Liberty and the Dream Ride

 

Book eleven: extract

The horses inside the belly of the 747 cargo plane were restless. For eleven long hours they had been cooped up in their tiny stalls, unable to move or do anything more than nibble at their hay nets.
Now, at last, they were almost there. Dawn was breaking across the skies above Los Angeles and very soon the plane would be landing and the horses would be craned down on to the tarmac in their shipping stalls, ready to be moved on to their final destinations.
There were three horses in the transporter stalls. In the first was a sleek mahogany bay Thoroughbred, bound for the racetracks of Flushing Meadows and Belmont. Too nervous to eat, the bay horse hadn’t touched his hay net for the entire journey. He was anxiously moving about in his tiny stall, disturbed by the whine of the plane engines and the strange smells and sounds all around him, an atmosphere so different to his serene life in the stables back home in England.
Beside the Thoroughbred, standing in the next stall, was a chestnut stallion. He was even bigger than the bay, standing at seventeen hands. He was solidly built too, a heavy-set Oldenburg with a muscular physique that could have been carved from granite. The sire of countless colts and fillies, this Oldenburg stallion possessed a bloodline that was valuable beyond measure. Like the Thoroughbred, he had been restless throughout the flight, fretting and snorting at every sudden bump and jolt of turbulence.
The third horse onboard the plane looked positively tiny by comparison. He was a mere pony – standing only fourteen-two hands high. Unlike the Thoroughbred and the Oldenburg, who clearly had noble blood in their veins, this pony was a ragamuffin. His stocky conformation and coarse chestnut and white skewbald coat betrayed his lack of breeding. He had spent most of his life sleeping rough without so much as a rug, even in winter. He had never been pampered and he certainly wasn’t accustomed to being on fancy jet planes. And yet, of all the three horses, he was the one that coped the best with this epic journey. He had settled immediately in his stall and during the course of the trip he’d eaten his way through a miraculous eight netfuls of hay and kept the two grooms assigned to his care constantly on their feet with his antics and demands.
“He’s a real comedian,” the groom with bushy eyebrows said as he offered the skewbald water from the bucket he was holding. He stood and watched the gelding make a fuss, snorting and blowing theatrically as he drank.
“Did you see the way he swiped my sandwich out of my hand this morning?” The other groom, a sandy-haired man replied. “Man, he is one cheeky pony! I’m really gonna miss the little fella.”
“Well, I ain’t gonna miss him!” The groom with the bushy eyebrows glared at the skewbald. “He pick-pocketed my cellphone when I was doing up his halter and he bit the aerial off before I could get it back again!”
“What breed do you suppose he is, anyway?” The sandy-haired groom, whose name was Clement, leaned up against his stall and stared at the skewbald. “He don’t look like no purebred I’ve ever seen.”
The bushy-browed groom was called Harrison. He eyed the skewbald warily before stepping forward to lift the clipboard down off the wall to examine the pony’s paperwork. “It says here he’s a Blackthorn Pony,” he replied. “Now what in the blue blazes is a Blackthorn Pony?”
“I’ve heard about them,” Clement said. “They’re from New Zealand, a wild breed from the hill country near Gisborne. They’re small, just like this little guy here, but they’re bred to jump.”
“Well this one must jump pretty darn high,” Harrison said, “because it says here that he’s travelling to Lexington for the Kentucky three-day event.”
“You’re kidding me!” Clement said. “That’s a four-star competition! The best eventing horses in the world are going to be competing at Kentucky. That’s no place for a little guy like this.”
The bushy-browed man shrugged. “I ain’t arguing with you, Clement, but that’s what it says on the forms.”
Clement gazed at the skewbald and shook his head in disbelief. “What kind of a crazy man takes a pony like this to a competition like that?”
Harrison examined the last page of the skewbald’s paperwork. “Not a man,” he said, “a girl.”
He peered at the papers. “This pony’s owned by some teenager and she’s requested fast-tracking through quarantine because she’s planning to ride him in a week’s time in the Four-Star.”
“So you’re telling me that a teenage girl is riding him at Kentucky?” Clement said. “All right then, what’s the name?”
“It says here the pony is called Comet.”
“No, no,” Clement shook his head. “Not the pony’s name! I mean the girl! What’s the girl’s name?”
“Oh, right,” Harrison shuffled through the papers once again. “Here it is!” he said at last. “The rider’s name is Brown . . . Isadora Brown.”
Isadora Brown stood on the tarmac at Los Angeles Airport, shielding her eyes with her hands as she peered into the sky.
“I hope he’s OK, Tom,” she said to the tall man with brown curly hair standing beside her. “You know what Comet’s like. He’s not used to standing still for more than a minute. He’s probably tried to jump out of the shipping stall by now. Eleven whole hours in a plane is going to drive him insane . . .”
“Issie, relax!” Tom Avery said. “He’ll be fine. Have you ever known Comet to be fazed by anything?”
“As long as there’s food he’ll be happy,” Stella agreed. “That pony is ruled by his stomach!” She looked over at Avery. “Do you suppose the horses get to choose what they eat on the plane?”
Avery frowned. “What are you talking about, Stella?”
“You know, do they get a menu?” Stella said, “Can they choose, like, the vegetarian option?”
“Stella, they don’t get served dinner on a tray. All they get is hay,” Avery said. “And, do I really have to make the obvious point that all horses are vegetarians?”
The bubbly red-head was about to open her mouth to speak again before Avery added, “and before you ask an even stupider question, the answer is no, there are no in-flight movies for the horses. It’s a cargo plane, for Pete’s sake!”
“Poor ponies,” Stella said, “how boring for them.”
“Hey!” Issie pointed at a plane taxi-ing towards them. “Look! That must be him!”
The plane with three distinctive red cubes painted on the tail eased to a stop beside the cargo hangar. Issie wanted more than anything to race out across the tarmac and greet her horse, but she was caged behind the wire fence surrounding the quarantine area.
Issie groaned. “This is awful, being so close but not being able get to him!”
“It’s only another 48 hours,” Avery said, “just until he clears quarantine. We’ll fill in the paperwork today and then in two days we can claim him from the stables . . .”
Issie was only half-listening. She was staring at the crates being forklifted from the 747 on to the tarmac. She’d watched a bay horse and a chestnut being loaded out and now at last she caught sight of a familiar face with chestnut and white patches sticking up over the top of the high walls of the shipping crate. There he was, just as she remembered him, with that same cheeky expression, his eyes bright and curious as he checked out his new surroundings.
“Comet! Over here!” Issie shouted but her voice was drowned out by the noise of the jet engines. “Comet!” she tried again and this time the pony heard her. His ears pricked forward and he turned his face in her direction and gave a vigorous whinny as if to say “Hey! Here I am! Get me out of here!”
Comet’s eyes were glittering with excitement, his nostrils wide. He gave another wild whinny and Issie shouted back to him. “Only two more days! I’ll see you soon!” She pressed her face to the wire mesh as the forklift picked up Comet’s crate once more and ferried the shipping stall away towards the hangar at the far end of the runway.
Issie watched him go, the wind from the jet engines whipping her long dark hair against her cheeks. She felt Avery’s hand on her shoulder. “They’ll take good care of him,” her trainer reassured her. “These international air transit grooms are experts in equine care, they know exactly what to do. Comet will have lost as much as twenty kilos from dehydration on that flight. He’ll need to drink and eat lots to get over his journey. By the time we get him on Thursday he’ll be fit and ready to leave for Lexington.”
“Until then,” Stella said, “I say we go sightseeing. I’ve got a map of LA with all the celebrity mansions marked on it. We should go down Hollywood Boulevard and check out the Walk of Fame . . .”
She noticed Avery glaring at her. “What?”
“Stella,” Avery said, “We’re not here on holiday. Kentucky is Issie’s first four-star event and as her groom you have work to do. Once Comet is free from quarantine we’ll be on the road to Lexington and we need to be prepared. In just nine days the competition gets underway.”
“Umm, the thing is, Tom . . .” Issie hesitated, “We were thinking maybe we could spend a day at Disneyland and—”
“Disneyland! What the . . .?” Avery sputtered in disbelief. “Isadora! You’re seventeen years old. This isn’t some pony club rally we’re about to face – this is serious stuff, and you want to take off on a tour of The Mickey Mouse Club? Have you lost sight of how important this is?”
“No,” Issie replied quietly, “Of course not.”
She didn’t need reminding. She knew how much was riding on her success at Lexington. This was the culmination of everything she had worked so hard for over the past two years, ever since she had returned from Spain with Nightstorm to Chevalier Point.
When Issie had brought Nightstorm home to New Zealand she had immediately set about schooling him as an eventer, with Avery as her trainer. The big bay stallion had been a quick learner and by the end of the first season she was riding both Comet and Nightstorm on the eventing circuit, attending horse trials around the country, and getting as many one and two-star competitions under her belt as she possibly could.
Then, at the end of last year, just as Issie was about to sit her GCSE exams, Avery had come to her with a momentous offer. “The past year has gone really well,” he told her, “but if you really want to turn professional then we need to base ourselves where the action is.” Avery looked serious. “I think we should move to England.”
Even though she hated the idea of leaving Chevalier Point behind, Issie knew that it made sense. Most of the top-flight three-star events were held in the UK and Europe and she needed to gain international experience riding the big cross-country courses if she wanted to progress.
So, in the final weeks of the school year, while Issie was sitting her exams, Avery began the complex process of moving the team to the UK. He handed over the management of Dulmoth Park and Winterflood Farm to his head groom, Verity. Dulmoth Park’s owner Cassandra Steele had been sorry to lose Avery and Issie, but when it was explained to her that Verity would train up the young eventers in New Zealand and then send them on to England for Issie to ride on the international circuit, Cassandra gave the team her wholehearted support.
Avery’s departure also caused a stir at the Chevalier Point Pony Club as it meant that the coveted position of head instructor now became vacant. There were lots of applicants, but in the end it was one of Issie’s best friends, Kate Knight, who was appointed as his successor. Kate had always been brilliant at teaching young riders and her new role would fit in perfectly with her studies at the vet school she would soon be attending.
Issie had wanted to move to the UK with Avery immediately, but her mum insisted that she sit her GCSEs before she went. And so Avery and his wife, the famed dressage trainer Francoise D’Arth, had gone on ahead to England without her. Issie was thrilled when they emailed back to say that they had found the perfect place to set up their new UK base, a small stables called Laurel Farm, deep in the heart of rural Wiltshire.
With a dozen loose boxes, a manege and twenty acres of meadowland bordered by forest that was ideal for hacking, Laurel Farm was one of the prettiest stables in England. Francoise D’Arth was responsible for the day-to-day running of this new venture, exercising the horses as well as continuing to provide tuition as Issie’s dressage trainer. Nightstorm and Comet made the flight from New Zealand to England before Issie. They would now live at Laurel Farm, along with half a dozen other young up-and-coming eventers that Francoise was schooling up for the future.
Staying back at school proved worthwhile when Issie aced her exams, and just a week after getting her results she was boarding a plane to England, along with Stella Tarrant, her best friend, who had gladly agreed to come with her to be Laurel Farm’s head groom.
Avery wasted no time and as soon as they arrived, the two girls were thrust into the demanding life of the European eventing circuit. Over the next year they were on the road with Avery, driving their horse lorry all around Europe to competitions on such a constant basis that Issie never bothered to unpack her suitcase. It was like being a pop star on tour – always in a different city, losing track of the time zones and the language that she was supposed to be speaking!
Being on the road was exhausting but it paid off. By the end of the season Issie had risen up the professional rankings and was in the top ten of the prestigious international young rider table. The pinnacle of her achievement was an astonishing win against some legendary competition at the famous Bramham Park Three-Star where she took out first place with a double clear on the cross-country and the showjumping phases.
Winning was great – but the prize money at Bramham had barely covered their running costs. Eventing was a very expensive sport and all the really big superstars like Piggy French and William Fox-Pitt survived on sponsorship money to support their stables.
For an up-and-coming rider like Issie there was no chance of getting a sponsor to pay the bills. Laurel Farm was beginning to build up a string of promising horses, but they had absolutely zero cash. As Avery put it, they were “on the boniest, bony bones of their bottoms”.
One night around the kitchen table, Avery, Francoise, Issie and Stella made the sad decision to sell Amaretto, of one of Laurel Farm’s most promising young eventing horses, to raise enough funds for Issie, Avery, Stella and Comet to travel to the Kentucky Four-Star.
Issie had felt awful about parting with one of their best horses, but they had no choice. She knew that this was the hard truth all competitive riders faced, selling off their best horses just to stay in the game. And if Issie couldn’t finish in the top ten rankings in Kentucky and claim some of the prize money, then things would only get worse. Next time she would be forced to choose one of her advanced eventers, and either Comet or Nightstorm could be up for sale when she got home.
Issie didn’t even want to think about it! Instead she was pinning her hopes on recouping prize money in Kentucky. The winner of the three-day event would receive an amazing $100,000! The fate of Issie’s horses, and the future of Laurel Farm, was riding on her success in Kentucky. Avery was right – things had changed. This was the big league, they weren’t kids any more. And this was no trip to Disneyland.