Anyone who knows anything about horses will tell you that there is no such thing as a white horse. No. A horse is never called ‘white’. They are always referred to as grey.
Roberto Nunez shook his head and smiled at this. How silly these rules were!
He knew that horses could not be white. Yet how else could he describe the mares that were galloping towards him? These mares were as pure white as the snow that topped the distant mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema. They were as white as the stone walls that ran around the stables here at El Caballo Danza Magnifico.
Roberto Nunez’s purebred Lipizzaner mares were as white as any animal in nature could possibly be. Their colour appeared all the more startling because it was in stark contrast with the coal-black foals that ran alongside them at their feet.
Although Lipizzaner horses are famous for being white, their foals are always born pitch-black. Gradually, as the foals grow up, their colour will change. As they mature, the Lipizzaner’s dark coat will begin to prick here and there with tiny white hairs so that by the time the foals have grown into yearlings they have become steel-grey. At the age of three Lipizzaners are almost grown-up, and their coats have become even lighter, with dapples beginning to show through the dark steel on their hindquarters. In this way, their coats will keep fading until finally, at around the age of twelve, their dapples will have washed away and the Lipizzaner will be utterly and completely snow-white just like their mothers and fathers before them.
This was the way with the Lipizzaner. Roberto Nunez knew the breed well. At his Hacienda, his grand estate here in southern Spain, he bred Andalusians and Lipizzaners, along with the highly strung, elegant, chestnut Anglo-Arabs that made up his internationally renowned troupe of performing horses known as El Caballo Danza Magnifico.
The mares that were galloping towards him now, driven carefully by his men, were part of his breeding herd. They had been grazing for the day out on the dry, rocky hillsides that surrounded his horse stud. Nunez liked to let the mares and their young foals roam free as much as possible. It toughened them up. It gave them spirit. But always he kept a close eye on his horses. Now, as night fell, he was bringing them home.
There were about two dozen mares in this herd, all ghostly pale, with the bloom of their grey dapples fading on their rumps. Their manes and tailed were hogged off – cropped short, in the style that the Spanish always kept their breeding herds. It was funny, Nunez thought, how his mares were the ones who had their hair cropped short while the stallions, the male horses of the herd, were allowed to keep their long and silky manes.
Even without their manes, these mares were great beauties. To anyone else, they would have appeared almost identical, and yet Nunez could tell them apart at a glance. He simply looked at their faces and knew them instantly, in the same way that you and I might know our friend’s face if we saw her in a crowded street.
For instance, one mare might have a Roman nose, a noble trait often seen in the Lipizzaner, while another mare would possess the dished face of the Arabian bloodlines that had also influenced this mighty breed. Some mares had the typical Lipizzaner characteristic of perfect almond-shaped eyes. Others were blessed with a smattering of the dainty freckles known as ‘flea-bites’ flecked on their cheeks.
These were Roberto Nunez’s very best mares and they had been bred with the very best of El Caballo Danza Magnifico’s stallions.
Roberto Nunez smiled now as he caught sight of one of his favourite mares, Margarita, with her pretty dark coal eyes and her features so delicate she looked as if she might have been carved out of marble. At Margarita’s feet was a jet-black foal. The foal was all legs, gangly and awkward, and only a few weeks old. And yet already Roberto Nunez could see the signs of greatness in him that came from being sired by one of the finest stallions in Spain.
“You see him, Marius?” Nunez said to the stallion beneath him. The great grey horse shifted about restlessly at the sound of his master’s voice, and Nunez reached down and gave him a firm pat on his arched, glossy neck. “That is your son,” he said proudly.
The progeny of Marius held the key to the future of El Caballo Danza Magnifico. Roberto Nunez knew it. And this foal was not the only one. He had discovered that there was another son of his mighty stallion, born far away from Spain – in New Zealand, of all places!
His head instructor, Francoise D’arth, had received a letter from a girl called Isadora Brown. The letter said that a foal had been born to her mare Blaze and that Marius was the father! Nunez could not believe it when he heard the news. But one look at the photos that the girl enclosed of the colt removed any doubts. He was clearly the progeny of Marius, as strong and handsome as his famous sire. And with the beautiful Anglo-Arab mare Blaze as his dam, the colt would be intelligent too.
The colt’s name was Nightstorm – although in her letters the girl referred to him by his nickname. She called him Storm.
The thunder of hooves shook Roberto Nunez back to reality as the mares and foals rushed past just in front of him, heading in through the wrought-iron gates that led into the vast courtyard of El Caballo stables. As the herd ran past, Nunez searched again for Margarita and her foal and then laughed out loud as he caught a glimpse of the black colt in full flight, giving a high-spirited buck as he raced through the gates.
“You see, Marius?” Nunez murmured to the stallion. “Your son. He is coming home…”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Issie Brown was having serious second thoughts about taking Storm away from Winterflood Farm.
“I don’t know about this, Tom,” she said, gazing uncertainly at her colt standing in his stall. “Are you sure he’s ready?”
“Absolutely,” Tom Avery said. “The journey will be no big deal. This is an important stage in his training.”
“It’s just that he’s still so little” Issie’s voice was quivering. “He’s only just been weaned two weeks ago and he’s never been away from the farm before— ”
“Issie, he’ll be fine.” Avery said firmly.
“But Tom— ”
“Honestly, Isadora!” Avery couldn’t keep the exasperation out of his voice. “With the fuss you’re making you’d swear we were taking Storm halfway around the world instead of ten minutes down the road. For Pete’s sake! We’re only driving to the pony club grounds! It’s hardly a long trip, is it? Trust me, he’s ready!”
Issie sighed. “You’re right, Tom. I’m being silly.”
She had to face the fact that Storm wasn’t her baby any more. The colt was so grown-up he was already as tall as his dam, Blaze. He shared his mother’s delicate Anglo-Arabian features too, although his big-boned, powerful physique and presence owed more to his sire, Marius.
Storm was six months old now. Had it really been that long since that stormy night when the foal was born? Issie remembered it so clearly, fighting the rain to get Blaze inside, sheltering in the stable as the lightning flashes lit up the pitch-black sky. The thunderstorm that had marked the colt’s sudden arrival into the world had given him his name – Nightstorm. Issie had delivered him all by herself, and from the moment she saw the wee foal lying damp and newborn on the straw of the stable floor she had fallen in love with him.
The only living creature that loved Storm as much as Issie did was the foal’s mother, Blaze. They were so alike, Blaze and her son. Even though Storm was a bay and his mother was a chestnut, the colt’s broad white blaze that ran down his velvety nose made him look just like his mum. He was beautiful like her too, with those enormous eyes full of wonder, fringed with eyelashes that were so long they didn’t even look real.
With his fluffy black mane and doe eyes, Storm was as cute as a baby kitten. If Issie had been left to her own devices, she would have spoilt him rotten with cuddles and treats. But Avery knew better than to let her do that. Her pony-club instructor had made it clear right from the start that horses weren’t pets to be mollycoddled and fussed over.
“That foal is going to grow into a big, strong horse one day, bigger and stronger than you are,” he told her firmly. “So don’t even think about teaching it some tricks that you might think are cute right now, but will turn dangerous later on when that colt gets older. You are training a horse to respect you right from the start.”
Issie was beyond grateful when Avery offered to keep Storm at Winterflood Farm and help her with his training. Together they began to ‘imprint’ the foal, teaching Storm to wear a halter, to lead and to stand politely while they brushed him and picked up his hooves.
Still, there were some things that Issie simply couldn’t bring herself to do. When the colt was five months old and Avery decided that he was ready for weaning, Issie knew she couldn’t bear to watch Storm and Blaze be separated.
“Can you do it, Tom?” she said, with tears welling in her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll be able to stand it. It’s better if I just stay home.”
Avery understood. “It’s a normal process for all mares and foals to be split up, but they’ll be upset for a day or so,” he said. “I think it would be best to keep Storm here at Winterflood Farm in familiar surroundings. He’ll feel more secure if he’s in his usual field. I’ll take Blaze down to the River Paddock.”
And so on the day of the weaning Issie sat at home hugging her knees miserably and watching bad movies on TV, while Avery separated the mare and her foal for the first time.
Blaze had been frantic at first when she was taken away from her son. She had whinnied and whinnied and paced up and down the fenceline, with a heartbreaking expression on her face as she searched in vain for her baby. But eventually she calmed down and began to graze and make friends again with her old paddock mates Toby and Coco.
As for Storm, the little black colt had bellowed for his mother solidly all day and into the night. Then, just before Avery went to bed, he heard the trip-trap of the colt’s hooves on the gravel driveway. Storm had decided that no one was keeping him away from his mum any longer and had jumped out of his paddock!
Issie couldn’t believe it when Avery called to tell her. “Well, on the positive side, at least we know now that he has the makings of a good showjumper,” Avery said. Luckily the driveway gate had been shut and Avery had caught the colt before he got too far. “Don’t worry,” he told Issie, “I’ve put him back in the magnolia paddock this time where the fences are a metre higher. I doubt he’ll get out again.”
With his attempted jail break foiled, Storm seemed to resign himself to his fate and began to make friends with Avery’s two horses, Starlight and Vinnie, who grazed in the paddock next to his. By the time Issie arrived at Winterflood farm the next day she found her colt quite content with his new life without his mum, nickering happily over the fence to her.
“It’s all part of growing up,” Avery told her. “He’s becoming a horse.” Issie knew her instructor was right but still, she worried about her colt.
Now Avery said Storm was ready for the next step – his first outing. For the past two weeks Issie had been practising with the colt in Avery’s horse float. At first she had simply got Avery to park the float around the back of the house in Storm’s paddock. She had dropped the ramp and let the colt sniff his way around it, putting one tentative hoof and then another onboard. Then, she had clipped a lead rope to his halter and led the colt all the way on and off the horse float, talking softly to him whenever he spooked or snorted, reassuring him that it was OK and nothing would hurt him.
By the end of the second week, Storm was so comfortable around the horse float that he would walk on all by himself and stand like a perfect gentleman as Issie fussed with his halter, tied up his hay net and then lifted the ramp and locked the colt safely inside. Once he was closed in she would leave him standing there for a few moments, just to let him see how it felt before she lowered the ramp and let him out again.
Today the routine would be just the same as the past couple of weeks, Issie told herself. Except today, instead of going nowhere and staying in the paddock, the horse float was attached to the tow bar of Avery’s Range Rover.
“Easy, Storm,” Issie cooed to the black colt. “We’re just going to go for a little ride.”
Storm lifted his legs in an exaggerated high step, wary of the leg bandages that Issie had put on him today to protect him for the journey. The colt raised his feet deliberately and precisely as he walked up the float ramp. Then he was inside and Issie was bolting the doors behind him before climbing into the Range Rover next to Avery.
“Is he ready?” Avery asked.
Issie took a deep breath and nodded. “Uh-uh. Let’s go.”
As the Range Rover rolled slowly down the driveway, Issie twisted round in her seat and stared out of the back window at the float.
“Is he OK?” Avery asked her.
“He’s fine, Tom.” Issie turned to her instructor. “I guess I shouldn’t have worried so much, but it’s his first ride in the horse float, you know?”
Avery smiled at her. “The pony club is the perfect distance – just a few kilometres. That’s a good first trip for him. It will get him used to travelling, and being around other horses. It’s all about breaking him in gradually to new experiences. We start him off by taking him to pony-club rally. Let him understand that it’s not a big deal, just tether him to the float for an hour or so, let him look around, then bring him home again. By the time he goes out to compete at his first gymkhana or one-day event he’ll be quite relaxed because he knows the drill.”
Issie nodded. Then she turned back to stare out of the rear window again, keeping her eyes locked on the horse float to make sure Storm was still OK.
If she hadn’t been so busy staring straight at the horse float she might have noticed the car that was trailing behind them to the pony-club grounds. It was a black sedan with tinted windows, and it had been following them ever since it pulled out from behind the trees next to Winterflood Farm.
The black car kept its distance, travelling slowly behind them all the way to the pony club. When Avery pulled up to open the gates of the Chevalier Point club grounds, the sedan pulled over and parked out of sight behind the hedge across the road. A tinted window was lowered and a pair of binoculars appeared at the open window. Through the binoculars, dark eyes were watching Issie and her colt. They watched as Storm came down the ramp of the float, the binoculars trained directly on the colt as he looked about excitedly, letting out a shrill whinny, calling to the other horses. They saw the way Issie held the colt’s head firmly and talked to him all the time, and the way the colt responded to her voice, calming down as she handled him.
Then, satisfied that they had seen enough, the tinted window was rolled shut again and the black car silently drove off.
If Issie had only seen the car, she might have realised that there was something suspicious going on. But as the black sedan swept out of sight, she had no idea of the danger they were in. She did not know what was to come – for her, and for Nightstorm.