The chestnut mare tensed up as the girth tightened around her belly. It had been a long time since she’d been ridden and she was excited by the weight of the saddle on her back. As she moved about nervously in the stall the
girl with the long dark hair knew exactly how to handle her. She stayed calm, talking to her softly all the time as she cinched the straps up one more hole, before reaching for the bridle and gently slipping it over the mare’s pretty,
dished Arabian face.
“Easy, Blaze,” said Issie Brown. She knew what the mare was thinking because she felt exactly the same way. It was so strange being in the stables at Winterflood Farm again, just the two of them, getting ready to ride. Issie could hardly believe that only a few days ago she had been in Spain, galloping across the sunburnt fields of El Caballo Danza Magnifico.
Now suddenly, here she was back in Chevalier Point. It felt so weird to be home.
The flight back from Madrid to New Zealand had been very long. Her mother had met her at the airport yesterday and Issie had collapsed into her mum’s arms at
the arrival gates, burying her face to hide her tears. Mrs Brown couldn’t understand why her daughter was so upset. What on earth had happened?
“It’s Storm…” Issie had finally managed to gulp out.
“Storm?” Mrs Brown was even more confused. “But I got your email. You said he was safe. You told me you’d won him back in the race.”
Issie took a deep breath and dried her eyes. “I did win him back. But he’s still at El Caballo Danza Magnifico,” she told her mother.
“For how long? Is Francoise organising his transport home?”
Issie shook her head. “No, Mum, you don’t understand.” She paused for a moment, unable to bring herself to say the words and acknowledge the awful truth.
“Storm isn’t coming home. He’s going to stay in Spain. I’ve left him behind…”
The reality hit home when Issie arrived at WinterfloodFarm this morning and the colt wasn’t there. The stables seemed so empty without Storm. The farm had been his home ever since he was born. Issie had been right there when his mother Blaze had given birth to him in these very stables. Over the past six months she had raised Storm, marvelling each day at the changes in him as he grew up from a baby foal to a strapping young colt. He wasn’t just any foal – he was Blaze’s son and he meant the world to Issie. She loved him so much. Letting him go had been the hardest thing she had ever done.
Roberto Nunez, owner of El Caballo Danza Magnifico, assured her that it wasn’t forever. The colt would live at El Caballo Danza Magnifico until he was fully trained and then, one day, Issie would get him back again.
At least she still had Blaze. Issie ran her hand over the arch of the Anglo-Arab’s elegant neck, smoothing down her flaxen mane. As Blaze turned her pretty face
back towards her, Issie was struck once more by just how much the mare resembled her colt. Storm was a bay and Blaze was a chestnut, but mother and son still shared the same features, the dished nose, broad nostrils and wide, intelligent eyes that were the hallmarks of their Arabian bloodlines.
Blaze nickered softly, her dark eyes looking sorrowful as she nuzzled Issie. “You miss him, don’t you, girl?” Issie said softly, “I know. Me too…”
A sudden noise in the corridor startled the mare and she pricked up her ears. There were footsteps outside the stall, and then the sound of a bolt sliding as the top of the Dutch door opened and there was Tom Avery smiling in at them. He was dressed in his favourite brown jersey and his mop of thick, dark, curly hair was held back by a tweed cheesecutter cap.
“I just came to check on you. Is everything all right?” he asked.
Issie nodded. “Blaze is fine, Tom. I haven’t ridden her for over a year, or even seen her for the past month, so she’s bound to be a little nervous about being saddled up again…”
“I wasn’t talking about Blaze,” Avery said, his voice heavy with concern. “I meant you, Issie. Are you OK?”
Avery knew only too well how painful it had been for Issie to leave Storm in Spain. Although she had tried to act all grown up about it, he knew that deep down she was heartbroken. He had tried to talk to her about it on the flight home, but Issie had been too upset. She had put on her earphones and blocked out the world the whole way back. Avery had the good sense to leave her alone. But now they were home, he could see that Issie was still miserable. When she arrived at the farm this morning she had hardly said a word to Avery, and her instructor couldn’t help being
worried about her.
Issie kept brushing Blaze and didn’t look up. “I don’t need you worrying about me too,” she said defensively. “I’ve had Mum fussing over me ever since I got back. I was lucky she even let me out of her sight this morning.”
“She’s just concerned about you, Issie,” said Avery gently. “It’s understandable, after all you’ve been through…”
“I’m OK, Tom,” Issie insisted unconvincingly. “I just wish I knew for sure… did I do the right thing?”
Avery nodded. “El Caballo Danza Magnifico is the best dressage school in the world. They’ll give Storm the finest training. I have no doubt that leaving your colt behind was the right thing to do.”
“So why does it hurt so much?” Issie asked, her voice trembling.
“It’ll get better,” said Avery gently. “I promise. And do you know what I always tell my riders to do when they’re hurting?”
“Get back on the horse.” Avery smiled. “Of course, in your case you’re going to have to get back on two of them.”
He was right. Even with Storm gone, Issie had her hands full. Blaze had recovered from having her foal and was ready to start serious training once more Then there
was Comet. The stocky skewbald had been Issie’s star showjumper before she went away, and she was keen to get him primed for competition. The Chevalier Point Pony Club Annual General Meeting was being held tomorrow night, marking the beginning of a whole new season. Next weekend would be the first rally and then every weekend would be full of club days and competitions, dressage tests, one-day events and gymkhanas, and Issie had not one, but two super horses to ride!
Issie loved both her horses equally, but she was smart enough to know that they shouldn’t be treated the same. While Blaze was a delicate purebred, Comet was the opposite – a rough customer like all of the Blackthorn Ponies. After running wild for years on her aunt’s farmland, Blackthorns were a rugged breed, and they didn’t need mollycoddling. So, for the past three weeks of winter rain, she had left Comet grazing down at the River Paddock where other pony-club horses grazed. She knew that the hardy little skewbald would be just fine to face the elements in his thick, waterproof New Zealand rug.
Blaze, on the other hand, was much more fragile. Her Anglo-Arabian bloodlines made her sensitive to the cold. So Avery had offered to keep the mare stabled at
Winterflood Farm while they were away, and Stella and Kate, Issie’s best friends, had promised to keep an eye on her.
Now Issie was home and the worst of the rain was over. Blaze would be fine at the River Paddock from now on and today Issie planned to hack the mare there. Blaze
seemed to sense that they were about to leave the farm.
She moved about restlessly, her metal horseshoes chiming on the concrete floor of the stable block as Issie walked her outside.
“Take it easy on her,” Avery cautioned as he gave Issie a leg-up. “Blaze hasn’t been ridden for a long time so she’s bound to be a bit spooky.”
He was right. As Issie rode down the long, poplarlined driveway that led from Winterflood Farm Blaze seemed to take fright at every leaf that wobbled in the
wind. When they reached the end of the drive and a pheasant flew up from the undergrowth beside them, Blaze startled and leapt forward as if she were about to
bolt, but Issie held her back and calmed her down. She didn’t panic at the mare’s display of nerves and she never lost patience with her. Instead, she stayed relaxed in the saddle, whispering secret words to her pony in a soft, low voice, bonding with Blaze once more.
By the time they reached the wide grass verge of the riverbank that would take them to the River Paddock, Blaze wasn’t spooking at all. She was still fresh though,
and kept jogging, keen to break into a trot. Issie gave in and let the mare trot on, but Blaze still strained at the reins and Issie realised that the mare wouldn’t be happy until she was let loose to gallop.
She also knew what Avery would say, that Blaze wasn’t ready and they should take it slow, that galloping was probably a no-no. But at that moment Issie didn’t care. She was desperate to blow the events of the past weeks away and escape from her own thoughts, if only for a moment. She needed to gallop just as much as her chestnut mare did.
Issie stood up in the stirrups, adjusted her weight into her heels and then gently let the reins slide through her fingers, inching them out slowly enough to give Blaze
her head without losing control. She felt the mare rise up beneath her into a loping canter and then suddenly they were galloping, the grass below Blaze’s hooves dissolving into a green blur as they sped on.
Issie could feel her pulse racing, the wind whipping against her face, cold air stinging her cheeks. It felt good. After the heartache of the past few days, being back on Blaze made her spirits soar. She was consumed by the rhythm of the horse beneath her, surging forward, leaving everything else behind.
Blaze was in full gallop now, her strides lengthening. Issie stayed low over the mare’s neck and kept a tight hold on the reins. They were nearly at the River Paddock and she would need to slow the mare down soon, but not just yet.
As they came into view of the paddocks Issie found that she actually had to work quite hard to bring Blaze down from a gallop. The mare was bristling with energy
and high spirits and didn’t want to stop. But Issie worked the bit in her mouth and slowly Blaze gave in to her rider and began to canter and then, reluctantly, to trot.
Issie posted up and down in the saddle in a brisk rising trot, her eyes scanning the paddocks ahead of her. She was looking for Comet, but she was also trying to see if she could spot the other horses too. Kate and Stella both grazed their horses here at the River Paddock. Toby, Kate’s horse, was a rangy, bay Thoroughbred gelding, while Stella rode a cheeky, chocolate-coloured mare named Coco.
In the shade of the willow trees down near the river, Issie caught sight of Comet. He was grazing happily next to Toby, but there was no sign of Coco. Issie’s eyes swept the paddock. She couldn’t see her anywhere. Coco was probably just out of sight. There were lots of trees and dips and hollows in the River Paddock where
a horse might be concealed. The mare was bound to be here somewhere.
Then Issie caught a glimpse of something and suddenly she wasn’t so calm about Coco any more. At the far end of the paddock, beyond the willow trees near the
river, there was something huge lying down on the ground. At a distance, it looked to Issie like the shape of a horse – and it wasn’t moving. Issie felt a sudden surge
of panic. It had to be Coco!
There are lots of perfectly normal reasons why a horse might be lying down. But alarm bells were ringing in Issie’s brain. The horse lying there looked odd.
Something was definitely wrong. Issie’s first thought was colic, and it filled her with dread. Coco was a greedy little pony and with the new spring grass coming through she could easily have eaten too much and become colicky. That would explain why she was lying down. But lying down was the worst thing a pony with
colic might do. Stomach pains could make Coco kick at her own tummy with her hooves and she might injure herself horribly. If she did have colic, Issie needed to get her up immediately. She had to get Coco walking and keep her moving until she could fetch the vet.
By the time she reached the gates of the paddock, Issie was in a blind panic. She pulled Blaze up and vaulted off, hunting desperately in her pockets for the padlock key. Eventually, she managed to find it and work the lock. She pushed the gate open and led Blaze through. Toby and Comet, both excited to see another horse at
the paddock, did the normal thing and trotted up straight away to greet Blaze. The horse on the ground, on the other hand, didn’t budge. It was lying there at the
end of the paddock, utterly still. Now Issie really feared the worst. Was the mare even alive?
Slamming the gate shut behind her, Issie stuck her foot in the stirrup and bounced back up into the saddle. She urged Blaze straight into a canter and clucked the
mare on through the paddock towards the dark shape on the ground.
The horse was still lying there, perfectly motionless. However, as they came closer, Issie began to have doubts. Was it really Coco? It was quite definitely a horse – Issie could see the outline of its fat belly and legs sticking out from beneath a winter paddock rug. But as she approached, she noticed that it didn’t actually look like Coco. It was too big for starters. Also, getting even nearer, Issie could see that the horse wasn’t chocolate brown either. It was a piebald, with black and white
patches, a bit like a magpie.
There was no time to feel relieved though. Whoever this horse might be, it was still in big trouble. As Blaze reached its side, Issie had been hoping for some sign that the animal was still alive. Surely a healthy horse would raise its head to acknowledge them? But this horse didn’t even twitch a muscle as Issie dismounted
and began to walk towards it.
Issie was just a few metres away from the piebald when she heard the noise. She had never heard anything like it before. It sounded like a troll grunting. Not that
she had ever heard a troll grunt obviously, but it was that sort of sound, deep and guttural – almost otherworldly.
Issie took a few tentative steps forward. She was right up close to the piebald and there was no doubt that the noise was indeed coming from the horse. Now that she was right next to it, Issie could see the winter rug that covered the horse’s stomach rising and falling in time to the noise. Issie stared at the piebald lying on the ground in utter disbelief. This horse wasn’t sick or dead. It was fast asleep – and it was snoring.
Issie was about to take another step forward when the black and white horse suddenly stopped making the troll grunts and raised its head off the ground. Yep, there was no doubt about it. The piebald had been asleep all right!
Issie didn’t know whether to feel angry or relieved as she watched the pony lumber to its feet in a rather ungainly fashion. The gelding shook out his mane and looked at her with a dopey, heavy-lidded expression on his face.Issie stared as the piebald began to graze just a few metres in front of her. He was about the same size as Blaze, maybe fourteen-two hands. It was hard to be sure though because he wasn’t shaped like Blaze in the slightest. He was a tubby pony. Clearly, the only thing he really liked as much as sleeping was eating. He was a true piebald,
covered in big black and white splodges, with chunky white streaks through his black mane. He had a white muzzle and a star on his forehead which radiated out so that his whole face was sprinkled with white hairs in a salt-and- pepper effect. It was a bit of an ugly face, Issie assessed clinically, slightly too large and out of proportion with his body, and with a Roman nose to boot. As far as Issie could tell
with his rug on, the pony seemed to have decent enough conformation, apart from being overweight, but he was certainly no oil painting.
Even now that he was awake the piebald didn’t seem particularly alert. He cast a vacant glance at Blaze, showing complete disinterest in the mare. He displayed
even less interest in Issie who was still standing there, slack-jawed and staring at him. The piebald gave what looked like a yawn, then turned his rump on them both,
lowered his head and ambled off.
Issie was gobsmacked. She had never seen anything like it. Horses hardly ever lay down to sleep. They certainly didn’t snore. And she’d never met a horse who wasn’t in the least bit curious to meet another new horse before.
“Well, I’m just glad you’re OK,” Issie said. She was talking to herself though because the piebald wasn’t listening. He was grazing away and resolutely ignoring
her. “You are one kooky little piebald.” Issie shook her head. “Whoever owns you has got their hands full.”
She didn’t realise how right she was.