Sophie would be happy if she could spend all her time at the barn with her friends and her pony, Cricket. But then her mother is accused of burning down the local tack shop--and Sophie and her friends must ride to the rescue.
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The crisp air of the late Maryland spring brushed my cheeks as I cued Cricket for her left canter lead. Making a balanced turn in the corner, I sighted on the freshly painted blue and green jump in the middle of the arena.
"Oxer," I called out to let everyone know which obstacle we planned to take.
Another rider circled to get out of our way. Cricket took it clear. It was only two foot-six, and the spread between the poles was not very wide. The size didn't matter. My heart beat faster every time I let go of everything but that one moment: the even strides into the jump, the pure joy of flying through the air on this amazing chestnut mare, and the rush of landing safely on the other side.
As we approached the next jump I mentally crossed my fingers. For some reason Cricket thought blue plastic barrels would eat her. Three of them lay on their side under the rail. Two strides out, the mare shifted her weight. A trickle of acid hit my stomach. Deep breath. Right rein tug-and-release to steer Cricket back into the jump. "Stay straight." I heard myself say out loud. And even had a chance to think it would work.
Then Cricket shied hard. My hope for a clear round dissolved into slow motion disaster. The impact with the jump threw me forward onto Cricket's mane.
The world went sideways.
Cricket screeched to a halt. I made like a monkey, clinging to the underside of her neck. I lowered my feet to the ground, glad I hadn't kissed the dirt this time. My mare's neck felt warm and scratchy under my fingers as I patted her neck to reassure us both that we were okay.
"You're getting better at falling with style, Sophie," my trainer, Queenie Ashe, said. The tiny woman adjusted her beloved Baltimore Orioles baseball cap as she walked over to the fallen uprights. Queenie righted the jump standard and lifted the wooden pole out of the arena sand to fit it back into the cups. As she straightened, she caught sight of my face.
"You all right?" she asked.
I turned and fiddled with Cricket's bridle. "Cricket's mane got in my eyes was all," I said. At almost thirteen, I was far too old to cry over a silly refusal. But there I was, tears in my eyes, my blonde complexion showing every red inch of my mortification.
Show Jump Rally, the Pony Club competition I'd been waiting for all year, was two weeks away. Too bad Pony Club didn't award ribbons based on falling with style. We'd get first place. As it was, maybe I ought to stay home to avoid embarrassing myself to death. Cricket would go over the blue barrels for Queenie and for my best friend, Yasmine Sengupta. But not for me–who gave her treats, and groomed her, and made sure her stall was clean and comfortable.
I wanted to sniffle and howl like I was two. Instead, I fit my boot into the stirrup and swung back up in the saddle. Queenie handed me my water bottle.
"Take a deep breath," she advised after getting a better look at my face.
I took a slug of cold water and felt the heat in my cheeks ease.
"In, two, three, four. Out, two, three, four," I counted silently as I breathed. Queenie's method helped, just like it always did.
Yasmine rode by on Bourbon, one of the other lesson horses.
"You almost did it that time," she called.
"Thanks," I said. I reached forward and poured half the bottle on Cricket's neck to help her cool off a little.
"Remember, if riding were easy, everyone would be a champion. Only the ones who keep trying and learn from their mistakes make it that far." Queenie's sun-weathered lines around her grey eyes deepened as she smiled. Her weathered hand stroked the damp chestnut hair on Cricket's neck. "You've made a lot of progress since you leased Cricket."
"Half lease," I reminded her. I tried to smile back but couldn't quite pull it off. There were a ton of people in the arena. They'd all just seen me make a total fool of myself.
"Riding her three times a week has made a huge difference for you. Don't knock what ya got."
I wasn't being ungrateful. Mom worked hard to pay for that half-lease.
Cricket skittered a little to one side when the third pair in our lesson group, Tanner Everett, and his huge black Shire/Thoroughbred cross, Vee, knocked over a heavy standard. Without the side support, the poles fell to the ground with a loud crash.
Tanner circled around and called out, "Wish I could ride this tank like you ride your girl," he called.
I instantly felt better. Vee was always difficult; Cricket was usually wonderful. It was just that one darn jump. The smile I'd reached for came more easily this time. Tanner was pretty nice, one of the few boys I knew who had the sense to like horses. Not as cute as the new boy working at Dry Creek Riding School though. Luis Cramer was sixteen, not too much older than I was, and I had a serious crush on him.
I looked around to see if Luis had seen me fall. I breathed easier when I didn't see him.
Queenie gathered us in the middle of the arena, led our usual end-of-lesson discussion, then dismissed us.
The clock at the entrance to the arena said five-thirty. Almost time to go home. Mom and Mrs. Sengupta carpooled on the days we went to Dry Creek Farm. Yasmine's mom picked us up from school and dropped us off at the barn. Mom picked us up after she finished work. Except for Tuesday, my personal favorite day of the week. Riding lesson and a ride home with Mom's favorite brother, Uncle Charlie, all in one day. He shod horses for many of the boarders at Dry Creek that afternoon. Queenie said he was the best farrier around.
Now that the lesson was over, Cricket needed to cool down. My fingers opened so the reins slipped through a little at a time. As the mare felt the bit loosen in her mouth, she lengthened her stride and dropped her head so that her back stretched. Cricket snorted a little, and followed up with a whinny that made the saddle vibrate. My hand smoothed the hair on her damp neck. Yasmine let her horse have a long rein too, steering Bourbon for the rail so we could walk together. After a slow circuit, I opened my inside rein, cueing Cricket to turn across the arena so that she could stretch her other side.
A sudden shout rang out from behind me. Tanner's horse careened by. Cricket swung sideways to get out of the way and rammed my leg against the pipe fence rail.
I forgot all about my leg when Tanner hit the ground about twenty feet past us. Queenie ran toward him, calling out, "Loose horse!" as she went. The gelding slowed to a trot as he got close to the end of the arena. The toot did a fancy side-pass all the way from the corner to the gate – anything rather than jump. Once outside the arena, the horse headed straight toward the barn, slowing to a trot when he got close.
Luis came out of the wide doorway, a wheelbarrow rolling along in front of him. He dropped the handles and reached out to snag the horse's reins. Vee stopped when he felt the tug on his mouth and swung around to face his captor. The gelding settled as Luis stroked the horse's sweaty neck.
I reached down and rubbed my sore knee as I admired Luis's horse-handling skills. Cute and good with horses. Perfect guy.
Tanner's mom came out of the barn. When Mrs. Everett saw Tanner sitting in the dirt she started running. Moms always think getting there fast will help once you've already hit the ground.
Mrs. Everett arrived just as Queenie asked Tanner, "Where are you?"
Tanner didn't quite roll his eyes, but it was a close thing.
"I didn't hit my head that hard," he said.
"You know the drill," Queenie said. "Concussions are no laughing matter." She looked in both his eyes. Then she held up a couple of fingers and asked him to tell her how many.
"Four," he said. "Really, I'm fine."
Queenie frowned and shook her head at him.
Tanner sighed. "Two." He unsnapped the harness of his helmet and handed it to the trainer.
Queenie rolled the helmet over until the side where his head had hit the dirt was on top. "He's going to need a new helmet," she said to Mrs. Everett. "Good thing you own a tack shop."
Mrs. Everett and her brother, Mr. Nelson, owned the tack shop where my mom worked as the bookkeeper. Still, I understood when Mrs. Everett winced. Helmets are not cheap.
"You didn't do this when Sophie fell," Tanner said.
Queenie's eyes narrowed. "Sophie didn't hit her head. You did. You'll just have to forgive me for caring."
As Tanner and his mom walked away, I heard her say, "You all right?"
"Mom, please. I'm not broken," Tanner said.
She put a hand out like she was going to put her arm around him, but then let it drop to her side as they walked back toward the barn.
Thank goodness. The only thing more embarrassing than getting tossed off your horse is when your mom goes all hovery on you.
When they got back to the barn, Tanner went on into the barn. I noticed that even though he'd said he was fine, his left leg looked pretty lame to me.
Mrs. Everett walked over to Luis, who still held Vee. She snatched the reins away from him and spoke to him like she wanted to pull him to pieces. Luis looked like he wanted to hit her. Instead he turned on his heel and pushed his wheelbarrow out toward the manure spreader. Mrs. Everett turned and yanked the horse into the barn.
What was that all about? I wondered.
She must have been really rattled by Tanner's fall to be so mean to Luis. Then I remembered. Mom said Mrs. Everett had been really grumpy lately. Maybe it wasn't just Tanner's fall that had her jumping out of her skin.
Fortunately, Mrs. Everett's bad mood was not my problem. After a few steps of the steady one-two-three-four rhythm of my mare's walk, Cricket and I caught up with Yasmine and Bourbon. She looked back over her shoulder and shrugged. "Poor Tanner."
I nodded agreement. He'd wanted to keep leasing Skittles, a piebald pony who jumped like a fiend. Most of us kids leased or half-leased Queenie's horses rather than buying our own. They were expensive enough just to rent. I couldn't imagine us ever having enough money to own a horse.
A rider cantered by and called out, "Inside."
Cricket and I dropped back behind Bourbon and Yasmine to give them room to pass. The tip of my friend's sleek black fishtail-braid ticked off the horse's rhythm like the pendulum on Uncle Charlie's grandfather clock. I wished I had long straight hair like her. Mine was always a snarl of dark blonde curls, all determined to escape my pony tail holder.
"Ready to go?" she asked.
I put my hand down on Cricket's neck.
"Yeah. Cricket's cool enough. How about Bourbon.?"
"He's good too," Yasmine said.
We followed the arena fence back to the exit gate. Tanner and his mom stood outside the arena. I tried not to stare as she grabbed Tanner by the arm and dragged him out to the parking lot.