The Auditions

 

Book One: extract

The black gelding snorted and fretted, moving anxiously from side to side in the start box. Holding him back, the girl tightened her grip on the reins as she waited for the steward to check his clipboard.
“Number forty-two… forty-two… let me see…” the steward ran his eyes down the list. “forty-two… here you are! Georgina Parker, yes?” He cast a glance at the pony dancing and crab-stepping. “And this must be Tyro.” As the steward said his name, the black pony went straight up on his hind legs in a half-rear and then lunged forward, trying to bolt. The sudden movement threw his rider back in the saddle, but she regained her seat with lightning speed. Before the pony could get away, she had pulled hard to the left, turning him in a tight circle so that he was back in the same position as moments before, in the start box facing out over the hill that led down to the first jump of the cross-country course.

“Nearly lost you!” the steward joked. “You don’t want to fall off before you even get started, do you?”

“Falling off is most definitely not part of the plan,” Georgie agreed. She was trying to stay calm, but as the steward fussed over his clipboard she could feel the adrenalin surging through her. She was ready to go and so was Tyro. Hurry up, she thought, I can’t keep holding him! My arms already feel as feeble as worn-out knicker elastic from hanging on so long!

The steward seemed to understand her silent plea, “Right then, bring him up to the start line,” he told her.

“Are you ready? On your marks… and… three… two… one… GO!”

Tyro broke from the start box and this time Georgie didn’t try to hold him back. She stood up in her stirrups like a jockey and put her reins in her left hand, freeing up her right hand to press the button on her stopwatch.She was battling the clock today. She had to make itround the course with a clear round and no time faults if she wanted to retain her first place ranking. This morning in the dressage arena, Georgie and Tyro had done their best-ever test and totally aced the first phase of the one-day event. Right now, they were just ahead of Georgie’s closest rival, Daisy King, at the top of the leader board. But the scores were tight. There were only two points between Georgie and Daisy, and there were several other riders hot on her heels just a few points behind. Georgie would need to bring her A-game and get a perfect round in both the crosscountry and showjumping phases to maintain her lead.

From the moment that morning when horse lorries and trailers had begun arriving at the Great Brampton grounds, Georgie had sensed the tension in the air. So much was riding on this competition, not just for her, but for hundreds of young eventing riders from across the UK gathered here today. All of them had just one aim: to make it into the top three and survive this gruelling semi-final audition and progress to the grand finals in Birmingham. There, they would battle it out against riders from every discipline to become the chosen ones. In the end, only five finalists would be selected. Their prize: admission to the famed Blainford Academy in Lexington, USA.

Blainford Academy had been Georgie’s dream ever since she could remember. The exclusive equestrian boarding school was the place to go if you were serious
about becoming a professional horse rider. No other college could rival Blainford’s record. It was known as the ‘All-Stars Academy’ since its graduates were the world champions in every kind of equestrian sport.

Blainford’s recruitment process was international. The academy’s talent scouts travelled the world, holding auditions for the very best riders from around the globe. Thousands of riders applied, but only a few could be chosen – and Georgie was determined that she was going to be one of them.

A win at Great Brampton would send Georgie straight through to the Birmingham grand finals in two weeks’ time. As they flew out of the start box she could feel success within her grasp. The cross-country course was the biggest Georgie had ever tackled but she had faith in Tyro’s abilities. The pony was fit and keen and as they approached the first jump he was galloping on strongly, his ears pricked forward with excitement, ready to face whatever lay ahead. Fence one was a low hedge, no more than half a metre high. Tyro had jumped twice this height in the paddock at home, but Georgie wasn’t taking any chances. She rode at it with such fierce determination you’d have sworn she was attacking the huntsman’s close at the Badminton Horse Trials.

Tyro flew the hedge and Georgie gave the gelding a slappy pat on his jet-black neck, “Good boy!” She picked up the pace again and galloped him on towards a fallen log positioned at the top of a steep bank.

Georgie had to steady Tyro as he was galloping a little too fast. Then, as he took the jump, she leaned back to keep her balance, keeping her weight over his rump as he flew the log with a big stride that took him half-way down the bank. In two quick downhill strides he was at the bottom and Georgie straightened back up again. She stood up in her stirrups in two-point position and rode him hard towards the next fence already looming ahead of them; a narrow rustic gate.

Tyro popped it as if it weren’t even there, and Georgie leant down low and murmured words of encouragement as she pressed him to go faster. Tyro seemed to understand and extended his stride, galloping beautifully as they neared the water complex.

Of all the fences on the course it was the water complex that had Georgie worried. Tyro hadn’t always been the bravest pony when it came to water jumps and so, with her heart hammering in her chest, she rode him on boldly at the brush fence that led into the water.

“Come on!” she shouted to encourage him as they approached the jump. But there was no need. Tyro leapt confidently, without hesitation into the pond. The murky brown water churned into a wake behind them as he cantered towards the low bank at the other end of the pond.

As they reached the low bank, Georgie felt the pony prepare to take off. She could feel him picking up underneath her, and then in one awful moment it all went wrong. Instead of jumping out and on to the bank, Tyro plummeted down into the water. It was as if the pony’s legs had collapsed beneath him. He fell down hard, twisting and somersaulting on to his back, taking a horrified Georgie with him as he went under the water. Georgie didn’t even have time to scream as they fell.
She felt the ice-cold shock of the water and then Tyro was right on top of her, pushing her under, crushing her with the enormous weight of his body.
Georgie tried to take a last gasp of air but inhaled dirty water instead. The pond was no more than a metre deep, but that was deep enough. She was submerged underneath Tyro, and the pony was flailing about on top of her trying to get back on his feet again.

Then, in a sudden rush, the massive weight of the pony was gone. Tyro had managed to stand up, and now Georgie was fighting her way up too, struggling to breathe as she broke the surface, coughing up lungfuls of scummy pond water.
The jump steward was the first person to reach her. His face was white with shock and Georgie realised that the fall must have been quite spectacular.

“Are you OK?” the steward asked as he waded into the water and grasped Tyro’s reins, holding him while Georgie stood up. She was shaky on her feet, but she was standing and she was breathing ,and since a few moments ago neither of these was possible, she was quite relieved.

“That was a really bad fall,” the steward said, “Are you hurt? Do you need me to get the ambulance?”

“I’m fine,” Georgie was still coughing, trying to get her breath back, “although I think I might have swallowed a tadpole…”

“Georgie!” There was a shout from the sidelines and Georgie turned round to see a woman with brown hair leap over the rope fence and run towards her.

“What happened?” the woman asked when she reached Georgie’s side.

“I don’t know!” Georgie shook her head. “He was about to jump. I felt him lift up and then something went wrong and he went down so fast…”

“Are you her mother?” the steward asked.

“No,” the woman replied. “I’m Lucinda Milwood, I’m her trainer.”

Lucinda took the reins from the steward and led Tyro up on to the bank beside the pond while Georgie hunted in the muddy, churned-up pond muck for her riding crop. She found it floating near the edge by some reeds and ran up the bank to rejoin Lucinda who was bent down over Tyro’s front legs.

“I think I’ve figured out what happened,” Lucinda said. “Look at this!” She pulled the bell boot off Tyro’s left front hoof and handed it to Georgie. There was a huge rip in the rubber.

“I think that’s what did it,” Lucinda said. “He must have stood on his own boot with one of his hind legs, and then when he tried to jump he tripped himself up instead! No wonder he fell so suddenly.”

“Ohmygod!” Georgie shook her head in stunned disbelief.

“It was just bad luck,” Lucinda said gently, “There was nothing you could have done…”

There was a commotion on the sideline as a man emerged at the front of the crowd, jumped over the rope barrier and ran towards Georgie and Lucinda.

“Sorry, sir,” the steward stepped forward to stop him. “Spectators aren’t allowed on the track right now. There’s been an accident with this young rider and we need to clear the course for the next competitor…”

“I’m a doctor,” the man responded firmly. He looked at Georgie standing in sodden jodhpurs beside the bedraggled Tyro. “And I’m also her father.”

“I know it looks bad, Alastair, but they’re both all right…” Lucinda tried to reassure him, but Dr Parker ignored her and began to examine Georgie, peering into her eyes, checking to see if her pupils were dilated.

“Dad! Stop it! I’m totally fine!” Georgie couldn’t believe her luck! Why did her dad have to be watching at this fence? Having him fuss over her like this in front of everyone when all she wanted to do was get back on Tyro was so frustrating.

Dr Parker however was oblivious to Georgie’s impatience. “Were you knocked out at any point?” he asked as he continued to look into her eyes. “Do you remember everything that happened?”

“She’s not hurt, Alastair,” Lucinda tried to tell him but Dr Parker snapped at her.

“…and you’re not a doctor Lucinda, so please let me take care of my daughter!”

“I’m terribly sorry…” the steward interrupted, “but we really do need to clear the course now. Is she going to mount up and continue?”

“What?” Dr Parker looked shocked at the idea. “She most certainly is not!”

“Dad! I can do it!” Georgie pleaded. “Lucinda, tell him! I need to finish!”

But her trainer shook her head, “Your father is right. Let’s take Tyro back to the truck.”

“But we’ll be eliminated!” Georgie couldn’t believe Lucinda was agreeing with her dad.

“Georgie,” Lucinda said gently, “You’ve had a fall. Elimination doesn’t matter now. You could get back on and finish the course but that won’t change anything… it’s over.”

Deep down Georgie knew that there was no point in getting back on. A fall on the cross-country course automatically cost a rider sixty faults. And this fall hadcost her much more than that. With sixty faults there was no way she could win. All those hours of training had been reduced to nothing in one brief, unfortunate moment at the water jump. Her dream had been lost forever. She had failed the auditions for Blainford Academy.

At Little Brampton Stables that evening, Georgie checked Tyro over one more time, running her hands down his legs looking for any signs of heat that might
indicate an injury. The black pony seemed sound enough, so she threw on his lightweight summer rug, and turned him out in the field with his hard feed.
Georgie watched as Tyro snuffled about eagerly consuming the contents of his feed bucket. He was a greedy pony and a quick eater, and always managed to hoover up every last crumb.

With the now empty feed bucket under her arm, Georgie headed back to the tack room to deal with Tyro’s saddle and bridle. They were caked in mud from the fall so she sat down on a pile of old horse rugs with a cake of saddle soap and a cloth and got to work on the stirrup leathers.

Georgie loved the tack room at Lucinda’s stables. It smelt of horse sweat and leather, and sometimes a little bit of dead mouse, but she didn’t mind that too much.

She often sat in here and looked at the walls, covered with her trainer’s rosettes, ribbons and photographs.

As she began to wipe down Tyro’s bridle, Georgie’s eyes scanned the walls. There were photos of Lucinda, taken at school when she was a student at Blainford.
Lucinda hadn’t changed much since those days and looked just the same, with her smiling eyes and her brown hair in a messy ponytail. The girl who featured in most of the photos with Lucinda also had long brown hair and a broad smile. She was Ginny Parker, Georgie’s mum and Lucinda Milwood’s best friend at Blainford. After they left school Ginny had gone on to become a famous international eventing rider and it was no secret that Georgie wanted to follow in her footsteps.
Georgie’s favourite picture on the wall was an action shot of her mother riding a bay mare named Boudicca.

They were in full flight over a massive stone wall, the mare had her ears pricked forward and Ginny’s hazel eyes were focused intently on the next jump ahead.
Georgie missed her mum so much. She knew it probably wouldn’t have changed the outcome if she had been there today. But she wished more than anything that her mum were here to give her a hug, to tell her that what happened on the cross-country course wasn’t her fault and that everything would be OK.

Hot tears made their way down Georgie’s cheeks. She reached up and brushed them away angrily with the back of her hand. There was no point in being like this, Georgie told herself. No use sniffling and feeling sorry for herself and hoping for things that weren’t going to happen. She had lost at Little Brampton and nothing would change that. And it was no good wishing her mum was here. Because Ginny Parker was gone, and she wasn’t coming back.