The envelope in the schoolbag didn’t look like it could cause any trouble. It was a plain envelope, with no airs or graces about it, brown and slender with just two words written on the front in felt tip: Isadora Brown.
Issie had shoved the envelope into her schoolbag and promptly forgotten about it. It had nestled overnight beside her pencil case, getting squashed by her school jumper, and might have stayed hidden there if her mum hadn’t opened the bag to get her lunchbox out.
“What’s this?” Mrs Brown asked, picking the envelope up off the floor.
“My end-of-year report. You have to sign it so I can take it back to school,” Issie said, glancing at the envelope as she picked up the last piece of toast on her plate and stood up from the table.
“Thanks for breakfast, Mum,” she called over her shoulder as she hurried out of the kitchen with the toast in hand, heading for the laundry.
It was seven thirty and Issie was running late. Today was pony-club rally day and Tom Avery, Chevalier Point’s head instructor, had offered to pick up the girls and their horses in his truck from the River Paddock at eight. Stella and Kate would already be there by now, grooming and bandaging their horses. And Issie was still in her pyjamas!
“Have you seen my white jodhpurs?” she shouted out to her mum from the laundry. “You know, the good ones? They’re not in my room…”
Mrs Brown walked into the laundry, but didn’t answer. She had opened the envelope and was holding the report in her hand. She had a stunned expression on her face. “Isadora! Have you read this?”
Issie winced. Her mother only used her full name when she was in trouble. “No…” she said. “Mr Monagatti said we’re supposed to give them to our parents to open.” Issie looked at the piece of paper in her mum’s hand. “I didn’t think it would be… is it really that bad?”
“Bad?” Mrs Brown shook her head in disbelief. “Issie, it’s brilliant! This is one of the most glowing school reports I’ve ever read! You’re topping the class in maths and science. You’ve got A+ for your English and history marks. Your form teacher describes you as ‘above average in all subjects’.”
“I’m still useless at French,” Issie said, “Mr Canning says my vocab is OK, but I have trouble with my—”
“Issie,” Mrs Brown said, “French aside, this is a really terrific report card. Why didn’t you show it to me? You should be thrilled with it… Issie?”
Issie’s head had disappeared into the laundry basket as she desperately hunted for the missing jods.
“I forgot about it!” she said as she began to dig frantically through the clothes. “I went over to Kate’s after school and… Ohmygod! There they are!” Issie emerged triumphant with the jodhpurs. She looked at her watch. Seven forty! “Mum, can you give me a lift down to the paddock? I’ll never make it in time on my bike.”
Mrs Brown wasn’t listening. She was still poring over the report card. “Look at this! Your average mark for the term was 87%!”
“Mum!” Issie was frantic. “Can’t we talk about it later? I’m going to be late for pony club!”
“Oh, don’t let me hold you up with my brief moment of parental pride,” Mrs Brown said sarcastically, “I’m sure you don’t want to keep the horses waiting…”
Issie’s mum didn’t stop talking about the report card all the way to the River Paddock. Then when they arrived, she embarrassed Issie by going on about it again in front of the other girls and even telling Avery about her results!
“My school report was hopeless!” Stella grumbled as they loaded the horses on to Avery’s truck. “All my teachers went on and on about how I don’t pay enough attention in class. I told my mum that I’d pay more attention if they weren’t so boring!”
“I just about fell asleep in French class the other day,” Kate agreed.
“I know! I can’t stand French!” Stella groaned. “Mr Canning is bonkers. I can’t understand a word he’s saying!”
“It’s like he’s speaking a foreign language!” Kate added, and the three girls burst into giggles.
“Are you going to take it again for fifth form?” Issie asked.
Kate nodded. “I guess so.”
“I can’t believe you’re talking about this!” Stella said.
“I don’t even want to think about what subjects I’m taking next year. Only one more week of school to go and then seven weeks off! I’m going to spend every single day riding and I vow not to speak a single word of French!”
“What about cavaletti?” Issie said. “That’s a French word.”
“Then I shall refuse to jump them!” Stella said theatrically and the three girls fell about laughing again.
Stella and Kate were Issie’s best friends. Issie’s mum always said the three of them were like sisters – which was funny since the girls didn’t look anything alike. Stella had curly red hair, Kate was tall, with her blonde hair cut in a blunt bob, and Issie had long dark hair and olive skin, just like her mum.
“But inside, where it counts, you girls are identical,” Mrs Brown would say. “You’re all utterly horse-mad!”
It was a short drive from the River Paddock to the pony-club grounds. Avery was up front driving and the three girls sat in the cabin of the horse truck together. Behind them, in the very rear of the truck, were the horses. Comet, Toby and Marmite were all tied up in their partitions with a hay net each and the girls only had to open the back cabin door to walk through and check on them. Not that they really needed to, as the drive to the pony club was a brief ten minutes up the road.
“I can’t believe there’s just one more week of school,” Stella was saying.
“Remember this time last year when we were all going to Blackthorn Farm to help Hester with the riding school?”
The three of them had been keen to go back to Gisborne and help out again this year too, but Issie’s aunt Hester had decided not to open the school this summer. Her business training movie stunt horses was booming right now, and she had so much work on she couldn’t do both at once. That meant the girls were on the lookout for new holiday jobs.
As they unloaded the horses from the truck, Issie grabbed Comet’s tack. She had decided to ride the skewbald at the rally today because she knew they’d be doing lots of showjumping. Her other horse, Blaze, was a good jumper too, but was really best at dressage. The chestnut Anglo-Arab mare had once belonged to the famed El Caballo Danza Magnifico riding school in Spain, and Blaze’s son, Issie’s beloved colt Nightstorm, was there right now, about to begin his dressage training, just as his mother had done before him.
Comet, on the other hand, was no dressage horse. He got bored schooling – and let Issie know it by doing a cheerful buck if she tried to spend too much time on flatwork. Comet was a true showjumper and he was happiest when he was in the competition ring, showing off his style to the crowd as he flew fences that were bigger than he was!
Comet’s jumping prowess could be a problem sometimes. Issie would often turn up at the River Paddock to find him in a different field from the one he’d been put in the night before. No fence could hold Comet, Issie remembered the very first time she met the cheeky skewbald. He had jumped out of his paddock and had almost collided with Aunt Hester’s horse truck!
Hester had been driven mad by Comet’s antics when he lived at Blackthorn Farm. When Issie entered him in the Horse of the Year Show, Comet finally put his jumping ability to good use. His spectacular performance in the puissance won them prize money, and attracted the attention of celebrity showjumping trainer Ginty McLintoch, who offered to buy the skewbald on the spot!
But Hester had refused Ginty’s offer and given Comet to Issie instead. Ever since then, whenever Issie bumped into Ginty at showjumping events the flame-haired trainer always repeated her offer to buy the skewbald.
Ginty ran private stables in Chevalier Point where she schooled horses for wealthy clients and also ran a string of competitive showjumpers. Natasha Tucker was one of Ginty’s clients. The sour-faced blonde always made a point of telling the other Chevalier Point riders how brilliant her private lessons were. The way Natasha told it, Ginty was a proper instructor and would never waste her time with a bunch of useless pony-club kids the way Tom Avery did.
Ginty certainly had a reputation for being too posh for pony club. The one place Issie never expected to see Ginty was at a Chevalier Point rally day. So when she spotted the trainer standing over by Natasha’s horse truck talking with Mrs Tucker, she was utterly amazed.
“What’s she doing here?” Issie whispered to Stella and Kate. The three girls were all staring when Ginty suddenly turned round and caught them ogling at her.
Surprisingly, the haughty redhead gave them a wave.
“Ohmygod!” Stella said. “She’s coming over.”
Ginty was striding across the paddocks with a determined look on her face. Her gaze was set on Issie and Comet. She had obviously recognised the skewbald pony and was homing in for a closer look.
“Good morning, girls,” Ginty said briskly. “Lovely day for riding!” Having dispensed with pleasantries, she focused her attention on Issie. “How is Comet doing? Have you changed your mind about selling him to me yet?”
“He’s doing just fine,” Issie replied, “but he’s still not for sale.”
“I see,” Ginty said. “Well, I’ve got a couple of gaps in my team that I’m trying to fill this week before the competition season gets underway. You know where to find me if you change your mind.”
She presented a business card to Issie with her name and number on it, then turned heel and headed back to the Tuckers’ horse truck. The conversation was clearly over.
Tom Avery started the rally the same way he always did, with a gear inspection. There were over fifty club members present that morning, and after Avery had worked down the row, checking stirrup leathers and tutting over dirty bits and loose girths, he divided the ride up into four. The junior members were assigned their instructors and sent off to various training areas.
Only the most senior Chevalier Point members stayed with Avery in the jumping ring. There were eight of them. Issie, Stella and Kate were joined by their friends Dan, Ben, Annabel and Morgan, and Natasha Tucker was there too on Romeo. As a warm-up exercise, Avery had set up four jumps, positioned around the arena in a circle at three, six, nine and twelve o’clock.
“They’re not very big, are they?” Dan said with disappointment as he eyed up the jumps. The four fences were quite low, no more than half a metre off the ground.
“We’ll begin at this height as a warm-up,” Avery told him. “It doesn’t matter what size the fence is, I’m looking for good technique from all of you. You’re going to canter in a circle over the jumps, making sure you keep the rhythm steady between fences and aim for the centre of each jump.”
As the riders rode around the course, Avery focused on correcting their positions. He was particularly keen to observe how well they executed their crest release, making sure that they eased the reins up the neck at the moment the horse took off, giving their mounts enough freedom to stretch out in an arc over the jumps.
“Don’t just fling the reins at him, Stella!” Avery called out. “The release should be smooth.”
“Slow down his canter by sitting back between fences, Natasha,” Avery instructed.
Natasha didn’t look happy to be given advice. She glared at Avery, and then looked over to Ginty, who was leaning against the rails at the sideline watching the riders closely. Ginty’s eyes weren’t trained on Romeo, though. She was watching Comet. When Avery raised the rails of the fences to a substantial one metre high, Ginty couldn’t take her eyes off the skewbald as he jumped each fence cleanly and perfectly, taking off neatly at exactly the right time and maintaining a rhythmic canter stride all the way around the ring.
When the riders had finished their training for the morning, Issie could have sworn Ginty was still watching as she rode out of the arena, but by the time she had tied Comet up to the horse truck, the trainer wasn’t anywhere to be seen. Natasha was at her horse truck unsaddling Romeo, but Ginty had disappeared.
It had only been a rally day, but Issie was still thrilled with Comet’s performance. “Did you see the way he took the oxer?” she asked her mum as they drove home.
“What’s an oxer?” Mrs Brown said. Issie sighed. Her mum knew nothing about horses or riding. Issie was used to it by now, and she had long ago got over her envy for riders like Morgan Chatswood-Smith who had horsey parents. OK, maybe her mum wasn’t horsey, but Issie was grateful that she had always supported her.
She must have spent a fortune over the years on farriers and feed bills, lessons and grazing.
Mrs Brown even understood when Issie had to go to Spain to try and get Nightstorm back when the colt was stolen. So it must have been with serious consideration that she began the conversation in the car that day.
“Issie,” she said, “I’ve been thinking about your school report.”
Issie groaned. “Oh Mum, I get it, OK? You’re proud of me. That’s great. Can we move on?”
Mrs Brown shook her head. “I think this report proves what you are capable of. You’re growing up so fast. Next year you’ll be in the fifth form and it’s time that you started thinking about the future. What do you plan to do with your life?”
“You know that already, Mum,” Issie said. “I want to ride horses. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
“Yes, I know,” Mrs Brown said in a measured voice, “but Issie, that’s not a proper job, is it? Riding horses is something you love doing, but you need to think about what you are going to do with your life… as a career.”
“But I’ve already decided,” Issie frowned. “I’m going to be a competitive horse rider.”
“Sweetie, I think you need to be realistic.” Mrs Brown said. “What are the chances of you making a living that way? That’s why school is so important. If you continue to get marks like your last report, you could be anything you want to be. I’ve already put aside a university fund for you, so that’s not a problem. I think you just need a bit of solid workplace experience so you can think about what career you should focus on…” she took a deep breath. “I made a phone call today while you were at the pony club, and spoke to David, one of the partners at my office.”
Mrs Brown worked as a legal secretary for a large law firm in town. She had been part-time when Issie was little, but after Issie’s dad had moved away when she was nine, Mrs Brown began working full-time to make ends meet. Issie sometimes went to the office after school to meet her mum there instead of going straight home. The partners at the law firm were always nice to her, although she couldn’t really tell any of them apart. They were all tall men in dark grey suits with bald heads, polite smiles and very firm handshakes.
“Anyway, I told David about your latest school report,” Mrs Brown continued, “and he’s very kindly agreed that you can do work experience at the firm for the whole of the holidays. They’ll even pay you an hourly rate – it’s not much, but really it’s the experience that counts.”
“What?” Issie couldn’t believe it. “But I don’t want to work at your office!
“Issie, this is a great opportunity,” Mrs Brown insisted.
“I can’t believe this is my punishment for getting a good school report!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Isadora,” her mother said firmly.
“Well, it feels like that!” Issie couldn’t help herself. “It’s not fair!”
“Issie! You said yourself that you needed a holiday job.”
“But I don’t want to be stuck in some stuffy office!”
Mrs Brown was taken aback. “It’s not stuffy. We have excellent air conditioning.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Beggars can’t be choosers,” her mum pointed out. “You only have a week until holidays start and you haven’t found anything else yet.”
Mrs Brown was exasperated. “Either you come up with a magical job offer where someone is actually willing to pay you to ride ponies all day, or you will be coming to work with me at the law firm next week when school finishes.”
There was silence in the car. You could have cut the air with a knife. Finally, Mrs Brown spoke again, her voice calm and softer this time. “You’re fifteen years old, Issie. Maybe it’s time to grow up. Horses are all well and good, but they are not a real job. I’m thinking about your future.”
“Me too,” Issie muttered.
What else was there to say? Issie could see the future that her mother had planned for her. And there wasn’t a single horse in it.