Liberty and the Dream Ride (6 page)

BOOK: Liberty and the Dream Ride
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Stella looked furious, but Shane could see that they weren't going to talk Avery around. “It's OK,” he said. “We can catch up tomorrow and have lunch maybe?”

“Sure,” Stella said. She was trying to act cool, but her flushed cheeks and shining eyes showed just how thrilled she was to see Shane Campbell again. She'd never quite got over the boy she'd described as “the world's best kisser”!

“It's almost like a Havenfields reunion tonight,” Shane continued, referring to the farm where they'd first met when Stella and Issie had travelled to Melbourne to compete in the Express Eventing Challenge. “There's you guys and me… and Tara.”

“Tara?” Issie was shocked. “Tara Kelly is here?”

“Yeah,” Shane nodded. “I saw her just a moment ago. Hey, there she is! Tara!”

He gave a wave across the room and a cool, elegant woman with walnut-brown hair, wearing cream jodhpurs and a white blouse, waved back and came over to join them.

“Issie, Stella and – oh my goodness, Tom Avery!” Tara smiled warmly as she embraced her old friend. “How good to see you in Lexington!”

“You too!” Issie grinned. “I didn't expect to see you here.”

“Well, it's hardly that surprising, is it?” Tara said. “I do live here, after all.”

Tara Kelly had once been a world-famous eventing rider, but by the time Issie met her she had given up competing in favour of teaching. Tara wasn't just a teacher, however, she was also the chief talent scout for the legendary Blainford “All-Stars” Academy – an elite equestrian boarding school in Lexington, Kentucky.

Tara had once offered Issie a place as a pupil at her school – and although Issie had turned it down, there was no bad blood between them. In fact, Issie was thrilled to run into Tara once more.

“So why are you at this meet-and-greet?” Avery asked. “Don't tell me you're thinking about coming out of retirement and riding in the Four-Star?”

Tara shook her head. “My riding days are well and truly behind me, Tom.”

“Tara's already won Lexington three times!” Issie pointed out. “She needs to give the rest of us a chance!”

Tara smiled. “That's very kind of you, Issie, but I think I should warn you that I'm not leaving the field completely open. One of my former star pupils from Blainford is competing. I'm here as his trainer.”

“And who is this former pupil?” Avery asked.

“Ah,” Tara looked around the room. “Last time I saw him he was stuck talking to that awful blabbermouth Tiggy Brocklebent from
Horsing Around
magazine. I'll go and save him from her clutches and bring him over. I'll be back in a moment…”

Tara sashayed off through the crowd and a few seconds later she returned with her young protégé in tow.

“Now,” Tara said brightly, “allow me to do the introductions…”

Issie shook her head. “Ummm, Tara, actually you don't need to introduce us.”

Tara frowned. “What do you mean?”

The young rider standing next to Tara spoke up. “She means we've already met.”

“You've met?”

“Uh-huh,” the young man said with a grin.

Tara Kelly's young protégé was none other than Marcus Pearce.

With the Four-Star event just a few days from getting underway, all the competitors had arrived. By 6 a.m. on Monday morning the stables were frantic with activity as the grooms began their daily routine: feeding and watering the horses, mucking out the stalls and preparing for the day ahead.

Issie and Stella were among those making an early start. They had no trouble getting out of bed after their super-early night – but Stella wasn't happy about turning down Shane's offer.

“Shane will go off me completely,” she grumbled. “He's probably already met another rider who doesn't have a curfew – someone fabulous and gorgeous!”

“Shane isn't interested in anyone fabulous and gorgeous,” Issie said. “He likes you.”

“Thanks!” Stella said sarcastically.

“Oh, you know what I mean!” Issie said. She'd been dying to stay at the party too. Her conversation with Marcus and Tara had been all too brief – she would have loved to stay and hear more about life at Blainford Academy. Marcus had just left the school last year. He'd been Tara's star pupil, earning himself top honours in the eventing senior class.

“The Valmont stables are always waiting to snap up my best graduates,” Tara said.

“I was lucky,” Marcus said modestly.

“No, they were fortunate to get you,” Tara insisted. “And I'll be telling Mr Valmont that in person when he arrives.”

“He's coming here to watch you ride?” Issie asked.

Marcus groaned. “As if I needed more pressure!”

“The Valmont stables have great hopes for the mare that Marcus is riding,” Tara said. “Liberty is a real athlete with magnificent bloodlines, superb breeding and schooling.” She smiled at Issie. “Anyway, tell me about your mount for Lexington.”

“I'm riding Comet,” Issie said. “A fourteen-two hand high hill country pony from my Aunty Hester's farm in Gisborne.”

Tara frowned. “No, seriously. What are you riding?”

Comet might not have sounded like much of a prospect to Tara. He lacked breeding and class, but he made up for it with strength of character and raw talent – or at least that was what Issie thought. Her only concern about Comet was the dressage phase. He'd never been the most enthusiastic dressage pony, often getting bored with trotting around in circles when he could be jumping. However, during the past year at Laurel Farm the skewbald had been given extensive dressage schooling by Francoise D'Arth. Francoise had ridden as one of the members of the famed
Cadre Noir de Saumur
riding school, and had also been the head dressage instructor at
El Caballo Danza Magnifico
Stables in Andalusia. For three long months Francoise despaired of ever making progress, and had pronounced that Comet was unteachable. But then, one morning after a schooling session, she came into the kitchen at Laurel Farm smiling cheerfully. “We've made a breakthrough!” she told Issie. “All those months he acts like a buffoon and then today out of nowhere he does a perfect half-pass! It is like he read the entire dressage manual overnight. All of a sudden he seems to know the high-school moves – he is performing beautifully.”

It wasn't just Francoise's schooling that gave Issie confidence in Comet. She knew the skewbald's nature. The little pony was fiercely competitive and a dreadful show-off. Issie just knew that the moment he found himself in front of the huge crowd of spectators in the main arena at Kentucky, Comet would raise his game. The pony loved performing for an audience and the bigger the crowd, the better he would be.

Issie had anticipated that Avery would want to work on their dressage test today and so she'd helped Stella to tack the pony up in his dressage saddle and bridle. But when Avery arrived at the stalls he had other plans.

“I don't think Comet is in the right headspace yet,” Avery told Issie. “He's been cooped up during all the travelling we've been doing and he's tense and bored. He's likely to blow up in the arena and you'll end up in a fight with him.”

Avery turned to Stella. “Take off the dressage saddle and tack him up in the cross-country saddle instead. Issie – can you go and put your back protector on? I've booked the racetrack for the next hour.”

“The racetrack?” Issie was confused. “Tom, Comet is not a racehorse!”

“No,” Avery agreed, “but he needs a good gallop. The cross-country course is off limits so the racetrack was the next best option.”

Avery legged Issie up on to Comet's back and walked alongside her, leading the way through the stables to the northern fields where the training track was located. It was a broad strip of soft loamy soil, bordered on either side by white rails, just like a professional galloping track.

“So you want us to gallop?” Issie asked as Comet began to grab at the bit and sidestep like a crab in his eagerness to get moving.

“Not straight away,” Avery warned her. “He needs to get loosened up first, so give him a couple of circuits at the trot to get his muscles warm, then you can give him a good gallop to clear his wind.”

Issie set off round the track at a brisk trot, posting up and down in the saddle. Comet was a bit spooky at first, eyeing up a rubbish bin and skipping sideways as they rode past, as if the bin were going to come alive and eat him. But by the time they had completed a circuit the skewbald was in a totally upbeat mood and trotting rhythmically, the soft thud of his hooves on the sandy loam setting a steady beat.

“OK, take him up into a gallop now,” Avery instructed.

It was Issie's first time back in the saddle on Comet since they'd left England, and she worried that the week of travelling might have knocked the skewbald's fitness levels. Back at Laurel Farm she had spent the past few months working hard to get Comet fit enough to make it round the gruelling six-kilometre cross-country course in Kentucky. She'd given the pony regular interval training, trotting and cantering him through the forests that surrounded the farm, vital fitness work to prepare him for the cross-country. It was especially important for Comet since the 14.2 hand pony would have his work cut out for him rivalling the pace and endurance of the other horses who were full-sized hacks.

Had Issie done enough to keep him in top condition or had the past week in transit taken too much of a toll on the skewbald? As she eased him into a gallop and popped up into two-point position, balancing on her knees over the withers, she felt the pony beneath her answer the question almost immediately as he powered around the track, his strides eating up the ground.

The wind stung her face, and Issie's eyes began to stream tears as she came around to finish her first lap at a gallop. A full circuit of the racetrack was over a kilometre, enough to tire a racehorse, but Comet came past the post without breaking a sweat. Issie sat up a little in the saddle to slow him, but Comet didn't want to stop now. He continued to pull on the reins, demanding to be let loose so that he could go faster. Watching from the sidelines Avery waved Issie on to go around again. She gave him a nod then leant down low over Comet's neck and urged the skewbald on.

She was balanced up above the withers, rocking in perfect rhythm with the pony beneath her as they completed the second circuit. Avery waved them on again, and Issie actually clucked the pony and put her legs on to ask for even more speed. Comet responded without hesitation, and the thunder of his hooves on the track became faster and louder, pounding like the blood in Issie's veins as they stretched out in full gallop. They had ridden three kilometres when they passed the marker once more and this time Avery signalled with his hands to slow down. Issie sat back in the saddle and strengthened her grip on the reins. The pony was snorting and trembling from the thrill of the run and at first she had trouble convincing him, but she spoke softly to Comet and eventually the skewbald trotted, before taking a final lap at a walk to cool down. By the time they came back to join Avery Comet was swinging along with his ears pricked forward and looked keen to do it all over again.

Avery looked pleased. “He's fitter than he's ever been.”

Issie dismounted and ran up her stirrups. “He felt great out there. You were right Tom, he just needed to blow the cobwebs out. He's ready for this – I can feel it.”

Comet was much more settled by the next morning and when Avery arrived at the stables he instructed Stella to tack the skewbald up in his dressage gear ready for a solid schooling session.

Issie mounted up and Avery walked alongside her as they headed out to the arena, outlining his plan for the final three days of training before the competition began.

“We'll do some schooling today, but let's not run through the actual dressage test. Comet is smart and we don't want him to learn the sequences off by heart, or he'll anticipate your next movement and may change paces too soon. I've booked the showjumping arena tomorrow for three p.m., and we'll pop him over a course with a lot of twists and turns just to get you both in the groove again. Then on Thursday he can have a light schooling session after he's passed the trot-up…” Avery's sentence trailed off as he looked over towards the dressage arenas and saw Tara Kelly and Marcus with Liberty saddled up and ready. Standing beside them was a distinguished-looking middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit.

“Looks like Liberty's owner has arrived,” Avery said.

Mr Valmont was not alone. Two men, both dressed in suits and wraparound sunglasses, stood back and waited behind him while he talked with Tara and Marcus.

As Issie and Avery walked past with Comet, Tara called them over and did the introductions. “Tom Avery and Isadora Brown – this is Mr Valmont.”

“Call me Tyrel,” Valmont said as he shook hands with Avery.

Issie noticed that the hand extended to Avery was perfectly manicured and a diamond-studded watch hung round its wrist. Everything about Tyrel Valmont oozed wealth and success, from his sleek silver-grey hair, to his sparkling white teeth and tanned skin.

He exposed those perfect teeth now as he smiled at Issie. “I think I owe you a debt of thanks, young lady. Marcus was just telling me that you had a hand in keeping my mare out of trouble in Rio Rancho.”

“I'm just glad that she's safe,” Issie said.

“So am I,” Valmont said. He looked at Liberty. “This mare is a key asset in my stables and I wouldn't want anything else to go wrong.” Valmont looked sternly at Marcus. “There's no reason why we shouldn't be taking home the Four-Star trophy on Sunday, is there, Marcus? I expect you to go double-clear on The Asset in the cross-country and the showjumping, otherwise it might be time for you to start looking for a new stable to work for.”

“Uhhh, no, sir. I mean, yes, sir,” Marcus said nervously.

A mobile phone rang and one of Valmont's men answered it and then came over and whispered something to his boss.

“It appears I am required in a meeting,” Mr Valmont said.

“Don't you have time to stay and watch Marcus ride Liberty?” Tara asked.

Valmont looked at his watch. “OK,” he said. “But make it quick!”

When they reached the dressage arena Marcus began to warm up the mare, but Valmont shook his head. “I'm not paying you to trot her in circles, son,” he said. “Let's see some one-time canter changes now, please!”

“But the mare hasn't been warmed up yet,” Tara objected.

“I appreciate your interest in my horses, trainer,” Valmont said coolly, “but it would pay for you to remember that I'm the one in charge here.”

Tara fell into stunned silence and Valmont turned his attention back to Marcus. “That's a three-million-dollar mare you're riding,” he shouted out to him, “and you're treating her like a cart horse. Get her going!”

Issie was shocked by Valmont's rudeness. She saw a look of annoyance cross Marcus's face, but he didn't argue. He did exactly what Mr Valmont demanded, urging Liberty on into a fabulous collected canter straight down the long side of the arena, before turning the mare down the diagonal to do a series of flying changes through the centre of the arena. Issie could tell that Marcus was feeling a bit flustered and the changes were a bit ragged. Liberty wasn't quite ready and her muscles and her mind hadn't been warmed up properly. Horses were just like any other athletes – they needed to limber up and prepare for difficult tricks, like endless flying changes. All the same, it was an amazing effort and Issie was blown away as she watched Liberty perform. The mare was so beautiful and Marcus had clearly worked long and hard to develop a solid partnership with her. She wasn't an easy horse to ride, that was obvious, but when he got her going properly she looked stunning.

Valmont, however, was less impressed. “If I was scoring you on that I'd give you a six,” he told Marcus flatly as he brought the mare to a halt. “I expect every performance to be a nine or a ten with a horse like Liberty. Sharpen up your act!”

This time Issie really thought that Marcus was going to say something back to his boss, but he was saved by a mobile phone ringing as one of Valmont's men took another call and then interrupted them again. “I'm sorry, Mr Valmont,” he said. “That was your next meeting. They say they can't wait any longer.”

“Right,” Mr Valmont said. He shook hands briskly with Tara. “You've got lots to work on, haven't you?” he told her. “I'll be back on Friday to watch the dressage and we'll talk then.”

And with that, Valmont strode off across the arena heading for the gates with his men following dutifully behind him.

“Right!” Tara said briskly to Marcus after Valmont had departed. “Shall we get to work on those one-time changes?”

Marcus shook his head. “I think Liberty and I have both had enough for today,” he said darkly. And before Tara could argue with him, he'd vaulted down off Liberty and was leading the mare back towards the stables.

BOOK: Liberty and the Dream Ride
8.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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