Authors: Stacy Gregg
“I have to go back,” she told Lily. “It's not over yet.”
t had been a white Christmas in Kentucky and when the students arrived back at Blainford Academy they found the entire school grounds covered in a deep blanket of snow.
“If we can't actually see the quad, does that mean we're allowed to walk on it?” Alice wondered as the girls headed to the dining hall. “Technically we wouldn't be touching the grass.”
Blainford was a college steeped in traditions â and the square of turf in the middle of the school was deemed hallowed ground. Only prefects and schoolmasters were allowed to walk across the grass, as Georgie had found out the hard way on her first day at the academy.
Conrad Miller had caught her on the grass and given her Fatigues â a Blainford punishment that was a cross between detention and hard labour.
Conrad was the head prefect of Burghley House. There were six boarding houses at the academy, three for girls and three for boys. Each of them was named after one of the six famous four-star eventing courses in the world.
Georgie and her friends Alice Dupree, Daisy King and Emily Tait were all boarders in Badminton House. Kennedy Kirkwood, Arden Mortimer and their toxic clique of showjumperettes were in Adelaide House. Kennedy's brother, James, was in Burghley House with the vile Conrad. Georgie's eventing friends Cameron and Alex were in Luhmuhlen.
The third girls' boarding house was Stars of Pau and many of its occupants belonged to the dressage clique. Unlike other schools where jocks and geeks ruled the cliques, at Blainford the social scene was defined by what kind of rider you were and dressage placed you firmly at the bottom of the coolness order.
The polo boys and the showjumperettes â rich, spoilt and good-looking â considered themselves to be at the top. The eventing clique wasn't as flashy or glamorous as the showjumpers and polo players, but eventers still had an aura of undeniable cool about them. After all, to ride cross-country you needed nerves of steel and unshakable courage.
The first-year eventers came from all points of the globe, and although they were very different from each other, the riders had quickly formed a tight-knit bond. Their group included Georgie Parker, and her best friend Alice Dupree, a native of Maryland, and the third sister in her family to attend the college. Georgie's friend Cameron Fraser was an eventing rider from Coldstream in the Scottish Border country. Then there was Emily Tait, a shy New Zealand girl who rode a school horse, a jet-black Thoroughbred called Barclay. NaÃ¯ve and slightly nervous on the ground, Emily was a rock in the saddle and had won top placing in the mid-term exam.
Daisy King had been the only rider that Georgie actually knew before she arrived. Back in England, Daisy had been Georgie's stiffest competition on the eventing circuit. Unlike Georgie, Daisy could afford to board her own horse at Blainford. She had travelled her big, grey Irish Hunter, Village Voice, all the way from the UK.
Apart from Cameron Fraser, the other eventing boys included Shanghai-born and Oxford-raised Alex Chang and his grey gelding Tatou; over-confident Australian riding phenomenon Matt Garrett with his stunning dun gelding Tigerland; and the arrogant but extremely talented French rider, Nicholas Laurent and his horse Lagerfeld.
The eventing riders gathered together at their usual table in the dining hall for the first lunch of the new term. They were close friends, but also rivals, each of them striving to come top in the class. Class rankings were considered important in every subject, but in Tara's class they were especially crucial. Cross-country was the only class where the bottom-ranked pupil was routinely eliminated at the end of every half term.
Tara Kelly justified eliminations because of the very real danger involved with riding cross-country. If a student wasn't making the grade in her first-year class then she needed to be eliminated before getting hurt â or worse.
As they sat down to eat lunch, Emily, Cameron and Daisy were vigorously debating the new school rule that made air-tech inflatable jackets compulsory at all times on the cross-country course. At the other end of the table, Nicholas, who had just returned from Bordeaux, was raving to Matt Garrett about his brand-new Butet, a French close-contact saddle made from tan calfskin leather, insisting that it gave him superior lower leg contact.
Georgie, meanwhile, sat and picked listlessly at her lasagne. She looked up at the clock. It was almost time for the afternoon riding classes to begin. In a moment they would all be heading for the stables to tack up for their first cross-country ride of the new year. But Georgie wouldn't be joining them.
“So, you still haven't told me,” Alice said, leaning forward conspiratorially across the table to her, “what option class are you taking now?”
The rest of the table suddenly went quiet. It was the question that they'd all been dying to ask Georgie, but none of them had been brave enough to broach the subject.
Georgie didn't have to answer because at that moment Mitty Janssen came over to join them.
Mitty was a dedicated dressage rider who had aced the Netherlands auditions. Her two best friends, Isabel Weiss and Spanish rider Reina Romero were also dressage fanatics and boarders in Stars of Pau. All three girls were swotty and serious and known throughout the school as the âDressage Set'.
“Hi, Georgie,” Mitty said.
“Oh, hey, Mitty, how are you?”
“So,” Mitty smiled, “I heard the news that you're joining us! Do you need to borrow a pair of Carl Hester training reins? They're compulsory for first yearsâ”
“Uh, thanks, Mitty,” Georgie said, cutting her off. “I already bought some.”
“OK,” Mitty said cheerfully. “Well, I'll see you in class!”
“Yeah,” Georgie muttered. She didn't look up from her lunch. She could feel the eyes of the rest of the eventing clique staring at her with horror. Georgie Parker had joined the dressage class!
“You've got nothing to be embarrassed about,” Alice insisted as the girls walked towards the stables. “I mean, dressage is an important part of eventing. It's one of the three phases. So of course it makes sense to join the dressage class!”
“Do you really think so?” Georgie was relieved, “I thought you'd think it wasâ”
“Wussy?” Cameron offered.
“Totally lame?” Daisy suggested.
The eventers snorted and giggled.
“Yeah, great, guys, thanks for that. I knew I could rely on your supportâ¦” Georgie groaned. “Look, what else am I supposed to do? Dressage is something I need to learn, and besides, it fits the options timetable.”
“It's a good choice,” Emily said, trying to be supportive. “I mean, really we should all be taking dressage as an option. You live and die by your dressage points these days. Eventing's not just about showjumping and cross-country any more.”
“Hey,” Georgie said, “if you wanted to drop cross-country and join dressage too, I know that there're still a couple of spacesâ¦”
“Are you kidding?” Emily was horrified. “Trotting in circles like a nana? I'd be bored to tears!”
Georgie knew what she meant. An eventing rider lived for the thrill of galloping across country, tackling any obstacle that presented itself. After the wild, reckless excitement of Tara's class, she was well aware that Bettina Schmidt's dressage lessons would be ratherâ¦ sedate. Even so, she had to stay positive.
“Bettina is a great dressage teacher,” she told the others. “It's going to be cool.”
“For our lesson today,” Bettina Schmidt said, “we will be spending the entire hour and a half at the walk to focus on our lower leg position.”
“Strangle me with a martingale and put me out of my misery,” Georgie groaned. Beneath her, Belladonna shifted about restlessly. The bay mare had just spent the past two weeks being spelled for the school holidays and this was their first ride together. What Belle really needed was a decent canter to blow out the cobwebs. Instead, they were going to spend their whole lesson at the walk!
Georgie joined the back of the ride and resigned herself to her fate, but Belle wasn't so biddable. As the other dressage horses began to circle the arena, walking politely on the bit, their necks arched and their strides neat and regular, Belle began skipping about with frustration.
Despite Georgie's best efforts to calm her, the mare kept racing past the others and spent the first half of the lesson in a constant jiggly-jog.
When she finally got the mare to walk on and could concentrate on what Bettina was saying, Georgie realised that she didn't actually understand most of Bettina's instructions anyway.
“Ride from the hindquarters!” Bettina kept telling her. “Now try to feel each stride.
Stay off the forehand!”
For all Georgie knew a
might be a handstand! As it turned out, it was just a little circle. They spent the lesson doing endless little circles at the walk, and then bigger ones, also at the walk.
It was all so precise, so detailed and soâ¦ very, very boring.
“That was a brilliant lesson!” Isabel Weiss's eyes were bright with enthusiasm as they led the horses back to the stables after class. “I really noticed how deep my seat was by the end of the session, didn't you, Georgie?”
“Uh-huh,” Georgie agreed, stifling a yawn. “Do you want to come back to Stars of Pau with us after we unsaddle?” Mitty offered. “We've got a DVD that shows you how to do a piaffe in ten easy steps. We were going to watch it before dinner.”
“Umm, maybe some other time,” Georgie said. “I'll catch you guys later, OK?”
It was a relief to be alone again in the loose box with Belle. As Georgie unsaddled the mare she was surprised to see that she wasn't even sweating under her numnah.
, Georgie thought,
why would Belle break a sweat when she had only been dawdling around for the past hour and a half?
Georgie looked at her watch. It was quarter to five. It would be dark by five-thirty; she should really be untacking and heading back to the house. But she felt as if she hadn't really had a proper ride.
“Come on, Belle,” she murmured to the mare, flinging the saddle over her back again and tightening the girth once more. “Let's go â just you and me.”
Snow had begun falling as Georgie set out along the bridle path at the back of the stables. She watched the white flakes floating down from the sky, landing on Belle's jet-black mane. Georgie usually kept it neatly pulled so that it was short and tidy for plaiting, but over the holidays it had grown lustrous and long. Belle's hunter clip was growing out too. It had been almost a term since Georgie clipped her in grooming class.
Georgie's own hair was braided in two thick, blonde plaits and as she put on her helmet to leave the stables she came up with the genius idea of twisting her plaits and shoving the ends through the ear-hole sections at the sides of her helmet so her hair would cover and protect her ears from the cold. It looked a bit weird with her plaits poking out from her helmet at odd angles, but Georgie figured that no one was going to see her.
She rode past the snug indoor arena where they had spent their dressage lesson. It felt good to be outdoors, to feel the icy bite of the winter chill against her bare cheeks.
As soon as they were clear of the stables and had passed through the gateway where the bridle path led to the open fields, Georgie urged Belle into a trot. The mare had lovely, floaty paces and she lifted up beneath Georgie like a hovercraft, arching her neck and taking the reins forward. She snorted and pulled, keen to canter.
“Steady, girl,” Georgie cautioned the mare. The track was twisty and turny, and the ice had made the surface slippery â not ideal for canter work. Georgie decided to turn off the track, riding the mare across the open pasture towards an uphill stretch that led to the woods. As soon as they reached the hill Georgie tipped up into two-point position, put her legs on and Belle responded eagerly, her legs working like dark pistons making holes in the white snow.
Belle knew the terrain here well and, even though it was covered in snow, Georgie trusted the mare to be sure-footed as they cantered on. It felt so good to have some fun instead of walking around getting in touch with your seatbones!
As they crested the top of the hill, Georgie pulled Belle back to a trot as she saw the rider up ahead of her. At a distance all that Georgie could make out was the colour of the horse â a chestnut â and the rider's jersey â ice blue, the colour of Burghley House. Knowing her luck it would be Conrad Miller, and he would find some pathetic school rule about not being allowed out in the snow and give her Fatigues.
She had just decided to turn round and give them a wide berth, when the rider on the chestnut horse waved to her.
Georgie steadied Belle and peered at the horizon. The rider on the chestnut waved once more and then urged his horse on into a canter, coming up the hill from the other side towards her. Georgie watched the way he rode, completely fearless, relying on his perfect balance to control the horse, with reins held so long they were almost at the buckle. And then she realised that she knew him.
It was James Kirkwood.
James cantered right up to her and pulled his horse to a halt. “Hi, Parker. Have a good holiday?”
Suddenly face to face with him, Georgie's first thought was her hair. The hair earmuff trick had worked â her ears were nice and toasty. But she knew that she must look ridiculous, like some sort of demented Pippi Longstocking. And here she was for the first time with the boy who had dumped her last term.
“My holidays?” Georgie said, self-consciously trying to flatten her sticky-outy plaits. “OK, I guess.”
James grinned. “Don't give me too much detail, will you? We might end up having a conversation.”
Georgie wanted more than anything to pull her helmet off and fix the plaits, but she was certain she would have helmet-hair underneath. Luckily James didn't seem to have noticed the weird hairdo.