I’m so very aware that I am really behind schedule with releasing this book, and I’m really sorry about that. Life, as they say… well, that’s my excuse anyway. Busy busy busy! But most of Seventh Place has been written, so to tide you over and thank you for waiting, here’s the opening of Chapter 3:
~ PRACTICE FENCE ~
“Who d’you reckon they’ll pick?”
“Duh. The young rider team that’s going to Ireland.”
I turned my head slightly, my attention arrested by the conversation, and I drew Buck to a halt. Pretending to be running over the course, I shamelessly eavesdropped on their conversation.
Grace shrugged, plucking idly at one of Summer’s plaits. “Not me, anyway.”
“They might,” her friend said loyally. “More likely to pick you than me, anyway. Especially after Flame stopped twice yesterday.”
I glanced at her, recognising her as the girl that had been hanging out with Grace last night. I didn’t know her name, but I knew her pony. Flamethrower, a flashy chestnut mare with white stockings up to her knees, that until a few weeks ago had been out competing with Anna. I wondered when the kid had bought her, and why. It was a hot pony, not an easy ride and certainly a lot of pony for a young girl, especially one who was even tinier than Grace.
“You’re still getting used to her,” Grace reassured her friend. “You’ll be fine.”
“I wish they were taking a proper pony team, like they did two years ago,” the girl complained. “Anna did it, and she was telling me all about it. They had under twelves, under fourteens and under sixteens. We might be in with a shot if they were doing that again. But if they’re only taking two under sixteens for the pony classes, we’re screwed.”
The steward sent her into the ring then, and I nudged Buck up alongside Grace and gave her a friendly smile as she turned to look at me.
“Hey.” I pretended to watch her friend in the ring for a moment. Flame jigged across the grass, tossing her head restlessly. “I didn’t know Anna had sold Flame.”
“Yeah, Issy got her for Christmas.” Grace was still a bit awkward around me, and I wasn’t sure whether she was shy or just didn’t like me. Usually I’d assume the latter, but I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Tough pony.” I bit off the second half of that sentence. For a kid.
Grace glanced at me again, her dark eyebrows knitting together. “Yeah, I guess.” She glanced at Buck, then back at me. “Are you really retiring Buckingham this season?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe.” We both watched as Buck decided to make friends with Summer, reaching over and sniffing her with his nose. She laid her ears back and tossed her head at him, and he decided to mind his own business again. “So what’s this about the young rider team?”
“Didn’t you hear?”
“No. Must be out of the loop.”
Grace looked a bit cagey, but nodded. “It’s for a team competition in Ireland, in June. You have to be under sixteen to make the team,” she added, looking at me through narrowing eyes. “At least, for the Juniors you do. They’re taking two under eighteen riders as well, and two under twenty-one. At least, that’s what Mum said.”
“Connor planning to go?”
She shrugged. “Mum wants him to, but he’ll have hockey then and he doesn’t want to miss any tournaments.”
“I didn’t know he played hockey.”
“Yeah, he’s on the national Under 20s squad. He does heaps of training for it. That’s why he’s only got two horses this season. Doesn’t have time to work any more than that.”
“Right.” Everyone had a life outside of horses, it would seem. Everyone except me. I cast my mind back over what she’d said. “When in June is it?”
“Right at the start, I think. Just before the school holidays start.”
Good to know. I wouldn’t be sixteen until the end of June. I was about to ask more when Jordan turned up at the gate to check that Grace knew the course. She said a brief hello to me, and I wished Grace luck as she rode Summer into the ring, then turned Buck away to finish his warm-up.
I knew that Dad would be all over this team thing as soon as he found out about it. His biggest ambitions for me all revolved around getting into a New Zealand team. He wanted so desperately to see that silver fern patch stitched onto the front of my competition jacket, and he’d been gutted when I’d never made it into the Children’s FEI Final.
I’d never been to Ireland. I wondered what it was like, and who I would be up against to make it into the team.
~ * ~
Katy, for starters. She sent me a text that afternoon to find out if I’d heard about it, and whether I was planning on putting my name forward.
Yep. Just sneak in age wise it ends a week before my birthday! Dads all over it like a rash haha. I hope we both get to go!!
I sent the text and shoved my phone back in my pocket, then finished buckling Forbes’ open-fronted tendon boots on. Straightening up, I gave him a slap on the shoulder and looked him in the eye.
“Right, boy. You ready for this?”
Dad had his head bent over his paperwork as I stepped up into the truck to get my jacket. Despite last night’s chill, it was blisteringly hot today, and Forbes was sweating just standing around. I’d left it as long as I could before I tacked him up for the class, but he preferred a long warm-up, and I wasn’t going to change our routine now. I’d just work him a little slower than usual, that was all. I grabbed my favourite burgundy jacket and slung it over my arm. Time enough to put that on when I was about to go into the ring.
Dad wrote something else on a piece of paper, then set down his pen. “You ready to go?”
I nodded. “Yep.” My phone buzzed in my pocket, and I pulled it out and read Katy’s text as I went back down the steps and over to my pony’s side.
Yeah thatd be sweet! Saw results on FB this morning, good work Skipper! What happened to Buck tho?
I smiled at the first part, then cringed at her second question. Skip had jumped a super double clear to pick up another second placing and secure us the top spot on the overall leaderboard, but Buck had had a refusal at the wall, putting himself out of contention.
Had a stop. Not sure why. Its stinking hot down here tho and the grounds hard as rock so prob just feeling it on the old joints. Have scratched him from the rest of the show and will get him looked at when we get home
Dad made an impatient noise in the back of his throat as I sent the text, then shoved my phone into my pocket and kicked my left leg up for a leg-up. I waited for him to say something, or make me hand my phone over to him, but he didn’t.
I tightened my girth while he shut the truck door, then walked alongside me to the ring. We passed the Campbells’ truck, and I waved to Grace, who was sitting on the ramp with her friend Issy. Had I ever been that little? Not that I was tall now, but they looked like they should still be pottering around on twelve-twos, not competing in the Grand Prix classes on full-height ponies.
“Any further thoughts about that bay mare?” Dad asked.
I kept my tone ambivalent. “Jumped well this morning,” I said. “I watched her go.”
Actually, well was an understatement. Anna had worked out how to ride the mare now, and she’d jumped a tidy clear first round in the metre-twenty. Star had cleared everything with room to spare, and there’d been several people on the sidelines admiring her. She’d been quick around the jump off too, just taking one rail at the second to last fence. I’d seen it coming as Anna had turned the corner, letting Star get a bit quick and not sitting her back on her hocks enough. She’d underestimated the length of the little mare’s stride, and by the time she’d realised her error, she’d been too close to the fence. Star had given it everything, but she’d rubbed the back rail of the oxer as she angled over it. She’d given Anna a good couple of bucks on landing, telling her off, and Anna had corrected her ride to finish the course, but it meant no ribbons for them. And with yesterday’s result added to today’s, they wouldn’t be qualified for the Final tomorrow.
Dad echoed that result as we reached the warm-up. “Nigel said they’ve late-entered her into the metre-twenty Non-Championship class tomorrow afternoon, since she didn’t qualify. Offered to let you take her round.”
I hesitated. “Maybe.”
“What d’you mean, maybe?” Dad was frowning at me now, and he’d stopped in the gate of the warm-up, putting a hand on Forbes’ rein to hold me there. I glanced behind me, but there was nobody coming. “I thought you liked her.”
“I do. I just don’t…” I ground my teeth together, then confessed. “I don’t want to screw it up.”
“You won’t.” Dad was so certain of that. I wished I shared his confidence in me. “Rode her beautifully yesterday, didn’t you?”
“She went okay. But it’s different in the ring. Everyone will be watching, and…”
“So? You’ve got to get over that,” he told me. “Besides, it’ll be good practice for you, competing a horse you’ve hardly ridden. You’ll have to do that in Ireland, you know.”
“I haven’t made the team yet,” I reminded him, but he scoffed.
“Bruce is a selector. He knows you, knows how well you ride,” Dad said, his voice assured. “I’ll have a chat with him, make sure he knows how badly we want it.”
I saw the look in his eyes, and knew that if money had to change hands, well, he’d make that happen too. But I didn’t want to make the team if that’s what it would take. I wanted to be selected on merit, not on bank balance, and I was about to tell him that when we were interrupted.
“You’re blocking the gate.”
I looked up to see Anna in front of us, waiting to get out of the warm-up and into the ring.
“Oh, sorry.” I wondered how much she’d overheard. Judging by the look on her face, quite a bit. I wondered if she was going to put her name forward for the team. Chances were high. Her parents were wealthy and she was ambitious, and she already had a couple of international team competitions under her belt. She was almost a surety, and I hoped Katy made the team. I didn’t want to be on it if she didn’t.
As Anna rode her leggy chestnut horse past me, Dad released Forbes. I rode my pony forward, sending him straight into a trot and away from my father. Dad was right, as little as I liked to admit it. I did have to practice riding unknown horses and ponies before the team event. And that was one thing Katy defeinitely had on her side. She’d grown up riding different ponies, picking up catch rides all the time, and everyone knew that she could get anything to go well. Forbes was the only tricky pony I’d ever had – everything else was fully trained before I got it. And if I was being honest, despite his few quirks, Forbes had been very well schooled by Katy before he came to me.
The class was running in reverse order of points, which meant Forbes and I were jumping last. It was the last class of the day, and the warm-up cleared out as I worked my pony in. He liked a good long warm-up, and always jumped better if he’d done lots of schooling first. It was a little tedious sometimes, but worthwhile in the end. I wondered, as I rode another trot serpentine, whether that had been part of his problem with Katy. She’d always been in such a hurry with her big team of ponies, and rarely gave any of them more than ten or fifteen minutes to work in, sometimes even less than that. But Forbes took a good half-hour to get really switched on. I had to be careful today though, as despite the later hour, it wasn’t getting any cooler. The sun baked down onto the scorched earth, and Forbes was sweating heavily as I brought him back to a walk and gave him a pat.
Dad was over at the practice fence, putting the vertical down to a crossrail and motioning to me to come and jump it. In a burst of defiance, I reached into my pocket and pulled out my phone, wanting to check first whether Katy had replied to my text.
Aw poor old man. Give him a hug for me, and tell skip to kick ass tomorrow !!!
I slipped it back into my jacket and picked up my reins as I rode past the practice jump, ignoring Dad’s glare. There were a handful of other riders still in the ring, and I counted them quickly. Three left, and I knew the chestnut-and-white pinto would be going in right before me, because I remembered it being next to me in the presentation yesterday. The liver chestnut was third, I was pretty sure, and the roan fourth, which meant it would be next to jump.
Sure enough, it got called into the ring by a large, bossy steward at that moment, and the kid trotted over to the gate as a young girl with blonde hair pulled back into a tight ponytail came over to the crossrail and started adjusting it back into a vertical. Dad quit glaring at me and directed his annoyance towards her instead.
“Hey, leave that alone, we’re using it.”
The girl looked at my father with a frown, and I recognised her in a vague sort of way. She had just started show jumping this season, but after a couple of shaky rounds early on, she’d hit her stride recently and was climbing up the Pony Grand Prix leaderboard with a succession of recent wins. Of course, she had a pair of very experienced ponies that could probably jump clear rounds with their eyes closed, but then who was I to judge?
“Emmalee wants to jump it,” the girl, whose name I still couldn’t remember, told my father. She seemed slightly cowed by Dad’s aggressive tone, but she was standing her ground. “She’s next to go in, and she has to do a vertical first.”
Dad folded his arms across his chest. “My daughter hasn’t even jumped yet,” he countered. “You’ve had ample time to jump the vertical, now it’s Susie’s turn.”
I saw the girl’s eyes flicker towards me, then back to my father. “But…”
“But nothing. It’s not your turn.”
She opened her mouth to say something, then clearly thought better of it, and walked back over to a group of people standing by the gate. I nudged Forbes into a canter, cringing inwardly but trying to project outward calm. I knew Forbes well enough to know that if I got wound up, he’d sense it and start getting wild and unmanageable, and I didn’t need that today.
I cantered him over the crossrail once, then turned to come the other way over it. But when I came to reapproach, I realised that Dad was standing in front of it, his arms still folded, while another man yelled at him, arms waving angrily.
I brought Forbes back to a trot and circled him, trying to concentrate on steadying my breathing, and not letting any of the tension in the air transmit itself to Forbes. But it was too late. He tossed his head, tugging at the bit, then spooked sideways as the roan pony came cantering past me.
“It’s okay, buddy.” I reached forward and gave Forbes a pat, then glanced back over at my Dad, who was still engaged in a stand-off with the other father.
Just put the jump back to how it was, I wanted to tell him. The next rider to go into the ring had priority of use over the practice fence. Everyone knew that, and I wished Dad would just back down and accept it. The blonde girl was standing over by the gate, looking a bit emotional about being yelled at by my father, and I remembered her name at last. Lily Christianson. One of the women there had her arm around her shoulders, and they glared at me as they saw me looking at them. I looked away, pushing Forbes back into a canter and focusing on my pony. There was nothing else I could do. If I went over there and told Dad to give in, he’d never let me hear the end of it. He was already grumpy with me, and I didn’t need to give him any more fuel for his fire. He hated it when I disagreed with him in public, even when he was clearly wrong. I just had to get Forbes into the ring and jump a clear round, and a quick jump off, and Dad would forget to be angry with me.
But that was looking less and less likely to happen, because I couldn’t stop myself from tensing up, and Forbes couldn’t handle it. He got quicker and quicker as we cantered around the warm-up, and when I tried to slow him down, he flung his head from side to side and lifted his back, threatening to buck.
The call came from the steward, sounding terse. “Emmalee, the judges are waiting for you. You need to get over to the ring right away. Isaac, you’re on straight after her, and Susannah’s last to go.” She looked up from her clipboard and saw the stand-off happening in front of the practice fence, and a frown crossed her face. “What’s going on?”
I drew Forbes back to a walk, bracing myself as the small group at the gate quickly filled her in. The steward looked furious as she slapped her clipboard against her thigh.
“Right. Emmalee, you need to get into the ring right now or they’ll scratch you for not turning up. I’ll sort this out.”
Emmalee’s mother started arguing that her daughter needed to jump the vertical before she could go into the ring, but the steward wasn’t having a bar of it. Defeated, Emmalee rode her pretty liver chestnut out towards the ring, and her mother followed with a scowl as I halted Forbes and checked my girth. Any excuse to keep my eyes down and avoid looking at anyone. I could hear the conversation as it carried across the dusty warm-up, both men talking on top of each other, much to the steward’s obvious irritation.
“All right, settle down for a minute. Derrick, has your daughter jumped the crossrail yet?”
“Once,” Dad said. “She needs to do it again before I put it up, and if these people had just let her go ahead, we wouldn’t be standing here having this argument.”
“Let her jump it again. Once,” the steward said, having obviously worked out that it was easier to just let Dad have his own way and be done with it. “Then it goes up to a vertical. No arguments, and I don’t care if she knocks it down. Jump it once, then it goes up.”
She strode away, the other man hot on her heels and still arguing, as Dad turned towards me with a victorious expression.
“Okay Susie, it’s all yours.”
PONY JUMPERS #7 : SEVENTH PLACE
Susannah is on her way to the National Championships, but without the friends she is now accustomed to having by her side. When her attempts to make new friends, both in and out of the jumping arena, repeatedly end in disaster, she starts to wonder whether her dreams are still worth fighting for.
But everything changes when one of her ponies falls dangerously ill, and suddenly winning doesn’t seem to matter at all…