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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Nine Lives · Pony Jumpers series · Sneak peek

Excerpt from Pony Jumpers #9: NINE LIVES

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

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

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

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

“It was cheap,” Aidan countered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Language!”

“Sorry Mum.”

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

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

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

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

“AJ, what did I just say!” Mum said.

“Sorry.”

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

“At least heat that up,” Mum grumbled.

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

“Boys!” she cried in exasperation.

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

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

“They’re disgusting.”

Thoughts

A pony book dream come true

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pony Jumpers series

Which Pony Jumpers character are YOU?

When I discovered Qzzr.com, I already had my first Pony Jumpers quiz written. But I quickly realised that on Qzzr, you can make quizzes with outcomes, such as “You’re a Hufflepuff!” Since then, I’ve been biding my time (aka trying to find the time) to write a “Which Pony Jumpers character are you?” quiz. Last night, at 1am, I finished it.

So without further ado, CLICK HERE to find out which Pony Jumpers character is most like you!

Preliminary results after 68 people have taken the quiz has Susannah in the lead, a fact that would completely astound her if she knew! I’ve taken the test three times, giving slightly different answers on each occasion, and always come up with Tess. Which isn’t surprising really, as if you’d asked me beforehand which character I was most like, I wouldn’t have even had to think about it. Tess is my girl, but I love them all…even Katy, as difficult as she can be at times 😉   (On that note, I cannot wait to get my teeth into book 10, which is the next one from Katy’s POV. I know I haven’t written all the books yet, but that one is destined to be one of my favourites, I swear…)

you-are-susannah

Jonty · New release · Pony Jumpers series

New release: JONTY

SE1 Jonty 150

Jonty Fisher hasn’t grown up with horses. Hasn’t grown up with much of anything, tell you the truth, except a love for being outdoors and a restless energy he can’t quite contain. The unexpected arrival of a bedraggled black pony on his eleventh birthday marks the beginning of a new direction in his life, setting him on a path that will determine what he can make of his future.

But as Jonty’s desire to prove himself builds, the school of hard knocks never fails to keep pushing him back down, and it will take a lot of courage, resilience and heart for him to find a way to follow his dreams.

Still, if life was meant to be easy, everyone would do it…


Buy now on Amazon.comAmazon.co.ukAmazon.com.au

jonty-advance-reviews

 

Rio 2016 · Thoughts

Lower your pitchforks, people [Rio 2016]

pitchforks

If this year’s Olympic Games in Rio have proven one thing, it’s that the world is well and truly watching. Equestrian sport has flown under the radar for years, but times, they are a’changing, and with the advent of social media, everyone now has their opportunity to communicate with the riders, to share information, to spread rumours, and become an armchair expert.

Because I live in New Zealand and don’t have TV, I have seen very little of the equestrian events at Rio (Sky TV bought the rights to exclusive coverage, and I can’t even stream it online from overseas websites). Most of what I do know has been gleaned off social media, which is always a dangerous place to get information. But there have already been plenty of controversies abounding in all three disciplines (I will post about the show jumping once it is all over).

Clifton Lush

Things didn’t exactly go to plan for the New Zealand eventing team at Rio. Coming into the competition as likely medal contenders, tragedy struck early when Jock Paget’s Clifton Lush sustained an injury in the stables, cutting his cheek on an exposed water pipe. The injury was kept quiet when it first happened, and wasn’t revealed until the first horse inspection. (Before each phase of the eventing, horses are required to ‘trot up’ for the ground jury, who check that they are sound and fit to compete. If a horse doesn’t look right, they are sent into a holding box while the ground jury deliberates, and are then trotted up again for a second inspection. If they pass the second time, they’re cleared to compete, but if they don’t, then they are deemed to have failed and may not continue in the competition – or, in the case of the first inspection prior to the dressage, start at all.)

Clifton Lush was held after his first pass, trotted up again, and subsequently cleared to compete. However our reserve rider Tim Price had also trotted up his horse Ringwood Sky Boy, and he, like the rest of the team, flew through the inspection. The decision was made to withdraw Clifton Lush due to the cut on his cheek and the fact that the horse reportedly appeared lacklustre, and Jock described Lush as “not feeling himself”. Jock was applauded for making a decision that prioritised his horse’s welfare, and was sent many condolences from disappointed fans and supporters.

Lush
PC: Paget Eventing

It was disappointing, and many people expressed frustration that the injury occurred at all in what was meant to be five-star accommodation. It was revealed that the horse had cut his cheek on an exposed water pipe, presumably after he got up to some mischief and decided to pull the tap handle off this pipe shown in the photo to the right, from the Paget Eventing Facebook page prior to their first night in Rio. (I say presumably as no official comment has been made by the Paget Eventing team about whether this particular pipe and tap was the actual culprit, but I feel that it’s a fairly safe assumption to make.)

That should have been the last we heard of it, but it wasn’t. When details and pictures came out via Horse & Hound yesterday stating that Lush had reportedly undergone a two-hour surgery to repair the five-inch gash in his cheek, which required four layers of suturing and over 100 stitches, the internet went feral once more. Suddenly, far from being a good horseman and role model, Jock was being villainised by the armchair critics who felt that he should never have trotted the horse up at all. It was also revealed in the article that, under close veterinary supervision, he rode the horse in a halter subsequent to the injury in the days prior to the trot-up.

While the injury certainly looks nasty in the photos that accompanied the article, it’s important to remember that we don’t know the full story. Here’s a short list of just a few of the things that we, as people outside of the team, don’t know:

  • Exactly when the accident happened – was it the first night at Rio, or only a day or two before the competition started? (The horses arrived on the 31st July to be acclimatised, and the competition didn’t start until August 7th)
  • Whose decision it was to trot the horse up – was it Jock’s, the team’s, the owners’, or a combination of both/all?
  • Whether they ever intended to compete the horse after trotting him up – it’s probable, in my opinion, that they trotted Lush up just in case one of the other NZ horses failed the inspection, in which case a serious decision as to whether to compete Lush would be made. Whether he would’ve been competed with his injury is still unknown.
  • When those photos of his wound were taken – straight after surgery when it was still swollen and fresh, or days later? Was the swelling still there when he was trotted up, or was it healing well?
  • What medication was given to the horse prior to and during the trot up, and what drugs would have been available to him during the competition – would he have been allowed a local anaesthetic around the wound site while competing? (I don’t know, but I think the question is worth asking). On this note, the FB comments that made me roll my eyes the hardest are the ones where people insisted that due to the FEI drug restrictions, Lush must have had his cheek sutured without any painkillers or sedation. I would like to ask those people how exactly they think that would be achieved on an extremely fit Thoroughbred – did they just ask Lush nicely to stand still and be brave for two hours?
  • What kind of exercise Jock gave him while riding in a halter – he’s being criticised for riding him at all, but the horse has to come out of his stables to stretch his legs, and I don’t personally see a huge difference in him riding the horse compared to leading him out. I know that when my horse was on box rest and then was allowed out to stretch his legs, he was much better behaved when I walked him around bareback than he was when I led him. I don’t know for a fact, but I highly doubt that any work that Jock gave Lush during that time was at all strenuous.

Here’s what we do know for a fact:

  • The horse was withdrawn and did not compete in any phase of the event
  • The horse passed the horse inspection, despite the injury to his cheek
  • The horse was cleared by the vets at Rio to be presented at the first horse inspection.

And here’s the thing that really baffles me. How on earth can people think that Jock, of all people, would willingly go into a competition wondering or knowing that his horse might test for a banned substance? The last thing he needed was this extra controversy, and while I don’t know any more of the facts than anyone else (and admit to some bias due to him being a) a New Zealander, and b) someone I’ve met, albeit briefly) – at the end of the day, all other things aside, the horse did not compete.

“She deserves a gold medal”…?

Which brings me to Adelinde Cornelissen, the Dutch dressage rider whose horse Parzival was bitten by a bug in the stables and suffered a severe toxic reaction to it. Parzival suffered an elevated temperature and was on a drip for nine hours the day before, but seemed to recover well and was again cleared by the vets to compete. After being denied a request to swap starting slots with a teammate so she would have another day for Parzival to recover, Adelinde decided to ride, and began her dressage test. However her horse was clearly unhappy, and a few movements in, she decided to withdraw.

eurodressage
Photo: Eurodressage.com

I haven’t seen the test, only some of the photos that came out afterwards, and they don’t paint a pretty picture as the horse left the arena with his tongue hanging out of his mouth and looking highly distressed. Clearly he had not made a full recovery, and was not ready to compete. However Adelinde did make the right decision in the end, whether or not the horse should have been started at all (questionable, in my mind, but again, I don’t know the full situation as I was. Not. There.).

Not long after her retirement mid-test, the plaudits started flowing thick and fast on Facebook, with emotional headlines on linked stories about her heroic decision – including the highly emotive “Gold Medal Athlete Quits Olympic Games to Save Her Horse”, an article which unfortunately includes a picture of the horse bleeding from his mouth prior to disqualification at WEG in 2010, giving the online critics plenty more to bleat on about. However this adulation was swiftly followed by a backlash after misreporting from NBC claimed that her horse had a hairline fracture. This allegation quickly descended into myriad claims on Facebook that she had broken her horse’s jaw through her forceful riding and use of rollkur as a training method. Now I am no fan of rollkur, and I have never particularly liked watching Parzival compete – admittedly the only time I really sat down and watched him go was at London 2012, and I watched it several times, followed by the soft, flowing test of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro who provided quite a contrast in my eyes – but that story seemed dubious to me. The FEI later issued a statement stating it was entirely false, and that the horse’s injury was related only to the bug bite, and that x-rays had been taken and there was no evidence of a fracture. And the horse was, after all, cleared by the vets to compete.

So is there a question around whether the vets are being stringent enough about horse welfare by allowing horses who are injured to compete? Perhaps. Anyone who has spent much time in horse sport, and any time at all in the professional arena, knows that there are questionable decisions made all over the place. Vets have an incredibly difficult and stressful job, as recent statistics re: depression and suicide in the vet industry have revealed. I don’t want to go on a witch hunt against vets, and of course there is an immense amount of pressure at an event like Rio to pass the horses as fit to compete. I don’t know what their guidelines are to approve horses for competition, but perhaps they need tightening.

Or perhaps we should continue to trust riders to know what is best for their horses. In both of the above situations, the riders ultimately made the best decision for their horse’s welfare. The situations around these decisions and the timing is up for discussion, and you only have to dip a toe into Facebook to join in with the pitchforks and knives.

But before you do, spare a thought for the people involved. One thing I do know for sure is that Jock has been reading the Horse & Hound Facebook comments, and I can only hope that he is not taking the criticisms too much to heart. After all, nobody will be more disappointed than he is not to have had the opportunity to ride, especially given that Lush is 16 years old and unlikely to be starting in Tokyo 2020. (Likewise, Parzival is 19 years old and will soon retire.)

The amount of time, effort – and yes, money – that it takes to get a horse to Olympic level is immense, and the hope, however slight, that the horse would recover in time to compete is always there. However as these riders are well aware, trying to reason with experts who clearly know more about the situation than the people who were actually there will only make things worse. All we can do as viewers of equestrian sport is to look for the positives,  and remember that we were not there, and as a result, we don’t have the whole story. Maybe it’s worse than we think, or maybe it’s better. We. Don’t. Know. Perhaps one day we will find out more, but for now, let’s try not to fill in the blanks with our own imaginations.

After all, that’s what fiction is for…

Dare To Dream · Dream Once More

A Christmas bonus…

Merry Christmas / Meri Kirihimete / Happy Holidays!

I posted on Facebook yesterday that I would have a Christmas surprise…well as usual, life got into the way a little bit and I spent time with whanau (family). I’m also off to Pony Club Camp tomorrow for a week, and I haven’t even *started* packing.

But I do love and appreciate my readers, and I hate to break promises so here’s a little bit more of a sneak peek into Dream Once More, book #3 in the Dare to Dream series. Which I am planning to release for Christmas 2016! There’s more, but I haven’t had time to finish it so I will try and get it online next week, after camp.

In the meantime, enjoy, and thanks SO MUCH for your loyal readership this year x



DARE TO DREAM #3

DREAM ONCE MORE

 

CHAPTER ONE

Dawn was breaking, sending shimmers of golden light across the hills and through the wavering branches of winter-sparse trees. The world was yawning, stretching, coming awake. A building chorus of native birds heralded the promise of a new day, and the dusky morning sky hinted at the possibility of blue. At the top of a hill, in a paddock that lay close enough to the ocean that the smell of salt lingered in the air, a pinto pony was dozing. His eyes were half-closed and his head low as he stood peacefully, resting a hind leg. Another pony lay nearby, flat on his side and fast asleep, his round dapple grey belly flecked with dried mud. Sparrows hopped across the soggy ground between the pair, seeking out worms raised by last night’s heavy rain, which still dripped in gathering droplets from overhead branches and surrounding wire fences.

Then the call came from the gate at the bottom of the hill, and the ponies woke. The dapple grey raised his head halfway up, looked vaguely towards the gate, then lay back down, clearly preferring to lie-in. But the pinto pony with the splash of white on his nose and the lightning-bolt shaped scar between his eyes stood suddenly alert, and he whinnied a warm welcome to the teenage girl who was striding towards him across the grass, then began to make his way down the hill to meet her.

Marley’s paddock boots were battered and cracked, and the short walk from the house to the hill paddock had already left her with wet feet. She hadn’t bothered putting socks on – what was the point, when they’d only have to be wrung out and rewashed when she went back inside? She’d built up callouses to deal with the insistent rubbing of her little toes against the edges of the ill-fitting boots, and she didn’t notice any of the discomfort, anyway. She only had eyes for the pinto pony as he picked his way down the steep slope, broke into a rhythmic trot when he reached the bottom, then halted neatly in front of her with his ears pricked, Good morning written as clearly in his expression as if he’d said it out loud.

She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”

The pinto pony butted Marley with his nose, and she gave him a chunk of carrot to crunch on before wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her cheek against his thick coat, closing her eyes and breathing in his warm scent. The events that had first brought them together, then torn them apart, and then ultimately – and miraculously, Marley still felt – seen them reunited all lay behind her in a haze. She had her pony back, and every morning on which she could scramble out of bed and go straight to the paddock to give him a hug was one to be savoured.

Cruise licked his lips, delicately snuffling at the pockets of Marley’s jeans as her arms stayed fixed around his solid neck. As dedicated to Marley as she was to him, the pony was always pleased to see her, always whinnied out a greeting whenever he spotted her anywhere on the farm. He never missed an opportunity to remind her of his presence, a habit which had caused her considerable agony only a few months ago when he’d been at shows with his new owner. Losing her pony had been hard enough, but to have him call out to her whenever she walked past had been heart-wrenching, especially as she’d rarely been able to bring herself to stop and talk to him, scarred by the knowledge that he was no longer hers. But those days were behind them now, because Cruise hers once more, and hers forever. And this time, when the talented pony went out competing again, Marley would be the one loading him onto her truck. She would be the one to ride him, feed him and muck him out every day; she would be the one grooming him and saddling him and screwing in his studs, warming him up and cooling him down, hosing him off, wrapping his legs and rugging him up; lying on her stomach on the warm, dry grass and watching him graze peacefully nearby at the end of a long, exhilarating show day. She couldn’t wait – but she would have to. The show season was over, and months of cold, wet weather lay ahead as winter settled in across New Zealand.

“Why does the season have to be so far away?” Marley mumbled into Cruise’s thickening coat, still slightly damp from the night before. “Months of this. Months and months of rain and mud and not getting to ride you.” She stepped back and looked her pony in the eye, and he reached out and licked her hands eagerly, searching out more treats. “Greedy,” she told him affectionately, then scooped another piece of carrot from her pocket and fed it to him, loving the feel of his whiskery lips against her palm.

The offseason was always particularly trying for Marley. With shorter, darker days, a long stretch of several months without so much as a single public holiday to break up the tedium of school, and the incessant rain that turned everything to mud, it was, in her opinion, the absolute worst time of year. The competition ponies were turned out for eight long weeks and left almost entirely to their own devices, other than being checked on daily and fed extra rations of hay. Their holidays came unmolested by halters and brushes and brought them out the other side of the winter months looking like shaggy bush ponies. They grew out their coats, manes and tails were left to become straggly and dreadlocked, wispy beards grew under their chins and tufts of hair emerged from their ears. Bridle paths disappeared, shaved tails grew out into bristly bottlebrushes, and hairy fetlocks abounded. Marley ran her hands down Cruise’s white legs, checking for any heat, swelling, cuts or scabs. Mud fever was always a concern at this time of the year, and although most of their land was on sand that drained well, any of their ponies with pale skin under white legs or socks were kept in the driest paddocks to lessen the risk of infection on their sensitive skin. Cruise turned his head and watched Marley as she made her careful inspection of his well-being, patiently waiting as she checked him over and declared him to be injury-free.

Marley looked up the hill at Seattle, who was still lying on his side and ignoring her presence.

“Sea!” she yelled. “Are you going to make me come up there?” The pony lifted his head a mere fraction and gazed down at her idly. “No carrots for you if you do,” she warned him. Seattle flickered an ear back and forth, then resumed his slumbering position, apparently resigned to a carrot-less fate.

“Lazybones,” Marley muttered, beginning her march up the hill to check on him, because God knew that if she didn’t do it, he’d turn out to have some kind of gaping leg wound that required urgent attention. He wasn’t really a lazy pony; not when she was on his back and there was a jump in front of him, anyway. Then he was transformed into a bouncing ball of enthusiasm, flinging himself over the jumps with room to spare, and was just as likely to use up any excess energy in attempts to buck her off, if the moment inspired him. But if ever given the option to be ridden or left alone, he would always choose the latter, due to his deep suspicion of hard work.

“Welcome to the real world,” Marley told him as she clambered up the steep hill with Cruise following puppyishly on her heels. “Hard work is all we’ve got, so you’d better get used to it.”

Seattle closed his eyes as she approached, still feigning sleep. Marley grinned at his round, mud-flecked belly as it rose and fell. “Brat. You’re going to have so much winter weight to work off when spring comes around.”

Despite his reluctance to get up, Marley was able to reassure herself that there was nothing wrong with the pony other than his indifference to her, and she knew him too well to take that as a personal slight. Stretching her arms in their threadbare jacket over her head, she gazed down at the small farm house that she’d grown up in. She knew every inch of it like the back of her hand, knew every floorboard that creaked, every window that jammed, every door that swelled in the damp and had to be kicked open and shut. She had spent her entire life there, and had never even considered leaving. It was her home – their home, hers and her sisters’. At least, it always had been. But things were changing. Van had left, gone off to America to work at a flashy show jumping stable in Florida, and Seamus had been installed in her stead. Van’s absence wasn’t permanent, of course, but Seamus’s addition was, now that he’d married Kris and settled himself into their house. Dad’s bedroom had become their bedroom, and Kris’s room was being prepared as a nursery. Marley shook her head slowly as she looked at the tightly-drawn curtains in the master bedroom. It’d been almost two months since her eldest sister had broken the news to her that she was going to have a baby, but it still seemed incredible to Marley. Not that she doubted Kris would make an excellent mother – after all, she’d had plenty of practice, having dragged Van and Marley up after their father died several years ago. Kris was the closest thing to a mother that Marley had ever known, as their own mother had died only hours after she was born, and yet thinking of her as a married, pregnant woman was still a little jarring.

“Things are changing a bit too fast around here,” she told Cruise as she started back down the hill towards the house, with the pinto pony on her heels.

 

Kris forced her eyes to open, and stared blearily at the alarm clock next to her bed. 6:55. Five more minutes. She closed her eyes again, and snuggled deeper underneath the warm covers. The bed creaked as Seamus rolled over, then the warm weight of him rested against her back and she felt his arm slide across her waist.

“What time is it?”

“Five to seven.”

Seamus groaned. “Is it really? I’ve to be up at the stud by eight, and that’s a half hour drive.”

“You better get up then,” Kris replied without opening her eyes.

“Five more minutes,” he whispered, leaning over to kiss the edge of her cheek.

Kris smiled, but only for a moment. Pushing back the covers and flinging Seamus’s arm off her, she got quickly to her feet and stumbled blearily towards the door, overcome by a sudden bout of nausea. Seamus sighed as she left the room, rolling onto his back and resting his hands behind his head as he stared contemplatively up at the cracked ceiling. Nothing he could do about Kris’s morning sickness, other than feel guilty for being (in some way) the cause of it. He’d have taken it on himself if he could, but bereft of that option and having been firmly shooed away when he’d offered immediate comfort, he was left to wait it out, and hope that it would abate soon. Unable to lie in bed and listen to Kris’s predicament, he tossed off the blankets and picked up his jeans off the floor by his side of the bed, pulling them on and distracting himself by mentally running through the list of horses he had to shoe that day.

Kris pulled a face at herself in the mirror as she brushed her teeth, doing her best to ignore the dark circles under her eyes that wouldn’t go away. She needed to wash her hair, she decided. She’d feel better after a shower, but first she needed a cup of tea. Grabbing the dressing gown off the back of the bathroom door, she wrapped herself up in it, then headed down to the kitchen to boil the kettle, one hand still resting on her uneasy stomach. The kitchen door was standing open, and Kris was only half-paying attention as she walked into the room, until she saw something that made her stop in her tracks.

“What the hell!

“Don’t yell, you’ll spook him,” Marley said, sitting at the table with a heaped bowl of cornflakes. Across the table from her, standing right in the middle of the kitchen with his head in his own bowl of cereal and his tail in the sink, was Cruise.

“Get that pony out of the kitchen.” Kris’s voice shook with barely suppressed anger. “Right now, Marley!”

“He’s fine,” her sister said, waving her spoon lazily in the air and spattering droplets of milk across the tablecloth. “He’s on his best behaviour, I swear. He followed me down to the house and when I said he couldn’t come in he gave me this look and I couldn’t resist.”

Marley beamed across the table at the pony, who swished his tail, and the frying pan on the draining board slid dangerously towards the edge of the bench.

“Well I can,” Kris asserted. She was feeling sick again, and desperately impatient with her headstrong little sister. “I mean it. Get him out of here!”

Behind her, she heard footsteps, and she stood a little straighter as Seamus came through the doorway behind her. Backup, she thought, but her relief was short-lived. Seamus put a hand on her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze as he walked past her into the room.

“Mornin’,” he greeted Marley with a nod, and she mumbled a response through a mouthful of cornflakes, watching intently as he approached Cruise. Without batting an eyelid, he slapped the pinto gelding gently on the rump. “Shift over, you.” Cruise obediently shifted his hindquarters, and Seamus flipped the switch on the electric jug, then looked back over at Kris. “Cuppa tea?”

Her frustration now at boiling point, Kris hovered for a moment between yelling at the pair of them and just walking out of the room and going back to bed.

Marley looked at her sister’s expression, then shovelled another generous spoonful of cornflakes into her mouth and gazed lovingly at her pony, who was lipping up stray cornflakes off the scarred wooden table. But Seamus had caught Kris’s eye and decided to go into bat for her.

“Go on now, do as your sister told you and get this great lump out of the kitchen before he leaves us with an unwelcome calling card,” he told her.

Marley sighed. “Okay, fine. Cruise and I were getting bored of your company anyway.” Standing up, she tipped her bowl and drank the remaining milk before setting it down on the table and clicking her tongue at the pony. “C’mon then. Let’s leave the old people to their civilised breakfast.”

“Thanks, much obliged,” Seamus replied cheerfully as he poured boiling water into the mugs he had set out.

Marley stopped in front of her sister. “You’re in the way.”

Kris shuffled sideways, letting Marley pass. “Don’t do that again.”

Marley rolled her eyes. “Okay okay, but you have to admit that it’s funny.”

Kris glared at her sister, but the corner of her mouth twitched involuntarily. Marley noticed it, and grinned.

“Just get him out of here,” Kris said, then as Cruise lifted his tail suddenly, added with greater urgency, “Now!”

“Close call,” Seamus observed as he splashed milk into the mugs, watching Marley through the rain-streaked kitchen window as she led Cruise by the forelock into the back yard, where he promptly relieved himself.

Kris shook her head and sat down. “Just when I think she’s finally starting to grow up, she goes and does something like that.”

“I’m not sure she’ll ever properly grow up,” Seamus told her, setting a mug of tea down in front of her. “You fancy anything to eat?”

She shook her head. “I’ll eat later, when I feel a bit more up to it. I might take this back to bed,” she added as he pulled a frying pan out of the cupboard and set it on the stove. The very thought of bacon and eggs was making her nauseous, and she wasn’t sure she could sit in the room while Seamus cooked them. The cold floor was making her toes curl up defensively, and she thought longingly of her warm blankets. She shouldn’t do it, she knew. There was too much to do to waste any more time lying in bed, but her resolve had been wavering these past few weeks, and now it was utterly spent.

“Sure?”

“Yeah. Have a good day, I’ll see you tonight.” And she left the room, her hands wrapped around the hot ceramic mug and stomach still gurgling uneasily.

Kris’s slipper-clad feet scuffed against the threadbare carpet as she made her way back upstairs. Her bedroom door was open, the bed still rumpled and inviting, but she walked past it. A trail of muddy footprints led her on, past the room that had once been hers and would soon be the nursery, and on to the door that was tightly closed. She reached out a hand and brushed her fingers over the handle, then gripped it firmly and opened the door.

Everything in here was exactly as she’d left it. The bed half-made, the clothes strewn across the floor, drawers half-opened and a broken suitcase discarded in the corner. Van had packed the same way she did everything – like a whirlwind, moving at full pace and never mind the consequences. Kris had planned to come in after she left here and tidy up, but somehow she couldn’t bring herself to do it. The sense of chaos that her sister had left behind was a strange comfort to her, and Kris sat down on the narrow single bed and leaned back against the peeling wallpaper, looking around at the life Van had left behind.

We miss you.

As Kris gazed around the room, her eye caught a picture that had been torn from a magazine and tacked above the desk – a horse soaring over a water jump, with blue skies and palm trees in the background. Florida. Leo Valdes. Grand Prix rider, top notch trainer. Van’s new employer. And Kris closed her eyes and rested her head back against the wall, the mug of hot tea held against her grumbling stomach.

We miss you, but you’ll be having way too much fun to be missing us.

*   *   *

The horse’s hooves pounded out a staccato beat across the arena surface. The reins were slick with sweat, and the bay gelding’s breath was coming in heavy pants through the muggy air. Van eased the big Warmblood back to a trot and clapped his sticky neck before glancing across the ring towards Leo. He had his back turned, watching one of his students ride. He seemed relaxed in the insistent Florida sun, but Van still wasn’t used to the heat. There were a lot of things she still wasn’t used to.

There was no denying that it was the opportunity of a lifetime. The chance to ride in America, to work for a successful Grand Prix rider, to learn what it took from the people who were actually doing it – it was everything that an ambitious but underfunded twenty-year-old could’ve dreamed of. She’d never expected it to be easy. She’d come here to ride and work and learn as she’d never ridden and worked before. But the reality of life as a groom and catch rider in Florida wasn’t quite living up to Van’s expectations. Long days – check. Hard work – double check. That was fine – she’d never laboured under any assumptions that she was going away on holiday. She hadn’t expected days off, or decent pay, or to be handed rides on Grand Prix jumpers. She’d known, before she’d arrived, that she’d be up at dawn and done at dusk, that she’d be at the bottom of the pecking order, having to do as she was told, when she was told – a change of pace for someone used to doing everything herself, but one she was willing to accept. Because she’d come here to learn the things she couldn’t teach herself, the things Kris couldn’t give her, not that she’d ever have expected her to. Her sister had done enough for her, for all of them, and it was time that Van grew up and was more independent and gave Kris the chance to live her own life.

Van swung her leg over the gelding’s back and loosened his girth, then led him over to the exit gate. Sweat trickled down the small of her back and made her underarms itch. Dust coated her skin and irritated her eyes, and she almost didn’t see the tall chestnut horse in tight draw reins that was being cantered past the gate.

“Watch it!” The rider snapped as Van came to a sudden halt, stopping the big bay next to her in the nick of time before they had a collision.

The gelding threw his head up in surprise and Van took a step back to avoid having her face kicked in by the rider’s stirrup. The bright sunlight glinted off the spur that was jabbing into the chestnut’s sweat-soaked flank, and Van couldn’t help turning her head to watch the horse as he horse cantered past. His head was held tightly down to his chest, an expanse of white foam issued from his straining mouth and flecked his narrow chest. Van bit her tongue, wishing she could close her eyes. The rail cleared, and she led the bay horse out of the ring and along the palm tree-lined path towards the air-conditioned barn, both of their steps quickening as they approached the cooler building.

More to come! Check back in a week, and leave your comments below x 

Uncategorized

As if there was any doubt…

If you read yesterday’s post and thought “is this…can it be?” but weren’t quite sure, well you can rest easy. All of your concerns are about to be laid to rest, because here is the third paragraph of what is quite clearly book 3 – looks like “Dare to Dream” is going to be a trilogy.

Marley’s paddock boots were battered and cracked, and the short walk from the house to the hill paddock had already left her with wet feet. She hadn’t bothered putting socks on – what was the point, when they’d only have to be wrung out and rewashed when she went back inside? Her smallest toes rubbed irritably against the edges of her boots, but calluses had built up years ago to provide for this. And it wasn’t as though she noticed. She only had eyes for the pony ahead of her, nickering a greeting as he picked his way down the steep hill, trotted a few paces at the bottom, and halted in front of her with his ears pricked.

She smiled. “Morning, Cruise.”

Stay tuned for a couple more paragraphs and more details over the next few days, and feel free to comment below (or on Facebook) who your favourite character is from my books and why.

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Second paragraph…

So today’s ‘chore’ to earn the next paragraph was to get me to 460 likes on my NZPonyWriter Facebook page. We didn’t quite make it but 458 likes is pretty good, so I’ll take it. (Hint: if you’re reading this and you haven’t liked my Facebook page just yet, please pop over there and do so! I will be posting daily ‘chores’ to earn the next paragraph of this opening scene over the rest of the week, with the book’s title to be revealed at the end!)

And now, on with the story…

A call came from the gate at the bottom of the hill, and the ponies woke up. The dapple grey pony raised his head halfway, looked vaguely towards the gate, then lay back down, preferring to lie-in. But the pinto pony with the splash of white on his nose and the lightning-bolt shaped scar between his eyes was alert, and he whinnied a warm welcome to the teenage girl striding towards him across the grass, before making his way down to meet her.

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I’m back…with something to share!

It’s been a long month, with changes and challenges, trials and tribulations – one of the least of which was my laptop’s apparent sudden death. Fortunately it has survived, having apparently just fallen into ‘Sleep mode’ and being unable to be woken without a trip to the computer hospital. But it’s back, I’m back, and to celebrate, here’s the opening paragraph of a scene I just wrote…

Dawn was breaking, sending shimmers of golden light across the hills and through the dripping trees, watching the world come awake. Amid the morning chorus of native birdsong, at the top of a hill in a paddock that lay close enough to the ocean that the smell of salt lingered in the damp air, a pinto pony was dozing. His eyes were half-closed, his head held low and he stood hip-shot, resting a hind leg. Another pony lay nearby, flat out on his side and fast asleep, his round dapple grey belly flecked with mud. Sparrows hopped across the soggy winter ground between the pair, seeking out worms raised by last night’s heavy rain, which still dripped in gathering droplets from trees and surrounding wire fences.

What does this mean? Does this mean what you think it means? Maybe. I wrote the scene because it came into my head and I liked it. It might only ever be a scene, or a short story, or it might, it just might, turn itself into a novel. Who knows? Not even me. But I thought you might like it anyway.

And yes, there’s more. I’ll post the next paragraph once my next Facebook challenge is met… 10 comments on a post got you this far, visit http://www.facebook.com/NZPonyWriter/ to find out how to get the next few lines!