Issie Brown may have been a long way from Chevalier Point, but from the moment she walked into the stables at Havenfields, she felt like she was home.
It was the smell that did it. That familiar scent of horse sweat, saddle soap and warm straw. Issie took a deep breath and held it.You could always tell a real horsey girl by her sense of smell, Issie thought to herself. If you totally loved horses then everything to do with them was heavenly – even the smell of horse dung!
As she cast her gaze down the main corridor of the stables, Issie felt a tingle of anticipation. There were a dozen loose boxes lining both sides of the corridor.
Four of them were empty – the straw had been mucked out and they had been left wide open to air. The remaining eight boxes were bolted shut and behind each of those doors was a horse.
My horse, Issie thought, my horse is inside one of those stalls. But which one? It wouldn’t be long now until she found out. When the rest of the New Zealand Young Rider Squad arrived this morning, choices would be made. Somehow the eight riders would decide which of the horses in this stable would be their new mount for the next two weeks.
It wasn’t what Issie had been expecting at all. When she first found out that she had made the National Young Rider Squad and would be travelling to Melbourne to compete, she had naturally assumed she would be riding one of her own horses. She had been torn, trying to decide which one she should take – Blaze or Comet. Blaze, her beautiful liver chestnut mare, was back in work and doing fabulous dressage, but Comet was her superstar showjumper. It was impossible to choose between them. It came as a total shock when Chevalier Point’s head instructor, Tom Avery, broke the news to Issie and the other club riders that they wouldn’t be taking any of their horses with them.
“It’s not fair. Why can’t we take our own ponies?” Stella had griped. “Marmite would love to go to Australia.”
“Yes, Stella, I’m sure he would love the trip,” said Avery, his voice dripping with sarcasm, “only it turns out that horses can’t fly in economy class like you and me. They need specially built, very expensive crates, in their own cargo hold. A fee of about $10,000 per horse should cover it. If your parents would like to pay that much, then by all means we can take Marmite with us. Otherwise, I suggest you do what the other seven riders in the New Zealand team will be doing and borrow one of the loan mounts that the Australian team are kindly offering us.”
There were four riders from Chevalier Point Pony Club in the Young Rider Squad, and so Avery decided to call a mini team meeting at the clubroom a couple of weeks before they departed.
Issie, Stella and Kate arrived first, and when Avery dashed briefly out of the clubroom to grab the stack of trip itineraries he’d left in his car, Stella instantly lunged at Issie and bombarded her with questions.
“So, have you spoken to Aidan? Are you back together with him? Has he called you? Have you called him?”
Issie groaned. “No,” she said. “No, he hasn’t called me. And I don’t think he’s going to.”
It was three weeks since she had broken up with Aidan. Twenty-two days, nine hours and seven minutes to be exact – not that she was counting. Issie was the one who had decided that they should break up – but that didn’t make it any easier. It should have been one of the best moments of her life when she was chosen to compete in the Young Rider Challenge against Australia. But when they called her name at the Open Gymkhana prize-giving, Issie knew it was good news for her – and bad news for her relationship with Aidan.
“It’s hard enough trying to see each other with you at Blackthorn Farm and me living in Chevalier Point,” Issie explained to him, “but now that I’m in the squad, I’ll be away in Melbourne, which makes it more than hard, it’s—”
“Impossible?” Aidan finished her sentence. “Yeah, I know. You’re right. We’ll never see each other.” He pushed his long dark fringe back, and Issie caught a last glimpse of those hypnotic blue eyes. “The horses and I aren’t going anywhere,” he said softly. “We’ll still be there at Blackthorn Farm, and there’ll be other summers.”
Issie hoped that he meant it. But he hadn’t called her since. Mind you, she hadn’t called him either. What was there to say?
“Well, I think it’s stupid,” Stella said. “He still loves you. And you still love him, don’t you? You should—”
“Stella!” Issie said. “Can you stop talking about it? Please?”
And so Stella began talking about Chevalier Point’s fourth member of the Young Rider Squad, Morgan Chatswood-Smith, instead.
“Do you really think Morgan should be in the team?” Stella asked. “You know, after everything that’s happened in the past?”
“She’s the most experienced showjumper out of all of us,” Issie reasoned, “and she’s had lots of competition experience.”
“Yeah,” said Stella, “but what if she goes crazy again and pulls one of her weird stunts?”
Morgan’s mum was the international showjumping rider, Araminta Chatswood-Smith, and Morgan was driven to follow in her mother’s famous footsteps. In the past, though, Morgan’s bitter determination to win had made her go off the rails.
“Stella’s right,” Kate agreed. “How do we know that Morgan won’t totally lose it again?”
“Hello? Remember how she cut Annabel’s stirrup leathers in half and nearly killed her?” Stella added bluntly.
“That was a long time ago,” Issie said. “Morgan’s changed. She’s not like that any more…”
“I’m not like what?”
A girl with long, dark hair stood in the doorway. She looked a bit like Issie at first glance, except she was fair-skinned and blue-eyed.
“Hi, Morgan.” Issie smiled at her.
Morgan looked about the room anxiously, only too aware of what they had been talking about.
At that moment, Avery came bounding back in. If he sensed the tension in the room between the teammates, then he didn’t let on.
“Good! We’re all here now? Excellent!” he enthused. “I just wanted to run through a few of the travel details for the trip. As you know, I’ll be accompanying the team as chef d’équipe…”
Stella stuck her hand up. “Can I put in a request now? I want to have pancakes every morning.”
“Pancakes?” Avery gave the bubbly redhead a level stare. “Stella, what in blue blazes are you talking about?”
“I’m just saying I want pancakes. If you’re going to be our chef…”
Avery sighed. “Chef d’équipe doesn’t mean cook. It’s got nothing to do with food. It means I’m the team coach.”
“I knew that,” Stella said, looking miffed as the other girls stifled their giggles.
“As I was saying,” Avery continued, “as chef d’équipe, I’ll be accompanying you to Melbourne. There are eight members in the team, so having four of you chosen from Chevalier Point is quite an achievement…”
“Marsh Fields had three members in the team last year and we never heard the end of it!” Stella pointed out. “This will shut them up!”
Avery ignored this comment, but looked quietly pleased. The girls knew he must have been secretly thrilled to have topped Marsh Fields’ record.
“In fact, Marsh Fields don’t have any riders who made the team this year,” Avery continued. “The four other riders in our squad are all from the south. There are two from Wellington region: Charlotte Grimley is from Hutt Valley Pony Club and Dee Dee James is from Franklin Heights. And then there’s Emily and Laura Swinton, both from the Brighton Pony Club near Christchurch.”
“Are they sisters?” Stella asked.
“Brilliant deduction, Stella,” said Avery. “Yes, they are and very accomplished cross-country riders, by all accounts. You four will be travelling with me,” Avery explained. “We’ll fly to Melbourne and then it’s not far by rental van to Havenfields Station, just outside Lilydale. The other four riders arrive the day after us on a separate flight.”
“Why do they call them stations?” Stella interrupted again. “Why don’t the Australians just say farm, like we do? They should speak English!”
“They do speak English, Stella!” Avery said.
“Yeah, but they’ve got funny accents,” Kate pointed out.
“They eat feesh and cheeps!” Stella shrieked. All the girls burst into giggles.
Avery shook his head in disbelief. “Oh, very mature!” he groaned. “You’re going to be spending two weeks training with the Australian team. I don’t want you lot being reduced to fits of giggles every time one of them speaks!”
“Gidday, mate!” Stella called out and the girls fell about laughing again.
Avery looked at his watch. “I’d like to wrap this meeting up quickly, please, so if you could all stop giggling…” The girls managed to pull themselves together and Avery continued.
“The Young Rider Challenge changes every year,” he explained. “This year we’re doing Express Eventing.”
“Is that like regular eventing?” Issie asked.
“The essence of it is the same. It still has the three basic phases – dressage, showjumping and cross-country – but it’s much, much faster,” Avery said. “You’ll be training at Havenfields and sharing the facilities with the Australian riders. Then there’ll be a friendly competition at the end of your stay, to see who takes home the cup.”
“Well,” said Morgan icily, “if there’s a cup to be won, I don’t imagine the competition will be all that friendly.”
The others looked at her in surprise and Stella surreptitiously elbowed Issie, as if to say, I told you so – she hasn’t changed one bit!
“The whole point of the Young Rider programme is to foster and develop young talent. You’ll be given intensive coaching with specialist instructors in all three eventing phases, alongside the Australians,” Avery continued.
“Mum is going to come over to coach us for a few days,” Morgan told them. “She’s our showjumping instructor.”
This was good news as far as the girls were concerned. Araminta Chatswood-Smith may have been a fiercely competitive rider – but she was also a great instructor.
“What about the dressage and cross-country?” Issie asked.
“Minka Klein will be taking the dressage masterclass. She’s a German dressage rider, but she’s based in Australia and has worked with some of the best riders in the country. She’s very strict, but her methods are very well respected. I’m looking forward to watching her work.”
“Will you be taking us for cross-country?” asked Stella. “I was planning to,” Avery said, “until we got a better offer. Have you heard of Tara Kelly?” Issie was wide-eyed. “You’re kidding! You don’t mean the Tara Kelly?”
“Who’s she?” asked Stella.
“She’s this amazing rider!’ Issie enthused. “I used to watch her on TV when I was little. She won the Lexington Three-Day Event on this really cool grey horse called Mighty Mouse.”
Avery smiled. “That was a long time ago, Issie. I’m surprised you remember her.”
“I loved her!” Issie grinned. “She always wore a pale blue jersey and a matching hard hat and she won Lexington, like, three times…”
“Four times,” Avery confirmed.
“Is she still riding?” Kate asked.
Avery shook his head. “She gave up competing and now lives in Lexington, Kentucky, not far from where they hold the three-day event. She’s a riding instructor and teacher at a school called the Blainford Academy.”
“Ohmygod! I’ve heard Mum talk about that place!” Morgan said. “They call it the All-Stars Academy. It’s like this fancy high school where you can take your horse with you – the best riders in the world go there.”
Avery nodded. “It’s just like a regular school, with all the usual subjects – but they teach riding as well. Pupils are invited to bring their own horses with them, which means you see all kinds of breeds and riding styles there. Tara is their Eventing Mistress.”
“So why is she coming to Melbourne?” asked Kate.
“She has some work to do there,” said Avery. “So I convinced her to run the training squads while she’s in town.”
“If we’re her pupils, does that make us New Zealand’s All-Stars?” Stella asked.
“I suppose so,” Avery smiled. “You’re very lucky. Tara Kelly is considered to be one of the best instructors in the world.”
“But what about the horses?” Issie asked. “If we can’t take our own horses with us, won’t we be at a disadvantage?”
“A little,” Avery admitted, “but some of the Australian team will require loan mounts too. There are riders coming from Sydney and Adelaide. Besides, the horses that Havenfields are providing will be solid eventing prospects. It’s usually a bit of a mixed bag when you borrow horses, but you can be certain that these ones will all be talented.
“There’ll be eight horses waiting for you when we arrive in two weeks’ time,” Avery said. “All you have to do is choose one.”