“Alright, Tanner, half-halt him at A and then into canter at K.”
I nodded. I’d done this a thousand times before my fall. I was on a dead-broke schoolmaster. I could do this.
The half-halt was easy. The chestnut gelding I rode paused for an instant mid-stride, rebalanced himself, and waited for my next command.
“Inside leg on the girth, outside leg behind,” I murmured to myself. “Come on, Tan, you can do this.” We got to K. Trotted straight past it. E went the same way, as did H.
“Tanner, give him the aid to canter!”
“This is easy! D*** it!” I eased Red to a halt, frustrated with myself. “Why can’t I do it? It’s just a canter.”
“Just give it one more try.” Sam was sick, so I had the other coach today, a very patient young man called Daniel. “Sam said you had a really nasty fall last year. It takes time to get your confidence back.”
“I’m not scared! I don’t know what’s wrong with me, why I can’t do it, my legs just aren’t responding!” I shouted back. I could do everything else. My fine leg control was as good as it had been before my fall. I’d worked darn hard to build it back up. I just… couldn’t… canter.
“Don’t shout at me,” Daniel replied calmly. “Would you feel better on Demon?”
On… Demon… “No, riding him is the same.” It wasn’t, but I was never going to admit that. With Demon, now, I was always on edge, always waiting for the moment I pushed him too far and he freaked out.
“Okay. One more try, and then if you can’t do it I’m putting you in the round pen and you’re cantering in there. If you can’t canter on a horse as quiet as Red, there’s no way you’ll be able to help Demon.”
“Understood,” I growled through my teeth, pushing Red back up into a trot. “Half-halt at A, canter at K. Twenty-meter circle at E. Back to trot at H. I know this dressage test like the back of my hand.”
Red’s trot was a little bumpy when he started out but once he softened, he was a dream to ride. I brought him around the arena again. He rushed out of the half-halt so I circled him, re-established the trot, and tried again. This half-halt was smooth.
Fear coursed through me at K and a trot stride later I forced my legs to move. Red broke into a canter. It was rough, it was ugly, but it was a canter. Terrified and stiff, I couldn’t sit him up and soften him, and I had to ride the canter standing in my stirrups.
“Don’t stop him at H. Keep cantering until you’re bored,” Daniel said. “Just relax and feel him move. You know this stuff, Tanner. Don’t let the fear paralyze you.”
“I want to ride Demon next week,” I heard myself say. What? Where did that come from? I don’t want to ride Demon, what if he freaks out again?
“Are you sure?”
“No.” I managed to laugh, and strangely, it felt good, so I laughed some more.
“Keep doing that. You’re a lot more natural on Red’s back when you’re laughing. It relaxes you.”
Red and I cantered a lap of the indoor, with Daniel telling jokes the whole time, before I pulled the old gelding back to a walk. “That felt good by the end. I want to try the other way.” I did? That was news to me.
“Go on, then. Half-halt at C, canter at H. Keep him going until you relax, then back to walk and cool him out.”
“Okay.” Nerves set in again. I changed the rein from B to E and then asked Red to pick up a trot again. The old schoolmaster did exactly as he was asked. My nerves built as we trotted around the arena to C. The half-halt at C was perfect, and this time I managed to give the cue to canter exactly when we reached H. The canter started out beautifully, and then five strides in I jammed up. Red fell out of canter and into trot with a snort, flinging me forward in the saddle because I was too stiff to stay with the movement. I couldn’t regain my balance, so he dropped back to a walk. I rubbed his neck.
“Sorry, buddy. That wasn’t your fault. You’re a good boy.”
“He really is,” Daniel said. “I thought you might come off when you lost your balance like that. I’m not sure you’re ready to ride Demon again yet…”
“I want to,” I protested, not sure if I really meant it. “Is he still attacking anyone else who approaches his box? Sam said he bit her the other day… she wasn’t impressed. Said he’s on his last chance.”
“He really doesn’t like her,” Daniel said as Red and I halted near him. “I mucked his box this morning and he was fine. Real man’s horse, that one. I haven’t seen him so much as lay his ears back at any of the male boarders and stablehands.”
“And he hates Sam more than anyone else,” I added. “Wonder why? It’s not like she’d have done anything to him. Not even when he threw me. She’s not like that.”
“Tanner… she does what she has to when it comes to the life of her favorite student.”
“She what?! Did she hit him? She knows he can’t handle that!”
“She saved your life.”
“She hit my horse!”
“She HAD to!”
Whoa. Daniel never yelled. I blinked and stared at him. “That’s my hour, right? I’ll take Red for a short trail ride to cool him out, then I’ll work with Demon in the round pen until Mom gets here to pick me up. I might saddle him. I’m not sure if I’ll ride him.”
“You should listen to Sam, Tanner. That horse will kill you.”
“I won’t give up on him. You don’t understand.”
“I don’t understand because it’s absolutely crazy that you want to continue with him after what he did to you. Did Sam show you the security footage?”
I nodded. “Right up until she ran into the arena. Now I know why she stopped it where she did.”
“That’s not my point, Tanner!”
“I know it isn’t. But you won’t change my mind. Demon needs me.” I was far too stubborn to give up now. If anything, what had happened had only strengthened my resolve. It had also given me another obstacle to overcome – my own fear – but that would never put me off.
I leaned down and unlatched the gate, encouraging Red to push it open, and then closed it behind us.
“Tan. Be careful.”
“Yeah, yeah,” I grumped, trying not to get too annoyed at Daniel. Nobody wanted me to get hurt again but I was getting really tired of being treated like a kid. I was sixteen. And what was more, I knew what I was doing with horses. So what if I’d had a bad fall? Everybody had those at some point.
I seethed quietly for about the first ten minutes of trails, but then the trees thinned and the trail opened out into a wide field. I could never stay angry in this place. At the far end of the field, the land dropped off in a sheer cliff. I could see forever, all the way to the Rockies, standing at the edge of that cliff.
Red danced sideways a little, head high. I corrected him, pushing him sideways in the other direction a few metres, and then encouraged him to walk on. I was sitting on a rocket. He might have been twenty-four, but this place never failed to bring out Red’s inner racehorse. I used my legs to channel the energy forward into my hands and held it there, allowing enough through that he danced forward in a high-stepping, bouncy walk. I let a little more energy through my hands and he broke into a high-stepping, very collected trot called passage. I had never succeeded in actually getting this in the arena, but I’d had a few lessons out here before my fall, specifically so that I could learn what a proper upper-level dressage test felt like to ride. Red was a fairly advanced horse but because of his age and arthritis he only pulled out this kind of work when he was overexcited… and for Red, there was a fine line between overexcited and out of-
“God help me.”
-control. We had been flirting with that line and now Red had crossed it. His front end kept lifting, which was a good thing in dressage but only to a point. He flung his head up and I pushed him forward into a proper trot, but when I refused to let him break into a canter he stopped dead, hopped a couple of times on his front legs, and then reared. Adrenaline raced through me and I hugged his neck, trying not to be the thing that tipped his balance. Up, up, up… and finally we teetered together on the very edge of ruin. I kicked my feet out of the stirrups, ready to bail at a second’s notice. Time stopped, and then finally, excruciatingly slowly, Red lost his balance and tipped backwards. My heart skipped a beat and I clung to the falling horse until gravity took over, then hit the dirt hard, frozen with fear and watching over eleven hundred pounds of flesh and bone and sinew continue on its collision course with the ground. Just one problem.
I was in the way.