Authors: Janet Rising
Now you've warmed up I'll put up a few jumps to see how the ponies tackle them. Who wants to lead?” asked Sophie, leaning back against the fence of the outdoor school and looking at us all.
“I will,” volunteered James, steering Moth to the outside track and halting. Katy and Bluey slipped in behind them, followed by Cat with Bambi, Bean and Tiffany, Dee and Dolly, and finally, me and Drum, trying to get as far away from Cat as possible.
“What's all this about?” asked Drummer, his black-tipped ears twitching. With his blanket clip, he was two-tone bayâall shiny and smooth on his front half, all mahogany and fluffy on the back.
“It's very exciting,” I told him. “We're in training for an activity ride!”
“No need to ask who'll be responsible for all the activity!” snorted Drum.
I had my two-thousand-year-old stone statue of Epona, Celtic goddess of horses, in my jacket pocket, which is how I can hear what Drummer says. Ever since I found the stone statue of a woman sitting sidesaddle on her stone horse, when Drum and I first moved to Laurel Farm, I'd been able to hear what horses and ponies were saying. The only person who knows that Epona takes the credit for me hearing ponies is Jamesâeveryone else believes I'm a Pony Whisperer. Well, explaining would be too tricky, and everyone would want Epona, wouldn't they? That's my excuse, and I'm sticking to it.
Sophie manhandled the yard's lightweight jump blocks into the outdoor school in a line of twos, placing a single pole on each pair to make five jumps in a row along the center. They were only a couple feet high, but without wings we had to meet them in the very center of each pole to avoid the ponies running out.
“OK, I want you to go over these individually, then we'll try it as a ride,” said Sophie.
James, Katy, and Cat each did well with the line of jumps. Bean's palomino mare Tiffany, however, was sort of scared.
“Five jumps? In a row? You what?” I heard her snort, drawing herself up to look at least a hand bigger than she was.
“I'll just be a minute,” explained Bean, who was used to her pony thinking everything was out to get her. She rode Tiffany around the jumps until she settledâa littleâthen headed for the first one. Tiffany has a unique jumping style where she sticks her head up in the air and hurtles at the fence like it's a power wall. She could get away with this approach under normal circumstances, but with a row of five jumps, Tiffany was almost on top of the second jump as soon as she landed after the first, giving her the perfect opportunity to do two outsârun out and freak out.
“Not quite the idea,” said Sophie dryly, putting her hands on her hips.
“She'll be OK, she just needs to get used to it,” grinned Bean.
“I hope so, Bean,” said Sophie, “because Tiffany has to jump in a rhythm for this to work. Can you practice on your own until she does?”
“Yes, of course,” nodded Bean. “I'll get Pia to help me.”
, I thought. Then I realized she wanted me to talk to Tiffany and explain why it was important to jump properly. I could do that, no problem.
We all turned, fascinated, to watch the novelty of Dee and Dolly going along the line of jumps. We'd never seen them get totally off the ground beforeâDee had always been banned from doing anything interesting. But beautiful Dolly took it all in her stride.
“Jumps! Wow!” I heard her say, pricking up her ears and cantering toward them. Sophie had bandaged her legs for protection, and Dolly popped neatly over each jump, her swaddled legs a blur of pink wool.
Then it was my turn. As I headed Drummer for the grid of jumps, I heard him chuckle and my heart sank.
“Shall I run out? Shall I refuse? Shall I trot over some, canter over others, and kick another over?” I heard my bay male horse plotting. But he didn't do any of those things. He popped over them like a perfect pro. What a little liar! I heaved a sigh of relief. I didn't want to end up having to practice something I knew Drum could do in his sleepâif he wanted to. Or, worse, for us to get rejected from the ride before we'd even begun. Showing off in front of Cat came into it too.
“Great!” enthused Sophie. “You're all wonderfulâexcept you, Bean, but you know what you have to do. Now put yourself at the back, and we'll try it as a ride.”
That went sort of OK. Drummer got very excited, being the last to go, and Moth, going all out as usual, was over the last jump before Bluey, behind her, had gotten over the first, but we managed it.
“OK, not bad,” said Sophie. “We'll come back to the jumping later. Now I want to see how you and the ponies go as a ride. Stay in the order you are and ride around the outside track while I get rid of these jumps.”
So we did. I was glad Tiffany and Dolly were between Bambi and Drum. Not only could I see the others from that position, but Drum and Bambi were sort of a thing these days. When we first got here, Bambi hated Drummer, although he (for some unfathomable reason) thought she was the best thing since sugar cubes. Things didn't improve until Drummer found Bambi after she'd been stolen, and ever since then Bambi has warmed to Drum. She's warmed to him to the point of being scorching hot, and now the pair of them are like those annoying couples you see during breaks at schoolâtotally gross! When I see Drum and Bambi nuzzling each other in the field I think,
, but when I'm riding Drummer, and he's supposed to be working, and he starts sidling up to Cat's skewbald mare and being all sappy, I just think it's annoying.
Aaaaanyway, we trotted around behind the others and I thought the different colors of the ponies looked really nice from my vantage pointâand was grateful Drum was nowhere near his beloved Bambi. This, I thought, is a great place to be in an activity ride and perfect for someone (like me) who isn't blessed with a superduper memory. I could easily see what I had to do and just follow the others. A weight-off-my-mind moment, definitely.
Unfortunately, Sophie didn't share my thoughts.
“James, you'll have to slow down. You're leaving the others behind,” she told him as Bluey struggled to match Moth's stride and the gap between them widened.
James turned in the saddle. “Oh, come on, Moth's barely trying!” he said. Moth rattled on, eating up the ground. A bright chestnut with a white blaze and four white legs, she always went everywhere in a hurry. She was the one pony I never heard speak. Trusting James alone, Moth talks only to himâwhen he borrows Epona from me as translator.
“Moth always storms along as though her tail's on fire,” moaned Cat. Lively Bambi wasn't exactly a limo, horse-wise either, and couldn't keep up with James. Tiffany, on the other hand, had a longer stride.
“I'll go behind James,” volunteered Bean, cantering into the gap.
“Oh great,” moaned Katy, after another circuit, “now both of you are lapping the rest of us.”
It was true. Moth and Tiffany were streaking ahead.
“Mmmm, that won't do,” said Sophie, shaking her head. “You two are going to have to slow down. And besides, if you're in second, Bean, you'll be a leader at some point, and Tiffany isn't reliable enough to do that job. Let's try Katy in the lead.”
So we did. But that didn't work either. Poor Bluey, Katy's chunky blue roan, held up everyone. The best at jumping cross-country, Bluey's stride was too short to be a leader.
“You'll have to go at the back, Katy,” Sophie told her. “You can cut the corners to catch up without hurrying poor Bluey along. Let's try Cat and Bambi in the leadâPia, you put yourself behind them, then James behind Drummer, Bean behind James as Moth's and Tiffany's strides match and they'll make a good pair, then you, Dee, because you can get Dolly to alter her stride, and finally Bluey. Come on, let's try it trotting!”
“Thank goodness!” I heard Bluey puff. “I thought I was going to pass out there for a minute.”
Drummer was thrilled. Trotting along behind Bambi's ample chestnut-and-white backside, I could hear Drummer sigh in contentment. He was thrilled. Thrilled didn't explain how I was feeling. My plan had been to stay well away from Cat, and here I was, thundering along behind her. And what happened to me being able to copy the others?
“Now we'll try some simple drill movements!” yelled Sophie. “Whole ride turn up the center from C to A, then split up at Aâfirst left, second right.”
, I thought as I turned Drum away from Bambi and we rode along the long side with lots of beautiful nothing in front of us. Maybe I could cope after all.
“Now get level with your partner as you ride along the long side and come up the center again in pairs!” yelled Sophie.
What? My partner? Of course, being second meant I was paired with Cat. My heart sank. This was
not turning out as I had anticipated.
We managed it. It's not easy being a pair with someone you're not talking to.
At least there is one blessing
, I thought. Usually, I expected Cat to make snarky comments: with her concentration on the drill riding and with Sophie overseeing us, she was at least mute, rather than rude.
“Oh that's fabulous!” enthused Sophie. “Drum and Bambi make a perfect pair. Their strides match completely. Moth and Tiffany are good togetherâI knew they would beâand Dee, if you can get Dolly to shorten her stride just a shade more, she and Bluey will match too. Just remember to cut the corners rather than rushing as it looks more professional. Super!”
Was Sophie joking? Drum and Bambi a perfect pair? Did that mean Cat and I were stuck together for the rest of the ride?
Suddenly, this activity ride didn't seem like such a great idea, after all.
“The colors work well too,” Sophie continued. “A skewbald and bay in front, Moth and Tiffany look well together being chestnut and palominoâespecially with Moth's white legsâand Dolly and Bluey are shades of gray. Perfect! You all look fantastic!”
Cat glanced across at me with a thunderous expression, and I realized that she hated being paired with me just as much as I with her.
Sophie must know how much we don't get along
, I thought. She had to realize how tricky it made things, putting us together.
Cat could bear it no longer. “Are you certain Bambi and Drum should be paired?” she shouted. “I think Drummer's having trouble keeping up with Bambi.”
“He most certainly isn't!” I said, angry on Drummer's behalf.
“No, I most certainly am not!” said Drummer testily.
“Yes, yes, you look fabulous together!” enthused Sophie, ignoring her cell phone's ringtone for once. “Now let's try some more movements. As you come up the center line this time and split up, I want you to come across the school from the quarter markers and go across the middle diagonally, one at a time, in the same order you are in single file. Got that?”
I thought so. We came up the center in trot, we split up, we turned diagonally across the school, and I let Catriona and Bambi go first before urging Drummer onto the opposite side, aware that James and Moth were storming along behind Cat and racing us across the middle.
“Slow down, James!” yelled Sophie.
“Hurry up, Pia!” yelled James, reining in Moth.
“You're going too fast!” I yelled back, urging Drummer on. Drummer broke into a canter and sped for the opposite side of the school.
“Slow down, Pia. You're not supposed to canter!” yelled Sophie.
“Who am I supposed to go in front of?” asked Bean.
“Me!” shouted Dee. “Hurry up!”
“Slow down, Bluey can't go that fast!” complained Katy as her blue roan scuttled along, puffing.
“Stop, stop!” shouted Sophie, rather unnecessarily as Tiffany, Dolly, and Bluey formed a pileup in the center.
“Is everyone supposed to be just milling around?” asked Drummer, and we pulled up.
I leaned forward and patted his bay neck. “No, we're not,” I explained. “We haven't got the hang of it yet.”
“Yet? You're optimistic,” I heard him murmur.
“You have to keep your heads on straight,” instructed Sophie, “and look at what everyone else is doing so you can adjust your own pony's stride. You need to ride without looking at your pony, but at everyone else so you know where they are and where you're supposed to be next. Don't worry, though, these things are always a mess at the start. You'll soon get the hang of it after a few practices.”
“Are you sure?” said Bean doubtfully.
“Positive!” said Sophie firmly. “You'll soon be flying over the jumps in formation. I promise you! Now let's try again.”
“What does she mean, a few practices?” asked Drummer.
“We need to practiceâwe're going to perform at an Equine Extravaganza,” I told him.
“How many is âa few'?”
“Don't start,” I said, my heart sinking.