserve for the show jumping team on Raven, despite the fact that a) she didn’t try out; b) she’d only ever jumped one crossrail before, on a different horse, and without permission; and most importantly, c) she’d never jumped Raven – in fact we don’t know that he has ever jumped as he appeared to be completely unbroken until she started riding him – and the one time she had ridden him, he’d bolted on her and thrown her off (well to be fair to Raven, he halted and tossed his head and she tumbled off, but the story goes that she was thrown).
  • And, of course, the entire ending. We all saw that ending coming, right? Anyone who has ever read a pony book in their life knew they would eventually discover that Raven was a valuable racehorse, even though he’s clearly not a Thoroughbred. Not to mention how easily everyone believed the woman who “owned” him, and just handed him over to her. What about Mia, who supposedly actually owned the horse? What about her father, who paid Pin’s dad good money for the horse? And then boarded him at a yard for a year without the horse getting any training whatsoever, because everyone there was afraid of him? Which begs the question – if Pin’s family picked Raven up as a foal, then sold him to Mia a year ago, even if the horse was only a four year old (which is implied when his “owner” turns up and says he went missing four years ago) they had three years to get that horse safe and sane to handle. So why was the horse such a psycho? Are Pin and Ted really that bad with horses? (Moor pony says “Do you really have to ask?”)

In the interest of balance, here are the best bits:

  • Ben, Becky’s little brother. Cute kid, solid acting, and didn’t get enough screen time to do anything too ridiculous.
  • Rosie, Zoe’s little sister. One of the best actors in the show, somehow pulling off the ten-year-old Valley Girl character believably (a genuine feat).
  • Bob all dressed up for the dressage competition (let’s ignore the fact that his dressage test basically consisted of him halting, shuffling backwards a couple of steps, and attempting a half pass at walk).

 

What did you think of Free Rein? Did you enjoy it? Am I right or wrong in my opinions? Leave a comment below!

lockdown · Thoughts

Life in Lockdown – Day 1

Well, here we are.

As of 11:59pm last night, New Zealand has officially gone into four weeks of full lockdown – or, as I prefer to think of it, box rest – to try and limit the spread of COVID-19 in our country. It’s an extreme and unprecedented measure in this time of great uncertainty, but it had to be done. It will take the country a long time to recover from the economical implications of a shut-down like this, but it would take us even longer to recover from devastating losses of human life, such as has been seen in other countries that failed to flatten the curve.

Personally, I am pleased, proud and relieved that our government has made this decision for the good of the people. Not everyone agrees with their plan, and there have been complaints and pushbacks, but for the most part, Aotearoa (New Zealand) is coming together and uniting to try and stop the spread of this virus. That seems to be the official word in New Zealand right now – Unite. The mantra that government has been sending out to the population is very simple – Be Kind. Stay Home. Save Lives. 

Currently in New Zealand, we have 205 confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 (probable means they are known to have been exposed to the virus, and are showing symptoms, but a test came back negative). So far, we have no deaths, and 22 people have recovered. But we are a country of 4.8 million people, and we only have 233 ICU beds scattered across the entire country. We cannot afford to let this get out of control, or tens of thousands of people could die.

So, we’re in lockdown, and I’m staying home. My work is considered non-essential – my day job is in graphic design and pre-press for a small family-owned commercial printer – so I’m off work for four weeks. Government subsidies means I still get paid during this time, and a silver lining to all this is that I no longer have any excuses for not getting book 11 finished, and the next one(s) started. I can’t go anywhere, except to the supermarket to get groceries, which I am hoping to only have to do a couple of times during lockdown. We haven’t been instructed not to ride our horses, but we have been asked to limit risky activities, to keep pressure off emergency services and medical personnel.

I live alone, from a human perspective, but have plenty of company from an animal perspective, living as I do with the following menagerie:

A dog named Steve

A cat named Gilbert

A horse called Ace

A pony called Austin

Two hens called Marilla and Mrs Lynde

A rooster known as Matthew Cuthbert

Eleven ewes, who go by the names of BB, Nosey, Panda Eyes, Sideburns, Flopsy, Snow White, Snowflake, Teenie, Nan, Granny and Socks.

(Full disclosure: They aren’t my sheep, so most of these aren’t really their names, but it gives me a way to refer to them in my head – and yes okay, out loud. Hey, I have to talk to someone!)

In order to try and stay sane, I’ve written myself a daily schedule, starting from when I get up and blocking out at least three hours a day for writing. I have three minutes of my 11am-12pm block left to finish this blog before lunch. After that, I’ll be outside for two hours, spending time with the animals, doing farm chores, and generally soaking up some of this late summer sun. There are a lot worse places to be locked down than on six acres in a small town in New Zealand, surrounded by animals, getting my hands dirty under a blue sky, and writing pony stories that I can, by the wonders of the internet, share with the rest of the world.

So sit tight, stay home, stay safe, and look after each other. We will get through this.

See you all on the other side.

 

Book Excerpt · Eleventh Hour · equestrian · New release · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek · writing

Sneak Peek – Pony Jumpers #11 – Eleventh Hour

CHAPTER 1
HELPING HANDS

A cold wind whipped across the winter-bare paddocks, tangling my hair around my face. I shivered, snugging my scarf up around my neck, and continued the short walk to the barn. I could hear Forbes banging his hoof against his stable door, impatiently demanding his breakfast.

As I unlatched the sliding doors and slipped inside, my dark bay pony laid his ears back at me and snarled up his nostrils, making his opinion of my lateness well and truly known. His bright chestnut stablemate, Skip, greeted me with a hopeful whinny and much friendlier expression. I smiled at them both, feeling my heart lift. I always felt at home in the barn, much more so than the large, glass-plated house that I’d just left behind. The barn was a comfort, drawing me in like an old friend, giving me a place where I felt like I always belonged. The combined smell of horses and hay and shavings and leather was the best perfume I could ever imagine, and I greeted the ponies warmly.

“Good morning to you, too.”

The dark bay pony banged on his door again, louder this time.

“All right, Forbes. You’re not going to die from hunger in the time it takes me to mix your feed,” I told him as I headed into the feed room.

The look he gave me made it clear that he didn’t believe me, and he continued to bang on about his hunger while I added soaked beet pulp to the feeds I’d prepared the night before, gave them a quick stir and took them out to the ponies. Forbes shoved his head into his bucket and started munching like a dying thing, while Skip politely stepped back and waited for me to put his bucket into his stable, then delicately began lipping it up.

I was stuffing a couple of biscuits of hay into the steamer when I heard another whinny from outside, followed by the yeehaw of a small but opinionated donkey. Forbes laid his ears back at the sound as he munched, and I rolled my eyes at his peevishness as I walked to the other end of the barn and let myself out the back door. My retired show jumping pony Buck and his best friend, Emily the miniature donkey, were waiting at their gate, ears pricked and eyes bright. The wind whistled past the barn as I carried their feed buckets out to them.

“Vet’s coming today,” I told Buck as he tucked into his breakfast. “Don’t worry, just for a check up. Just to make sure you’re in the best of health.”

I slid a hand under his cover and across his dark coat, thick and fluffy in this winter weather. Buck munched on, unfazed, and I left them to eat and went back into the barn, where I set to work removing stable rugs and bandages, then putting warm waterproof rugs and turnout boots onto both ponies.

Skip finished licking the last of the grain out of his bucket as I fastened the last strip of velcro around his neck, and reached around to nuzzle my face with his grain-encrusted muzzle.

“No need to share, thanks anyway,” I told him, pushing him affectionately away, then giving him a cuddle in case his feelings were hurt. Skip was a sensitive soul with a kind nature, but his feelings were easily bruised.

Forbes, on the other side of the aisle, was his polar opposite. He was snarky and opinionated, the kind of pony that, if he were human, would spend large portions of his day writing vitriolic comments on Twitter, just to get a rise out of people. I changed his rugs and put his boots on as well, taking a little more care over it as I dodged his attempts to nip me and his propensity to lash out with a hind leg when I put his back boots on.

“I know you don’t like the cotton wool treatment, but you have to deal with it,” I told him. “It’s par for the course around here, and you know it.”

Forbes wrinkled his nostrils at me as I slipped his halter on and led him out into the aisle, then retrieved Skip from his stable and led them both out into the wintry morning.

 

I was halfway through mucking out when Lesley arrived. She breezed into the barn with the casual confidence that I envied so much, her thick mane of auburn hair hanging down her back and veterinary kit in hand.

“Morning!”

“Hi.” I set down the pitchfork and stepped out into the aisle. “How are you?”

“A bit late,” she admitted. “Sorry, but my vet student called in sick this morning, so I’m already behind schedule.”

“Oh no. I hope she’s okay.”

“Probably just hung over,” Lesley said dismissively. “How that girl made it through four years of vet school is beyond me. Now, where’s my victim?”

I grabbed Buck’s halter from his peg and we went out together to see him. Buck’s dust allergy had caused breathing problems and recently forced him into early retirement. I held him while Lesley listened to his heart and lungs, took his temperature and checked him over thoroughly. We both knew that this check was simply a routine measure — I knew enough to be able to spot anything untoward — but it made Dad feel better to have Buck regularly looked at, and Lesley was always very thorough.

“He’s doing well,” she declared after recording his temperature in her notes. “Keeping him out of the barn is clearly working, and he’s coping well with the colder weather.”

“He’s happy,” I said, rubbing Buck’s forehead. “I’d wondered if he’d mind being retired, since he always seemed to love being ridden, but he’s happy as.”

“They usually are,” Lesley said with a wink. “Horses are far less ambitious than their riders.”

I smiled bashfully as I removed Buck’s halter. He didn’t move, staying with his head resting against my arm.

“He’s a sweet boy,” Lesley said. “You’re lucky to have him, and he’s lucky to have you.” She sighed, then looked down again at her tablet. “Right, onto the next one.”

“Do you have a busy day planned?” I asked her as Buck returned to his freshly steamed hay.

“Frantic. And now I have to do it alone. Unless…” She looked at me, eyebrows quirked. “You said you’re not doing anything today?”

“Um, no. Well, I have to exercise the ponies, but other than that…”

“Wanna come with me and help out? It won’t be anything complicated, just holding horses, handing me bandages, that sort of thing, but since you’re mad enough to want a career doing this, you might as well tag along. If you’re up for it.”

I grinned at the vet. “Absolutely!”

 

We’d seen our first case of the day, a horse with a cut heel that needed its wound dressed, and were on our way to the second when Lesley abruptly slowed the ute and swung it into a driveway almost obscured by trees.

“Sorry,” she said lightly as I was flung sideways in my seat by her sudden change of direction. “I just remembered that I promised I’d drop in on Faye this weekend, and since we’re going past…”

We bumped along a narrow, pot-holed driveway, and I gritted my teeth against the ute’s lack of suspension. Tall trees on both sides cast a dark shadow overhead, and we turned a corner and arrived in the middle of a dilapidated yard. A long, low brick building with barred windows and a door at one end squatted in front of large slab of cracked concrete, and a shabby cottage with weed-filled flowerbeds lurked on the opposite side. Lesley parked the ute as a cacophony of barking started up from the brick building, which sounded as if it was filled with dogs.

“What are we here to—” I started to ask, then saw the thinnest, most miserable horse I’d ever seen in my life. Her hips and ribs protruded starkly through her dappled grey coat, her spine was clearly visible along the ridge of her back, and her dark mane couldn’t hide the painful thinness of her neck. She stood in a tiny, muddy paddock with more weeds than grass, her head down as she munched slowly at the meagre rations. “Oh my god!”

“Bit of mess, isn’t she?” Lesley agreed, opening her door and jumping out of the ute. I followed suit, and walked around to the front of the vehicle to stare at the unhappy horse. She lifted her head and watched us, pieces of grass falling from her lips as she chewed.

“What is this place?” I asked, looking around in disbelief.

“Animal rescue. Faye has dogs mostly, but she’s somehow ended up with this mare, too.” Lesley gave a rueful smile. “She’s obviously not set up for horses, but this is what comes of an utter inability to say no to people. Her heart’s in the right place, though, and she does her best. I do what I can to help her.”

I walked closer to the fence and the mare raised her head warily. Her chewing stopped.

“Where did the horse come from?”

“No idea, to be honest. You’d have to ask Faye.” She looked around, then her expression brightened. “And here she is.”

I turned to see a stoutly-built woman with wispy grey hair and mud-encrusted gumboots trudging towards us.

“Morning!”

She clasped Lesley’s hand warmly, then turned to me with a smile. Her face was weatherworn, with prominent crow’s feet around her brown eyes, but the warmth in her expression was genuine, and I found myself smiling back as I shook her head.

“This is Susannah, she’s helping me out today,” Lesley introduced me. “We don’t have long, because we’re supposed to be at our next appointment ten minutes ago, but we were coming past so I thought I’d pop in. How’s she doing?”

“Better, I think.” Faye frowned as she considered the mare. “She’s still terribly thin, of course, but you said not to feed her too much.”

Her expression was worried as she returned it to Lesley, and I could tell that she was anxious about doing the right thing.

“Slow and steady is the key with rehabs,” Lesley confirmed. “In her condition, if she gets too much feed at once, she’s at high risk of colicking, and that’s the last thing we want. But she’s at the stage now when you can give her as much hay as she’ll reasonably eat.”

Faye looked perplexed. “I meant to ask you about that. I’ve got a couple of bales left, but hay is hard to come by, and everyone else I’ve talked to wants an obscene amount of money for it.” She opened her hands in a helpless shrug. “Fifteen dollars a bale can’t be right, can it?”

“We had a drought over summer,” Lesley reminded her. “Good hay is expensive this year, but whatever you can get is better than nothing, as long as it’s not mouldy or stale.” She patted Faye’s shoulder reassuringly. “I’ll see if I can track some more down for you. Have you had any luck catching the horse?”

Faye shook her head. “I’ve tried, but she won’t come near me. Not even for carrots. I ended up throwing them out into the paddock, but she seemed to have trouble eating them.”

“Probably needs her teeth done,” I said, and Lesley nodded.

“And her hooves trimmed,” she added, and I looked at the mare’s feet and winced. “They’re starting to split, and they’ll cause her some serious issues if those cracks get too wide. We can sedate her for that if necessary. I’ll give Barry a call, see if I can tee something up with him during the week.”

Faye smiled gratefully. “I really appreciate you taking such an interest,” she said happily. “I wouldn’t know what to do without your help.”

“You need to find someone else to take her on,” Lesley said matter-of-factly. “You’re not set up for horses here, and you’ve already got your hands full with the dogs.”

“I know, but how would I know that whoever took her would take proper care of her?” Faye sighed, rubbing her hands on her dirty cargo pants. “Well, I suppose I’ll keep trying, and keep you posted if I have any luck.”

Lesley glanced at her watch. “Tell you what, why don’t I come and see how Sprocket’s getting on after his surgery, while Susannah has a go at handling your mare.”

“Uh…” I wasn’t sure how good my chances were, but I couldn’t say no without trying. “I guess I could attempt it.”

There was a tattered halter and lead hanging on the gate, and I let myself into the paddock while Lesley followed Faye towards the brick building to see the dogs. When the barking doubled in volume, I knew they’d gone inside, and that the grey mare and I were alone.

My boots sank into the gluggy mud in the gateway as I hitched the gate shut. The horse watched me suspiciously as I walked in her direction, but waited until I was a few metres away before turning around and walking into the far corner of the small paddock.

“Hey, girl. Come on, now. Let us help you. We both know could use it.”

I spoke softly to her as I approached on an angle, knowing better than to walk towards her head on. The mare kept a close eye on me, stepping away as soon as I breached the large personal bubble she had around herself.

I stopped, and so did she.

I stepped forward, and after a moment, she did too.

We moved in a slow dance, a step at a time, while time seemed to stand still around us. Slowly, gradually, the distance between us decreased until I was close enough to reach out and touch her. I moved carefully, slowly extending my arm to brush my fingers against her thin neck. The mare flinched away from my touch, tripping on her overgrown hooves. She was standing against the fence, and I didn’t want to put too much pressure on her in case she panicked and ran into or through it. So I lowered my hand and stepped back, waiting for her to relax a little before I moved closer again. This time she stood still, and I was able to run a hand down her thin neck.

But the moment I lifted a hand to the lead rope over my shoulder, she burst past me in a flurry of speed, almost knocking me down in her desperate panic to escape. I watched her stumbling across the uneven ground, and a desperation to help filled me.

“You have to let someone help you,” I told the horse. “You can’t do this by yourself.”

Once she’d stopped moving, I began the process over again. This time, when I reached her side, I managed to slip the rope over her neck without her running away. But when I tried to lift the halter up to her face, she half-reared and pulled away. I barely kept hold of the lead rope around her neck, and had to drop the halter on the ground. It took me several minutes to calm her enough to let me touch her again, but she eventually relented, allowing me to run my hand down her narrow scabby face.

“You poor, poor girl,” I said sympathetically. “How could anyone let this happen to you?”

I looked up to see Lesley and Faye exiting the dog building. I tried to lead the grey mare towards the gate, but as soon as she felt pressure on the rope around her neck, she baulked, almost pulling the lead rope out of my hand. .

“It’s okay.” I held a hand out to her, and she blew warm breath over my skin. “Come on, let’s go see what Lesley can do for you.”

I started forward again, applying only the gentlest pressure to the rope around the base of the mare’s neck, and this time she followed me. The loosely knotted rope around her neck didn’t give me much control over her movement, but it was better than nothing.

Lesley met me at the gate with an approving nod. “Nice work.”

“I couldn’t get near her with the halter,” I explained as she came into the paddock. “But hopefully this will do.”

“We’ll manage,” Lesley agreed.

Faye was more effusive with her praise. “You’ve really got a way with horses,” she gushed. “I haven’t been able to get that close to her since she arrived! How on earth did you do it?”

I shrugged. “Just lucky, I guess.”

Lesley was running her latex-gloved hand across the mare’s back, which was covered in scabs and bare patches of skin.

“You know what this is?” she asked me, and I nodded.

“Rain scald.”

“That’s the one.” She picked off a few scabs, and tufts of hair came out with it. “Is that a  fungal or bacterial condition?”

“Um.” I bit the inside of my cheek, thinking. “I don’t know. Bacterial?”

“Trick question. It’s both,” Lesley said with a grin. “It’s not the end of the world, but it’s pretty unsightly and it won’t be too comfortable for her. Treatment?”

“Antiseptic wash and keep it as dry as possible?”

“Yep. But I suspect — woah there, good girl — that she won’t love the idea of being scrubbed down. She’s barely tolerating this as it is,” Lesley said, stepping back to allow the mare to relax again. “But I’ve got a good topical spray that’ll help clear it up. I’ll drop some round in the next day or so, and rustle up a rug that’ll fit her. One that’s waterproof. That’s very important, because if moisture gets in under the rug, it’ll only make matters worse. Assuming, of course, that she’ll let you put one on.”

She looked at Faye, who shrugged. “I can try, if you’ll show me how.”

“Hmm. Might need to get her haltered first,” Lesley said. She glanced at her watch, and winced. “We really have to go. We’re half an hour late now, and even I can’t drive fast enough to make up that much time.”

Faye thanked her effusively as I gave the mare’s thin neck one final stroke, then untied the lead rope from around her neck. As soon as she was freed, the mare turned around and trotted in her ungainly way across the paddock, determined to get away from us.

It started to rain, a light misty sort of rain that wafted across the yard in sheets. I turned my collar up against it and stood with my back to the weather. The mare did the same, ducking her head down, and I watched the dampness settle onto her scabby coat.

“Oh, I almost forgot that cream for Caesar,” Lesley said as we headed back to the ute. “It’s in here somewhere, I’m sure of it.” She rummaged around in the back, then pulled out a tube of cream and another pair of latex gloves. “Let’s do this, shall we?”

The moment we stepped inside the long, low brick building, the barking started up again.

“Noisy beggars, aren’t they?” Faye said fondly as she led us down a narrow aisle between two rows of dog enclosures.

Each one contained at least one dog, some tattered bedding and toys, and empty food bowls. The smell was nothing like the warm, comforting smell of a horse barn, and the loud barking couldn’t compare to the warm nickering of a horse – although Forbes’ ear-splitting whinnies would give some of the dogs a run for their money.

I walked behind the two women, glancing through the chainlink fences into each enclosure that we passed. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes — small yappy ones, big floofy ones, hyperactive ones flinging themselves at the cage doors, shy ones who sat on their blankets at the back of their pens and watched us suspiciously with their ears and tails lowered. Faye stopped at the far end of the building, and I gasped at the sight of the saddest and meanest-looking dog I’d ever seen.

“Stay back,” she cautioned us as the dog let out a low, threatening growl.

“What happened to him?”

Caesar was a short, stocky pitbull. His white coat was covered in scars and scrapes, and he had patches of hair missing. His skin was mottled pink underneath, and one of his eyes had a pale film over it. His ears were so tattered as to be almost non-existent.

“He was part of a gang-affiliated dog fighting ring,” Faye explained. “The police found out about it and shut it down. They had to put most of the poor dogs down, but one of the cops is a friend of mine, and he took pity on this one. Thought he might be able to be saved.” She sighed as she crouched down next to the enclosure, and the dog tentatively approached, then sniffed her hand through the fence. “He deserves a second chance. He’s had a miserable life, but he’s only a pup, really.”

I stared at Caesar, torn between feeling bad for him and hoping he wasn’t going to bite her hand off.

“I hope you can get through to him,” I said finally.

“So do I,” Faye said. “I’m hopeful that he’ll come around. But he’ll be staying here, no matter what. It’s always too dangerous to re-home a dog like him, not least because sometimes the gangs find out where they are and come back for them. I can’t let someone else’s family take that risk.”

A shiver ran down my spine at her words. “Aren’t you worried about them coming here?”

Faye shrugged as she slowly stood up. “What else can I do?” she asked. “Who else is going to take him?”

The personal risks that she took to do what she did hadn’t occurred to me before, and I was overcome with a feeling of admiration for her. She was an older woman, living alone in a small cottage on the outskirts of town, with no neighbours to speak of. Yet she put her own safety and security on the line for the sake of one dog.

“I’d be terrified,” I confessed.

“Well, if we didn’t do things that scared us, nobody would ever get anything done,” Faye replied matter-of-factly. “You ready, Lesley?”

I stood back and watched as the two women entered the dog’s enclosure. He growled, low in his throat, but they stayed calm and moved carefully, taking their time. Faye held the dog while Lesley applied the cream to his mangy coat, speaking softly to him the whole time. It only took a few minutes, and once he was released, Caesar retreated to the corner of his pen and plopped down onto an old foam mattress.

“I’m pleased with that,” Lesley declared, pulling off her gloves. “He should make it through the physical issues. The emotional scars, well…” She shrugged. “That’s anyone’s guess.”

Faye smiled sadly. “That’s always the real obstacle,” she told me. “We can heal the outside. It’s going to take a lot of time, energy and love to heal the internal wounds.”

“He’s lucky to have you,” Lesley told her sincerely. “Not many others would give him a chance.”

Faye sighed. “That’s my bleeding heart — always getting me into trouble.”

Lesley reached out and gave her a hug. “You’re my hero,” she told the older woman. “Give me a call if you need anything.”

“You’re an angel,” Faye replied. “I don’t know what I’d do without you.”

As we walked back down the aisle between the rows of caged dogs, my footsteps slowed. I looked in through the bars, peering at their faces, wondering what their stories were and how they’d ended up there. Each one had their name written in chalk on the wall by their door. Dodger, a black and white collie, lying on his bed with sad eyes. Jed, a big black and tan Huntaway, pressing himself up against the wire mesh. Sprocket, a wire-haired terrier that yapped and flung himself at the front of his cage, desperate to attract our attention. I felt their longing, their desperation to be loved and wanted. I wanted to take them all home, but there was no chance. Dad didn’t like animals in the house, and Mum was allergic. I just hoped that one day, they would all find a family that would love and deserve them.

We said goodbye to Faye and walked back to the ute. The grey mare stood in her paddock, watching us go.

“What’s going to happen to that horse?”

Lesley shrugged as she started the engine. “Hopefully Faye’ll find someone to rehome her, and soon. She’s not going to be cheap to rehab, and Faye isn’t exactly rolling in money.” She looked at me as she backed out and turned around. “I don’t suppose you’re in the market for another one?”

I shook my head. “Dad won’t spend money on anything that hasn’t already won several national titles and is guaranteed to land me in the prizes from day one. I don’t think I could convince him to let me bring home a scabby frightened Thoroughbred.”

“Not even as a project? Faye would give her to you for nothing,” Lesley urged. “You could keep her just long enough to get her fit and ready to go, then sell her on. I’m not saying you’d make money, but…well, she could use someone like you in her corner.”

I sighed, leaning my head back against the headrest. “I wish I could, but I don’t even have to ask the question to know what the answer will be.”

We didn’t talk about the grey mare again for the rest of the day, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. I wondered what would happen to her, and whether she’d get a second chance at a life worth living.

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)