Authors: Bonnie Bryant
Carole looked sheepish. “Sorry. What I’m trying to say is, we can’t have the sleepover at my house after all. My dad has a date. He’s got reservations at this really fancy restaurant in the city.”
Stevie shrugged. “So? We’re old enough. We don’t need a baby-sitter.”
“I know,” Carole said. “And my dad knows that, too. It’s not that he wouldn’t trust us to stay alone. But I’m afraid that if he knew we were going to be at my house, he’d feel like he had to cancel his plans and hang out with us. And I know that we’d all have fun, but …”
Lisa nodded sympathetically. She and Stevie both knew that Carole’s father, Colonel Hanson, had casually dated a few different women since Carole’s mother had died a couple of years earlier. But he hadn’t been on any
New Year’s Eve dates at fancy city restaurants. That sounded really romantic to Lisa. “He’s skittish, huh?” she asked.
“A little,” Carole said. “I don’t want to give him an excuse to back out. I think he should go out and have a good time—you know, with other grown-ups.”
“Got it,” Lisa said briskly. “So your place is out. No problem—we’ll go to Stevie’s.”
Stevie was already shaking her head. “More bad news,” she said grimly. “And this time there’s no two ways about it. It’s
bad. My parents told me this morning.” She paused dramatically. “They gave Chad permission to have a New Year’s Eve party for all his creepy friends.”
“Ugh,” Carole said. “So much for that idea. We don’t want to be anywhere near that party.”
Lisa laughed. “Right. Not unless we want to spend the whole night watching Stevie and Chad sneaking live toads into each other’s beds.”
“Oh, please,” Stevie said with a sniff. “Toads, indeed. I think I can be a little more creative than that.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” Lisa said. “Anyway, I wish we could stay at my house. But my parents are going to a party on New Year’s Eve. And you know how my mother is.”
The other two girls just nodded. Mrs. Atwood was a worrier, and she tended to be overprotective of Lisa.
“Even though she lets me baby-sit for other people all
the time, she’d probably insist on calling a nanny service to come and stay with us,” Lisa said with a sigh. She knew that didn’t sound very logical, but her mother wasn’t always the most logical person in the world.
“Too bad it’s so cold,” Stevie said. “Otherwise we could ask Max to let us sleep in the loft.” The hayloft at Pine Hollow was one of the girls’ favorite spots for a sleepover—but only in warm weather. The stable itself was well heated, but the loft was drafty and could be chilly when a winter wind was blowing.
“Well, we’ll have to come up with something,” Carole said. “I guess if we have to, we can still have the sleepover at my house.”
Stevie could tell that Carole wasn’t thrilled about that option. She decided it was time to change the subject. “Hey, I want to try something,” she said. “I had an idea for a gymkhana event, but I’m not sure it will work.”
“What is it?” Carole asked, immediately looking interested.
“It’s sort of a leading race,” Stevie said. “The teams would have to see how many horses they could lead in a row from one lead horse and rider.”
“You mean like packhorses on a trail?” Carole asked.
Stevie nodded. “What do you think? Can we try doing it right now?”
Carole looked at the three horses doubtfully. “To be honest, I’m not sure it will work. Those packhorses get
special training to learn to follow the lead horse. These guys might not even understand what we’re trying to get them to do.”
“Especially Prancer,” Lisa said, sounding a little anxious. Prancer had originally been trained as a racehorse. She had started her new career as a school horse fairly recently, and although she had taken to it quickly, she wasn’t as steady and experienced as many of the other horses at Pine Hollow. And as a typically hot-blooded Thoroughbred, she sometimes got nervous and skittish when asked to do something new.
“Well, maybe experimenting with Prancer isn’t such a good idea,” Stevie agreed. “But we could try it with Belle and Starlight, right?”
Carole brought Starlight to a halt. She felt the skin on the gelding’s chest, right between his front legs. That was the easiest way she knew to tell whether his body temperature had returned to normal. “Okay,” she said. “He’s cool. I guess we can try it.”
Lisa led Prancer a short distance away to watch. “Do you want me to get a longer lead line from the tack room?” she asked.
Carole shook her head. “I think I remember how to do a tail hitch,” she said. “This line should be long enough if we do it that way. And Starlight almost never kicks, so it shouldn’t be dangerous for Belle. Should I try it?” All three girls had learned about tail hitches in their Pony Club meetings. Max had explained that a tail hitch was a
common method of hitching packhorses together on the trail. The girls had also seen the method used at the Bar None Ranch out West.
“Go for it,” Stevie said. She handed Belle’s lead line to Carole.
Carole took the line and, while Stevie took Starlight’s line, walked to her horse’s hindquarters, running one hand along his side to let him know where she was. Then she picked up his tail.
Starlight swung his head around and peered at her over his shoulder. He seemed curious but trusting. After handling the horse’s tail for another few moments, Carole carefully gathered the strands together and looped Belle’s lead line around them. Before long she had the line firmly knotted around Starlight’s tail, which was folded back on itself to make a neat, compact package.
Belle had her ears pricked forward. When Carole stepped back a little, the mare stretched her head toward Starlight’s tail and snorted. Starlight turned around again and gazed at Belle with what Carole would have sworn was a look of mild surprise.
“What do you think, boy?” she asked, giving her horse a pat on the hindquarters. “Do you like being in the lead?”
“Try walking him around,” Stevie suggested. “See if Belle will follow him.”
Carole went to Starlight’s head and led him forward a few steps. Belle snorted again as her lead line tightened.
To decrease the chance of injury, Carole had been careful to leave the rope short enough so that the mare couldn’t possibly get her leg over it. That meant that Belle didn’t have much choice about what to do. She took a few jerky steps after Starlight, but she didn’t seem happy about it.
Stevie hurried to her horse’s head. “Don’t worry, Belle,” she soothed her. “It’s okay. We’re just playing a little game of follow the leader, all right?”
She stood by Belle’s head and kept her hand on the halter as Carole led Starlight forward again. This time, with Stevie to guide her, Belle seemed much more comfortable. After a few turns around the ring, Stevie stepped back.
“Try it without me this time,” she said.
Carole nodded and kept Starlight moving. Belle rolled her big brown eyes in Stevie’s direction, but she seemed to have figured out what was going on. She kept the lead rope taut between Starlight and herself, which made the gelding’s tail look awfully funny as it stretched straight out behind him, but both horses kept going.
“Good girl!” Stevie cried in delight. She hurried forward to detach Belle from Starlight’s tail and give her a congratulatory hug.
“That was great,” Lisa called. “I didn’t think it would work.”
“Me neither,” Carole said. She smiled at Stevie. “I guess Belle is a faster learner than I thought.”
Stevie gave the mare a satisfied pat. “She’s brilliant,” she said. “I’ve always said so, haven’t I? Come on, let’s give these guys a good grooming. They deserve it.”
SHORT WHILE LATER
the three girls met up again in the tack room. One of Pine Hollow’s rules was that all riders were supposed to take care of the horses they rode. That included cleaning their tack after every use. Max said that having the riders pitch in was the best way to keep expenses down. But the girls knew that he also thought it was the best way to make sure his students understood that riding didn’t begin when a person climbed into a saddle and end when he or she climbed out.
Luckily, cleaning tack allowed the girls to talk to each other while they worked. That meant it was usually a good time for a Saddle Club meeting.
“Okay,” Carole said as she picked up a sponge. “Time to figure out what to do about New Year’s Eve.”
Before the other two girls could respond, a frantic voice came from the hallway outside. “Max? Are you in here?”
A second later Max’s wife, Deborah, poked her head into the room.
“Oh, hi, girls,” she said. She was carrying her seven-month-old baby, Maxine—already nicknamed Maxi—in an infant carrier, a sort of reverse backpack that nestled against her chest. The baby looked perfectly content to
be riding that way. She was smiling and sucking on a pacifier. Maxi’s mother, on the other hand, looked more than a little frazzled.
“Hi, Deborah,” Lisa said. “Hi, Maxi.” She jumped to her feet and reached out to tickle the baby. Maxi gurgled with delight, spitting the pacifier onto the tack room floor. “Oops,” Lisa said, reaching down for the pacifier. “Sorry about that.”
Deborah didn’t even seem to notice. “Have you seen Max lately?” she asked.
The three girls shook their heads. “Is anything wrong?” Carole asked.
Deborah sighed. “Yes. No. I don’t know.” She threw up her hands in exasperation. “There’s a potential new riding student due to arrive here any minute. Max is supposed to be here to talk to her and check out her ability, but there’s no sign of him.”
“Oh,” Carole said. That didn’t sound like much of an emergency to her. Why was Deborah so upset? “Don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll turn up soon.”
“I hope so,” Deborah snapped. “The last thing I want to do is carry Maxi around on a stable tour. I don’t think the new rider would be very impressed with that.” Suddenly her voice changed from annoyed to upset. “Besides, I can’t judge anyone’s riding ability. I just don’t know enough.”
The three girls exchanged looks. Deborah seemed very
agitated. In fact, she was clearly on the verge of tears. And even if they didn’t understand exactly why she was getting so upset about nothing, they had to try to help.
“It’s okay, Deborah,” Stevie said quickly. She stood up and tossed the saddle soap she was holding into the bucket by the door. “I’ll go see if I can rustle up Max. Or maybe Red.” Red O’Malley was the head stable hand at Pine Hollow. If Max couldn’t be located, Red would be able to take over with the new student.
As Stevie rushed out the door, Carole stood, too. “I’ll go tack up one of the horses,” she offered. “Maybe Nero, if he’s in his stall. That way he’ll be all ready when the new student is ready to ride.” Within seconds, she disappeared, too.
Deborah seemed slightly stunned by The Saddle Club’s quick response. “Thanks, girls,” she said, even though Lisa was the only one left in the room.
Lisa looked at Deborah more carefully. She could see that Deborah had black circles under her eyes. It was obvious that she was on the edge of exhaustion. Suddenly Lisa remembered that Max’s mother, known to one and all as Mrs. Reg, had departed a couple of days earlier for a week’s visit to friends in California. Mrs. Reg helped Max run Pine Hollow, taking care of many business matters and lots of paperwork, in addition to other stable jobs.
That must be why Deborah looks so tired
, Lisa thought.
She’s been doing Mrs. Reg’s job around here, as well as her own job and looking after Maxi. That’s a lot of work!
“You look kind of tired,” Lisa said hesitantly. “Do you want me to hold Maxi for you for a few minutes? That way you can talk to the new student in case Stevie can’t find Max right away.”
“Thanks, Lisa,” Deborah said gratefully. “I’d appreciate that.” She started to unhook the straps of the carrier. “This front pack is a miracle. It’s definitely the easiest way to carry a baby, in my opinion. But Maxi is still heavier than she looks.” She grinned weakly. “Max says it’s because she eats like a horse.”
Lisa laughed and held out her arms. Deborah slid her own arms out of the carrier and attached it around Lisa’s shoulders. Lisa put her arm around the baby, who settled against the curve of her stomach.
“Neat,” Lisa said, looking down at the tufts of hair on top of Maxi’s head. “It’s like carrying her around in a pouch, like a kangaroo.”
Deborah chuckled and stretched. “It really is handy,” she said. “The only drawback is that Max keeps threatening to take her on horseback in it.”
Lisa laughed again. When Deborah had met Max, she had hardly known one end of a horse from the other. These days she was a little better informed. But, as she liked to put it, she still didn’t eat, breathe, and sleep horses the way her husband did.
“Don’t worry,” Lisa joked. “We won’t tease you too much if your daughter is a better rider than you are by the time she’s four years old.”
“That won’t bother me,” Deborah said with a wry smile. “In fact, I expect it. I just don’t want her to be able to ride before she can walk!”
HERE’S THE HORSIE
?” Lisa cooed. “Where’s the horsie? Here’s the horsie!” She pulled the stuffed toy out from behind her back and wiggled it in Maxi’s face. The baby giggled and reached for the brown corduroy horse with both chubby hands. She hooked her fingers in the toy’s yarn mane, and Lisa let her take it.